Sunday, February 3, 2013

The learning community

Christian Education Sunday
Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Matthew 28:16-20; Colossians 3:12-17

Watch the video:

...or listen to audio:

...or download a printer-friendly PDF file: click here

...or read it online here:

I want to tell you a story, about an angel named Max.
  You won’t find Max in the Bible.
  I found him in a humorous children’s book,
    called Does God have a big toe?

In the delightful imagination of the author,
  Max was, shall we say, a lesser angel.
  Gabriel, the head angel, handed out the assignments.
  Gabriel did the big, important jobs himself,
    like announcing to Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus.
  But he handed out lesser jobs to lesser angels.
  And Max was the bottom of the heap.
    He got the most unwanted, and most difficult assignments.
  Like before the Great Flood,
    he was assigned to break the bad news
    to the rest of the grizzly bears in the world,
      that they would not be one of the two riding in the Ark.
    Not a happy job.

Well, if you’ll indulge just a little bit of silliness,
  for the sake of getting across a deeper point,
  the story about Max that I’m about to tell,
    is in the style of that book, although not in the book,
    and it’s certainly not in the Bible.
You’ll have to decide whether the story is true,
  and if so, in what way it is true.

So, early this past week,
  Max was called into Gabriel’s office
    and told to pay a visit to Park View Mennonite Church.
  Gabriel noted that they were having “Christian Education Sunday”
    in a few days,
    and their worship planners had, very insightfully,
    chosen Deuteronomy 6 as a key text—
      the Great Commandment, the Shema,
  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
    and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
  Gabriel explained to Max that this was, in fact,
    the most important thing the Park View church could do—
    learn and obey the Great Commandment.

  But they had a lot going against them.
  And they would need some help.
    Like many in their culture, Gabriel said,
      they are attached to lots of things—
        jobs, families, houses, land,
        security, status, wealth, power,
      not to mention attached to all kinds of 
        good church programs and projects.
    They are so committed, so busy, so distracted,
      it’s sometimes hard to know exactly how
      to love God with all their heart, soul, and strength.

  “What they need, Max,” Gabriel said, “is a master teacher.
  Someone to educate them,
    teach them how to love God completely.
  So your job is to go down there and study the congregation,
    find out who is most qualified to be appointed master teacher.
  Then come back for my approval,
    before we make it official.”

“Ah, this isn’t so bad,” thought Max.
  “Lot easier than giving bad news to grizzly bears.”

So he stretched his wings,
  and flew to the Shenandoah Valley,
  where he found the church and went straight to the office.
  Fortunately, it was after hours,
    so he could easily snoop around for evidence.
  Right away, he found it. The church bulletin.
    The first name on the list of church staff,
      was one Phil Kniss, lead pastor.
    He logged onto the computer and found Phil’s resume.
  Hmmm, not bad. He’d seen more impressive ones,
    but Phil had several degrees,
      was even a Reverend Doctor, whatever that means.
      Had years of pastoral experience.
      And one of his main responsibilities was preaching.
  So, here is a duly appointed preacher—one of their own.
    They willingly listen to him Sunday after Sunday.
  Piece of cake!
    Just see that Phil is given the properly inspired words.
      Job done.
Max went to Gabriel with the good news.
  “Gabriel, sir, I found our master teacher. The Rev. Dr. Phil Kniss.”

Gabriel was not impressed.
  He even frowned when Max said his name that way.
  “Look, Max, preachers are fine.
    And this Phil might even be a good preacher.
    But it’s going to take more than words and degrees
      to teach these people about loving God completely.
    They need someone who will model it for them,
      will show them what it means to love God completely,
        without reservation.
      Go back again.”

Max wondered why Gabriel didn’t make that clear the first time.
  But he went back to the office, still confident.
  Logged on to the computer, and went into the database,
    looking for members with lots of life experience.
  He sorted them by age, and found one Harold Lehman.
    Recently turned 92.
    Not only that, he was an educator!
      Former school teacher, principal, professor.
      Well-respected. Recently written up in the newspaper.
  Max knew he had just nailed it.
    Here was a life-long disciple of Jesus, well-loved educator.
    The perfect master teacher for Park View,
      who could both model and teach the love of God.
    Take that, Gabriel.

When he got back to heaven, he handed the printout to Gabriel,
  and proudly announced, “Harold Lehman.”
    He left off the “Dr.” this time.
  “Hmm,” said Gabriel, as he glanced over Harold’s qualifications.
    “Not a bad choice.
      Just one problem, Max . . . he’s too old.”
  Maxed was shocked.
    “Too old?!  Just don’t let Harold find out you said that.
      He’d be insulted.
      Why, he’s one of the most active and faithful
        members of the church.
      And he’s sharp as a tack.”
  “Nothing against Harold,” Gabriel said.
    “I just think we’re looking for someone younger.”

This time, on the flight back, Max was getting a little hot
  under the collar of his robe.

  On this third visit to the church office, he spotted it—
    a pile of papers on the counter labeled
    “Church database master report”
  Park View had recently updated their directory,
    and here was every household and person in the church,
      including birth dates, occupations,
      everything they had on file.
    He grabbed the whole stack.
    On the long flight back he had some time for reading.

When he got to Gabriel, he was prepared.
  He held up a sheet,
    “Beryl Brubaker, former Mennonite college dean, provost,
      and interim president.
      Served on Park View church council.
      Volunteers all over the community.
      A doting grandmother.”
  Gabriel frowned, “Grandmother, you say? 
    Age 70, I see. Yeah, too old.”

