A Place for Learning
Epiphany III (O. T. 3); January 21, 2018
A child who asks good questions and who has good answers to questions can be a real joy and a real pain, right? When you're a pastor or a teacher you can be really energized by a twelve year-old who asks stimulating questions and who has bright ideas; if you're that child's parent it could get a little tiring, I suppose.
These scholars in the Temple were amazed by Jesus' insight, by the questions he asked and the comments he made. It's a fine old Jewish tradition, sitting together and arguing Scripture. Even their classic commentaries – the Talmud – are argumentative. On a page is a piece of Scripture and surrounding it are comments by various rabbis, each giving a different idea of what the Scripture means. So here we have some scholars, hanging out in the Temple during the Passover celebration, having a grand old time wrestling with Scripture. And a twelve year-old boy gets in the act, too. And they are amazed.
This elicits for me so many memories of questions asked me by children. One thing I have not experienced, though, is a conversation of adults around Scripture, in which a twelve year-old takes part. I can see the possibility, though, with a lot of the young people here. A bold young person interested in learning and in participating in a learned conversation… yes, I can see that happening here.
And it should. The church house should be a place for learning. Some comments on what we learn and how we learn it.
Here's a question for you to think about: how did you come to know that God loves you? Or, if that question doesn't work for you, this one: what would help you come to know that God loves you?
I allowed time for people to think about their answer, and then invited them to share it with someone sitting nearby. We did not do a public disclosure.
That's a subset of one of the two categories of things that I suggest we ought to learn in the church house. One of those categories of things is "Relating to God." How does God relate to us? How do we relate to God? You could ask all sorts of fascinating questions, the sort of things Jesus might have asked in the Temple. Does God need our praise? Why do we praise? How do we know God loves us rather than hating us? If God created everything, where did God come from? When, as a college student, I taught Sunday School to twelve year-olds, I remember doing a unit on creation. And one of them asked: What about dinosaurs? I was fascinated by dinosaurs when I was twelve, and so I completely identified with the question. Jesus no doubt asked all sorts of great questions of those wise scholars in the Temple and he also had some interesting ideas.
So, we come to the church house to learn how we relate with God. The other category of things is to learn how we relate with one another. Jesus says, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Well, actually, he's quoting Leviticus. He also says – and this one is original with him – "Love one another as I have loved you." What does that look like? How do I love you as Jesus has loved me? How do you love that nogoodnik as yourself?
Of course, part of what's fun about being in the church is learning other stuff, too. All my years as a pastor I never thought I would learn how to read engineering drawings, but that has been fun. You may have learned how to lead a committee meeting or how to bake unleavened bread. I heard about a young woman who was hired by a large corporation to plan meetings for them; she called her dad and asked, "Where do I learn about planning meetings?" He said, "Get involved with the Presbyterians; nobody knows how to plan meetings like the Presbyterians."
Yes, it's fun to learn other things, but at root we are here to learn how to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength; and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
We learn some of that from Scripture: the Bible's stories and teachings give us great guidance. When Jesus talked about a father who was yearning for his wayward son to come home and how Dad threw off his dignity and ran down the road to greet the boy, he taught us something about the love of God. And when the Book of Leviticus (19:9-10) tells us not to harvest all our grain or all our grapes but to leave some for the widows, the poor, and the aliens, the Bible teaches us something about how to love our neighbors as ourselves. Come to the church house to learn Bible and to learn theology.
But practicing love is what makes it stick. When you are pressured to do something in worship that you're not sure you like, you practice loving God. When you speak clearly, honestly, and without anger to someone in the church who has hurt you, you practice loving your neighbor. Okay, those are the hard examples. You can think of many simpler, happier examples of how coming to the church house has helped you learn to love the Lord your God and to love your neighbor.
Here's one of things I love about being a Presbyterian: when we come to the church house, there is no spot outside where you are supposed to park your brain. In pioneer days, people would carry their rifles with them to church and then leave them at the door; there are, of course, Christian communities that expect you to leave your brain at the door. Don't think, just believe whatever we tell you. That's not our way. Think your way through the stories. Think about what you hear and experience. But learning is more than simply a brain-game: it is pondering what you do and what you see others doing.
And so we ponder what God has done and what God is doing to learn how God loves us and to learn how to love God. And we ponder what we experience of each other and what the Bible tells us about our life together to learn how to love one another. Maybe that's what Jesus and the elders were talking about in the Temple.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master