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Bible readings:


Proper 24 Year B (September 13, 2015)                                                      St James', Peace River

The Bible readings we just heard were all about teaching and learning, about disciples and masters, about looking in the right place for wisdom. Very appropriate, for a day when we are celebrating and praying for a blessing on all the people who are part of our school system – especially the students, teachers and staff who are here today, but through them to all the others who are part of their daily life in the learning environment. As we consider the readings, though, I want us to remember that we are all students, and all teachers, all the time in one way or another.

One of the things I always point out to the parents of children being baptized, is how their children learn from every little thing they see them do. In the baptism service we acknowledge that when we ask the parents and godparents, “Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow” in faith. Everything you do and everything you say is a testimony to your real convictions about life with God. You are teaching all the time. And that's true not just in family life but in the workplace, amongst friends, and in the parts of our lives that we share with others in our communities.

That's a frightening thought! And it's maybe why we sympathize with people whose job is teaching, when we hear James say, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters.” It's tough to think that we are responsible for what others might learn from us – and even harder when you are spending six hours a day, five days a week, with twenty-odd kids of whatever age it might be, from kindergarten through to young adulthood. James goes on to talk about how impossible it is to say the right thing all the time – we trip over our tongues, we make mistakes, we choose to say something and then wish right afterwards that we hadn't. I expect teachers have the same experience that preachers do, when a long time later someone relates something they heard you teach them, and you think to yourself, “Did I really say that!”

James's point is to watch our tongues, but also to keep in mind always how serious that responsibility for teaching others is. And that's not just true for the professionals. All of us at some point in our day will face what school teachers know is happening all the time – that what we just said or did has taught someone else in a way that we may, or may not, have intended. But if we are all people who teach, then I hope we are also all people who learn. That was something we heard every year from the Master of the college I attended in England – he would remind us at each opening of term that the college didn't officially refer to anyone as a teacher or student; we were all “members” (senior and junior) of a community dedicated to learning.

And that's especially true for us who follow Jesus and think of ourselves as his disciples. It's what the word means: a disciple is a learner. And while we may be responsible for what we teach others, we are even more responsible for our own continuing learning. There's a paramount example of that in the gospel today. Peter is the best of disciples in one moment, as he finally claims for himself the ultimate learning in his journey with Jesus: “You are the Messiah!” And yet in the very next moment he proves that there is always still more to learn, as he completely misses what Jesus is trying to teach about suffering and sacrifice, and instead tries to “teach” Jesus that he's getting it all wrong.

It's the same in the lives that each of us lives as disciples – you might genuinely have it all worked out, for a while, but as you pass into a new stage of life, you realize you have to learn a whole new way of following. The book learning of school or university has to be complemented by learning a new way of life in the work world. What serves you well as a parent doesn't necessarily prepare you for a position of responsibility in other spheres of life – or vice versa! And hardly anything that we learn in the first half of our lives teaches us how to keep following Jesus faithfully in our later years.

As disciples, though, we share a quality with every other human being. We are inherently learners. We are curious. That is what it means to be human. And for us it is more than just finding out what just happened, or what that shiny new object is over there. It's about putting it together; feeling like we have a handle on the big picture, and a plan for living that will serve us well. We don't just want facts and observations, not just knowledge – we want wisdom.

Wisdom is a great biblical word, precisely because it sits on the boundary between religious and non-religious language. It's a gift of God, a gift of the Holy Spirit – but it's a gift that is poured out in understanding God's creation, and the human part in it. Proverbs, and other similar sections of the Old Testament, are full of commentary on the behaviour of ants and lions, fire and bad weather, kings judges and rich people, bosses and workers; but it's all in an effort to put together a big picture that will help people make sense of who they are and the world they live in. One of the striking things about it is how much of that biblical material is copied word for word from the scribal wisdom traditions of other neighbouring cultures, like Egypt or Babylon. It shouldn't be a surprise – the people of those different countries and religions shared the same world, just as we do today with people of other faiths and none.

But the biblical writers, both before and after Jesus, had a conviction that real wisdom was more than just knowing the world – it was rooted in knowing the maker of the world. Their conviction was that wisdom wasn't just us reaching out to try to make sense; wisdom actually invites us in. Our desire to understand and shape a plan for living, is met by a holy wisdom which wants to open up the world to us. The answer to our desire to learn, our thirst for knowledge, isn't just “Whatever turns your crank”- it only finds its real satisfaction when it follows the deepest truth there is, something that God is always trying to show us but which we don't always see, and even when we see, we don't always pay attention.

The New Testament identifies Jesus with that holy wisdom. St John calls him the Word of God which communicates truth to us. St Paul says that “he himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” [Col 1.17] St James tries to convince us that it is only our relationship with Christ that can help us make sense of our own selves, and find the self-control, constancy and gentleness which amount to real wisdom. And that is, in a nutshell, both the demand that the Christian gospel puts on us, and the good news that it offers us. There really is a way to wisdom. The thing that our curious souls and our inquisitive intellects are so desperate to find – it really is out there. What we want the most turns out to be the Wisdom of God who most wants us. Great news! All we have to do is act on it.

As lifelong learners, I think we know that this isn't a promise for everything to fall into place once we know Jesus. Quite the opposite. Sometimes knowing Jesus means that the world makes even less sense, as it did for Peter when he contemplated the master whom he followed being handed over to the authorities and crucified. Who could have imagined that even that hard truth would be part of the wisdom of God? And yet following that truth, through the pages of the Bible and even more through the pages of our lives, leads us to a place where we can take up our own cross, lose our life in order to find it – and realize that is the truly wise course of action. That's a lesson you have to learn. And it's a lesson that, in learning, you teach others. It's the only way to be either a teacher or a learner – but in the goodness of God, it's a way that leads us to life.