Luke 10:25-37 Finding the teacher

Reflection by Mart the Rev

Last week I was talking about the wind and how our seven-month old grandson was so revelling in the wonder of a Wellington gale that he threw his head back in laughter… a reminder to us older familiar-with-everything people that the little ones among us can be our teachers in helping us be attuned to wonder as part of our daily living. An attitude of openness to the wonder of things will keep us young, save us from apathy, and keep us attuned to the way God refreshes and restores our lives every day.

The little ones as teachers. I think that was what was behind Jesus’ pulling the children close and informing the adults around him that whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it. [Luke 18: 16-17]  If you don’t live with your eyes wide open in the way that children do, you’re likely to miss what God is doing.

I wonder who else we are to see as our teachers. I’m thinking of how we are to get about doing church.  We are beginning to really feel the weight of forty years of not making significant inroads into a connection with younger generations.  One of the consequences of this scarcity is that we have missed their voices in the circle.  Now, when we try to bridge the generation gaps, we’re not sure about our language, we struggle to know how to speak into the emerging cultures, we’re not sure how to package the gospel for this new day, and sometimes we despair about whether the church has a future at all.

Curiously, a common reflex is to close up and cling tight. We become resistant to change and critical of innovation.  I understand this… we like what we have – we have stayed and weathered the buffeting of the winds of change – we have some rights, after all, we contribute our offerings and our energy to maintaining the church’s presence in the community, so why should we have to change?

But actually, theologically, and eventually because we die, biologically, this is a falsehood. The church is not ours.  We are not its custodians.  We are participants in the saving work of Jesus Christ.  Our business is to hold the flame for a season and pass it forward in the way that it was once passed to us.  The church is not our club.  It is the living body of Christ in the world – a bearer of light and flavour in the world.  It is not for us to dictate the terms for how the wind of God’s spirit will blow.  Our task is to discern the breeze and keep pointing to the wind like a yacht in the ocean.  The church is to be like a ship out in the sea, not a boat tucked safely in the harbour.  And we will need teachers to save us from the impulse to minimise risk – something that tends to happen as we age.

The job of us older ones is not to cling, but to enable the new. I include myself in that ‘us’.  As I enter that next years leading up to my retirement the best thing I can do is hand over power, and back the next generation as they mould a shape for the church to come.  I have time and energy and, I think, some wisdom to offer, but the worst thing I can do for them is dig my heels in and insist that things should be done to suit me.  I think of the younger ministers coming through in the church, we have a group of them in our Presbytery, and they are amazing.  They really are.  I keep telling my peers that we need to back these younger women and men, we need to play our part in dismantling the road blocks that well-meaning people put in place for an era that has passed, and set these younger ones free. I want to retire understanding that I have only one job in the church – only one job – and that is at every turn, despite whether it is to my liking or not, to encourage those who are coming after me to have a go.  Get this old ship out into the sea!  Let the gospel do its work of challenging and changing people’s lives.

I detect that Jesus saw things this way. When you look at his parables they invariably challenge the status quo of religiosity and the idea of a fearsome, frowning, unchanging God.  The religious powers that be were invariably in conflict with him.

But isn’t part of what has attracted us to the faith and held us in the church been the radical grace that has been revealed in the stories Jesus told? As a child of seven or eight years old there were three parables that really stood out to me and ignited something deeply foundational in my faith journey.

The first was the lost sheep – the idea of the shepherd God risking everything to look out for little old lost me. I counted.  It didn’t matter whether I felt left out, or out of sorts, or misunderstood in my day to day, Jesus loved me and would risk everything to come and find me and carry me home.  This shepherd was my teacher.

The second parable that probably made the greatest impact on me was a close cousin of the lost sheep – the story of the lost son. It was framed for me as ‘the parable of the prodigal son’.  I didn’t know what ‘prodigal’ actually meant – it was a word only ever used in that context, but it was made clear that the focus was on just how bad that boy was, and how he finally came to his senses in the pig sty, and made his way home.  Despite the emphasis being on the moral behaviour of the boy, I remember from the earliest of days the look on the father’s face as he pulled the emaciated prodigal into an embrace.  I loved that father.  Even as a youngster in a traditional Baptist church with an emphasis on sin, punishment, and (in reality) God’s conditional love and forgiveness, I found that image of the loving Father utterly compelling.  I had a sense that this was what God was like even if I was a bad boy.  The father as my teacher.  I am sure it saved me.

