Note: I preached a version of this sermon on August 23, 2015 at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen,
Today we are celebrating and blessing our students who are returning to school. And they can certainly use all the blessings and prayers we can give them. School is hard. Growing up is hard. School was hard for me, and I was always a good student.
But I also want to acknowledge teachers today. Teaching is a noble vocation. At its best it is glorious. To unfold one corner of the world for a young mind is a remarkable accomplishment, and it happens every single day in countless places. We ask teachers to do this, in some places, for less take-home pay. We ask them teach more and more to standardized tests and less and less to student needs and abilities. Those of you who do this work, or have done it, deserve more than our thanks.
This week I emailed the congregation and asked on Facebook for your stories of the toughest teachers you ever had and what, if anything, you learned from them.
Here are some of the answers I got:
My toughest teacher was Mr. Clewworth in 7th grade. We practiced penmanship–which didn’t stick. We also diagrammed sentences of the most complex nature. I hated it. Little did I know then that this would be the key to a successful career in editing. I can picture the structure of sentences and whole ideas thanks to his many, many diagrammed sentences. Sadly, this isn’t taught anymore.
Mrs. Huber, my fifth grade teacher. She taught me to believe in myself and my love for math, even though I was a girl. Her tough attitude that “girls can do it” and her encouragement of my math skills led me to my career in the “numbers field” first as a statistician and then a math teacher.
My high school chemistry teacher. We had an older man the first semester who had little control over our class and we were way behind. The second semester our teacher told us we would cover all the material for the whole year! Well he was right! We did!
My toughest teacher has been my college voice professor. She is extremely tough and never seems to be happy with anything I do. Surprisingly I have learned a lot from her that I will take with me forever. I have learned that when I sing trying to make her happy I always fail and have no confidence. She has taught me that I can’t sing to please people but always must sing to praise God.
My toughest teacher was Miss Gunderson. She taught us to respect our adults. Her methods would probably get her fired today. The old cloak room was a place to be feared. You never wanted to be called there by her. A good tongue lashing out of the ears of the rest of the class made you a “real believer”. She did really improve my reading skills during my year with her. She was always very encouraging and full of praise. You just needed to avoid the cloak room and life was good in her class.
I love these stories. I love stories about teachers who made us work and brought out our best, sometimes in spite of our own reluctance or our own fear or our own sense that we couldn’t do something.
But I think my favorite story was a little different. This college teacher taught a class on computer programming. “My mother had been divorced and told me to take a computer programming class so I wouldn’t need a man to support me,” this person told me. But this person did not excel at computer programming and it was a hard semester. Finally the teacher said, “I’ll give you a B if you promise never to take another programming class.”
Sometimes that’s what a tough teacher give us: the knowledge that we should try to learn something else.
Today we come to the end of a long passage in John’s Gospel. Jesus has been telling the crowds that he is the bread of life, the bread that comes down from heaven, and that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood if they want to have life.
And today we hear the result of this long discourse. The people respond by saying, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Many of his disciples leave because of this. When the story began there were thousands following Jesus. At the end of today’s reading there are only the twelve disciples left.
Jesus does not respond by reaching out to the departed believers. He doesn’t revamp the website or the worship service. Instead Jesus asks the remaining disciples something remarkable: Do you also wish to go away?
Now I have to admit, this is a moment in which it is hard for clergy to follow Jesus’ example. Pastors, in general, don’t want anyone to go away. We want people to stay! It’s maybe the reason we have found so many ways, over the centuries, to make this difficult teaching a little easier.
Don’t worry, we like to say—Jesus is a spiritual savior. He cares about your heart and your feelings and you don’t need to worry about the rest of the world or the rest of your life. This flesh stuff is just a metaphor for believing in him with your heart. Just believe in an absent Jesus. No need to try to believe in a present Jesus.
Don’t worry—Jesus is a teacher of wisdom and enlightenment, a human figure who leads us to God. Our job is to learn from his moral insights.
And indeed, Jesus is a spiritual savior and a teacher of wisdom. But he is also more than that. He is a great deal more than that. He is the Word made Flesh, abiding among us.
He is asking the people to enter into that mystery. He is not leaving us with a purely mental or emotional faith. He’s asking us to become part of something. He’s asking us to be connected to God and to each other in a more intimate way—by sharing the bread and wine that are his body and blood, his life for us and for the world.
As I said last week, this is not a puzzle for us to solve. It is not a problem for us to figure out. But it is a leap of faith for us to make. It’s simple and ordinary and right there for us, an open invitation. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
I’ve heard and seen how hard it is. Late last year I was a guest on a Christian radio show broadcast in another city, talking about holy communion. And one of the hosts introduced the segment by talking about communion in her home church and how—I don’t know how else to put it—how gross it is. Soppy bread and kids and sticky juice and I got the sense—as I often do in these moments—that what people are really grossed out by is not the elements themselves, and not even the idea of body and blood, but that we’re grossed out by each other. Grossed out by sharing in this intimate action. It really does make us one with each other, at least in this one moment.
So Jesus lets you say no—to him and to each other. He invites his disciples to leave. He does this without blame or resentment. He doesn’t call out after the people who are leaving, “You’ll be sorry!” And if the twelve had walked away discouraged, he would have found new disciples. He would have raised up a body for himself in the world somehow. He will find a way to share his eternal life with this hungry, bleeding, sinful world. Someone, somehow, will answer.
Jesus tells his friends today that no one can come to him unless the Father grants it. I’ve studied that line closely and I still don’t know what it means. But I think it’s why these stories of tough teachers are so important. Because the willingness to learn is in some sense a mystery. You don’t know who has it or why. It doesn’t have anything to do with being “good” at something. It’s not even something we can always see in ourselves. Someone has to draw it out of us. Someone has to challenge us and see if we answer. But then all of a sudden we find ourselves doing things we didn’t have any idea we could do.
That’s faith. It doesn’t take much. It doesn’t take skill or knowledge or righteousness. It just takes that little impulse that comes from God, that little voice that says, when everything in you is ready to give up on God or yourself or the world, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Amen.