Pentecost 16B: Teaching through the Pandemic

The readings for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost are:

Old Testament      Isaiah 50:4–9a

Psalm                    Psalm 116:1–9

New Testament     James 3:1–12

Gospel                   Mark 8:27–38

Teachers in a time of pandemic would be wise to pay close attention to the lessons for this Sunday.

The first lesson, from Isaiah, sets the stage forcefully with its opening words: “The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.” Translators must decide between two options: is it “the tongue of a teacher,” or “the tongue of one who is taught?” The answer is “yes.” The good teacher must be able to take all kinds of opposition, and stand firm—setting her or his “face like flint” against all the bullies of this world. Yet, the one thing that enables the teacher to keep up this hard work is learning from experience—even the most painful kind. Even the kind that comes as the result of past mistakes.

Isaiah 50 is called by many the third “suffering servant” poem. There is ambiguity about who that servant is: a coming leader, the people of Israel, Jesus, the future suffering Messiah, or the prophet. In chapter 50 there is less ambiguity—this is the prophet. And today’s teachers, around the world, must be prophets. They are today caught in the crushing vice grips of senseless political division about vaccinations, masking, and whether instruction should be in-person or online. True teachers will be those who stand firm.

I hear teachers asking people to protect the health of the entire community by taking every precaution necessary. They want to teach. They want to give students the richest possible learning experience. But they don’t want any more senseless deaths of students, their family members, or teachers or school staff.

But we live in an age of rage. And the righteous, patriotic defenders of individual freedom have at their hands the weapons of social media. The can rail. They can assassinate the characters of health workers, teachers, and administrators of every level with immunity. And they do.

And it is clear that the painful lesson of over 652,000 deaths in the United States, and over 4.5 million worldwide hasn’t yet sunk in for many—or for any of these bullies. They speak and rage with the tongue of the untaught.

So, it is up to the teachers—the worthy teachers of our world—whether in schools or in households—to steel themselves—to set their faces like flint and move forward with the truth that we must all work together and care for one another’s health. This is even more important at this time than one’s own personal freedom.

James chapter three chimes in with a warning that with the great power of teaching comes great responsibility. He backs up his argument using the tools of Greco-Roman moral philosophy, warning teachers not to lash out with the same out-of-control emotions that fuel the bullies of the pandemic, or the age of rage we are living through. Let the better angels of  reason, and God-given compassion, keep your fear and anger in check like the rider with a bridle for a wild horse, or a pilot with the rudder for a big ship. And don’t let your tongue be the spark that sets a forest ablaze! He uses another couple of these philosophical topoi—of the fig tree and its fruit and the spring and its water—to advise teachers to keep tending to their own inner selves. From the discipline of healthy beliefs, values, and convictions come health-affirming words and actions.

As usual it is the Gospel reading that ultimately shows us the way. Good moral philosophy or even good, solid education is never enough—and especially not in this age of rage. We try to keep cool. We try to always have our facts straight. And we try to always do the right thing. But we fall short.

Jesus tells us his mission is a radical one, and our vision for life, and or teaching must likewise take a radical turn. In fact, we must lose our lives to gain them. We must hand our broken lives over to God, who gives them back whole. We must stop trying to make ourselves more science based, patriotic, or even righteous, and let God’s grace remake us.

The reason the bullying of teachers, health care providers, and civic leaders is so raw and hurtful today is that it is always so self-righteous. Everyone knows better. Everyone is a better Christian. Everyone a better freedom loving patriot.

Yet it is self-righteousness and the umbrage and rage it spawns that is killing us. It is sick religion. It is sick patriotism.

Martin Luther, following Paul in Romans 6, helps us recognize that since we all go on sinning, in spite of our very best intentions, we all need to die and rise again every day. We need to die to our old selves and rise again, forgiven by God’s grace, so that we can quit trying to look good or make ourselves good. We can be so right that we can’t be saved, and we surely can’t be the loving presence this world needs. We can leave that all behind and think of one another instead. Every day of our lives we do this by dying and rising forgiven through our sincere repentance.

Jesus is our model for this. He forfeits his life out of new-creation-love for others.

It’s when we follow this example that we become true learner-teachers. Only then can teachers, and all our leaders, set their faces like flint against the bullies of this age of rage, and show us the way to both learning and healing.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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