September 16, 2012

 

ON TEACHERS AND TEACHING

                                                     Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                       at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 16 September 2012
 
                                                     Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures: Isaiah 50: 4-9
                                                     Reading for the Epistle:                      James 3: 1-12

 

It is just a co-incidence, but not an entirely unhappy co-incidence, given the events in Chicago and St Lucie County during the past week, that two of our readings this morning have to do with teachers.  The Gospel reading also describes Jesus as teaching.  It is my view that teaching is one of the noblest of professions and a good teacher is one of the most effective agents for advancing change in human society.  

Teaching is a vocation, a calling from God, even though some teachers might not recognize that such is the case.  As a vocation it is a profession that can be very rewarding – if not financially – but it can also be very frustrating. 

When I was school-mastering, I realized that maybe five of the students in the class were there to learn, five were most certainly not there to learn, and in-between there were some twenty or so who might go either way, usually depending on the teacher who had had that class in the previous session. 

Another thing I realized was that you cannot teach a student who does not feel the need to be taught.  What you are teaching your students has to be of importance to them, which means that a student may well be a pain in the butt for one teacher – one of the bottom five, but a real success to another teacher. 

I was no good at carpentry, even when it was called woodworking, and one day, after nearly four years of carpentry classes in which I had learned virtually nothing, the Carpentry Teacher, out of complete frustration, grabbed me by the forelock and said, “Boy, I’ve been wasting four years of my life with you.”  To which I replied out of almost equal frustration, “I could have told you that four years ago, Sir.”  Now, it was an entirely different story with my Music Teacher.  I thoroughly enjoyed music as it was taught in the 1940s.  He saw that I enjoyed it, and somehow that common enjoyment brought about a positive relationship between us.  (Oh, by the way, my Carpentry Teacher and my Music Teacher was one and the same person!)

For a teacher, there is a real temptation to give up on those bottom five.  Yet even while you are giving them failing grades, you still have to care for them enough to trust that one day they might mend their ways.  I once was asked to teach English language to a bunch of fourteen- and fifteen-year olds in the lowest stream in a certain school in Kingston, Jamaica.  Few of them were really interested in learning the language of the former colonial masters now that they were part of the society in a sovereign nation.  In any case, as one of them told me in barbaric English, they had no need to learn English because they were going into trades like carpentry and mechanics.  It was when I told them that, if they could not read the instructions on the boxes their tools and supplies would come in, they could never become a carpenter or a mechanic. They got the message and their grades began to improve from that point on. 

I wish I could say that that has always been the case.  There are some subjects, and Religious Education or Bible Studies (or whatever is the politically correct title for that course this week) is one of them, where many have no interest in learning.  I can certainly go along with Paul in Acts 28: 26-27 when in speaking to the Jews of Rome he said, quoting Isaiah, 

You will indeed listen, but never understand. And you will indeed look, but never perceive.  For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes.  So … they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn.

Jesus had said much the same thing, as we read in Matthew 13: 13-15.  He had been asked why he taught in parables, and he replied:

The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.”  With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says …

And then he uses the same words as did Paul to the Jews in Rome. 

There will always be those who “know all that there is to know”.  We had an eye-doctor like that once.  He was (and still regards himself to be) the most expert in his field in the cities where he practises.  However he did not know what could be done to assist one particular patient who suffered from certain allergies that would flare up when drops were put into her eyes.  He thought himself to be such an expert that he knew that there was nothing to be done about that condition – except, of course, there was, and the information was readily available with two or three clicks of the mouse on virtually any computer.  And he showed how great an expert he was – or was not – when a patient thanked him for leaving a copy of “Readers Digest” in his waiting area that contained an article on a natural remedy for a particular disorder of the eyes.  The patient had tried it and it had worked, but the eye doctor had not read the article in “Readers Digest”, and did not believe that any natural remedy could possibly have relieved his patient’s disorder! 

All of which underlines another truth about a good teacher.  A good teacher acknowledges that he or she does not know all that there is to know, even and especially in his or her own speciality.  And this is just as true in matters theological.  It is bad enough if members of the laity think that they have nothing more to learn since their days in Sunday School or Confirmation Class.  It is terrible if a teacher of Religious Studies or a preacher has the same idea.

Let me give you an example.  When I was young, my parish clergy and my Religious Studies teachers all taught us that Luke, the Beloved Physician, a Gentile, had written the Gospel that bears his name and Acts of the Apostles, and that he had written them to a Roman official, addressed as the Most Excellent Theophilus.  I was taught much the same sort of thing in New Testament Studies in seminary.  Well, neither the Gospel nor Acts of the Apostles indicates that they were written by Luke, the Beloved Physician – although they might well have been.  But it is the name and title of the otherwise unknown Roman official that prompted some scholars to ask questions.  It was found, from reading the works of a non-Christian Jewish contemporary of the evangelist, that there had been a Jewish high priest who had been called Theophilus and that he had been deposed from his high office for being lenient towards the early Christians.  Yet though deposed, like other high priests in similar positions, he had retained the title Most Excellent, just as a Bishop is still called “Right Reverend” even though he has retired.  Once this had been realized suddenly a lot of other things began to make sense.  A sensible answer could be found as to why it was the supposedly Gentile Luke who, of all the evangelists, laid so much attention on the Jewish Temple and Jewish worship. And further, it was realized that Luke had such an intimate knowledge of things Jewish that he was more likely to have been Jewish, and not Gentile at all.  Old-time and old-fashioned scholars might pooh-pooh all this, but it just shows that even the most expert of New Testament theologians, let alone parish priests and ordinary layfolk, must admit that we do not know all – and  that this is one of the hallmarks of a good expert and of a good teacher.

It is the role of the teacher to lead his or her students from ignorance to knowledge, while acknowledging that there are no limits to human knowledge, no matter what the topic.  And the good teacher will continue to learn, to open his or her own eyes wider, in order to open the eyes of the students to all the advantages that knowledge can bring.  And the good teacher will not be afraid to say, “I don’t know – but I will do my best to find out!”  Only so will we ever find our way to the one who is Omniscient, the only one who is All-Knowing.  Over the years I have sought to do just that, even though there have been those along the way who indeed listened, but never understood, who indeed looked but never perceived, who chose to be hard of hearing and shut their eyes to the truth, in case they might be forced to understand and turn away from what they in their own minds saw as truth and truly turn to the One, the Only One, who is All the Truth and knows All the Truth, even the God and Father of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.

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