Max was half expecting that, but was prepared.
  “Vic Buckwalter, age 60.
    Worked in medical missions for years.
    Now doctoring in a community health clinic.
      Love of God personified.”
  “Sorry,” Gabriel said. “Too old.”

  “Okay, Sara Godshall.
    Home-schooling mother.
    Caregiving friend of many in the community.
    Former elder.
    Age 40.”
  “40?” Gabriel asked. “Kind of young for an elder, isn’t it?
    Still, too old.”

  “Peyton Erb, will be 24 tomorrow.
    Loves children, and people of all kinds.
      School teacher.
      Spent a year volunteering in Guatemala.”
  “Nice, but too old.”

  “Michaela Mast, age 17.
    Compassionate teenager.
      Involved with OCP.
      You won’t find a more loving high school senior.”
  “Senior, huh? Yeah, too old.”

Max had heard enough.
  He was about to blow a gasket.
  “What!? So for Park View’s master teacher,
    do you want us to go with some third-grader,
    like Miriam Rhodes?”

  “Miriam, huh? Let me see that list.
    She knows how to love.
      She has a smile for everyone.
      And remember that children’s story, not long ago,
        she told about the time she chose to be kind
        to a classmate who was stealing erasers from her.
    She’d be a great teacher.
  In fact, why don’t we just appoint the rest of the
    2nd and 3rd grade Sunday School class, too?
    Norah Godshall, Liam Harlow, Madelyne Yoder,
    Hannah Hendricks, Joshua Sun, and Kate Weaver.

  “Max, I must say.  You’ve done it again.
    Wonderful job.  Congratulations.”

    “Uh . . . thanks . . . I guess.”
  And Max walked away, shaking his head in amazement.

So that is the story of how it came to be
  that the 2nd and 3rd graders at Park View Mennonite
  have been given an angelic assignment
    to teach the rest of us about loving God.

I said you’d have to decide for yourself
  whether this story is true,
  and if so, in what way it is true.

I happen to think it’s a true story.
  True, in the sense that the children among us
    have, and have always had 
    the job of teaching the rest of us 
      what it means to love God completely.
Jesus once put it this way:
  Pointing to a little child who was standing nearby, he said,
    “Of such is the kingdom of God.”

Of course, if we really believe
  that children have something to teach us about loving God,
  the question is . . . how best can we learn from them?
How do they actually get incorporated into 
  our work of Christian education?
No, they won’t be preaching 3-point sermons,
  or giving PowerPoint lectures on how to love God.
They will teach us by their lives, by their attitudes,
  by their acts of love and generosity . . . 
  by their inability to hold grudges . . . 
  by their quickness to accept those who are different . . . 
    and forgive those who have done wrong.

And obviously,
  we also need the wealth of knowledge,
    and the depth of wisdom,
  that come from our 92-year-olds,
    our professional educators,
    our mission workers,
    our church elders,
    our young adults,
    our MYFers.

We have a lot to learn from all of these.
  Their role in the congregation’s task of Christian education
    is also a crucial one.
  Indispensable, actually.

The whole point of my silly story,
  was to remind us that no one has a corner 
    on the truth that needs to be taught.
  No one claims the sole right to be the teacher.
  And no one—because of age or any other invented criteria—
    is disqualified to be a teacher
    in a learning community.

As important as classroom teachers are,
  as necessary as formal instruction is,
  as vital as respect for wisdom of age, experience, and training is,
    we cannot neglect the fact that healthy learning
      takes place in a learning community
      where different insights and points of view are treasured,
    where the voice of naïveté is also valued for its fresh perspective,
    where the old listen carefully to the young, and vice versa,
    where the doctors respect the wisdom 
      of those with little formal education, and vice versa.
  When people live together, in diverse communities, in healthy ways,
    that is when the best kind of learning happens.
  To live together is to learn together.

The learning community is sadly impoverished,
  if no one is willing to open their heart, and their mind,
    and be taught by those with fewer years of life experience,
      or with less education,
      or with less sophistication,
      or with more disabilities,
      or simply those with a minority viewpoint,
      or those with a different cultural reference point.

Passing on the faith is not a one-way street, from young to old.
  It is not something that is handed over,
    from one who has faith, to one who doesn’t.

Passing on the faith is something that happens 
  when people are in relationship with each other,
  in a mutually respectful relationship,
  in a relationship where both parties expect to give and receive.
Even when they come at life from different perspectives.
And maybe,
  especially when they come at life from different perspectives.

When that happens, we have the beloved community,
  the harmonious community,
  described in Colossians 3 that we heard earlier.
A people “[clothed] with compassion, kindness, humility, 
  meekness, and patience. 
  [Who] bear with one another . . . forgive each other . . . 
  [and] above all, [clothed] with love, 
    which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
This kind of community will
  “Let the word of Christ dwell in [them] richly; 
    teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; 
    and with gratitude in [their] hearts 
    sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.”

I think it’s the kind of education and discipleship
  that Jesus commissioned his first disciples to do,
    and then to replicate,
  “making disciples of all nations, 
    baptizing them . . . 
    and teaching them to obey everything 
      that I have commanded you.”

And I think it’s the kind of Christian education that God,
  and all the angels in heaven,
  expect from us at Park View Mennonite.
May it be so.

Let’s pray.

Lord God,
  We come to you with open minds and hearts, ready to be taught.
  Teach us, Lord, 
    through the lives,
    through the wisdom,
    through the insight,
      of every person in this community of faith.
In the name of Jesus Christ, the master teacher,

—Phil Kniss, February 3, 2013

[To leave a comment, click on "comments" link below and write your comment in the box. When finished, click on "Other" as your identity, and type in your real name. Then click "Publish your comment."]

No comments: