(ed. note - this sermon has no real title, cause I couldn't think of one!)
Did you find yourself missing the smell of fresh pencils and new markers these past few weeks? Did you maybe find yourself wanting a new notebook or a new backpack? Maybe you even found yourself shopping for some back-to-school clothes – at least for fun!
I know the majority of you here no longer start school each September, or even have anyone in your household who is in that mode any more. But there is something about the fall weather, and the air in September, that makes us think of new starts, and school days, isn’t there? Of course, you know in my house, I am the only one who doesn’t go to school. This year, I have three girls at Amazing Elementary – a kindergartener, a third grader and a fifth grader. And of course my husband Starman never left school – he got his PhD in 1991 and since then he has been teaching physics in one form or another at university.
There is a certain sense of expectation that comes with September, no matter how long it has been since you last sat in a classroom. Here at MidCity First, as well as at other churches around this square and in fact, around the country, this is the Sunday when we start our programming for the year – new Sunday school classes, choir at the 10:50 service, a sense of “hustle and bustle” to the church that we don’t see as much of during the summer. New Sunday school teachers are commissioned – in fact, this past week I met with 8 people, including a some of you here , to begin a year of Disciple Bible study, that, if all goes well, will finish up next June. Oh, and by the way, I would love for a few more people to join that class, so see me after service if you are interested! The class will meet from 6:30 to 8:30 on Wednesday evenings starting September 23.
So, with all this talk about school and classes, it seems kind of fitting that our scripture passages for this week are centered around the ideas of teaching, and wisdom, and knowledge. We have a passage in Proverbs that talk about Wisdom.
And in James, we hear about what it takes to be a teacher, and how dangerous the very act of speaking can be. And then, in Mark, Jesus gives his disciples a pop quiz – one that Peter alone seems to pass, but then Peter fails the big midterm exam that comes a few verses later.
We started reading from the book of Proverbs last week, and will continue with this book as our Old Testament lection next week as well. Proverbs is kind of a sticky book. A lot of short sayings make up the book – sayings that people like to quote when they work for them – like “better a neighbor who is nearby, than kindred who are far away” (Prov. 27:10). But like most short sayings, there is often another side to the story.
In today’s reading we hear about Wisdom. Wisdom is one of those great and wonderful things. Wisdom is a quality we want to possess, but which remains elusive and hard to define. To help the reader gain an understanding of Wisdom, the writer of this section of Proverbs has created a character, a literary device: Wisdom personified as a woman. This character, Wisdom, has some things to say. And some of these are not very nice things. In this section of Proverbs, Wisdom is full of scorn and anger. She is angry that her people are not listening to her, angry that she has stretched out her hand to help and the people have ignored her. A teacher whose words are ignored by the students is not a happy teacher! So, says Wisdom, because you have chosen to ignore me, because you have chosen to reject my advice, I will not be there to save you.
Wait a minute. If this Wisdom is an aspect of God, as we may believe it to be, then is this a God we want to know? This isn’t the God revealed in Jesus, who grants us grace even at the last hour. This God, this Wisdom, seems particularly devoid of grace. I have to tell you, I am not really sure what to make of Wisdom, here, laughing at those who have messed up.
H. James Hopkins, writing for the preaching resource Feasting On the Word, has this to say:
Many of us struggle with this side of Wisdom, this swaggering, self assured, “I would listen to me if I were you” representative of God. Perhaps the poet who penned Proverbs overstates his/her case just a bit. Perhaps God does not actually laugh at the calamities we bring upon ourselves. Still it is difficult to argue with the truth of Wisdom’s warning. When we forget about the ways of God, we often get ourselves into some terrible predicaments. When we think we are beyond the basic lessons of loving justice, doing kindness, and walking humbly with God, we often end up doing or saying things we regret.
Did you ever have a teacher like Wisdom is personified here? A teacher who made you realize the consequences of your actions? A teacher who pushed you a little bit, maybe made you grow in ways you didn’t want to grow?
My eighth grade algebra teacher, Mr. M, was such a teacher. I can’t think of anyone who liked Mr. M. He was strict, and never once cracked a smile in class. And he introduced us eighth graders to the horror of pop quizzes. We never knew when they were going to come. We would walk into his class and sit down (none of us ever talked before class when we walked into that classroom). And he would always march in right after the bell, at a fast clip. And then would come those dreaded words, never on any particular day – he was very good at surprising us, without any warning at all. “Put your books inside the desk or on the floor.” That’s all I remember. “Put your books inside the desk or on the floor” and then he would hand out the paper for the day’s pop quiz.
I learned to be scared in Mr. M’s class. But I also learned to be prepared. I learned a lot of algebra that year, and maybe even enough so that I was ready for the rigors of engineering school when they came along 5 years later.
The kind of God portrayed in Proverbs is not an easy God to live with. I am not even sure I do believe in that kind of God. I think it's a huge mistake to tell a story of God's judgment and wrath without also telling the story of God's love and saving grace. But the warnings from Proverbs ring true, nonetheless. I have seen the consequences of my actions played out in ways that have taught me a lot – and made me even more grateful for the grace I know God provides.
The passage from James is more of a cautionary tale than an admonition in the way of Proverbs. James is considered a form of wisdom literature, but in James the words that are spoken are more reminiscent of Jesus’ own sayings.
