In the Protestant church we emphasize greatly the preaching of God’s Word – and rightly so. But our Bible does not place utmost importance on preaching. In fact the Bible does not place primary emphasis on worship, or tithing, or even prayer. Our Bible’s most universal and consistent injunction is to teach! In his most dramatic and important speech Moses proclaims, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one God; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children . . .” (Deuteronomy 6: 4-7) A few chapters later he echoes, “You shall teach [the words of God] to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way and when you lie down and when you rise.” Proverbs 22: 6 exhorts, famously, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
We think of Jesus as a peerless preacher, but his original audience regarded him first and foremost as a “teacher come from God.” When our Lord uttered the Great Commission, he said “Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” we focus upon those memorable words. What we forget is what he added next: we are to teach them to observe all that Christ has commanded us. Teach!
Paul deeply loved the church at Philippi, probably cherishing them more than any other congregation. He greatly desired to put them on the path to spiritual fulfillment and maturity. So he communicated to them this formula: “Finally, my brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is anything worthy of excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.”
Paul, of course, believes in the power of words. But he knows that words have their limit. Words can be forgotten; words can roll off dull or sleepy ears. Not so the influence and impact of an exemplary human life. The unconscious influence of a person who intersects your life can stay with you forever. So, Paul points to the unconscious influence that the personal example of his life has provided: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do – and the God of peace will be with you.” His message echoes the farewell he gives his protégé Timothy: “You have seen my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecution, my suffering.” Paul is saying to his friends, in addition to my words to you, you have also beheld the paradigm of my life. We teach by words, yes; but our life also exerts a powerful unconscious influence.
Thus, the question that I pose to you this morning is, What will you teach? Because the incontrovertible truth is, you will teach someone whether you realize it or not. You will teach them how to love – or how not to love. You will teach them how to live – or how not to live. You will teach them how to believe – or how not to believe. You will teach them how to forgive – or how not to forgive. You will teach someone how to handle crushing adversity — or you will teach them how to fall apart under pressure. Whether you realize it or not, your life will provide important life lessons to someone. The question remains, What will you teach? How will you teach?
Some of the lessons we teach are not the ones we want to impart. I think of Isaac and his wife Rebecca. The father Isaac favored twin Esau and the mother Rebecca favored twin Jacob. These parents thought they were teaching their children love, but they were imparting a pattern of favoritism in parental behavior in a powerfully unconscious way – with calamitous results. So should it surprise us that when Jacob became a father of twelve sons, he practiced favoritism toward Joseph – with calamitous results? I say again, sometimes the lessons we teach are not the ones we are trying to impart.
Some of you are teachers by profession, and you surely have days when you despair that your students are learning anything, consciously or unconsciously. Yet effective teaching roots in our acknowledging that people are profoundly impressionable. Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of our country’s great men of letters, but also a great teacher, noted, “The whole secret of the teacher’s force lies in the conviction that people are convertible. And they are. They want awakening.”
Teachers must believe that people are convertible. Teachers must believe that people want to be awakened! But to awaken people we as teachers must be “professors,” not in the academic sense but in the religious sense of the word. We must be ardent. We must be passionate. We must live what we teach with energy and commitment. And we must live with the conviction that people can be changed.
One of the most powerful lessons I ever learned from my father was a lesson that he imparted to me in indirect fashion. I was a teenager, and he was taking me somewhere and said, “I’ve got to make a quick detour.” We went to visit an old friend of his who was very down on his luck. And my father said to him words that I have never forgotten. “My friend,” Dad said to his buddy, “I don’t care what happens, I don’t care how bad things become. I don’t ever want you to go hungry.” I don’t ever want you to go hungry! Those were words not intended for my ears. But I heard them. They shaped my attitude toward charity and compassion more powerfully than any theological treatise I have ever read. Those words of my father shaped my attitude toward the meaning of friendship more memorably than any lecture I have ever heard on generosity. I was not the object of my father’s words, but I heard them in the depth of my being, and they shape my behavior to this day. We teach consciously and unconsciously.
