Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Sitting at the Feet of the Teacher

Here is my sermon.  The passage was Acts 21:37-22:3:

Today we continue our series on Paul by looking at the importance of Christian education in the development of our faith, although I should say up front that I don’t like the term Christian education.  I think a better, and much more appropriate term, is Christian formation.  The poet Maya Angelou once had someone come up to her and tell her that they were a Christian, to which she responded, “Really?  Already? I thought it took a lifetime to become a Christian,” and so it does. 

For some, education implies a process that ends at some point, that we graduate from and never have to do anything more.  But, we are being formed as Christians throughout our lives; it is a process that never ends.  For others, education often implies a simple transfer of knowledge, as well as the idea that you might master that knowledge at some point, but our faith is about much more than that.  This is not to say that knowledge about Christiniaty or about the faith is not important, because it is.  But the question is not about how much we know, or even to a degree what we don’t know, but instead about whether Christ has made a difference, and continues to make a difference in our lives.  When we are in love with Christ, when we try and live into that relationship, when we are driven by that relationship, then I believe that what will also be true is that we will try and learn all we can in order to deepen our faith.

We know next to nothing about Paul’s early life.  Outside of today’s passage from Acts in which we are told that Paul was a Jew from Tarsus and that he came to Jerusalem to study at the feet of Gamaliel, the only other passage in which we hear about his background and upbringing comes from a brief section in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, ch. 3 v. 5-6, in which he says he was “circumcised on the eight day, a member of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”  The Book of Acts was written by the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke, they are really a two-part work, but what happens in Acts does not always match with what Paul says about himself, and we may have something like that going on here.

Tarsus was a major commercial city located in what is now Turkey and was known as a city of learning.  It was a university town and has been called the Athens of the East, although what Athens might have thought of that attribution is unknown.  It was a thoroughly Greek and cultured city of the time, and in that sense Paul, and his family, would have stood out as different , not just in being Jews, which would not have been hugely unusual as maybe 10% of the Roman empire was Jewish at the time, but in being Pharisaic Jews they would have been devoted and strict in their observances of their faith.  There would have been lots of things that they would have refused to do as members of this town in order to follow their faith. The family could have been Hellenized, that is followed Greek culture and practices as many Jews were, especially in the Diaspora, or those who lives outside of Palestine, but that is not what appears to have been the case.

Paul says he is a Hebrew of Hebrews.  Normally this would indicate that they would speak Hebrew, instead of the common Greek, whether this is true for Paul’s family we simply don’t know.  Paul did speak Greek and very good Greek, which hints at his education, and we know this because all of his letters are in Greek.  So we know that Paul was educated somewhere, which also gives us an indication of his social class, but he was not so wealthy that he couldn’t work, as Acts also tells us that he had a trade which helped him make his way, and was also probably one of his major ways of doing evangelism.  The Greek word used is typically translated as tent maker, but it really applies to anyone who is skilled in leatherworking.

So Tarsus was known as a sort of university town, and would have been one of the few places in the empire to go to receive the best training in philosophy and rhetoric, which Paul seems to have had training in.  Paul never says where he was from, and presuming that those to whom he was writing would already know his story this is probably not unexpected, but there would be ample reason for Luke to claim that Paul had received the best training and education that the Greek and Roman world had to offer.  But there was even greater reason for his to claim that Paul was trained “at the feet of Gamaliel.”  To have been trained with Gamaliel would be to have studied with the absolute best.  Gamaliel was a giant of his age.  He was not called rabbi, but instead rabban, which means something like master rabbi.  Gamaliel is mentioned twice in Acts, and both times there is a certain respect accorded to him.  The Mishnah, which is a collection of teachings and sayings of the great rabbis, says “Since rabban Gamaliel the Elder died, there has been no more reverence for the law, and purity and piety died out at the same time.”

