Teachable Spirits

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my strength and my redeemer.

As I look out into the congregation, I see many familiar faces. People who have helped form my spiritual tapestry and the spiritual tapestry of All Saints’; your threads and my threads interwoven together to create a beautiful image that couldn’t be formed by ourselves. This is our community, or as we say at Hood College, this is our HOOD!

But, I can’t claim I felt that way when I walked into the parish hall one Friday evening last November. As I entered through the doors into a crowded room of 60 to 70 people, I didn’t recognize anyone by name. I felt uncomfortable in my own church home and it wasn’t until I spotted two Hood students – to whom I immediately approached, that I felt at ease.

The meeting wasn’t a “church” meeting. The leadership of All Saints’ had agreed to provide space for Occupy Frederick to gather and organize. I have to admit that I was a bit uneasy walking into the familiar space. I wouldn’t refer to myself as a “protestor,” one who speaks the truth in nontraditional ways. But I was curious and felt that I had something to learn before I embraced or dismissed what the activists had to say.

The room held people from all walks of life, young and old, veterans, immigrants, Libertarians, Republicans, Democrats, independents, Green Peace members, and even those representing the Tea Party. And what I witnessed was amazing. There, in a room filled with a cross section of America, two young men led the meeting. They welcomed all and laid down some group norms to set the stage. They established time limits for how long one could speak. They asked people not to clap or cheer when they heard something they agreed with, but to shake their hands, as the deaf community does, to show support. The young men explained that clapping and cheering would drown out the voices and may incite more tension or anxiety and that was not the purpose of the gathering. Everyone had an opportunity to speak. I and a few other All Saints’ members sat in the back, clearly indicating that we were there to observe – but definitely not engage. But we were invited – and expected – to speak. My few comments were words of welcome to our guests, some of whom I knew had never before graced the doors of the parish. I said I was there to learn about their cause. At the end of the evening, as I walked away, I realized that I witnessed the presence of the Holy Spirit in that room. Today many people are quick to judge and draw a line in the sand, but what I witnessed that night was a body of diverse and eclectic human spirits who had come together to hear one another and share their dreams and their concerns about our beloved nation.

In today’s Gospel of Mark we begin to experience a transition. In the earlier chapters, Jesus has been working the crowds, healing, praying, and teaching to the masses. He now begins to focus on his disciples speaking only to them. He starts to share with them what is to come, his passion, death, and resurrection. And they just don’t seem to comprehend what is ahead of them. Instead of heeding his words, his small band of followers are focusing on themselves and feeling special. After all, they are in the inner circle – this is their “hood,” their community. A community where they know everyone by name and their leader, Jesus, knows each of them. In fact, in last’s week Gospel, they were caught arguing among themselves as to who was the greatest among them. And this week, they proudly announce to Jesus that they prevented one who was not “one of them” from casting out demons in His name. They must have been surprised by Jesus’ response. Instead of hearing, “Well done, my good and faithful servants,” they are rebuked by him. He goes onto tell them that, “whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:40)

As I reflected on this passage, I couldn’t help but to be taken back to that Friday evening last November. I had heard the snide remarks of some who felt that Occupy Frederick was a band of disorganized, unemployed, good-for-nothing people. Some of our leaders feared this group would let things get out of hand and wanted additional security here at All Saints'. I had conversations with some who were afraid that the protesters would set up camp on the church property. I wondered how many of us were thinking that we had nothing to learn from this group of outsiders, and quite frankly they didn’t belong in OUR house.

Friends, I want us to really listen to this Gospel message. Although this Gospel passage was written over 2000 years ago, I believe Jesus is talking to us today. He is speaking to his “hood,” his community, and his people. Not those on the margins, but his inner circle. Are we hearing his message? It is quite strong. He speaks about our hands causing us to “stumble” or preventing others from hearing his message. The Greek word for stumble is skandalon, meaning stumbling block. Elsewhere in the New Testament Jesus himself is referred to as the stumbling block.

Here he is telling them AND us, that if one of our body parts is being a stumbling block and preventing others from being with HIM, we must get rid of that body part. He isn’t saying that “those out there” are preventing others from hearing his message; he is pointing his fingers at his brothers, telling them not to be the stumbling block to others who want to follow him. By using the imagery of cutting off or out parts of their body, he is making it personal for them, a message that is bound to make them squirm. These are harsh words; it is a difficult message to hear. But he is asking us today, how have we prevented others from hearing his message, because they weren’t one of us?

It wasn’t long ago that I sat with a colleague who was sharing her frustration with me about a student whom she felt was making a bad decision. My friend had the benefit of years of her own experiences to know that the line in the sand the student was drawing was something she would live to regret. My colleague in an exasperated tone said, “She just doesn’t have a teachable spirit.”

A teachable spiritů..we in the academic world are always talking about teachable moments. Those times we have with a student when a light bulb goes off and they see the situation they are in through a different lens. We have all had those moments. But a “teachable spirit” is something that is worth reflecting on. I wonder do you and I have a teachable spirit. Are we willing to hear today’s Gospel message as if Jesus is sitting right here with us, speaking directly to us, to his people? Are we willing to continue to grow in our faith, or do we feel we have learned all we need to know? Do we take the time to listen to the questions our youngest and our oldest members have to say about their faith, perhaps recognizing our own doubts in their words? Do we wait for new people to meet us where we are, instead of going out to meet them? Are we willing to remain open to be transformed by the words of strangers, instead of expecting them to be transformed by ours? Are we quick to find fault with someone else, without looking inward and reflecting on the fact that we may be a part of the problem and the solution. What is Jesus saying to us today – to each and every one of us? Are we being teachable spirits?

My brothers and sisters, we are in a challenging time – just as the disciples were in this Gospel message. As mainline churches shrink in numbers, we can’t be protective of our territory at the cost of excluding others from hearing the Good News. We can’t be quick to point the finger at others for our shrinking numbers. No, pointing fingers would be much too easy.

Being a follower of Jesus is hard work, just because we are a part of a community of faithful followers, doesn’t mean we have arrived. Our work has just begun. Just as Jesus was hoping the disciples would have teachable spirits and take his message out into the world for others to hear, he is telling us we must do the same. I ask you . . . are you willing and able to be a teachable spirit? Are you willing to begin the work of following Jesus - again?

Amen.

—Nancy Hennessey
September 30, 2012