Scripture: Jeremiah 31:2-9, 33-34
Traditionally Rally Day has been the start of our Sunday School year when we not only launch our program year but dedicate our Sunday School teachers. Because of Covid, we were unable to have Sunday School last year and this year is still undecided but just because we haven’t had a formal Sunday School program in a while doesn’t mean that no teaching has been going on. In fact, I believe that when a congregation is serving God faithfully, teaching is at the heart of the church’s ministry.
What exactly is teaching? Well, first of all, it is a rare behavior in the natural world. Only a handful of animal species engage in the practice of teaching. Slugs don’t teach. Turtles don’t teach. And even though we say that fish gather in schools, there isn’t really any teaching happening among tuna. Learning, of course, is not rare: the young of many species learn life skills by observing the behavior of adults in their social group or through their own experience. My dog Cody, for example, noticed that sometimes when I cook, I drop tasty things on the floor so he has learned to always be under my feet in the kitchen, something that, believe me, I never taught him. So too, when a young antelope observes its cousin being gobbled by a lion, it learns to run like the dickens the next time a lion comes into sight. Learning is widespread and common in the animal kingdom because those that don’t learn, die!
Learning, however, is not the same as teaching because teaching requires a teacher — namely, an individual who invests time and energy into working with a student to help them master a skill — and only a handful of species actively teach their young. Killer whales, for example, hunt seals by surging onto a beach to grab a sea lion while it is sleeping but this is a tricky and dangerous maneuver for a killer whale because it could get stranded on the sand in the process and so consequently, killer whales spend years teaching their young how to surge onto beaches safely. They begin by gently pushing their “toddler whales” onto steep empty beaches so that the babies can learn how to safely wriggle off the sand back into the water. They then take their young on hunting trips so they can watch as the adult whales show them how to surge onto shallower beaches where seals are congregating. Not until age 4 or 5, however, do the young whales try the technique themselves and when they do, adults remain close at hand to help the young whales get back into the water if they get stuck.1 Studies have shown that the teachers of these young whales don’t eat as often as they would hunting alone — teaching requires them to sacrifice their time and energy to develop the skills of the next generation — but those same studies found that young whales master the hunting techniques more than a year earlier than those who were left to figure it out on their own. Teaching is crucial to the survival of the next generation of whales.
And so too is teaching crucial to the survival of the gospel. Teaching enables future generations to discover the wholeness and healing that we have experienced through the grace of God. Teaching ensures that God’s promise of peace and compassion doesn’t remain entrenched within these walls but extends into the community and the world. And teaching isn’t something that happens just in Sunday School: long before there were Sunday School curriculums or felt boards or Dexter Times, Christians saw teaching as central to everything the church did.
“Go into the world,” Jesus told his disciples, “Teaching all I have commanded you.” Teaching was part of every Christian’s call from the very beginning of the church.
Now, progressives get very nervous when they hear anyone talking about going out into the world and teaching the gospel because it smacks of street corner evangelism but I’m not talking about accosting your neighbors to quote scripture at them. I’m talking about teaching the gospel through action, teaching through example, and teaching through persistent compassion for others. In order for the gospel to be taught, the first thing that has to happen is that every one of us here must see ourselves as teachers. We don’t just sit in these pews basking in the mercy and compassion of the gospel and say, “Well, I sure hope those poor blokes outside these walls will stumble upon this good news some day as I have;” we go out and teach others to see what we have seen, to experience what we have known, we show them God’s love in action so that they understand what it means and how it works. When we insist on justice for the forgotten and oppressed, when we care for the unfortunate and those in need, when we forgive others and practice peace, when we love our neighbor and our enemy and shape our lives into emblems of grace, we demonstrate the life changing love of God that we have known through Christ. We teach the gospel.
As Jeremiah told the Israelites, “You can talk all you want about love but that doesn’t mean you have taught anyone anything. You have to write it on their hearts,” and we do that by taking the time to show others what grace is, by giving of ourselves so that others can learn the power of the healing mercy of God that we ourselves have experienced.
As we begin another church year in a world still turned topsy turvy by Covid, we don’t know if we will have a formal Sunday School this year. We don’t know if we will have youth group or overnights. We don’t know if the children will be able to return for Children’s Time or if Dexter will enjoy many more weeks in his starring role. But I do know this — we will teach. We will teach our children and one another and the world outside these doors that there can be refuge for the hurting, grace for the broken, healing for the wounded, and peace for the weary. We will teach our neighbors and our enemies about the transforming power of love; we will do good to those who hurt us, forgive others, practice mercy, and live by the golden rule. We will teach the gospel by demonstrating it in every moment of our lives so that those we encounter — whether in our families, in our neighborhoods, or in these pews with us — will know that God’s way of love and acceptance has brought meaning and joy to our hearts, and we believe that God’s grace has the power to change the world.
Blessed be the teachers. May we all go forth this year and teach as Christ has commanded us to teach, so that the gospel may be written in the hearts of our children, our neighbors, our fellow church members, and all the world.