SERMON ~ July 18, 2021 ~ “Teaching Sheep?”


July 18, 2021 ~ Proper 11 ~ 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Ninth Sunday after Pentecost ~ 2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Psalm 89:20-37; Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56.

Teaching Sheep?

“And so when Jesus went ashore, there was a crowd waiting; and the Rabbi felt compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So then Jesus began to teach them many things.” — Mark 6:34.

I would bet what I am about to say is true for many of us. There are people in our lives with whom we have a connection and the only way I have of describing that connection, the only language I have, is to say the connection is in some way ethereal.

What does that mean? A description— sometimes this kind of connection means when that other person is in pain we feel it.

But there are other kinds of connections too. Here’s one: it’s when you fully understand what another person says, as they say it1fully understand. But even that kind connection, one grounded in communication, that connection feels in some way ethereal, you don’t quite understand what’s going on.

That’s the kind of connection I had with one of my professors at Bangor Theological Seminary, the late Dr. Ann Johnston. Ann was a fascinating individual. A Roman Catholic nun, she held a Ph.D. in Hebrew Scriptures, was fluent in ancient Hebrew and, despite being a Roman Catholic nun, was teaching at a Main Line Protestant Seminary.

Ann and I had similar backgrounds which perhaps made connections possible on a number of levels. There was the obvious one. She was Roman Catholic. I came to maturity in that tradition. But she also grew up in New York City, as did I.

She had a sibling who lived in the Saranac Lake area as do I, so we both know what that neck of the woods is about. In any case, for reasons beyond me— although I think at least some of the aforementioned background must have played into it— we understood one another, communicated on many levels.

Let me tell you story about that. Any student who goes to a college or a graduate program should visit the school in which they have an interest, meet a professor or two. It’s also wise for a prospective seminary student to visit that seminary and meet a professor or two. And so, I visited Bangor Seminary where I had a chat with Ann, the first time we met.

Not a fifteen minutes into our discussion— and this was the first time we ever met— she tilted her head a little to the side and said, “Joe, I think you need to be ordained.” My memory was immediately thrust back about fifteen years to when the Rev. Carol Anderson, who was among the first women to be officially ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church and she was my pastor at that point in my life, Carol said to me, “Well Joe, when are you going to become a priest?”

Back to my relationship with Ann— I suppose the bottom line is we could hear what one another said clearly. Here’s an interesting example of that.

In a class Ann would give verbal instructions as to what she might want to see in a given assignment, a paper. After assigning a paper, she once came back to the classroom with a totally looking chagrined one week later. She had a stack of papers in her hand.

She announced nearly everyone in the class was going to have to re-do the paper we had handed in a week before. She apologized and said since so many of us had not returned a paper she deemed adequate, it must have been her fault. She must have given poor instructions.

She then told us she had written extensive comments on the papers she was handing back in the hope this would help. At that point she went around the room handing back papers with comments scrawled across the sheets.

She had said, however, not all the papers needed to be redone. She said nearly everyone was going to have to re-do the paper.

When she gave me my paper at the top of the first page I found scrawled in red a grade of A+. She made some other comments throughout the text, as she always did. But the A+ stopped me cold.

I never had the nerve to ask Ann what I did right. I have always, however, attributed the success of that paper to the fact that when she said something I heard it fully. We connected on some level beyond any logical explanation. (Slight pause.)

We hear these words in Mark: “And so when Jesus went ashore, there was a crowd waiting; and the Rabbi felt compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So then Jesus began to teach them many things.” (Slight pause.)

For me the story I just told about Ann Johnston and myself raises three questions. First, does one study with a professor, a teacher, or does one study under a professor, a teacher? I think that answer is evident. You need to work together. Unless you work together, work with a teacher, deep learning, leaning how to think, will not be accomplished.

Learning is, you see, not about acquiring a set of facts. Facts are often readily available. Learning is discovering how to think, not what to think.

And it is a mistake for a student or a teacher to picture learning as if it’s like filling an empty gas tank. Any student, even the youngest, comes to any learning situation with knowledge and experience. So learning, education, is not about filling a tank. It’s more like designing a new one.

Second, what can you learn from a professor, a teacher? Surely there are limitations, no matter how solid the personal connection. And yes, there are limitations, especially if we’re talking about how to think. I’ve always said you learn what you can from a given teacher. The rest, what you cannot learn from that teacher, you leave behind.

However, from the perspective of the student that means you first need to understand how you think, what are your methods and patterns of thinking. That needs to happen before you can learn different, new methods, new patterns of thinking, new patterns a teacher might help you learn. It is, of course, hard to break out of our current methods and patterns. But I would also suggest when you do get to these new patterns of thinking is when learning truly begins to happen.

The last question I want to raise is, I hope, obvious. What kind of effort, what kind of involvement is necessary on the part of the student? (Slight pause.)

Well that brings us to the story we heard about Jesus and the disciples, and that crowd who followed Jesus and the disciples to a remote, deserted place. I think we too often read this story with Twenty-first Century eyes and we, therefore, miss something vital.

We presume Jesus, the teacher, is the sole driver of the story. What we miss is how involved the crowd is. The crowd drives the story with the eagerness of each individual in the crowd, their willingness, their journey to that remote, deserted place. For me that willingness to go to a remote, deserted place tells us something different, something new, a new way of thinking, a new way of life, is being sought— it’s being sought by these people.

So, let me repeat something I said earlier. Learning is not about acquiring a set of facts. Learning is about discovering— eagerly discovering— how to think, not about learning what to think. Learning is not about what to thing but how to think.

And that’s another Twenty-first Century mistake we make as we read this the story. We assume Jesus, the disciples, these teachers, are merely dispensers of facts.

No! After all, what is Christianity about? Is Christianity about a set of facts? Or is Christianity about a new way of life, a new way of thinking, a new way to think about the call of God on our lives, the call for our lives and the call of God on the life of the whole world and the call of God for the life of the whole world?

Put differently, is Christianity about the Realm of God, the Dominion of God being present to us here, now and about our participation in the Realm of God, the Dominion of God, right here and right now? Is Christianity about being empowered to live into that Realm, that Dominion, that new way of thinking, or is Christianity simply about lip service, an ability to spout facts, recite Bible verses? (Slight pause.)

It’s clear to me Christianity is about a way of life, a new way of thinking, a new way of seeing life. This way of life is called covenant love— love of neighbor, love of God. And from what I see and hear in Twenty-first Century society, love of neighbor, love of God would appear to me to be too often in short supply.

So if love of God, love of neighbor is, for Twenty-first Century society, a new way to think, a new way to see life, a new way to understand God is present with us, here, now, perhaps, perhaps there is a call on our lives. Perhaps our call is like the call of the disciples, a call to share the love of God. But maybe, just maybe our call is also like the crowd who went to that deserted place, eager to learn, eager to discover, eager to think in new ways. Amen.

North Yarmouth Congregational Church, United Church of Christ

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “The text from Mark says the people (quote:) ‘…were like sheep without a shepherd.’ But again our Twenty-first Century way of thinking does not understand what’s happening here. The text also says the people needed a shepherd. A shepherd is not someone who dominates and orders others around. A shepherd is someone who guides, who helps. Jesus is a shepherd, a guide, a teacher who helps us to seek new ways of thinking, new ways of seeing the Realm of God, the Dominion of God. If we also engage in teaching our job is to also be a shepherd, to guide, to help.”

BENEDICTION: This is the blessing used by natives of the islands in the South Pacific: O Jesus, please be the canoe that holds me up in the sea of life. Please be the rudder that keeps me on a straight path. Be the outrigger that supports me in times of stress. Let Your Spirit be the sail that carries me though each day. Keep me safe, so that I can paddle on steady in the voyage called life. God of all, bless us all so we may have calm seas, a warm sun and clear nights with star filled skies. Amen.

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