A Teachable Moment

(This message was given on May 14th at a gathering of the New Theological Seminary of the West community at La Canada Presbyterian Church. It was my first public engagement as president of the seminary.)

Thank you all for your warm welcome. I’ve been on the job for about two weeks now, but already it’s such a gift to be able to serve the New Theological Seminary of the West. There is such an excitement and sense of vision for the way we can offer ministry training to a new generation of leaders—training that is practical and rooted in the best of what theological education has to offer.

In my family we’re still getting used to life in the US after almost nine years in London. We loved our neighborhood and our friends—we enjoyed the lifestyle there. My son, who’s now 16, grew up in London—he was 6 years old and about halfway through first grade when we moved.

When you move into a new neighborhood or a new country, you try to listen for things that help you understand or settle into the culture. We watched British TV—in-between reruns of Friends—and read British newspapers. When you live in a new place you have two choices: hold on to what you miss so tightly that you never really settle in, or embrace where you are and learn how to be not just a visitor, but a resident. When you have kids who are learning a new place you look for teachable moments—times when something about where you live can help you explain a life lesson.

I say all that because when we first moved to London there were news stories about how red-headed kids were being bullied at school. They were teased, or worse, for the color of their hair—the insulting slang term was “Ginger”. Now at first I didn’t see the problem, but then again I grew up with Gilligan’s Island, and no one teased Ginger for being, well, a ginger.

So one morning my son and I were on one of those red double-decker buses on the way to school. We were talking and joking a little, and that day we were listening to music on an iPod with a splitter so we could listen to the same songs.

I noticed a woman getting on the bus who had red hair. In my head I was thinking of all the teasing she must have endured as a schoolgirl—being called “Ginger” and having a miserable childhood. I thought to myself that this was one of those teachable moments between father and son—that this was the time when I would make sure that my son never teased someone because of the color of their hair. I leaned over to Ian and said: “See that woman with the red hair? Isn’t she beautiful?”

Ian looked over at me—he had one earbud still in his ear so he had no idea how loud he was talking—he looked over at me and said in full voice:

“Daddy, you’re married.”

I froze. My face turned bright red. I was hoping there weren’t any members of my church there. I put my earbuds back in. So much for having a teachable moment.

This is just one of the many reasons I was never tempted to write a book about parenting. Or marriage.

Our text today is 2 Tim 2:1-2

You then, my child, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.  And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.

The early church was focused on making sure there were teachers and leaders for the next generation. Between Roman persecutions and the lack of a printing press, the leaders of the church in those first few centuries knew that they had to make sure there were always new people to carry on the message of the Gospel.

The Pastoral Epistles, probably written by a follower of Paul or someone in his circle, is about shaping and encouraging a young leader for the task ahead. For us, as leaders of a seminary that trains church leaders, these are valuable words.

Just a few details about the text here.

First, that reference to “be strong” is actually “be strengthened”—it’s in the passive voice. Why is that important? Because our strength for this work and for our daily lives doesn’t come from ourselves, it comes from God. We don’t make ourselves strong on our own. God strengthens us for the journey.

Second, in that second verse, the writer mentions “the things you have heard me say.” It’s crucial for us to remember that this business of passing on the gospel isn’t doctrinal or institutional. It’s personal—we learn it best when it’s shared from person to person—from life to life, and not simply from books or traditions or denominations.

Finally, that part about the “presence of many witnesses” should stand out to all of us. Never forget that the word we translate as “witness” is “marturas,” the word that became “martyr” for us in English. Teaching the good news of the gospel comes with a cost—don’t ever forget that. I’m guessing they probably didn’t mention that in the application materials for the seminary.

This is what Paul and his disciples were all about—teaching the gospel to the next generation. Paul spent his life preaching and teaching on extended journeys around the Mediterranean world—those maps in the back of our Bibles show the places Paul traveled to.

Paul was committed to entrusting the legacy of his faith in Jesus Christ. Paul spent his time training younger leaders to go out and do ministry. Paul was a new kind of seminary all by himself.

My grandmother emigrated from Italy when she was almost 40 years old. Because she made the move so late in life, she never really learned to speak English very well. But she was wise and faithful and funny, and the more I learned to speak and understand Italian, the more connected to her I felt.

Once I asked her if she would teach me how to bake these cookies she always had at her house. I thought it would be a fun thing to do together. She was reluctant at first, but she gave in after a while. We tried to write the recipe down, but the measurements were too informal—it was impossible to learn how to add a handful here, a pinch there, which was how my grandma baked.

Finally I decided we were going to videotape the whole process, which changed everything. She walked me through the process, chatting and laughing along the way, and in the end we not only had a batch of great cookies, but I had a precious record of my relationship with my grandmother.

Paul was different—he wasn’t reluctant at all about sharing his faith. We know from the rest of his letters and from Luke’s story in Acts that Paul was a passionate communicator of the Gospel. He shared the good news with anyone who would listen. That’s what his life was all about.

But in our text we see a different part of what Paul’s followers were trying to do. They knew that if the world was going to hear the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ, then they were going to need a lot more teachers to get the job done.

“And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.”

The reminder to Timothy was that part of his job was to train up good, faithful, reliable people to continue to grow the church.

This is what I love about the New Theological Seminary of the West, because this nation and this world aren’t hearing much good news from Christians these days.

On one side we hear an expression of the faith that is so bound up in rules and behaviors and boundaries—so obsessed with who’s in and who’s out—that there isn’t much good news in their message at all.

On the other we see an expression of the faith that empties the biblical message of its supernatural power—that works so hard to explain away the unexplainable that in the end most of their system would work whether God existed or not.

We’re going to be better than that.

We’re going to be a place where being faithful doesn’t mean dividing the world into Us and Them.

We’re going to be a place where being progressive doesn’t mean we give up on the saving message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This is our teachable moment, and we’re not going to let it pass by.

We won’t ignore the radical inclusion of the gospel of Jesus Christ, just as we won’t gut that gospel of its transforming power for our lives and our culture and our world.

Instead, we’ll entrust that amazing message to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others. We’ll entrust it to our students, who will go out and share that message in their churches and homes and neighborhoods and businesses. We may not finish this job, but we’re not going to hinder it, not on my watch.

When I go back and watch that video of my grandmother teaching me how to bake, one of the things I notice is that she explains everything in Italian. My own Italian is pretty rusty, and I don’t always catch everything. That makes me do the work to understand what she’s saying—I have to conform my ears to her words, so that I get the recipe right for those delicious cookies.

We’re going to do that work here at the New Theological Seminary of the West.

We all bring our own histories and even our biases to this Kingdom work—that’s what makes it fun and interesting—we all bring ourselves to this community project, but we’re going to shape our hearts and minds to the gospel, and reflect it through our own personalities and our character. We’re going to do the work to understand the gospel as it has been entrusted to us in the best way we can, so that we can be authentic and effective teachers and leaders.

Tomorrow is Pentecost Sunday. It’s a day when we remember the gift of the Holy Spirit—the gift that energized and empowered the church to go out and share the message of the gospel with the whole known world.

That Spirit is ours now. It brought us to this place and it shapes us into the disciples God made us to be. The calling on us is to allow that Spirit to work in us and through us to train up the next generation of servants to the church. We do that as people who are strengthened by God, who are willing to live and teach relationally with our students, and as people who are willing to bear the cost as witnesses to the gospel.

That’s our gift to each other as a community, and it’s our gift to the church of Jesus Christ.

To the glory of God alone. Amen.

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