You Are Students

The Rev. Mary Vano
St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church
October 30, 2011
Proper 26A
Matthew 23:1-12

Today’s Gospel has a lot of “they versus you” language. They teach, you follow. They do not practice, you do not do what they do. They tie up heavy burdens. They are unwilling to lift a finger. They do their deeds to be seen by others. They love to have the places of honor. You, on the other hand, are not to be any of this. You, as Jesus says… “you are all students.”

Whenever we find “us versus them” language, the underlying issue is usually identity. The question is “who are we?” and we seek the answer by distinguishing our group from some other group. This was definitely an urgent question for the young Christian community for which the Gospel of Matthew was written. At the time of its writing, not only had Jesus died and been resurrected, but the Temple in Jerusalem had also been destroyed. The faithful people of Judea were redefining themselves, apart from Jesus, and apart from the Temple. The question, “who are we?” was up for grabs, and in the midst of distinguishing themselves from the Pharisees and the scribes – the teachers of the faith – those early disciples grabbed onto Jesus’ declaration, “You are all students.”

It’s interesting. Most of us will spend 20 or so years working hard in school so that we don’t have to be students anymore. We want to learn to do something, so that we can go out and do it. We want to learn to be one profession or another, so that we can go out and be that person. But I think the implication here is that, if we are to be followers of Christ, there is no graduation. There is no neat division between learning the faith and doing the faith. There is no one moment when you become a Christian and no longer have to learn to be a Christian. As much as we learn, there is always more to discover; as much as we become who God has created us to be, our transformation is never quite complete. In this lifetime, we are all students.

And this is our school. It’s a kind of Montessori school, in which the more experienced students share what they know with the less experienced students. Here, no one is the teacher but Christ. And we learn this faith through one another. Everyone has something to bring to the table. Some are worldly; some are wise. Some are spiritually grounded, and some possess the fresh joy of new-found faith. Some are well-read; others just well-worn with all the rough patches smoothed out by life. Christ has been our teacher, and gives us to one another so that we may continue to learn from each other – not as teachers, but as students.

Of course, as any teacher will tell you, if a student is to learn anything he cannot be passive. A student must participate in her own learning. This is why any good school has expectations of their students. First and foremost, a student must show up to class. Only when we are present to Christ, can we learn as a student. I mean that in both a physical and a spiritual sense. In prayer and in worship we make ourselves present to Christ, who opens our eyes and teaches us to see the world. Showing up is one of the most important attributes of a good student.

But it’s not the only one. Most classrooms have their fair share of warm bodies – so-called students who don’t do much more than breathe the air. A true student – one who learns – must also be engaged. The brain is turned on; the heart is open. There’s willingness and curiosity. The engaged student gives himself over to the process of learning, and when they meet Christ, they will be ready to be changed by that transforming love. This is the gift received by a ready student.

A true student also never stops learning. If we are to be students we cannot become calcified by self-satisfaction or pride. Only the insufferable know-it-alls stop asking questions. We must maintain our curiosity and be willing to ask. For it is those questions that will move us along, and allow us to deepen our faith. We won’t always get answers to our questions, but in the asking, we keep our hearts open and available to God. We’ll never find all the answers we want, but we will discover a more profound connection as students of an All-Knowing God.

Finally, as any teacher will tell you, a good student does their homework. They don’t just come to class for an hour and then forget about it for the rest of the week. Students who don’t do homework won’t get much out of the class. As a student – a follower of Christ – when you show up for prayer and worship, you can’t stop there. To learn compassion, you must practice compassion. To learn mercy, you must practice mercy. To learn gratitude and joy and stewardship, you must practice them. To learn any of it, you have to put God at the center of your life, and allow everything else to follow as an expression of your faith. In this way, Christian faith gives us not just a set of beliefs, but a way of life – because we are students.

Of course, there are plenty of ways to talk about what it means to be a Christian, but as I read today’s Gospel, I thought Jesus’ image of his followers as students was particularly wonderful. As students we’re freed from the false mandate to know everything, or to have all the answers. As students, yes, there are expectations, but all, I think, quite reasonable – to show up, to open our minds and hearts, to ask questions, and to never stop practicing. And for doing these things, the rewards offered are tremendous: we don’t get grades or gold stars, but we gain perspective, transformation, relationship, and a way of life. As much as I’ve always liked getting A’s – these are the things my heart truly desires.

So, I invite you to imagine this Church as your school, a community where you not only learn, but are invited to share the lessons that Christ has taught you as well. Here, when we encourage you to come to worship regularly, it’s because we know that we are all shaped and formed by it every week. When we offer classes, it’s not just so that we can say we have them, but so that we can all keep asking those questions. When we join together to do outreach, it’s not only an opportunity to have an impact on the world, but also to expand our own hearts. And when we ask everyone to pledge, it’s not just so that we can build a budget, it’s because we know that when we give we learn the joy of relying on God more deeply.

This is our school, and we are all students. And in the end, it’s not a question of us versus them. In fact, that was never really the question, because they are us. We are them. Every single one of us, given the opportunity will be tempted to teach rather than to learn. We’ll want to sit in the places of honor and forget to serve. In doing so, we will tie up heavy burdens on our neighbors, forgetting Christ, who says, “Come to me all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” It may look attractive to sit in the places of honor, but only as students at the feet of Christ will we know our burdens relieved. Amen.