"Know You Are A Teacher"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 6/13/1999
Proverbs 3:1-18; Matthew 9:35-38
There were several occasions when Jesus' compassion for people overwhelmed him. On one occasion Jesus said, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets and stone the messengers God has sent you! How many times I wanted to put my arms around all of your people, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not let me!" (Matthew 23:37).
On another occasion, which happens to be our lesson today, Jesus showed his compassion again. The lesson says, "As he saw the crowds, his heart was filled with pity for them, because they were worried and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd."
Have you ever felt that way when you observe what people are doing to themselves? Last week we heard the story about two drivers racing on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. One car had a single driver. The other car was filled with teenagers. After the drivers exchanged hostile words, the one driver produced a handgun and fired six shots into the car filled with young people. Three of them were hospitalized with gun shot wounds. Fortunately, no one died.
Could that situation have been avoided? Absolutely! But where were the teachers? Where were the people who could have taught those teens that you never allow a mean-spirited person to entice you to play his game? Where were the teachers who, years ago, should have taught those kids to have enough self-respect to allow that other driver to be whomever he wanted to be without his behavior affecting them?
How many times have we silently grieved when we read about a 17-year-old who took her life because she felt as if she had run out of alternatives? How many times have we lamented when we heard of a person who became absorbed by the drug culture and their lives were destroyed? What do we think when we read about people who have gotten so caught up in the advances of the stock market during the last two years that they took out a second mortgage on their house? They needed more money to invest. They are not aware that what they call "an unprecedented economic opportunity" is merely another name for old-fashioned greed. Are these human dramas avoidable? Absolutely! But again, where are the teachers?
We cannot neglect our responsibility to teach by assuming that the job will be done by others. Our public and private school systems, our churches and synagogues, and the various settings where learning takes place are not enough. Each of us must take teaching very seriously because we are doing it anyway through every response we make. Our children notice. Our friends and colleagues notice. We influence each other. Every day our lives advertise whether or not we are adding value to this world by our being here.
Some of you may have heard Paul Harvey's news and comment several Saturdays ago. He included a piece on what today's graduates were not taught in high school. His thoughts were interesting and probably more accurate than not.
Among the 12 items he mentioned were these: (1) Life is not fair. (2) The world will not care about your level of self-esteem. (3) If you fail at something, it is not your parents' fault. (4) Winners and losers may have been abolished in the classroom, but not in life. (5) Programs on television are not real life. (6) If flipping hamburgers is what you do, recognize that such a job is an opportunity to learn skills you will use when you assume larger responsibilities. (7) Failure is often the price one pays for eventual success. If we are not teaching people how to create their own destiny, who is?
All around us, we find people engaging in behavior exactly like what Jesus was responding to during his ministry, ". . .people were worried and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." As caring people, do we have a responsibility to help others choose a better way to live? You bet we do! But before we give an enthusiastic "yes" to that question, we first need to understand that there are a number of things we cannot give to people.
For example, if we choose to become involved in the dramas of other people, it should be to assist them in getting up and walking by themselves. Those of us who are mentally and physically capable are not in this life to be taken care of, nor to have someone repeatedly pay our bills for us, nor to carry us emotionally and spiritually because we cannot or will not assume responsibility for ourselves. Regardless of how cruel this sounds, it is the truth. With all the power that God has, God has never tried to live our lives for us. What would be the point?
When we find people who have become immobilized by life, we should encourage them by asking, "Who taught you that you can not accomplish your dreams? Who taught you that you cannot save enough money to get ahead? Who taught you that your life will never amount to anything? Who taught you that anger must be your only response?" Our compassion for such people should cause us to respond like Jesus -- "people are worried and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." What did Jesus send us forth to do?
In our lesson today Jesus said, "The harvest is large, but there are few workers to gather it. Pray to the owner of the harvest that he will send out workers to gather in his harvest." Another way of saying this is, "Pray that more of us take seriously our role as teachers so that we can help others to find a greater vision upon which to base their lives."
Jesus intentionally used the metaphor of a shepherd because his listeners knew how they performed their tasks. Obviously, shepherds do not make decisions about the character of their sheep. They do not settle arguments among them as to who is right and who is wrong. They do not lecture the sheep on how to make better decisions for themselves. Human beings are the ones who make such mistakes in their teaching. Often they are talking to people who cannot hear any better than sheep.
