Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

The tongue of a teacher

Message preached September 13, 2015
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Isaiah 50:4-9a and James 3:1-12

Order of Worship

 Listen to this sermon (mp3)

             The man I knew as my “Uncle David” was also known by another name: “teacher.” Actually, for most of his professional life, he was an elementary school principal. But at heart he was a teacher. That’s what one of his colleagues said at his funeral many years ago, noting that he was not a distant administrator who dictated what must be done. Rather, he was a “hands on” kind of guy, with a wry sense of humor, a mind open to dreaming new possibilities, and a caring heart, who built a community of teachers and learners in whatever school he served.

             A word echoed by many at his funeral was that my uncle was truly a “gentle” man. As he was rather tall - not just in physical size, but also in character - he was a “gentle giant.” I appreciated hearing all this, for I never knew him as a teacher. He was simply my “Uncle David,” who reminds me of my Dad in so many ways. Both were “gentle” men. Both were tall in character.

             I say this not to lift up my relatives, but to begin with the example of someone who very definitely was called to be a teacher. Not everyone is suited to be a teacher, you know - whether in some school system, or in that peculiar classroom we call “Sunday School.” I do believe a lot more people have the gift for teaching than those who actually answer the call. Even so, not everyone should be a teacher. That’s what brother James said.

             It was partially because of the influence of my Uncle David that, when I first entered college, I started out as an elementary education major. There I remained until my junior year, when I was put in a public school classroom with a male teacher who seemed to be just “marking time.” The experience made me examine myself and ask, “is this my passion?” It takes a lot to be a good teacher, you know. If I wasn’t willing to invest everything into this day-in, day-out work with children, perhaps I needed to look elsewhere. So I did. Even then I was feeling a nudge toward a different calling. The truth is - I am not a teacher. I do not have that particular gift, at least not when it comes to elementary school. The “teaching” aspects of my calling, my vocation as pastor, that I can handle.

             Not everyone is suited to be a teacher. Of course, many more persons have the gift than answer the call. This is true even, or especially, when it comes to teaching in the church - in Jesus’ school of learning. The focus of my message this morning is upon one aspect of the calling to be a teacher, especially within the context of the church. I need to say at the outset, however, that my words will apply to more than just teachers. We all could benefit from having what I term “the tongue of a teacher.”

             This phrase, “the tongue of a teacher,” comes from one translation (NRSV) of something the prophet Isaiah said long ago. Actually, if my study of it is right, the phrase in this particular translation is not exactly correct. However, this will actually serve to underscore an important truth. More on that later.

             In the passage of scripture read earlier from the letter of James, much is said of the power of the human “tongue.” James compared it negatively to the bridle in a horse’s mouth, or the rudder on a ship. These devices can control a beast or a boat, James said, though he questioned whether the same could be said of the human tongue. The tongue is a fire, according to him, which can set a forest ablaze. Have any of you ever burned yourself or others with your tongue? As James put it, every animal on this globe can be tamed, but not the tongue. It’s like a spring from which flows both fresh and foul water - blessings and cursings.

             Okay, this should not come to us as a big surprise. At some point most of us have gotten into trouble because of something we’ve said. Right? Perhaps it involved words spoken in anger without forethought. Then, again, we may have contemplated at great length just the right thing to say, but when spoken it turned out to be just the wrong thing to say. Maybe we passed on something we had heard which probably should have been locked away in our “do not open” file, a juicy bit of information which may later have proven to be totally or partially false. There are all sorts of ways this tongue can get us into “dutch,” aren’t there?

             Now, I suppose we could take a knife and cut off our tongue, or find other ways of silencing it. You’ve heard the joke about a monk who took a vow of silence. Once a year he was allowed to briefly speak. At the end of his first year in the monastery he said to his spiritual advisor, “Bed’s cold.” When the second year drew to a close his concise comment was, “Food’s bad.” After three years he’d had enough and blurted out, “I’m leaving.” To which his confessor replied, “I’m not surprised, all you’ve done since you came is complain.”

