Monday, March 16, 2009

Springy feeling

It's been so long since I posted that this site fell off my "favorites" list. But spring is here, and Easter is around the corner, and maybe I'll get back to it now.

Jesus the Teacher - sermon Mar. 15

Mark 4:1-20
Third of a Series on Jesus

This starts pretty sketchy - as notes, but soon goes to manuscript form.

A teacher draws you in and makes you a participant in your own learning.
(Give examples – Learning biology by hatching eggs.
Learning about play structure by making a puppet show.
Learning about trees by drawing them.
Learning where we are in the world by spotting the horizon.)
Great teachers involve students in learning.

Jesus was a great teacher – no class room, no blackboard, no books, no testing.
Interesting subject matter – One “subject” was the moral life.
How should we live?
What is right human behavior?
What is it good for us to do?

Jesus’ teaching style and methods are very different that what we’d find in the classroom.
He taught by proverb, aphorism, parable and story. Biblical scholars recognize that this was a completely different style than you find in other Biblical literature. Moses taught what to do with the second tablet of the Ten Commandments. And hundreds of other laws about what we should eat, wear, own, loan, grow, give, etc. Do this. Don’t do that. That’s the moral life.

In sharp contrast, Jesus tells these kind of peculiar little short stories, and says things like “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Or “You are the salt of the earth.” He tells parables, like the Good Samaritan, or the Prodigal Son. When he give directions, which he rarely does, they are things like “Let the one who has no sin cast the first stone.” And when he describes his teaching to his own disciples, he says, “I tell everything in parables, so that some people will hear but not understand” .

What kind of teacher is this?

This saying in particular has always puzzled me. Read an article by an professor of philosophy of education, written for scholars of education, that helped me see Jesus’ teaching in a new way. (The guy’s name is Nicolas Burbules, he’s at the UofI and I intend to look him up and ask him if I can buy him a cup of coffee next week. I’ll let you know how that goes.)

My new friend Nick says that most moral teaching has as its underlying assumption that people would be good if they what the right thing was to do. So the moral teacher just shows the right thing and people do it. Teaching kids to play together. You teach them to take turns and . . . voila! Right behavior! (ha) Or you convince them, with a rational argument, why moral behavior is good for them. You teach sharing by having one child cut the cake and the other child choose first. And they learn that cutting equal pieces is good for them as well as good for their little brother. Voila! Right behavior!

Jesus, however, teaches not out of the assumption that if people just knew the right thing they would do it. He seems to teach from a place that assumes that there are deep and persistent obstacles to right behavior. That people have trouble being good. Trouble being good. Hmm. Jesus teaches in a way that recognizes and addresses the barriers to moral behavior that he sees in our psyches, souls, hearts, whatever you want to call that place within us where our moral decisions get made.

One of the barriers that most concerns Jesus is moralism and self-righteousness. In fact, at one point (18:19) , Luke tells us “Here is another parable that he told, aimed at those who were sure of their own goodness and looked down on everyone else.” “Smugness and moral superiority are moral barriers because they foster a sense of complacency, and because they inhibit the ability to empathize with or forgive others – two crucial dimensions of morality, for Jesus.” (Burbules, p. 7) Jesus saw the feeling of moral superiority as a barrier to acting morally. But he also addressed hopelessness that suffering sometimes produces. And the anger or vengefulness that arises when we are wronged. Arrogance. Egoism. And he addressed these barriers by telling these funny stories that pull people in – or pull some people in – and make them participate in their own learning.

Jesus as a teacher prepared lesson plans that helped people UNLEARN these barriers to right behavior. Being his student means that we have to be transformed – our attitudes, our assumptions, our way of thinking and feeling has been transformed – before the moral teachings can take root and flourish. “The moral demands of Jesus presuppose a changed nature and disposition.” (Manson, The Teaching of Jesus, p. 299)

Parable and proverbs and aphorisms are Jesus’ way – perhaps the best and only way – for people to be transformed and changed in such a way that right behavior is possible. Because they force the learner to confront what, in us, keeps us from doing the right thing. They bring lack of forgiveness, or self-righteousness, or selfishness into focus for us. And they help us recognize who we are and how we behave. The story of the Prodigal Son makes us think - - - “Which of these sons is most like me? Where am I in this story?” And the parables unhook us from how we always act and think and what we have previously believed long enough to invite us to give these underlying obstacles up, to lay them aside, to turn in a new direction in order that a new response to people or to situations is possible. It sparks our curiosity about others, and it requires our participation in answering the question, ‘What should I do in this situation?’ Jesus doesn’t tell us the answers. He invites us to consider life and or choices in life more deeply in order to arrive at the answer that is right for where we are and what we should do.

Jesus’ teaching has as its purpose making us transformed, more thoughtful and more moral beings at our core. Without such a transformation, a set of rules is worse than useless. It is counterproductive. Rules just reinforce self-righteousness, smugness, self-centeredness and hopelessness. People end up worse than they started. I think that’s what Jesus means when he says that if you drive one demon from your heart, seven worse ones will come and take its place. It’s not a matter of dos and don’ts. It’s a matter of caring about yourself and others in a deep and thoughtful way.

Jesus’ greatest, most well known aphorism is “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And what does that mean, except that we must struggle with what is loving, who is my neighbor, how do I love myself. The student of Jesus’ teaching is always drawn deeper into moral dilemmas, always has to be participate in the learning before arriving at the right conclusion, and has to do it over and over again.

One of the most powerful learning experiences for our young people is the mission trip. They didn’t just learn – Christian charity is a good thing to do. They went into the homes of people whose lives looked bleak and hopeless and often found that they, too, had hopes and dreams. They went and sorted through clothes for a thrift store. They played games with the children who would be shopping for school clothes there. I think it was Allison Bass who said, “I’ll never give away anything I’d be ashamed to wear.” She could only say that because she had confronted her assumptions about giving and receiving and who she was in relation to these others, who wore her cast off clothes. That’s just one example of the deep, transformative learning that Jesus teaches.

Jesus the Teacher uses parables because they demand that “Those who have ears, listen!” The parable with which Jesus teaches about parables – the one we read this morning, frankly acknowledges that not every is going to be willing to make this effort. There are people who are like barren ground, or rocky soil, or a weedy spot. The good seed of Jesus’ teaching will not bear fruit in everyone. He lays it out – parables are for those who hear and believe and grow the seeds that he is sowing

But, to the disciples, he explains the parable. This is the only parable that has an explanation attached to it from the very beginning. The disciples – and by extension WE – are not allowed to fail to understand. We MUST get it. We are the people Jesus has chosen to learn from him, and he doesn’t allow his chosen ones to fail. He is the original “no child left behind” teacher. We are expected to participate in our own education, and to learn from the great teacher what he has to teach. To hear, and accept and bear much fruit. This is what Jesus the teacher expects of us, his disciples, his students.

The question I always ask of a text - the one thing I’m always trying to communicate on a Sunday morning from this pulpit is this: What’s the good news here? And this morning, I think that’s it: That Jesus has chosen us to be life-long learners of a Master Teacher. He believes that we can and will learn from Him the right way to live. He, patiently and repeatedly puts before us the opportunity to learn from him what is right, and he assures us that, yes, we can understand and do it.

He says, “To you, from me, has been given the secret of the kingdom of God. Let anyone with ears to hear listen.”