Likewise, our Lord was capable of spellbinding messages and piercing parables. But our Lord also knew the limits of the spoken word. That’s why on the eve of his betrayal, as they are gathered for the Last Supper, what does he do but rise from the table, strip down, gird himself with a towel and wash the feet of every disciple? Then he dresses, sits back down and asks, “Do you know what I have done to you?” They are thinking, yeah, you’ve washed our feet. But Jesus drives his unconscious point home consciously, “You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” By that physical gesture, in the impressionable anxiety of that dark hour, Jesus taught the disciples a lesson about servanthood that they never forgot.
On this weekend honoring the impact of Dr. Martin Luther King, I think of the testimony of one of the great players in the Negro Baseball League, Buck O’Neill. Buck O’Neill is one of the few prominent sports figures about whom I’ve never heard a negative word. When he was 91 years old, he was interviewed about his secret for a long and fruitful life. “Good genes,” he answered, “good genes and love.” O’Neill said, “You can hate cancer. But don’t hate another human being. God made man.” Yeah, said the interviewer, but God also made men who denied you use of a toilet, denied you a hotel room and restaurant, denied you an education and a living. God made the people who denied your very humanity. Surely you must have learned to hate those people. Buck O’Neill answered, “My grandpa was a slave; he was owned by a Mr. O’Neill. But I heard him say many times how he loved Mr. O’Neill. I would say, ‘Grandpa, how could you love a man who kept you as a slave?’ Grandpa said Mr. O’Neill never sold a mother from her children nor a husband from a wife.” Buck O’Neill said he realized then that if his grandfather could find nice things to say about the man who owned him, if he could love his slave owner, then Buck knew he could learn to love anybody, too.
Sure, the old man admitted, bad people often have things their way for a time. Evil might reign temporarily. “But,” he argued, “my grandfather was a slave, and God saw it wasn’t right, and so he sent Abraham Lincoln, and Abraham Lincoln joined hands with Frederick Douglas, who joined hands with Sojourner Truth, who joined hands with Harriet Tubman, and so on and so on.” Freedom resulted! Buck O’Neill observed, “Who wrapped their arms around Jackie Robinson in his time of need? It was a white man, Pee Wee Reese of Louisville, Kentucky. Who was the commissioner who opened up baseball to black people? It was Happy Chandler, a white man from Kentucky.” This old man had looked back over the course of his long life and seen that justice had been accomplished by one person teaching goodness to another person who taught goodness to another person, who taught goodness to another person, who taught goodness to another person — and thereby changed the nature of the world! “Love,” the old man whispered. “Love, man. That is the whole thing.”
Is the testimony of that old baseball black player so very different from the words of Paul? Do whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, honest, excellent, praiseworthy – think on these things! Love, man! That is the whole thing.
What will you teach with your life? What will you communicate to the people around you this year? What will you teach by conscious action and unconscious influence? Will you communicate to others the fundamental truth that God loves us all, that God values every human being? Will you teach by word and deed that God is in the world working actively in behalf of redemption and reconciliation? Will your life embody the truth that God is active in the world seeking to overcome estrangement between humanity and God – and between humanity and humanity? What will you teach with your life?
The great benefit of the Christian community is that our values are not our values alone but are the values of the Christ who redeemed us. Moreover, we do not have to teach others merely as individuals, for as part of the community of Christ we teach others through our communal behavior as the body of Christ. We teach others about the meaning and power and nature of relationships. Who can be in the presence of a nurturing couple that has been married for fifty years and not learn something from them about creating a lasting love? Who can be around a great saint of faith and not learn something about the nature of service to God? As a community we teach what it means to love, to live, to believe, to live in relationship and be an instrument of God’s peace unto others. We are meant to teach, not just as individuals, but through the communal influence of the whole body, and thereby we communicate the fundamental virtues of Christ.
When Paul wrote to Timothy, he exhorted him, “Teach sound doctrine!” The word Paul used for “sound” was “hygien,” from which we derive the word, “hygiene.” We called by Christ to teach that which is healthy and nourishing. We are under injunction to teach that which is hygienic, to teach that which is honorable, that which is true, that which is just, that which is pure, that which is lovely, that which is gracious. Teach these themes to others with your life consciously and unconsciously – and the peace of God will be with you.