Over the past several weeks, our church has been recruiting people to serve as teachers for our Sunday School classes. Those of you who have ever been asked to find teachers know that this can be somewhat of a challenge.
This involves phone calls, pep talks, and maybe even a few bribes here and there. Finding people to teach is not the easiest thing in the world.
God must have a sense of humor because one of our appointed scripture readings for today says, “My brothers and sisters, NOT many of you should become teachers.”
This is not exactly the sales pitch we have been using in gearing up for our Fall Sunday School schedule. It’s obvious to me that James never had to recruit teachers or he would have changed his tune.
Or maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way. Could it be that James’ high standards are actually the best way to recruit teachers?
Just listen again to what James expects out of teachers. These are people who have incredible self-control and are well disciplined in their lives. Actually, James makes a really big deal about the importance of teachers having control over what they say.
Penny has told me how studies show that if a child has more than one bad teacher during their elementary school years, they will be less likely to succeed in their remaining years of school. That just goes to show how important teaching really is.
I’m guessing that James is setting the standards high because of some negative experiences that he may have encountered in the church.
To drive his point home, he uses the analogy of how a small rutter on a big ship can easily take it off course. Likewise, our misuse of words can do a lot of damage in our relationships with people.
He moves from ships to the analogy of a small flame. This is where James gives us his best impression of Smokey the Bear. He says how even the slightest spark can lead to a whole forest going up in flames. He really means it when he says that only you can prevent forest fires.
We have that power if we use some discipline and self-control.
But wait. He’s not done. James gives us a third analogy. He says how the tongue is like an untamed animal. James is saying that it’s OK to visit a tongue in the zoo. Just don’t go inside its cage, because it will rip you apart.
And like a preacher who uses way too many illustrations than he really needs in one sermon, James throws in two more quick analogies just in case we weren’t paying attention to the first twenty-nine that he already shared with us.
He concludes his point by saying how the tongue is like a salt water spring that can only send forth more salt water. It’s incapable of producing fresh water.
James provides us with an exclamation point for his case against the human tongue when he says that it’s like a grapevine trying to produce figs. It’s just not possible.
OK, James. We get it. Teaching is a really important thing in the church. And based on your over the top analogies, this means that less than 1% of us should apply.
Actually, I don’t think that James wants us to be that strict or we wouldn’t have any teachers. He just wants us to know that teaching is more than merely showing up. Teaching is about giving a lot of thought and prayer into what we will say and how we are to conduct ourselves.
Many of us can think back to some teachers who had a positive impact on our lives. These probably weren’t teachers who had to be strong-armed into volunteering their time to teach. It was something they felt called to do.
One of the primary reasons why I am a pastor today is because of people like Ida McDowell, Betty Blevins, Ron Boyer, Don Slaybaugh, Paul Shaeffer, and Dick Teller who served as loving and wise teachers and mentors in my life.
Ida was my grandmother who lived in a mobile home just up from our farmhouse in south central Pennsylvania. Every day, I would get off the bus and head up to see my grandmother, affectionately known as Mom-Mom.
There waiting for me would be a pitcher of the most incredible iced tea in the history of the world and I’m not exaggerating. I don’t even want to think about how much sugar she put into one pitcher of iced tea.
She also would put an incredible amount of lemon juice in it. Now, that’s how you make real iced tea!
And if all of that sugar wasn’t enough, she would also bake a cake that was still warm from the oven. There in my grandmother’s kitchen, I would drink iced tea and eat a piece of cake.
But there was a catch to all of this. My grandmother would then have me read a bible story and then take a test to see how well I read the bible story for that day. She would even grade it. For the ones I got wrong, she would have me work on it until I got each question correct.
The reason I got to know the bible at an early age was mostly because of my grandmother and those daily bible study quizzes. Yeah, I know that my own grandmother resorted to bribing me to get me to read the bible. I wonder what James would think about that!
Betty Blevins was my Sunday School teacher during my grade school years. She was very nurturing in the way she taught our Sunday School class.
She helped us to see that God is patient and loving. She would also invite my family to her house for a picnic and a swimming party. Who wouldn’t want to follow Jesus if you get to go swimming and eat burgers off the grill?
Ron Boyer was one of my Sunday School teachers when I was in junior high. We liked hanging out with Ron because he would tell us about his life before he was saved. He told us about how he played in bars, drank too much, and would get into fights.
Yeah, maybe what he shared with our Junior High Sunday School class was way too much information, but his before-Christ stories were very entertaining. He loved telling us how Jesus had saved his marriage and brought so much joy to his life. He was living proof to us that Jesus was real.
Another teacher was Don Slaybaugh who was in seminary preparing to go into the ministry and served as our summer youth leader for a couple of years. We all looked up to Don and we had fun spending time with him.
