Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Sermon for Staff and Faculty – St Catherine’s School Monday, August 25, 2014 8:30 a.m. Matthew 28:16-20

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.  18 And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

Vernoy Johnson was a math teacher, an incredibly competent and gifted teacher. He taught for decades in one of the most wealthy school districts in the nation, New Trier, just outside of Chicago. Children of privilege, in a community where the tax base was sufficient to support schools that were in many ways comparable to this magnificent St. Catherine's. The best books, the best technology of the 1970's, the smallest student teacher ratio in just about any public school in America. The best teachers.

Vernoy Johnson took a leave to teach in a very different place...Africa. For a year he taught in the American School in Kinshasa, in the Congo. Not the equvalent educational environment to the New Trier schools. He did this because he wanted to bring the same sort of education to children in Africa that he had given to children in New Trier. And he began in Kinshasa because he had to learn to teach in French, the language of education and commerce in this former Belgian colony. But that first year was only preparation for the two years he would teach math about 800 miles to the north, at a remote mission station in the Ubangi province called Karawa. 
This was the area that Joseph Conrad called "the outer station," in The Heart of Darkness, the most remote and the poorest part of the Congo. He did not teach at the mission boarding school, where the children of American missionary doctors and crop specialists who worked in the bush and preachers attended. No, Vernoy taught at L'Institute Mbenga, a school for the local children, the few promising ones who were allowed to get a secondary education. There were no computers, no labs...in fact there were almost no walls, just a thatched roof on what we would think of as a pole barn. Perhaps one textbook, an out of date one, for each dozen students. You can probably imagine what was going through  Vernoy's head the first time he saw his classroom... How can I do this? There is nothing here. How am I supposed to teach when the students have no books, when we have no equipment to speak of, nothing? Talk about feeling unequal to the task! But he took a deep breath, and he taught. Taught without the resources he had back in America. Taught without the resources he even had down in Kinshasa. Taught so that several of his students eventually went to college. And several became the first native doctors in the Democratic  Republic of the Congo. 

But that is not the end of the story, nor is it the end of my little homily here...sorry...

Vernoy Johnson completed his missionary service as a teacher in the Congo. He went back to New Trier and returned to teaching in that privileged community. He went to a faculty meeting before the beginning of the school year, and he sat there as his colleagues tussled for their share of the abundant resources, arguing that they needed another five microscopes, the very latest edition of the most cutting edge textbook, another photocopier...

Vernoy sat there quietly for a while, and then he rose to his feet and said, "I have an idea. Why don't we sell the photocopiers, shut off the hot water, turn off the electricity and just reach deep inside ourselves and find something to give to these kids?"

I tell this story, because you are about to begin another school year, and I link it to this passage from the Gospel of Matthew because the scripture relates more to your situation than you might immediately recognize.

What is going on here? Jesus is about to leave his disciples forever. The disciples are gathered on a mountain, the mountain that Jesus had told them to go to. Jesus appears to them – not a surprise – mountaintops are often the scene for divine appearances – and he gives them his final instructions: Go and teach. Go and baptize. Go, knowing that I will always be with you.” These are words of commencement and commendation, and the disciples...what do you think they're thinking when they hear them?


Let's put ourselves in their place for a minute. Always good to start the school year by jumping into the deep end of the pool, by taking a risk, right?

How many of us consider ourselves competent in our task? Most of us, I’d expect. At the very least, we’d never deny it in front of Teri and Sue! How many of us sometimes feel less than competent when faced with a recalcitrant student, or a difficult parent, or the sheer volume of paperwork that is expected?

Dare I say most of us?

Here’s a secret: this is not a bad thing. We may wrestle with this on a regular basis, but this is good.

Because it is in our fears and our worries and our vulnerability that we will do our best work. It is when we teach from our scars, from our own woundedness, that we will do the most authentic and transformative work of teaching.

I know that sounds counter-intuitive, and certainly in Western pedagogy we emphasize the importance of mastery before we teach something. And I am not saying that mastery of subject matter is not of critical importance in our work. But it is in remembering what it feels like to be afraid of giving the wrong answer, that cold chill when we have turned in a paper that we are not sure addressed the topic, the rumble in the gut and in the heart when we are about to receive criticism, that our work will be shaped. It is in remembering that we will share the students’ experiences. Dare I say that our own failures might inform our teaching more powerfully than the kudos we’ve received?

In each class one teaches, in each student we encounter, there is fear and brokenness. The student may have the most expensive shoes, the most sophisticated laptop; she may be part of a family with vacation homes in Aspen and the Caymans; she may have perfect skin and hair…I guarantee that she also has at least a few of the same fears and pressures as the child in Kinshasa or Karawa. Money doesn't overcome all fear.

And she comes into the classroom and we think “How do I build this girl up? It looks like she already has everything.”

No, she doesn’t. She doesn’t have everything. She, in fact, has little of what she will truly need when she graduates. She needs what you will teach her. And you will not only teach her calculus or English literature or music or world religions. You will teach her how to survive in a complex and difficult world.

And you will have more credibility when you teach her those life lessons if you reach back into your own moments of hurt and fear and failure, and reflect on what got you through them. Because I guarantee you the girls will have to learn how to get through what is difficult in life, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

Your scars and your vulnerability are what will prove that survival and thriving is possible. Your willingness to let the girls know that you are not perfectly competent, that you, too, sometimes do not succeed…that willingness isn’t saying that they shouldn’t respect you, it is saying that you learned how to dig deep to figure out what you needed to do next…that’s an incredible gift to your students.

That is where the disciples of Christ found themselves when they were preparing for him to leave them, when they realized that it was now their job to teach and to transform those who had not yet met Christ. They were afraid. They doubted that they were fully up to the task, and it was true. They were not. None of us are, really. We enter such a task with trepidation because we understand what is at stake. And yet we still do it, because it is the task to which we have been called. 

And so, as Vernoy Johnson suggested, it is time to trust in God who loves us in all our limitations as well as our competencies, and to dig deep, for the love of the students.

It is time to remember that we can do this in spite of fears, in spite of a sense of one's own limitations, in spite of the complexity of the world we live in. Perhaps we can do this BECAUSE of our fears and limitations. We have gotten this far already because of gifts that God has given us to survive and thrive. These students will be able to grow into the fullness of all they can be, not only because of us, but because they are beloved of God.

Reach deep inside of yourself. Reach into the places where you have been hurt and where you have been healed. Reach, and find the gifts God has given you, to teach, to immerse, to comfort, to guide. Your primary need to accomplish this is not laptops or SmartBoards, as useful as they may be.

No. All you need is God beside you, and the willingness to let God work through you. Go into this small world here on Grove Avenue and teach and let these girls know whom God wants them to be.


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