Isaiah 50:4-9a † Psalm 116:1-9 † James 3:1-12 † Mark 8:27-38
It’s almost as if these readings were chosen for the beginning of school, isn’t it? They are all about learning and all about teaching. And that would not be out of the realm of possibility. The cycle of readings that we share with many Christians throughout the world were formed by a classroom full of teachers who took many things into account as they studied the scriptures, paid attention to points of connection, themes, repetition, insight. There is, as we have noted before, a surplus of meaning here.
And yet, caution is advised. We may not want to look too closely this morning, unless we are prepared to be challenged.
The readings start out well enough with Isaiah: “The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.”[i]
That’s a powerful, moving image, isn’t it? To sustain the weary with a good word—who wouldn’t want to do something so lovely. Not only our actions, but our words have power—to encourage, to empower, to heal. What an important thing to remember in these days when words seem to be so frequently weaponized instead—deployed for maximum destruction.
And yet they have such a power for good. This is, of course, what we celebrate about those who teach—the potential to shape this generation and the next, to create a better world than we have now. To speak the best world we can imagine into being by shaping the next generations—and being shaped by them.
And I do believe this is happening. While so much of our news focuses on the negative—and there is no doubt that there is work to do—the world is in a much better state than we might think. That’s the evidence-based claim of the public health expert Hans Rosling in his recent book Factfulness.[ii] The book has made the reading lists of the likes of Bill Gates and President Obama. It was even mentioned by Father Steve Sundborg, the president of Seattle University, at a lunch Maggie and I attended on Friday.
I’ve mentioned Rosling’s book before and I highly recommend it as a check on the gloomy assumptions we are often drawn to about our world. But we started by noting that we may not want to look too close at these texts.
You see, there’s danger here. Words and choices have consequences. Take James, for example: “Not many of you should become teachers…”[iii] Teaching is a dangerous sport, it turns out. The prophet in Isaiah is punished for his good word. Jesus is attacked for his by his most loyal followers.
But then, there is this phrase on which everything else turns in this Isaiah passage, the key to the prophet’s strength:
Morning by morning he wakens--
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.[iv]
What do you make of this?—to listen as those who are taught?
There’s something here about a stance, an attitude, a way of being that forecasts a promise. It’s what trips up Peter in the gospel reading. He gets into trouble when he forgets he is the student and tries to become the teacher. But I suppose we should give this student of Jesus who became a great teacher a break.
Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” And Peter gave the right answer, the orthodox answer. It is Jesus who turns the concept on its head. This moniker Son of Man didn’t originally fit with the idea of losing your life. A Messiah was a conquering revolutionary, not a suffering servant. It’s as if Jesus, the teacher is saying these old ideas will not do: The ways of power we cling to will not get us where we need to go. A true Messiah, a true leader, a good teacher gives his life rather than takes it from others. And you who listen as those who are taught are sustained by this word: you lose your life to save it. This is the wisdom and the scandal of the cross, this is the way to life in abundance.
I love that Peter can be so right and so wrong all at once. “You are the Messiah,” he proclaims. And yet his notion of what this Messiah is about is so wrong that we find him speaking for evil in almost the next breath. I suppose it gives me hope, and it inclines me toward a brand of religious faith that accompanies us in the search from unknowing to knowing, from self-interest to mercy, from this old age into a new one, that engages us in that creative space between what we can sense of our world and the apprehension of all that lies beyond what we know, that lashes us to all of humanity and to the well-being of this small blue satellite flying pell-mell around a star among billions of stars that are flying through a vast multi-verse that we simply cannot get our minds around.
To listen as one who is taught.
It seems this is a good word not just for the teachers and the students among us today. It is a good word for all of us. For we all teach. Parents are teachers. Workers are teachers. Children, according to Jesus are some of our most important teachers. Our lives and how we live them constantly teach. And in this age of profound transition when everything we know seems as if it is being tested, stressed and strained, what we need is to listen as one who is taught.
Seattle University president Sundborg has been saying something else for a while now that I think has some significance for these texts today. He was asked Friday to speak about five things the world needs now.
Father Steve started by suggesting that one of the unique things of this time is that we don’t really know what we think anymore. We don’t really have a way of separating ourselves from our culture. It is so “thick” today, filled with so many touch points, so many memes, so many inputs, that it is harder now than ever to come to our own beliefs, to attend to that still small voice within, to differentiate ourselves from all the noise, the bias, the reactivity, the group think that hasn’t served us well of late and doesn’t offer much promise for us as we look to a more life-giving way of being together in the world.
To listen as one who is taught.
What does the world need now? I wonder how you might answer this question, and what it might mean for your life day in and day out as a teacher and as a student. Sundborg looks to the practice of silence as one of the ways we might get beyond this thick culture. Being present to the truth of yourself in silence.
I suspect there is something here. He tells of university students who confess to a surge of anxiety whenever they find themselves unplugged, without their phone, disconnected from the world in the company of only themselves. I think I am more hopeful than he tends to be about this trend, I see many who look to unplug, to enter into silence, to listen deeply to the truth of themselves. I would like to believe this experience of anxiety is not as far flung as Father Steve suggests, but the point is a good one.
In this moment in which all of our institutions are in the midst of such great transition and stress testing, we are in need of students and teachers who are present to the Spirit within, the Spirit who teaches the truth of ourselves, who opens us to the truth of others, so that we can once again engage creatively and imaginatively and hopefully with one another. To listen as someone who is taught.
Thanks be to God.
[i] Isaiah 50:4.
[ii] Hans Rosling. Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (Flatiron Books, 2018).
[iii] James 3:1.
[iv] Isaiah 50:4b.
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