Sermon for September 14th, 2014
1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Spiritual Gifts, Spiritual Ministries: Teaching
On the first day of school, the stern, old teacher stood and the front of his classroom. He wanted to make the point that anyone could succeed in his class with the right effort. And so, he addressed his class, and said, "If any of you here today feel that you are incapable of learning, I would like for you to please stand up right now." It was a rhetorical question. In his 30+ years of teaching, no one had ever stood up, of course, simply proving his point. But this time, after the usual long, awkward pause, one boy slowly stood to his feet. The teacher, surprised and a little confused said to the boy, "Young man, you really believe that you are incapable of learning?" The boy responded, "No sir...I just hated for you to be the only one standing, what with you being our teacher and all!"
Today we'll be talking about the third "gift" in our series on Spiritual Gifts, Spiritual Ministries: The gift of teaching.
As many of you already know, before I went to seminary and became a pastor, I was a high school teacher for many years. Even while I was at seminary, I stayed an extra year to pick up a second master's degree in Christian Education. I did this because I love teaching--it's a big part of my identity and my self image. My personal blog is entitled "Mr. Locke's Classroom" and the tagline underneath the title reads: "I will always be a teacher. I will always be a student."
It's a personal motto, of sorts, and I put it there when I was leaving behind my job as a high school teacher and entering into the ministry. I knew that God was calling me to ministry, and I was excited about that, but I was also sad, because I genuinely loved every single minute of being a teacher. I needed to remind myself (and my former students) that wherever I go, whatever vocation I pursue, whatever my official job title...I will still be a teacher. It's just part of who I am.
I love the fact that in the Presbyterian church, there is a long-standing tradition of refering to pastors as "teaching elders." Two weeks ago, I started teaching an intensive Bible study here at our church, and I can tell you that now just as much as ever, I am rarely as happy and excited as when I am teaching the people I love about things that I love.
Some of you know that one of my favorite hobbies is homebrewing beer. But even there, as anyone who has brewed with me can tell you, one of my favorite aspects of homebrewing...is teaching whoever will listen about the different varieties of beer and the process of making it.
The same is true of technology and gadgets, another passion of mine. If I love something, I want to know everything there is to know about it...and I want everyone around me to know everything there is to know about it, too! I am simply, profoundly, and unapologetically...a teacher. If anyone can claim to have the "spiritual gift" of teaching, it should be me, right?
And yet...if you've been listening the past few weeks, you already know that that isn't quite how spiritual gifts work. At least not in the New Testament, in Paul's list in Romans 12. In verse 6, Paul teaches that "We have gifts that differ according to the grace given us." The word "grace" here does not mean talent or innate ability, but (as it is used elsewhere in the New Testament) it's meaning is closer to the word "office" or "opportunity." God gives us the opportunity. We are the ones who give the gift, and anyone can give any of these gifts when the opportunity presents itself, in the life of our church and community.
So it is with today's gift, with teaching. Whether you are a great teacher or a lousy one, whether you love teaching or whether you'd rather not, this is a gift that we are all called upon to give. In the great commission found in Matthew 28--Jesus' last instructions to his followers (and we are his followers, today!)-- he says, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and TEACHING them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
He didn't say, "Go, baptize and make disciples of all nations...and you three over here, you're pretty good at teaching, so you teach everyone to obey everything that I have commanded you." In this, Jesus was not specific, so basically, we are all teachers.
Jesus was, however, specific about what we should teach. It's well and good to teach homebrewing, or technology, or English literature, or molecular biology, and I'm grateful those who can and do teach these things. But all of the spiritual gifts listed in Romans 12 are what we present "as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, our spiritual worship." All of these gifts we're studying are given to God, or more specifically, to God's community, the church. So teaching in this context means teaching, in Jesus' words, "everything that I have commanded you," or the scriptures, which is where we find his commandments, his teachings, the example of his life.
"Wait a minute, pastor...are you saying that you expect ME to actually TEACH other people the BIBLE? Isn't that YOUR job?" It is my job. And it is OUR job, too. As Presbyterians, we believe in the Priesthood of ALL believers, and the Community of Saints (which is you and me!). We are team teachers.
"But pastor, I couldn't possibly teach the Bible...I don't know nearly enough about it!" Ironically, I hear that objection most often from people who have spent their entire lives in Sunday School classes and Bible Studies of one sort or another. Lifelong, continuing education is a good thing...but at some point you also have to graduate, put what you've learned to use, and share it with others!
Some of you may still be unconvinced, so I'd like to offer three things: First, a personal confession; second, what I think is the very best reason for teaching the Bible; and third, some practical ways in which you can give this spiritual gift in our community.
I told you that the tagline to my blog, and one of my personal mottos is, "I will always be a teacher. I will always be a student." I wrote those words when I was leaving one kind of classroom as a teacher, and headed into another kind of classroom (seminary) as a student. But I also believe there's an important connection between those two things, being a student and being a teacher, between learning and teaching. They go hand in hand.
Here's the confession: In high school, I was a pretty lousy student. I was a smart kid, but I made a lot of C's, D's, and even F's. Even in college, I failed my introductory Math class three times before finally talking my way into a passing grade. I graduated from college with the bare minimum grades required to graduate.
Three years later, I started graduate school for the first time, and to my mother's shock and surprise, I made straight A's and finished my program with a 3.98 GPA. Ten years later, I graduated with high honors from Princeton Seminary, where the lowest grade I ever made was a B+ (and that only twice!).
What changed? It wasn't the subject matter: I took a Bible class in undergraduate and made a D-, and I failed English Literature once in High School, too. It wasn't age and maturity--there were only three years between my last college course and my first graduate course.
But in those three years...I had started teaching. I taught high school in the fall and spring, and then took graduate courses in the summer. I walked into my first graduate class and thought to myself, "I want to be the kind of student that I would want to have in my classroom." And then when I went back into my classroom in the fall, I thought, "I want to be the kind of teacher that I would want to have as a student."
The very best reason to teach something is to learn it better. People often tell me, at the beginning of a class or a Bible Study, that they are there to get to know the Bible better. That's great. It's a good reason to take a class. But after you take the class, and before you sign up for yet another one, go teach someone what you learned. You'll understand it better and remember it longer than you ever would in an entire lifetime of hearing someone else teach it.
And don't let a lack of knowledge or preparation stop you from jumping in. I told you I was a lousy student in college: I majored in English literature, but didn't actually read much English literature in college. It didn't matter: There is nothing that drives a teacher to read and study quite like lying awake at night imagining the sea of raised hands and hard questions you will face in the morning. It's amazing how quickly you can become an expert in something...
I didn't always love teaching the way I do now, and at first I wasn't really even that good at it. Like most things in life, you get better at something by actually doing it, and when you do get better, you enjoy it more. This is true of teaching and studying the Bible, too.
I promised I would end with some practical ways you can share the gift of teaching in God's community. There's no better model for us than Jesus, whose teachings have lasted for two thousand years and continue to influence countless people in every part of the world.
Jesus taught children. In Matthew 19, Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of Heaven belongs." We have a lot of children in our community, and even if you think you don't know much about the Bible, you probably know more than enough to teach a child some of the basic Bible stories that are part of our faith. Here at First Presbyterian Church, we're using the Jesus Storybook Bible curriculum to do this, and if you have children of you own, I'd encourage you to get a copy of this great adaptation of the bible and read it to them on a regular basis. Another way you can teach children is through our local mission partner, Project Vida: They have a constant need for volunteers in their children's afterschool program. Maria Murray has been going to Proect Vida and simply reading to kids for years and years, and I know she would love to see more people join her in that effort.
Jesus taught large crowds, as he did when he preached the sermon on the mount; he taught small groups, like he did when he taught his twelve disciples in the upper room; and he taught one on one, like he did with Nicodemus, with Peter, with the Samaritan woman. When you help with the leadership of our worship service (and there are plenty of opportunities in this area!) you are teaching the crowd; when you volunteer to lead a Sunday School class or a Wednesday night program, or one of our small group ministries--or even start a small group!--you have the opportunity to teach in this smaller, more intimate setting; and when you reach out in friendship to someone in our community that you might not otherwise know, you have an opportunity to teach (and learn!) one on one. I have seen older members of our congregation "adopt" younger members as "honorary" children and grandchildren, and I have seen younger members teaching some of our seniors how to use iPhones and facebook.
Finally, Jesus taught with words, and stories and parables, but perhaps he taught us best through his actions and the example of his life. Here at First Presbyterian Church, there are certainly opportunities for you to teach with your words, and I hope you also share your story with others. I hope you tell others what this place--and God's love--have meant to you in your life. But wherever you go, within these walls or without, whether you are speaking or silent, your actions and decisions are always teaching the people around you something; they are teaching what you really believe, they are teaching what you really stand for.
So teach them well. Teach them love. Teach them Jesus.