Monday, May 16, 2011

The Jesus Type of Learner

Preached on Sunday, May 15, 2011

Scripture readings:
Isaiah 12-1-6; Matthew 13:44-52 (RSV)

There was a story on the radio about teaching personal hygiene to young children. The teacher introduced the idea of frequent hand washing to her kindergarten class. But she introduced it by using a shocking and radical example. She asked them, “Have any of you ever picked your nose?” They answered her question out loud, without any hesitation, and they all answered with the same, single word. Guess what that word was? “Have any of you ever picked your nose?”

With one voice, they all answered “No!” And the teacher said, “Oh come on now!”

Jesus was having that kind of teaching moment with his disciples. Jesus spent some time telling his disciples the seven parables or stories that we can read about in Matthew chapter 13. When he finished, Jesus checked to see if they were getting a handle on the very core of his message; the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus said to them, “Have you understood all this?” They said to him, “Yes!”

I suppose we could just take them at their word, but we know them too well for that. We don’t understand them at all, unless we remember that the gospels make the disciples famous for their unbelief and their lack of understanding.

At least we have to remember this for our own sake, because we will find no help for our unbelief and or our lack of understanding unless we know that the gospels were written to be God’s word to us. This is the secret humor of the gospels. We need God to speak to people like us who are likely to not understand anything, and yet say that we do.

Well, they meant well. And they got what they deserved by being given an eighth story or parable. And this one was harder than all the rest. And this is why claiming to know what you don’t know can be dangerous; because Jesus used this eighth parable as a job description for his disciples.

And you know that the disciples are proxies for us. They are us and we are them. Their job and our job is this: “Therefore every scribe (every teacher of the law) who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder (or homeowner) who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:51-52)

Since I am getting old, I think of the older translations and the word scribe, here. How are we scribes? The newer translations describe our job as being “teachers of the law”; but that’s confusing too, because we are called to be teachers of the good news.

The law is about obligation without power. The good news is about the grace and power of God to transform our lives into new lives.

There is this radical difference that Jesus wants to make possible in us. Words like “scribe” and “teacher of the law” would make the people who listened to Jesus think of experts and authorities. It sounds as though Jesus called his disciples and us to be experts and authorities. But this is not the case. Really Jesus wanted his disciples and us to be an alternative to the world of experts and authorities. Jesus wanted us to be alternatives to a system of spiritual status.

In the kingdom of God there is no higher office than disciple, and disciple means learner. In the kingdom of God, you don’t know anything, and you are not good to anyone, if you stop being a learner at heart.

The disciples were, by the very meaning of the word “disciple”, learners. They were trainees. And they weren’t even very good ones. They were the type of learners who were afraid of admitting that they didn’t understand anything their teacher had told them.

The emphasis here is not on your status as an expert, but on your learning and instruction in the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God.

It’s hard for us to think about this because, in our world, a kingdom is always a place. It is a land, and people, and history, and customs, and laws, with borders. In our world, a kingdom is a place where you can usually come and go as you please, at least with a passport or visa.

In the Bible, the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God are the presence of God in all his power and glory. The kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God mean being with God the King; and God being completely himself with you; and God making your whole living environment different because he is right there. Everything in your life and the world you live in clicks into a new place with new priorities because God, the King, is there.

Now I had, growing up, the kingdoms of two grandmothers. Their kingdom would be at hand whenever one of them would come and stay with us for a few weeks.

In the kingdom of my grandma Evans everything had to be just right. Everyone was polite and positive. No one was loud. Everyone did an awful lot of listening. When she was there at your house, her presence and power and glory determined that everything would try to be just right.

In the kingdom of my Baci, everything had to be fun and laughter. Her presence, and power, and glory determined that people would eat a lot, and cook a lot, and play games, and put puzzles together, and tell stories, and talk a lot, and laugh a lot.

I loved both my grandmas. They both had endearing qualities, and I learned from both of them. But I enjoyed the kingdom of Baci much better than the kingdom of Evans. And as a learner in the kingdom of Baci I escaped from my extremely reserved and dignified self that I inherited from the Evans family.

My Dad had rebelled against that kingdom of Evans all his life, but he had passed the genetic code to me, and he had taught me to live by its rules in spite of himself. He was a father according to the laws of the kingdom of Evans.

The kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God do not have boundaries where you can come in and go out as it suits you. God’s kingdom is God himself who is always there; who can be ignored but who cannot be escaped.

The kingdom of God is how the presence, and the power, and the glory of God reach out to you, whether you want them or not. And they are a huge bother and irritation if you don’t want them.

Jesus, in spite of all those parables about the kingdom, had not really told his disciples, yet, about how the kingdom would rule them, and shape them, and change them. Soon Jesus would tell his learners about the cross, and about the resurrection. He would tell them, and us, about giving his life as a ransom to set us free; free from our sins, and free from the power of evil in this world. (Matthew 20:28)

Knowing Jesus and belonging to Jesus puts you in the kingdom: and the kingdom is the same as living in the presence of someone who has saved your life; someone who has died for you. Jesus has died for you, and risen from the dead for you. Through his Holy Spirit, he continually nurses you to health.

It is like having lived through a fatal disease that was in your blood; and Jesus put his blood in you to save you. How do you live with that? It’s like living in the shadow of an illness that could come back, and Jesus continually treats you with new dosages of his blood.

The question is: how do you learn to live like that? And this is not a bad thing. You can really live again, really better than before, because you understand everything so much better. And you know the difference because you have passed from death to life yourself. There is an enormous joy and freedom in this. This is the new life in Christ.

This is why so many parables speak of treasure of some kind. It’s like living on the street and then, years later, having a home that is truly your own; and a family and a community that values you, and loves you. These things are treasures.

How would it change you to live such a life, in such a kingdom? You would never get used to it. You would never take it for granted. No matter how hard that old life, and that old kingdom, had been you would never get tired of sharing your stories of passing from the old kingdom to the new kingdom.

Old stories would bring it up. New events and situations would bring it up: you would share treasures new and old.

You would never see yourself as an expert, or as an authority; because you could never quiet believe that you had arrived. It would seem like news that was too good to be true. But this news is true. You would always be seeing this news a new way.

You would always be a learner; and, as such you would be the humblest and the most non-self-centered expert and authority in the world. You would be the perfect alternative to a whole world of people who are ready to be spiritual experts and authorities.

You would always suspect that you were a secret bumbler, just like the first disciples. You could never escape the feeling that someone else could share the treasures so much better. And that’s the way to be.

You would always be a Jesus type of learner, because you would always be a little befuddled. You would always be a Jesus type of learner, because your life would be the life of a kingdom person. Your life would always lead you past yourself, and beyond yourself.

Your life in Jesus, in his kingdom, would always lead your thoughts, and words, and actions, and plans to make room for the gifts of Jesus. You would be a Jesus type learner because you would always be ready to bring out the treasures of your life in the kingdom.

You would know the story of your life in the kingdom well enough to know what treasure would fit what occasion best. You would know how to use each treasure to meet a need, or an issue in this world, or a person who has not seen the treasures of the kingdom.

Through Jesus you have come home, and Jesus has made his home your home. Jesus has made you a homeowner in the kingdom. He has made you permanent, and you have become an owner of the treasures. You know what treasure will be the right one, with the right story attached, so that the person who has not found their way can hear the story, and come home, and find that treasure for them selves.

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