             Even when the tongue is stilled, the will behind the words it wants to speak can be our undoing. Sometimes, for instance, the silence of a spouse can carry more venom than anything he or she might say. Is that any less a product of the “tongue” of which James wrote? I think not. We can fool ourselves into thinking we have silenced the beast, but it continues to speak in other ways. “All of us,” James said - and he meant ‘all of us’ and not just ‘some of us,’ “make many mistakes.”  We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths(Peterson’s paraphrase), or so it often seems. “Anyone who makes no such mistakes is perfect.” And, aside from Jesus, have you ever met a ‘perfect’ person? Not me.

             Because of this, James says, not everyone is cut out to be a teacher. Why? Well, for one thing, teachers need to open their mouths (just like preachers and prophets) in order to teach. Even when your teaching method is “show - then tell,” eventually you need to get around to the ‘telling part.’ And whenever the mouth is open, the foot so often wants to join the tongue. It’s all-too-easy to pass on gossip, or our pet theory of things when we teach, as if it were gospel truth. That’s especially the case when what we teach involves matters of faith.

            Having said this, I know I’ve just made the job of recruiting Sunday School teachers more difficult. I’ve just put a seemingly huge damper on the whole affair, saying that not everyone is meant to be a teacher. However, please remember I also said that a lot more people have the gift for teaching than those who actually answer the call, especially in the church.

             Allow me to shift from brother James in the New Testament to Isaiah, the prophet, in the Old Testament. According to the NRSV, he said in the passage we heard earlier, “the Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher...” Is there some special teacher’s tongue that some of us are given, but which no one else possesses? It might seem so. There are persons who seem naturally endowed with a silver tongue, if you will, that makes everything they say understandable. Is that what this passage means? God gave Isaiah such a tongue so that he could be a mouthpiece for the Lord?

             Well, yes and no. You see, I mentioned what I see as a mistranslation earlier. The Hebrew word translated as “teacher” in this passage is limmud, which has something to do with what happens at school, with ‘instruction.’ However, the word leans more on the side of being ‘one who is instructed’ than ‘one who instructs.’ In other words, if I have interpreted this rightly (and there is always the possibility that I have not), Isaiah is really saying that God has given him the “tongue of a disciple,” the tongue of someone who learns, someone who is instructed.

            Putting it this way makes a big difference. The tongue of a teacher is really the tongue of a disciple, a learner. That’s a total shift in perspective, my friends. A good teacher is one who never forgets that he is himself a student, that she is always learning. The public school system tries to build this concept into their method by requiring continuing education as well as regular ‘professional development days.’ Does this truly help instill the “tongue of a learner” in a teacher? I’m not the one to answer that, though I have my own “professional growth” responsibilities as a pastor.

             When I think about my uncle, somehow I don’t think it was his continuing education courses that made him the teacher he was - though I’m sure they helped. In fact, no one at his funeral mentioned his education. They did, however, speak of his character. What I loved about my uncle was that he always seemed interested in me, learning about me. Was that why I wanted to be a teacher long ago, before my “vocation,” my “calling” led in a different direction? I wonder if he wasn’t a good teacher, and a good principal, because he had the “tongue of a learner,” who was open to learning, to seeing new things.

             Ask anyone who likes teaching Sunday School and you will invariably hear them say that they learn so much when they teach. In some cases they almost apologize for it, as if that wasn’t the way God intended it to be. Maybe James cautioned some people away from teaching because they might see themselves as ‘experts,’ silver-tongued teachers who seek to pass on their knowledge, rather than seeing themselves as learners - also - who seek the wisdom of God.

            In so doing, God does give those who seek the true “tongue of a teacher,” that you - like the prophet Isaiah, might know how to respond with a good word to questions from those who are trying to discover a way in this world. Isn’t that the most frightening part of being a teacher, especially a teacher of the Bible, or of doctrine, or of life in the Spirit, or of other faith-related matters? Responding to people’s questions is where we show our imperfections. Do we know the answers to all the questions? Heavens, no! And when we’re talking about faith, the questions can be pretty big. Sometimes, even, the biggest questions come from the smallest mouths - children who haven’t yet learned not to ask such questions. God loves kids like this, for of such are the kingdom of heaven. “Let the children come to me,” Jesus said. “Don’t send them away.”

            “Morning by morning the Lord wakens my ear,” Isaiah said, “to listen as those who are taught.” Isn’t that the essence of a good teacher? May we all, students and teachers alike, have our ears awakened - morning by morning- in this brand new year of Sunday School. Amen?   

©2015 (revised from 2003) Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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