This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning. The lectionary text is Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16. The Spiritual Gift of the Week is “Teaching.”
Today’s Spiritual Gift is Teaching. It’s a lovely coincidence that this gift is today, right at the beginning of a new school year. Certainly schoolteachers are among those who have this spiritual gift, and I for one am very grateful to the schoolteachers who taught me over the years, and the teachers who continue to teach my children, and the teachers who have taught all of you. In some ways, we are who we are because of the schoolteachers we’ve had. Teaching school is a tremendous responsibility, and a high calling. Thank God that some of you are gifted with this gift, and called to use it.
I can remember when I was training to be a pastor, I met someone who was training at the same time to be a schoolteacher. He and I talked about our future careers, and something interesting happened. I told him was in awe of teachers, that I knew that I couldn’t do what they do, for hours each day. He told me the same thing: that he was in awe of pastors, and that he could never what we do. As we talked, we discovered that we each knew that we’d face challenges in our careers, but we each felt equipped to deal with them. And in in that moment, I understood on a new level what it is to have a calling. He was called to be a teacher, just as I was called to be a pastor.
So I was very surprised a few months ago, when I completed a Spiritual Gifts Inventory. I discovered that according to the inventory, my greatest spiritual gift is actually the gift of teaching. That made no sense to me. But then I realized that there are a lot of ways to be a teacher. Coaches, nurses, counselors, social workers, youth group leaders, grandparents, all kinds of people can be teachers. And I guess the way I do my ministry, the way I function as a pastor, is in the style of teacher.
But I’ve learned that teaching doesn’t always happen the way we think it does. Thirteen years ago, I was teaching confirmation class at another church. The class that year had about 20 students, and among them were a few who were…shall we say “challenging.” One evening, I planned to teach them about the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not kill.” I planned to tell them that that commandment is about a lot more than murder. Luther wrote that the fifth commandment means, “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.” I planned to tell them about killing someone’s spirit, how sometimes it can feel like a little part of us has died because of the cruel or insensitive actions of someone else. That killing other people’s spirit is what we’re commanded not to do in the Fifth Commandment. I had some great activities planned. I put a lot of prep into it, preparing what I thought was a really powerful lesson.
But the class went badly that night. The kids were out of control. My great examples crashed and burned. And I went home that night feeling miserable. Feeling like I was a terrible teacher. Feeling that because of me, they’d never learn about this. Feeling like I’d failed them, failed the church, maybe even failed God.
But the next morning, I went into the office, and there was a message on the answering machine for me. It was from the mother of one of my students. She said that her son Jay was very upset about the way some of the students acted that night. And he wanted to let me know that he enjoys the class. Jay felt that some of the students were killing my spirit, and he wished they wouldn’t.
Now, that felt great to hear. I had succeeded! He got it! But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I hadn’t actually taught Jay anything that night. But he got it anyway. He got it because of the way things happened. Because I lost control over the class. Because the Holy Spirit came into that moment, and taught him. He learned very well what the fifth commandment was all about. And by asking his mother to call me, he obeyed that commandment. He helped and supported me. Jay may have heard my words that night, but it was the Holy Spirit who taught him. And the Holy Spirit taught me that sometimes teaching happens despite the students, and despite the teacher. The Holy Spirit reminded me that I am not the real teacher; the real teacher is Christ himself.
Thirteen years later, Jay might remember that class. I don’t know. He might remember me. I don’t know. But I bet he remembers what he learned that night about following Christ through compassion and caring. And I know that I remember it. Because Christ taught Jay and me that.
The author of Hebrews wrote in our second reading today: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Remember your teachers, I think he’s saying. Remember those who taught you. Remember them, but the focus isn’t on remembering their teachings. Because teachings fade. And teachings change over time. Instead, remember their life and their faith, and imitate that faith. Because faith is forever. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Jesus Christ is the great teacher, the teacher of us all, and while the teaching may change, and it has over the centuries, the teacher does not. The specifics may change, the way that we are called to go, the things we are called to do, the people we are called to be, may change, and they have. But the Great Teacher does not change. The grace and love that that teacher pours out on us does not change.
Thanks be to God for all teachers, and the things they have taught us. Thanks even more for their lives and their faith, and the way they have shown us God’s grace. And thanks above all for Jesus Christ, the Great Teacher, who is the same yesterday and today and forever. Thanks be to God.
Featured image from Boston Public Library, accessed at https://www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/8270518444.