Fr. Andrew Armond – The Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost, September 12, 2021
“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes.”
I guess I should have read the letter of James more closely before I began teaching in the Fall of 2001. I was a 23-year-old graduate student at Baylor, and with just about a week of training, I was thrown into a freshman English classroom to teach college writing to students not much younger than I was.
Not only did I make many mistakes that first semester, I had also only been teaching a couple of weeks when the events of September 11 unfolded.
As you might imagine, it was difficult to keep my focus on teaching students how to write academic essays when it seemed as though the world was ending. I was confused, I was foundering, I needed some grounding and encouragement for why I should continue to do what I was doing and not simply dedicate every class period to the grave sociopolitical situation that felt suffocating, frightening, and hopeless at times.
As a graduate student, I was taking classes as well as teaching them. And one of my professors had us read CS Lewis’s sermon “Learning in Wartime,” delivered in Oxford in the Fall of 1939. In this sermon, Lewis had to take up the question of why in the world the life of an elite university should continue in the face of an impending war whose horrors were still only imagined at that point.
Lewis argued in that sermon, like the Vietnam veteran and writer Tim O’Brien would years later, that War does not create a new human condition, but amplifies the human condition that is already there. Lewis says, “human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If we postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until we were secure the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life.’ Life has never been normal.”
Life certainly was not normal in the Fall of 2001, yet I continued to teach my students all sorts of things that were not directly related to the aftermath of September 11th; but they were things that were important, I hope and pray, to their formation as students and, more importantly, as human beings learning to recognize the Divine Image in themselves and others.
And life certainly is not “normal” now, in the Fall of 2021, either: yet I continue to teach, with the same attitude and the same hopes I dreams I started with twenty years ago–and, hopefully, with fewer mistakes and a little more wisdom.
I teach because I believe that CS Lewis is right, and that there is inherent worth and value in helping students to understand and appreciate beauty, truth, and goodness, even when the world seems to be falling apart around them. ESPECIALLY when the world seems to be falling apart around them, in fact.
My life as a priest has been brief, and my life as a teacher has been much longer, but each of these roles informs and engages the other. For me, teaching and priesting are related vocations, like two trees planted close to one another whose branches intertwine.
What both vocations share, the points at which those trees not only intertwine, but grow into one another, is the importance of building relationships of trust, mutual respect, and love with other people, and helping them to do the same.
In both my vocation as a teacher and as a priest, what I am trying to communicate, day in and day out, in different ways depending on my audience but with equal commitment and fervor, is a single and crucial point: that God’s Love for You is not dependent on your outside circumstances, or your inside circumstances. It’s not dependent on your performance in the classroom, and it’s not dependent on your performance in your job.
Simply put, all the ways in which the world measures the VALUE of a human being are NOT the ways in which God measures our VALUE. And for that we should be very THANKFUL indeed. God’s Love for us is beyond what we imagine or what we deserve, and God places infinite value and worth on each one of our lives. And the lives of our neighbors, even the ones WE think don’t deserve that Love, either.
One of my favorite prayers from the Book of Common Prayer is the one entitled “For Young Persons.” Recently I shared this prayer with my seniors at TST–in fact, we ended up spending an entire class period unpacking it. This prayer speaks to the challenges and rewards of being involved in the lives of our students and their families as educators in Episcopal schools–and in many ways, it is my own personal mission statement as a priest involved in the lives of young people as well. It says this:
God our Father, you see your children growing up in an unsteady and confusing world: Show them that your ways give more life than the ways of the world, and that following you is better than chasing after selfish goals.
Help them to take failure, not as a measure of their worth, but as a chance for a new start. Give them strength to hold their faith in you, and to keep alive their joy in your creation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
My goal as a teacher and priest is to show young people that God’s way is life-giving in the midst of the death-dealing ways of this world; that God’s measure of “success” is vastly different from the way this world defines it; that “failure” is not to be avoided but is, in fact, the only way we learn and move forward; that it is possible to keep the faith even in the midst of a world that for our students in particular is often frightening and confusing.
And I deeply desire to point our young people to all the ways in which they can take joy in the world around them and in God’s dearest creations, the people whom God has given them to love.
So much of my ministry here and at TST is about building relationships, because as many of you know, young people are inherently mistrustful of the goodwill and intentions of those around them. And with good reason. Their entire lives have been characterized by the vast confusion in our culture over the past twenty years, confusion and divisiveness and a real crisis over the nature of truth.
Indeed, the world that they have been brought into has become in many ways a picture of what James warns against in our reading from today, a world in which a toxic combination of technology and sin has set ablaze a vast sea of misinformation, of careless and even violent speech, and, in particular, the duplicity of which James speaks in verse 10. From the same mouths often come blessing and cursing, and young people know this and hear this. They have seen the downfall of many Christian leaders across the country due to duplicitous and careless speech.
What I believe young people desire from their leaders more than anything are authenticity and a listening ear. Theirs is a different world than ours, a world that is complex, risky, confusing, and dangerous; a world of mounting and intersecting crises.
While it is tempting to impose our own understanding and experience onto theirs, it is not helpful for them. They need space and room to tell their own stories and to be heard and understood.
In short, that is what stewardship means to me. To be a good steward is to shepherd and guard those things that have been given to us as gifts. Our young people have been given to us as gifts, and my work here in the parish as well as at TST is dedicated to shepherding the good gifts of their lives, their stories, their spiritual journeys.
Part of that stewardship, however, means an openness to the future and to God’s way of working it out that might not always look like what our plan or our understanding tells us. Indeed, this is what Peter seems to realize in our gospel passage for today. As one commentator puts it, “when Peter calls [Jesus] the Messiah, he may have the right title but the wrong understanding of what the title means for Jesus.”
Peter was willing to acknowledge that Jesus was something special, but the cruciform life to which Jesus called him was initially not a very welcome message. And who can blame him, really? To call others to take up their cross, the instrument of torture and pain, is not necessarily a very pleasant or easy thing to do.
Another one of my favorite prayers from the Prayer Book is the prayer we use every Friday in Morning Prayer. It acknowledges that Jesus “went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified”; echoing Jesus’s call to take up our cross and follow him. Yet the conclusion of the prayer asks that God would “mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.”
God wants life and peace for every member of the human family. In God’s Divine and Inscrutable Wisdom, God ordained that the way of life and peace runs through the cross, because in losing our lives for God’s sake, we find our life, our peace, and our joy in God’s resurrecting power. In being faithful to Jesus, we find the kind of liberation and peace we only could have dreamed of.
In being stewards of God’s many gifts to us, we walk the path of faith, which is not certainty about the future and how it might unfold, but trust in the one in whom past, present, and future meet.
We give thanks to God, our pattern and example of stewardship, the one who sets us on the right path and gives us the grace and power to follow into the brightness of God’s future, with us and for us.