My daughter Abbey gave me a unique Christmas present this past year. She went up into the attack of her mother’s house, foraged around through all the junk, and unearthed a box that contained my old yearbooks. On Christmas Day, my daughters had quite a good laugh looking at my childhood and teenage pictures, but I took it in stride because I believe with all my heart that their day will come!
Even though I have not seen the yearbooks in a long time, I have a very clear memory about an incident involving one of them. I was in my first year of middle school in 1972. My life actually reached its pinnacle that year because in a study hall I was assigned a seat across the table from Jane Anderson, a ninth grade cheerleader who was just about the hottest girl in school.
In addition to her great looks and immense popularity, here is what I remember about Jane. The day we received our yearbooks and had all our friends sign them, she grabbed mine and wrote at some length about how much she could not stand me. Long after I forgot the specifics, I still remember how much her words stung. But now, thanks to gift of my daughter, I present to you all for the first time ever in a public setting, what the cheerleader wrote to me:
Keith To: Buthie: [a reference now totally lost on me]
You are a typical 7th grader.
1. You are immature
2. You are an [body part that I better not say aloud].
3. You have diarrhea of the mouth [was she the first person ever to see my potential as a preacher?].
4. You have constipation of the brain.
5. You have the queerest clothes [hey, it was the 70’s!]
6. You have the mentality of a 2 year-old
7. I hate your shirts [and to be fair to Jane, even some of my ‘friends’ commented on my questionable taste in fashion]
8. Your body looks like a rubber toothpick [a stinging critique back then, but something I pine to achieve know that I am 50].
9. Your face makes me throw up.
Well, as I said, long after I had forgotten the particulars of what Jane wrote the gist of her message had the power to wound me. Have you ever uttered the expression, “It isn’t what you said, it is how you said it.” Long after we forget the content of what someone says, we hold on to the meaning embodied by the person.
Fortunately, this truth cuts both ways. Often times we remember very little of what was said to us by those who had the most positive impact on our lives, but we never forget the meaning. We remember specific events where they embodied the content and values and ideals of all that they sought to teach us; a meaning often much deeper than words can express.
Jesus is portrayed throughout the gospels as teaching. Teaching was a significant part of His ministry. The gospels often mention that Jesus teaches without giving us a clue as to the specific content. This is the case with today’s reading from Luke where Jesus teaches the crowds from a boat anchored just a short distance from the shore.
The gospels of Matthew and Luke choose to collect Jesus’ teachings into a summary account know as “The Sermon on the Mount” and to bundle parables into groups. My assumption is that Jesus did not teach the Beatitudes (Blessed are the poor in spirit…) just one time, but used it as a core of His teaching over and over again. Likewise, Jesus did not tell the parable of the Prodigal Son only once, but often. Repetition would have been necessary for people to learn and to remember. So with this gospel reading, when Jesus teaches from the boat, my assumption is that, even while there is no record of what He said, we pretty much already have the content. As Jesus travelled from place to place, from village to village, from synagogues to the Temple in Jerusalem, He taught a consistent message about the Kingdom of God.
What changes from setting to setting is what Jesus does. In some settings He teaches, then heals. In others He teaches, then confronts. In this setting He teaches and then goes fishing… well, to be more accurate, He encourages the luckless professional fishers to take Him out and give it one more try. The results are dramatic… and memorable; that is why this particular story is recounted in the gospel, but the content of the teaching is not.
When I think back to my formative years, I have very little recall of a specific teachings I learned from a Sunday School teacher, my youth minister, a sermon, or even in public school. Still, somehow, I assimilated cognitive content. I learned, for instance, that there is an Old Testament and a New Testament, that Jesus is like a shepherd of a flock, to spell and to add and to name the state capitals. I learned a lot in my formative years, I just don’t remember how it happened; other than by showing up at church or at school on a regular basis.
While I don’t remember how I learned, I do remember the people who contributed to my formation. I can tell you stories about each one; stories about kindness, mercy, acceptance, rejection, hope, faithfulness, etc. These stories are not what they taught, but are descriptive of who they were and in that sense these events were teachings in their own right, memorable and formative. These stories tell how people embodied (or failed to embody) the cognitive content they sought to pass on.
For every Jane, who embodied harshness and contempt, there were dozens of other significant people in my life who embodied God’s love and mercy and grace. Yes, they told me about this through one lesson after another. But more, important, they lived it day in and day out and they acted from it at critical moments of challenge and stress and opportuntiy.
It is important for you and me to know the faith and to pass it on to a new generation of seekers. I worry that the Episcopal Church does not do a good job of helping its members at every age to learn the content of the faith. But more than knowing the content it is critical that we know how we embody it through our lives. We have a word for those who know the content, teach it, but don’t live it out. We call such a person a hypocrite.
Jesus could easily have taught His followers never to give up. When Jesus sat down in the boat to teach He may have said to the crowds that, on our own, our efforts will often be frustrated, but in Him they will be fruitful and blessed. He may have taught that God wants to transform our daily tasks into a higher calling. He may even have taught that a special purpose awaits those who answer the call. But when He took Peter and the others out to the deep waters and led them to the big catch, Jesus embodied what He taught in a way that was unmistakable.
Those who have influence our lives through how they embodied the faith may never have performed a miracle, but they have shaped us in particular ways never-the-less. And we, as we seek to be faithful disciples of Jesus, have our own unique way of embodying the faith, a way which shapes those who look to us as models and guides along the way.