He attended our baseball games and led us through the Gospel of John one summer. He would always have bats, balls, Frisbees, and basketballs in the trunk of his small Gremlin car, ready at a moment’s notice to have fun.
At a farm house retreat center in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in the spring of 1984, I sat in utter astonishment, as Dr. Paul Schaeffer was teaching on the Book of Acts.
Dr. Schaeffer, or Paul as we often called him, was leading a spring retreat for the college students of the Philadelphia area. I already knew that he was a well-educated man and a deeply devoted follower of Christ, but it was at that moment of his teaching, that I really began to feel a tug on my heart about entering the pastoral ministry.
Here was a man who had a doctorate in the History of the Reformation and who knew the Bible backwards and forwards, but who also had the wonderful ability to teach the Bible to college students in ways that we would understand and apply to our lives.
I was drawn to him. And I felt God calling me into some kind of teaching ministry.
About eight years ago, I got motivated to track down this wonderful teacher, pastor, and scholar. Figuring that he was no longer at the same church in Philadelphia, I discovered that he was now the Chairman of Religious Studies at Grove City College located in western Pennsylvania.
I must have caught him in between classes when I called him on the phone that day, because he indicated that he was in a bit of a hurry. But I had just enough time to tell him that he was one of the reasons that I felt a calling into the pastoral ministry.
I was just a rookie pastor serving on staff at a large United Methodist Church in Findlay, Ohio. Even though I had been to seminary and served a little country church for a few years, I really didn’t know what I was doing or that much about pastoral ministry.
But by the grace of God, the Senior Pastor of this church took me under his wing and taught me a few things I needed to know about the ins and outs of pastoral ministry.
And these might sound like trivial things, but to him, these were things you should know and practice if you want to have an effective and fruitful ministry.
The first thing was one I heard over and over again. Stay focused on Jesus. “Robert – No matter what you do, always remember to stay focused on Jesus. Don’t depend on your own strength because you will be tempted to rely on your own abilities and strengths. Keep your prayer life and your devotional life strong because you’re going to need it. Remember to stay focused on Jesus.”
I still have this small bible that he gave me at my ordination that I keep in my car. In the front, he wrote these words to remind me of this first lesson he taught me, the words are, “Jesus said, “Follow me. He will empower you. Trust him. He has everything under control.”
Another thing he told me was,
“Now, when you visit someone in the hospital, always remember to take off your coat before you walk into their room. If you have your coat on, you might make them feel like you’re in a hurry.”
On another day, he told me,
“Keep records of all your calls and activities. Be aware of how you spend your time in ministry so you can always keep your priorities in order.”
One day over a cup of coffee, he said,
“Be aware of your feelings and express your feelings to someone you can trust. And I hope you know that you can always share anything with me. You just can’t survive in ministry if you keep your feelings to yourself. You need someone to go to so that you can stay balanced and focused in ministry.”
He now lives in an assisted living apartment in the Columbus area and I take him out to lunch from time to time to catch up on things. He still reminds me of these same things that he taught me back in the early 90’s.
The last time we met for lunch, he offered to prayer over the food. As he was saying a prayer for our friendship, for my family, for my ministry, and for our food, I couldn’t help but think of just how much I have missed hearing those prayers from him. He has been an incredible teacher for me over all of these years.
Just when I think I’ve learned everything I possibly can from him, he will share a new insight and a new spiritual thought that will help me to look at things in a new way. I still think of him whenever I am facing a challenge or a difficult situation.
And so, it’s no wonder why James sets the standard high for teachers. Teachers are entrusted with an incredible opportunity to shape the lives of others.
I find it interesting that the word, “disciple” means, “learner.” That makes all of us life-long learners as we seek to follow Christ. We are life-long learners because every situation in life is unique and calls for a prayerful and wise response.
We are all disciples, but we are also all teachers in one way or another. People are watching us. They are watching to see how we live out our faith in the real world. There is a teacher in each one of us. The question is if we are willing to accept James challenge and be effective teachers and mentors.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism held the very first Methodist conference in 1744. It was held in London, England.
Wesley offered a very simple agenda for that first conference.
Agenda Item #1 – What to teach
Agenda Item #2 – How to teach.
Agenda Item #3 – What to do.
According to Russell E. Richey’s book, The Methodist Conference in America, those early Methodist conferences were comprised of preachers and church leaders who shared a common affection, common rules, a shared mission and a watchfulness of the members over one another.
They were strongly relational, providing mutual support and encouragement, and they were purpose driven, focused on how to extend the gospel message in ever more fruitful ways. In other words, those early Methodists had really high standards.
I know that James says that not many of us should teach, but I also know that there is a teacher in all of us. We each have a story of faith to share with the people around us. And it’s a story that can make an eternal difference.