The third big impact parable in my childhood was that of the Good Samaritan. All through the years people have tried to find a way to justify the behaviour of the priest and the Levite, but I knew as a child, as we all know, that the hero in the story was the Samaritan.  The Samaritan was often talked about as a fine moral example – the man who did right, the man held up by Jesus as doing the right thing – and, so the teaching went, if we do good things then Jesus will also smile on us.  It is only in recent years that I’ve begun to think about the Samaritan himself as a teacher of much more than good morality.

In the parable, two of the people representing the teachers of Jesus’ day are key characters in the story – the priest and the Levite. People set apart by the community to teach and practice the presence of God.  But the true teacher of God’s presence in the story is the Samaritan.  The hated enemy from over the border proves to be the true neighbour.  Let’s not forget who turned up to question Jesus – a ‘teacher of the Law of Moses’.  After telling the parable Jesus turns the question back on this teacher: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The teacher of the Law splutters the answer, not even being able to utter the nationality of the unexpected hero, “The one who showed him mercy.” “Go and do likewise,” Jesus said.

I’m thinking about the people who teach us how to obey the command to love our enemies – surely the ones who can really teach us to love our enemies are our enemies themselves, along with people who have reached out to them and listened. Maybe you think you don’t have any enemies. But I’m sure you do.  They may not be enemies as in those on the other side in a war or dispute, but isn’t anyone who challenges your idea of what is right and proper and safe and secure your enemy?  Don’t we make a thing about who is in and who is out, and those on the outer have ideas and ways of being that can be a threat to us? Isn’t the community divided among people like us and people not like us?  We have our enemies.  The people who prick our consciences and challenge our priorities are people we like to keep distance from.  But Jesus spots one of them on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and has him teach us about the ways of God.  That’s what Jesus does when he calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  Why?  Because they might be where our help comes from.  In their peace our peace might be discovered.

So I’m wondering about how we do and be church and who is going to teach us because we are in a season where we are floundering. I think we’re entering a kind of ‘dark age’ where it is going to get even harder to be church.  Here are some of the signs I see of this increasing hardship: wider community indifference or hostility, our loss of confidence in the gospel, an unwillingness to talk about faith things and difficulty finding the appropriate language, aging congregations, diminished influence, a shrinking of the volunteer community, consumerism and its associated ills (like constant distraction, lack of loyalty and commitment, and people exercising their choices), disengagement from community life, a focus on individual needs (mostly my needs), a focus on the now along with a despair for the future, and a fair bit of intransience on the part of the church community to add some spice to the mix.  If we are looking for teachers, maybe there aren’t as many in our life anymore.  Maybe, as Jesus has identified, the teachers are outside our frameworks.

I think of the early church and Peter’s call to the house of Cornelius in Acts 10&11, and how he got into trouble with the church when he went back and told of how he found the faith alive and well in the home of a Gentile, even a Roman! The enemy being teacher.  It was that God-prompted experience, and that openness on Peter’s part that shifted the church into a new understanding of how wide the arms of God were stretching.

I think of the missionary movements of the 19th century in this part of the world and how the church struggled to make a separation between the gospel and European culture, morality and values, and the unwillingness among most to ever acknowledge that the Polynesian communities might be able to respond to the gospel without having to become ‘civilised’ in the way Europeans insisted.  It is only in relatively recent times that the learning has been that Christ transcends culture and that the way to do church is more fluid and adaptable, and more than that, that the people of the South Pacific have much to teach the world about the nature of God’s life with us in Christ than the world has to teach them.

So I want to ask questions about the role our neighbourhoods need to play in helping struggling us find a way of doing and being church into the future. I suspect their role is vital.  But how will we ever allow them to play a part in the discovery if we do not connect with them and listen to them?  With The Gathering, our fledging breakfast church, we have a motto – we’ll tell you about Jesus, you teach us how to be church.  It’s like Jesus asking the disciples to put their nets over the other side of the boat after a long night of catching nothing.  Carrying on with what had always been done before, despite the world changing around us, isn’t going to get us from here to there.  We have to find people to teach us and translate for us, but not only for us, but for the once and future church.

The enemy Samaritan, mocked and despised, was held up by Jesus as the teacher of the gospel way. Who would have thought that?!  I wonder in whom, and where, and in what way, God is preparing people to help us do and be church in this next season.

Exploring the answer to that is part of why so much of the energy and resource of The Village Church is being put into reconnecting with and serving our surrounding communities in Bryndwr and Papanui.

Should we be praying for God to reveal these teachers to us? Are we open to receiving them?