Not Many Should Be Teachers

Jesus took his disciples up on the mountain,
and gathered them around him,
and he taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor …’

And Simon Peter said ‘Do we have to write this down?’
And Andrew said, ‘Are we supposed to know this?’
And Bartholomew said, ‘Do we have to turn this in?’
And John said, ‘The other disciples didn’t have to learn this!’
And Judas said, ‘What does this have to do with real life?’

And Jesus wept…

Not many should be teachers,
For you know that we who teach
Will be judged with greater strictness.
For all of us make many mistakes.

In our Protestant tradition, ministers, clergy, are called ‘teaching elders’. You are all ministers, all taking a part of the ministry of this place, and some are ‘ruling elders’, those on a board, committee, or presbytery, making choices about how we celebrate and serve. We respect teaching elders, but we judge them, and don’t simply submit to their authority. It’s Jesus’ reconciling ministry, the church’s meaning and purpose, which we share, not current staff opinions.

The little letter of James, near the back of your bible, is always on about ‘walking the walk, not just talking the talk’. James is suspicious and warning of the risk of being full of talk – or worse, of bad talk. We know a lot about that, in the promise and risk of our choices of ‘teaching elders’, in churches that gather weekly for a ‘service of the word’ with lots of preaching.

We know the risks of the wrong teacher for our child, as well as the wrong preacher for our church. How many parents and students have tried to change classes to avoid the wrong one? We pay more for a home near a good school. How many have changed churches to find something that fed them better?

Teachers know the risks of being judged, and found wanting – this fall they were threatened with a ‘snitch line’ if they taught sex ed ‘wrong’. Ministers know the same risks. We owe more than to please the student or pewsitter. For their part, students, and churchgoers, should be critical, but also merciful.

James knows what is at stake, and uses a lot of metaphors for the nature of a teacher’s, preacher’s, speaker’s vocation: 

  • It’s like a bridle in a horse’s mouth – a wee bit and a rein,

  • and a whole huge animal is steered where the bridle guides. 

  • It’s like a rudder on a sailing ship – the winds drive a heavy vessel –

  • but the rudder steers the boat, even into the wind 

  • It’s like a tongue of flame, that can set a home or a forest ablaze – inflaming dry tinder 

As we begin this Year 2 of Transition at ‘Trinity on Church’, there’s a lot of anxiety around. People are fretful about events ahead, discerning our options and then making choices among them. What if we get the right answer to the wrong question? What if we are misled by misconstructions, polarized into false binary choices or ‘join my army’ - again.

God forbid! Nobody – including me – preaches twice, from Labour Day till past Thanksgiving, when we meet for a visioning Sunday, based on ‘What If’ stories gathered through this summer and September. We’re discerning, not deciding, shaping our discourse, listening one another into voice, learning together. But:

Not many should be teachers,
For you know that we who teach
Will be judged with greater strictness.
For all of us make many mistakes.

The Big Idea today was remembering good – and bad – teachers in our lives. Too often, we confuse schooling with teaching and learning, and the jobs or roles of teacher or learner with that universal human vocation. Parents and caregivers of infants , households and communities and workplaces, and event churches can be places of learning. Participants can be memorable teachers.

I haven’t been schooled since 1983, over 35 years ago. I hope that I did not stop learning then, though I confess that the great educators who influenced were all creatures of the last century. I did then add a few names in continuity and harmony with their voices, and promised to list them here online:

Paolo Freiere was an educator in Brazil from the 1940’s to the 1960’s. Jailed by an authoritarian government for his work among the poor, then exiled, he found employment with the World Council of Churches in Europe, and wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He rejected the ‘banking’ concept of education that knowledge was put into an empty skull, then hoarded by possessors as property. Instead, he proposed critical conscience, conscientization from the Portuguese, now echoed in ‘inquiry-based’, ‘student-centred’ approaches.

Ivan Illich was a priest of the same generation, born in Austria, trained in Rome, serving in New York City slums then in a Puerto Rico college. Kicked out of the American territory, he became an educator in Mexico critiquing ‘development’ rhetoric of the American Peace Corps, rousing the CIA. His book Deschooling Society in 1971 challenged the institutional monopolies of schools on learning, credentialism, and our trust in the moral neutrality of technology. Resigned as a monsignor, we taught informally in France, America, Germany, and I heard him a few times at OISE in Toronto.

Jacques Ellul was a Calvinist lay theologian, teaching lawyers and theology, in the same generation, a supporter than critic of the French left wing in the 1960’s. The Meaning of the City was his 1970 book, acknowledging the tension between the goods of social justice and those of individual freedom. He analysed technology (better ‘technique’ from French) and violence, and later, ‘Jesus & Marx: Gospel to Ideology’, ‘Subversion of Christianity’ and posthumous ‘Unjust God’ about Romans 9-11 and Jewish Christian dialogue.

Gregory Baum was a priest, born to a Jewish mother in Germany between world wars, serving as a young staff to Vatican II in Rome, then spending much of his adult life Canada. Religion and Alienation and Social Imperative books about Christian Marxism were popular in UCC circles by the mid-70’s, and I crashed a few of his seminars and lectures. His last, posthumous title in 2017 was ‘The Oil Has Not Run Dry’, alluding to the Hanukkah myth of keeping the lamps lit in the temple, despite apparent scarcity.

Yes, these four good teachers were all white men, now all dead. Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian Leninist teacher in Lubljiana (‘The Monstrosity of Christ’), and Terry Eagleton, cultural critic in the UK currently based in Ulster (‘Radical Sacrifice’) are not yet dead, and carry on the themes of the dead guys above. Live Germans Hans Küng and Jürgen Habermas, and Canadians George Grant (dead) and Charles Taylor, also carry on these traditions of discourse and conciliarity rather than unilateral imposition of one univocal dogmatic truth.

Absolutely, I cite women, like last century’s Mary Daly, Rosemary Reuther, and Dorothée Sölle, and Sally McFague, as prophets of dialogical thinking. I try to echo and amplify current voices like Catherine Keller, Methodist theologian at Drew, most recently writing ‘Intercarnations’ about feminism, eco-theology and process theology, and Sarah Coakley, Anglican priest and theologian from Cambridge, Oxford, and Harvard and Princeton, writing ‘The New Asceticism’ and like Illich, revisiting medieval, Hugh, monks, religious orders of ascetics, appetites and restraint.

Returning from those promised online references and citations, I’ll credit Ivan Illich’s ‘Shadow Work’ for first teaching me the story that 1492 was not all about Columbus getting sponsorship. It was not only defined by the ‘Expulsion’ of Jews and Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). Currently, the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’, justifying the European colonial exploitation of the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australia, is promoted as key to the age.

In 1492, Elio Antonio de Nebrija presented the Spanish Queen Isabella with his Gramatica Castellana. Combine empire with language, ‘armas y letras’, giving instrumental power to ‘letrados’ who know and teach the one official language Spanish, while dismissing all other tongues as ‘vernacular’ or ‘dialect’. Ask a Basque separatist today if they were colonized by the Gramatica! In a previous age, Latin had enjoyed a similar status in a prior age – but here was a new marriage of empire and language – soon to be followed by ‘vernacular’ bibles associated with Lutheran, Calvinist, and English and Scottish reformers.

Words do not simply have free-standing meaning – there is a semantic field for the speaker, a semantic field for the hearer. Who rules, or is ‘correct’? All the times you have used a word, or heard or read it in use, shapes and changes its semantic field. How the words have been used, to help or to hurt, shape your response to them. An institutional power asserts such power – we concede it.

The context of the speaker and hearer do matter – our ‘life-worlds’. That’s my version of Jürgen Habermas’ understanding of discourse, and how language works. Charles Taylor’s ‘social imaginary’, or Hans Küng’s development of Thomas Kuhn’s idea into ‘religious paradigm’, offer support for people trying to subvert modernity, blind and deaf to its’ own parochialism.

Pope Francis, from Argentina, is in conciliar continuity with his predecessors, but he knows these circles of discourse. The major themes of his pontificate are mercy, evangelism, poverty, acknowledging the contributions of liberation theology. I’ve just begun reading This Economy Kills as a echo of Francis.

Anyhow, all that rambling, mostly omitted in the oral version of these reflections, offer a way of hearing James’ letter from 2000 years ago. We too practice language and discourse in a church community that celebrates, learns, and serves. We can’t demonize each other as stupid or evil and we can’t beatify ourselves as always smart and right. The mouth that praises God here can’t – or shouldn’t – then badmouth their neighbour, made in God’s image.

We should learn habits of civility here, and then show them in the week and the world. ‘Look how these Christians love one another.’ We can measure our local chat by the ‘five marks of church’ at Transition Team’ meeting tomorrow: evangelism (proclamation), liturgy (worship), diakonia (serving), koinonia (community), and didache (teaching/learning). Today’s lesson and reflection is all about the last, but our weakest mark at Trinity, in my perception, is first, evangelical proclamation, and I often respond with this:

‘You may be the only gospel
your neighbour reads,
so write the vision,
and make it plain,
in all you do and all you say,
that she who runs may read it.’

For every teacher or preacher, there should be 10 helpers and doers in church. For every hour of study, ten hours of service, for every hour of speech, ten hours of action. Learning is one of the five fingers of this ‘hand of God’, meant to work in concert with the rest within each of us and among all of us.

Not many should be teachers,
For you know that we who teach
Will be judged with greater strictness.
For all of us make many mistakes.

Jesus took his disciples up on the mountain,
and gathered them around him,
and he taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor …’

Saint Francis of Assisi, from whom the current Pope takes his pontifical name, took this beatitude seriously, as did the mendicant religious order who claimed the name of Franciscan, put it this way:

Go, proclaim the gospel. If necessary, use words.