This week, James has a lot to say about a very small part of our bodies – the tongue. The writer uses every kind of comparison to make the point of how much power is wielded by what we say, and how we say it. This is not the time to bring out the adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” – do you remember that one from your school days? Was that true for you? I think this is one of those cases when a proverb doesn’t really work.
Language is a powerful tool. And when you are in a position of power over others, it becomes especially important to be aware how you use language. Think of the teachers you have known who have inspired you, encouraged you, challenged you in ways that made you a better person than you were before you knew them.
My track coach and calculus teacher, Mr. K, was one of those teachers whose words I will never forget. Mr. K was not a young man when I met him – and he certainly wasn’t a runner. He had been stricken with disease when he was a child and had been hospitalized for over a year. And one of his legs was about 2 inches shorter than the other, causing him to walk with a permanent limp.
But he was an inspiring and encouraging coach and teacher. His attitude was that each of us should try to do our best, every day, in the classroom and on the field. He would print up time sheets after our races – not noting so much who came in first, or second, or last – but comparing our times on the course to our previous times and noting when we had beaten our time – had gotten a “personal best” for the course. When we ran a race, he would pace up and down the field about 100 yards from the finish line, yelling for each person on the team – and he would not stop cheering until his last runner had crossed the line. I know – because sometimes that last runner was me. As soon as I came out of the woods and started that last sprint toward the finish of our cross-country course, I would hear him. “Come on Di! Come on Di!” he would shout – he had nicknames for everyone on the team.
One year our girls’ cross country team wasn’t a particularly strong one, and I happened to be the seventh best runner on the team. Seven runners went to the state meet every year, and so, I along with my six much better teammates started some extra practices to get ready for the meet. The problem was, I was always a few minutes behind my fellow runners, no matter how hard I tried. One night after practice I was waiting for my mom to pick me up, and feeling pretty sorry for myself, and wondering if I should just quit the team. Mr. K was walking to his car when he saw me. He came over and put an arm around me. “Tell Uncle Frankie what’s wrong” he said. We never called him that, but the funny name he called himself did get me to smile. I told him how I felt like I wasn’t good enough to run in states, and I was just letting my team down. “I chose you to run that race” he told me, “and I think you’re good enough. Just get out there and do your best.” A few weeks later, I ran the race. I didn’t come in last, and Mr. Kelley was there, cheering me on, somehow managing to be at several points in the course, just when I needed to see him. “Come on, Di!”
Every now and then when I go back to my hometown, I’ll meet up with Mr. K in the grocery store or around town. And I will always remember how he encouraged me – how his words made me be a better person, if not a better runner.
The tongue can be used to encourage or discourage. That’s true not just for those who have jobs that label them as “teachers” but for all of us. Those of you sitting in the pews tonight might think “well, no one really pays any attention to what I say. It doesn’t really matter.”
But I can tell you, your words matter to me, even when I am the one who is supposed to be speaking. I am always looking out for those of you who are smiling and nodding at me during the service (don’t worry I don’t expect any amens!) And it means a great deal to me when one of you tells me afterward that something I said resonated with your own experience. I wouldn’t be here, if I couldn’t also trust you to tell me when I mess up (there are a few of you who can do that well) and to tell me to get out of the way on occasion so we can all worship.
Words matter. As United Methodists, here in this place today, I would not be before you and you would not be here listening if we did not agree on this. Indeed, for me an important component of my call to ministry is a call to preaching. But how does God act in the world through our words? Who speaks for God?
I must confess that I've never much liked that prayer from Psalm 19, the one we said at the end of our call to worship: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” When I was growing up, we had a preacher who said those words – and then went on to condemn us all from the pulpit. Now he was a real “fire and brimstone” preacher – something like the writer of our Proverbs passage. And, I will confess, after a while I became convinced that this man was not speaking well on behalf of the God that I knew, the God of Love.
So is seems kind of pretentious for me to pray those same words up here before I preach. I know despite my studies and training and earnest striving that my view of God is really just one small sliver of all the wonderful things that God is about, and I know that for all my experiences, I cannot hope to comprehend all of the different ways in which God interacts with the people of the world, with the people here in this place. So from my small and limited view, despite my prayers, I am not going to get it right every time. Occasionally I am going to miss the mark. Some of my sermons are going to be clunkers. And despite the fact that I stand here before you now, my words are my own words, not God's words. I do not, by myself, speak for God.
And yet, I do believe that something powerful, something of God, can happen when we are together – when we use our tongues to praise God together. The thing is – it takes all of us, singers and musicians, preachers and hearers – to make worship happen. Not just the words of my mouth. But the prayers and hopes and open hearts of all of us. For the truth of God's words comes not in the speaking in one voice, but through the voices of many. Together, all of us can speak for God. And the words of God act not just in the speaking, but in the listening, where each of us is here together. Yet alone in our hearts, we each find the one truth we need to hear today. Just as God speaks in many voices, we each receive from God in accordance with our where we are and what we need to hear.
So consider, as James tells us, how we can all use our tongues in wise ways instead of foolish ones. Let us look to each other for models. Consider those wise and wonderful teachers who have shown us what it means to speak with wisdom. And remember, each of you are a speaker on behalf of the family of God. Your voice can be God's voice. As you go forth from this place, know that the God of truth goes with you. Know that you, each of you, has something to say, a word to share, that can encourage someone, and bring the Good News to someone who needs to hear it today. Go forth to share what you know – this Jesus, who came to lose his life so that we may all be saved. Thanks be to God.