While being with the sheep, shepherds help prevent them from being afraid of real and imagined enemies. Their calm and reassuring voice often prevents the sheep from scattering. Perhaps we should teach from the same spirit. Since all of us are teachers anyway, why not teach compassion, understanding, and authenticity by exhibiting these qualities ourselves?
The odd thing about us is that we first have to want something better than what we have before we are ready to pursue it in earnest. This frustration is faced by every teacher. And we have to understand that many people are not interested in moving beyond where they are. That is their decision and we have to respect their choice, but we never stop teaching!
There are a number of people who feel entitled to their belief that they have been victimized. They feel entitled to their perception that everyone is against them. They feel entitled to the thought that life will never get any better for them. Most of them have all the necessary perceptions to back up their claims. They have chosen blindness and the results are like a self-fulfilling prophesy. If no one teaches them another way to view life, they will remain stuck.
In a sense, they are reaping exactly what they have sown. This is why Jesus had such compassion. He knew that life would not get any better for them. That is the way the universe works. By itself, life never gets any better for us. Life only changes its quality once we grow in our understanding that it is we who create our destinies.
When we enter someone's drama as a friend, how are we to teach? Recently, we had a friend stay with us from Arizona. Barbara had been Sue and Steve's primary baby-sitter during their earliest days. Lois and I decided to drive through Cheverly and show her the town she had not seen for years. As we drove, Barbara said, "I had forgotten how beautiful everything is." She looked at the grass, the shrubs, and the trees. The color green was everywhere. Having come from the sun-drenched state of Arizona with its earth-tones, Barbara immediately sensed what she had been missing.
People adapt to whatever environment they are experiencing. Some circumstances make people wilt while others make them come alive. How are we to teach? We teach by support, not by ridicule. We teach by affirmation, not by criticism. We teach by friendship, not by labeling. We teach by example, not by words. We teach by spirit, not by deeds. We teach through what we have become. And do you know what? Others adapt. This is exactly what a shepherd does while among his sheep.
Too many of us feel compelled to repair the damage caused by the other persons' decisions. We want to intervene and remove some of their pain and obstacles. We want to stop these persons from further sabotaging their own progress in life. What we are teaching by doing this is "I can live your life better than you can!" This keeps them disabled. Why not first take the time to accept the person where they are. Why not take the time to understand that self-defeating behavior is a call from them to be loved.
We feel obligated to address their behavior and their symptoms while dispensing corrective measures from our value structure. What we are teaching them is our impression of who they ought to be. When people communicate as if they have all the answers for another person's experience, they seldom teach effectively. Believe it or not, answers are not what people are seeking.
If we walk with them and choose to listen to them, we might provide just the right environment where healing can begin. Silence and patience are great teaching tools. We do not have to say anything to promote their healing. People must heal themselves. Emotional wounds are like physical wounds, they first begin to heal on the inside. There is no better place to heal than in the presence of someone who allows them to be exactly where they are. We teach with a spirit that communicates, "You cannot earn my love. It comes with my friendship." This is what God says to us every day.
There is something about a mountain that attracts us. The same is true with people. There is something about a person who is kinder than we are, who is more peaceful than we are, who is more alive than we are that is very attractive. This is how they teach! They do not criticize us for where we are; they encourage us to be where they are.
God created us so that we would always be reaching beyond where we are. Like Jesus, we must teach this understanding so that more people become open to their near-infinite possibilities. This is why a church family that extends its energy draws out the best in us. We are at our best when we are teaching others to be more than they ever felt possible. This is what Jesus invited us to do. Since all of us are teaching anyway, why not help the world to become a better place by being in that better place ourselves.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Thank you, God, for allowing us the privilege of finding our own way in life. There have been so many people through the ages who believed that they had the answers for everyone else. What a splendid moment it is when the discovery of truth is ours to make!
We can be taught about forgiveness and never learn anything. But when we forgive and experience the release, what joy fills our souls. We can be taught about being forgiven while still clinging to the guilt over our error in judgment. But when others continue to share with us their unbroken friendship, there is no welcome mat more beautiful.
Teach us, O God, how to love with our spirits. Move us away from pettiness, from fault finding, from always needing to be right, and from unsolicited criticism of those who have not matured according to our time table. When life confronts us, teach us humility, graciousness, and patience. May we be slow to judge and quick to learn that all life serves to teach us who we are.
We have so much to learn. How easy it is to rejoice at the peace accord in Kosovo while feeling helpless about healing the ghettos in the minds and hearts of so many where hostilities still linger. Help us to be teachers who reflect the high calling of being disciples of Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray. . .