The typical analogy given about this education is that it would have been like Paul was educated at Harvard, or Yale, or Oxford, or Linda would like to say at the University of Texas, but I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it, because you can study at those schools and never come close to the most impressive professors there.  Instead, a better analogy would be to say that Paul studied physics literally at the feet of Einstein, or maybe that he studied Calculus with Newton.  Gamaliel was that important.  So Luke wants to tell us that Paul comes from one of the best cities in the empire for education and then studied at the feet of the best rabbi in Palestine.  Now if any of this is true, we simply don’t know.  Paul says in his letters that no one in Jerusalem knew him or even what he looked like, which seems very unlikely if he had studied at the feet of Gamaliel.  But here is something we can take from this, and the importance of this message, and that is the importance of training in the faith.

No matter where Paul received his education, it was clear that he did.  If he was raised in Tarsus, then he lived in a culture that was alien from Judaism, and he was the minority group.  His parents could have let him do what the culture told him to do, they could have made accommodations, they could have let things slide, but they didn’t.  They considered their faith, their relationship with God to be too important, they considered the education of children to be job number one in their role as parents.  It is also job number one for us.  It has been said that the education of our young in the faith is our research and development for the future.  If corporations don’t invest in R&D, then their futures will not be long, and the same is true for the church. 

It is our job to pass on the faith to our children, to pray for them, mentor them, and study with them, to do everything to teach them what it means to be a Christian and what it means to accept Jesus into our lives.  What happens after that we have no control over, but our job is to do those things.  Just like with Paul, we live out our faith in an alien culture.  Sociologists are now saying that we live in a post-enlightenment world, and we also live in a post-Christian world.  Christendom has ended, we cannot rely on our society, our schools, or our institutions to instill Christian values, not that we ever should have, because it is up to us.  It is our responsibility to do these things, not anyone elses.

The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.  There are some bemoaning the state of the church and who say that we are doing a terrible job in living out this mission.  While I would agree that we are doing a terrible job of it now, this is really nothing new.  In 1968, when the Methodist Church merged to become the United Methodist Church, we hit our highest numbers in terms of membership, but if we were doing a good job of making disciples in 1968 we would not be sitting where we are today in terms of decline because we would be filled with disciples, and if we had done better in 1978 we would be doing better, and if we were doing better in 1948 we would be doing better. 

The simple fact is that in the mid-19th century we as Methodists turned our backs on who and what we were and we have been paying the price ever since.  Methodism was not built on people attending worship services, Methodism was built, and driven by people coming to accept Christ and then joining small groups in which they not only learned more about the faith, deepened their relationship with God and with each other, but in which there was also mutual accountability.  In which every week, or more often, the groups would gather together to answer the question, how is it with your soul, or a 21st century equivalent, “How did you experience God this week, or where did you struggle in your faith?”

George Whitfield is known as the grand itinerant, and was certainly the greatest preacher of the 18th century, and probably one of the greatest of all time.  When John Wesley saw Whitfield preach to a crowd of more than 5000 people Wesley vowed to be more “vulgar” by preaching outside.  Whitfield became the rock star of his day, and his light shone brightly in both England and in America.  In 1740 Whitfield arrived in America for the first time, and he traveled up and down the East coast preaching to enormous crowds everywhere he went.  We have diary entries of people riding for days when they heard that Whitfield would be in the area in order to hear him preach.  The first time he preached on the Boston Common the crowd was estimated at 25,000 people, the largest gathering on the common until Vietnam war protests in the 1960s.  At the end of his first 15 months in America it is believed that at least ¼ of the population had gone to hear Whitfield preach.  It is said that he could say the word Mesopotamia and have the entire crowd weep.

But, who here has ever met anyone who is a follower of George Whitfield, or who belongs to a church founded by or on the influence of Whitfield?  The answer would be none, and I strongly suspect that most of you have never heard of Whitfield before today, but the name of Wesley is known even among non-Methodists.  Why?  Because while Whitfield was drawing enormous crowds he was doing nothing to follow-up with people.  They head him preach, they went home, and that was that.  But what Wesley did was to bring people into relationship with Christ and into relationship with each other through the use of small groups.

Wesley understood that people are not transformed through worship, they are only transformed through small groups.  Worship might inspire, it might bring the initial spark of relationship, but worship cannot transform.  Worship is very important.  It is the time in which we gather together as the body of Christ in order to give praise and glory to God, or to lament and to ask questions, but its purpose is not to transform our lives.  The way we are transformed is by being in relation with other Christians making the same trip we are on.  Transformation takes place over time in relation with others, and that happens through classes and situations that are set up in order to transform us.  And Christian formation is about more than just head knowledge.  If we are not asking, how is it with your soul, then we are not doing Christian formation.

In 1987 Paul O’Neill was hired as CEO of the Aluminum Company of America, more commonly known as ALCOA.  While the company was still profitable, many people thought they were headed in the wrong direction, and so they were excited to hear what O’Neill was going to do to turn the company around.  But at the first share holders meeting, O’Neill did not talk about profits, or increasing dividends, or how he was going to lower costs, nor did he use any the business buzzwords that people expected.  Instead he said, “I want to talk to you about worker safety,” and then gave a litany of facts about the safety figures for the company, and concluded by saying, “I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America.  I intend to go for zero injuries.”  To say that this was not received well would be an understatement.  Investors literally ran from the room to sell their stock, and to advise everyone else to sell their stock as well.  It would be one of the biggest investment mistakes they would make, but they didn’t see what Paul O’Neill saw nor did they understand what he understood.

“I knew I had to transform Alcoa,” O’Neill said, “but you can’t order people to change… so I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing.  If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.”  What he knew was that by focusing on safety everything else in the company would be impacted, from production to machines to quality, which would then improve profits.  In addition, he knew that there was no one working for the company who would argue against focusing on safety, who would say they were opposed to making the work place safer, and so suddenly everyone would be working together towards a common goal.  Safety would become what is known as a keystone habit which would trigger widespread change throughout the company.  Under O’Neill’s leadership, quality improved, profits improved, sales improved, dividends improved, and all because safety improved.  He found the keystone habit which changed everything.

In studies done on exercise, researchers have found that when people start exercising, even just once a week, that they change other patterns in their lives unknowingly.  Changing that one thing in their lives has ripple effects.  Those who make their beds every morning report better productivity, a better sense of well-being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget.  Children who habitually eat dinner with their parents have more confidence, better grades, and better homework skills.  These things all seem to have ripple effects.  It’s also been shown that for people who accept Christ and begin attending church regularly as adults within three years they will have an entirely new group of friends.  Accepting Christ has a ripple effect throughout the rest of their life, they are transformed and by being transformed they change everything.

As O’Neill said, you cannot force people to change, and the same is true in the church.  I can’t make you begin attending Christian formation groups if you don’t want to, but here’s what I can promise you.  If you do and if you begin praying and reading scripture, even just once a week, you will find other things changing in your life, and then, and this is my warning to you, you will begin wanting to do more things.  No one learns everything they can about a band and then goes to listen to their music, instead what happens?  We hear a band, and want to hear more, and so we go looking for more, and then we learn more, and as we learn more, we want to hear more, and it sort of spirals on itself, and the same thing can happen with our faith.  And here’s what’s also true, is that if we get a small committed core to begin working, and we are consistent, that the energy will build and others will be drawn into it.

The church is trying to do lots of things to try and turn the direction of the church around, but here is what I believe.  As I said the mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.  Another way to say that is to know Christ and to make Christ known.  We have done a terrible job at the second part, but we have done an even worse job at the first part.  When we work on knowing Christ then we don’t need to worry about anything else because everything else will take care of itself.  When we know Christ, when we are formed and transformed by joining with a small group of Christians to walk this journey together, then everything else in our lives and in the life of the church will be changed as well.  To have faithful children, we need to have faithful adults, to have faithful youth we need to have faithful adults, and to have faithful adults we need to have faithful adults who are being transformed in the church.  Worship is important.  It can inspire, it can call, it can teach, it can aspire.  We need to gather together in worship, but if that is all we are doing then we are missing a significant piece because it cannot transform.  To be transformed we, like Paul, need to encounter the risen Christ and walk that journey together as disciples of Christ.

I don’t think that I have yet laid a challenge down to this congregation, but here is my challenge, if we want to make disciples of Christ, then we need to be disciples of Christ, and if we want to transform the world, then we too must be transformed, if we want to make Christ known, then we too must know Christ.  So I am challenging all of us to rethink our process and purpose of Christian education and instead change it into Christian formation and when we begin to do that I have faith that God will take care of everything else.]  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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