By Rev. Joseph Connolly
“And so when Jesus went ashore, there was a crowd waiting; and the Rabbi felt compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So then Jesus began to teach them many things.” — Mark 6:34.
I would place a bet what I am about to say is true for many of us. There are people in our lives with whom we have a connection and the only way I have of describing that connection is it is in some way ethereal.
What does that mean? Again a description— sometimes this kind of connection means when that other person is in pain we feel it. It’s a long story and I will not get into it now but I had that kind of connection with my grandfather, my father’s father.
There are other kinds of connections too. Here’s one: it’s when you fully understand what another person says, as they say it. But even that kind connection, one grounded in communication, is in some way ethereal.
That’s the kind of connection I had with one of my professors at Bangor Theological Seminary, Dr. Ann Johnston. Ann was a fascinating individual. A Roman Catholic nun, she held a Ph.D. in Hebrew Scriptures, was fluent in ancient Hebrew and was, despite being a Roman Catholic nun, teaching at a Main Line Protestant Seminary.
Ann and I had similar backgrounds which perhaps made connections possible on a number of levels. There was the obvious one. She was Roman Catholic. I came to maturity, was raised in that tradition. But she also grew up in New York City, as did I.
She has a sibling who lives in the Saranac Lake area, as do I, so we both know what that neck of the woods is about. In any case, for reasons beyond me— although I think at least some of the aforementioned background must have played into it— we understood one another, we communicated on many levels.
Let me tell story about that. Any student graduating from High School and attending college should visit a school in which they have an interest, meet a professor or two. It’s also wise for a prospective seminary student to visit a seminary, meet a professor or two. And so, I visited Bangor Seminary where I had a chat with Ann.
Not a fifteen minutes into our discussion— and this was the first time we ever met— she tilted her head a little to the side and said, “Joe, I think you need to be ordained.” My memory to say nothing of my brain was immediately thrust back about fifteen years to when the Rev. Carol Anderson, the second woman officially ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church and my pastor, said to me, “Well Joe, when are you going to become a priest?”
Back to my relationship with Ann— I suppose the bottom line is we could hear what one another said clearly. Here’s an example of that.
Ann would give verbal instructions as to what she might want to see in a given assignment, a paper. Once, she came into the classroom looking chagrined.
She announced nearly everyone in the class was going to have to re-do the paper we had all handed in a week before. She apologized, said since so many of us had not returned a paper she deemed adequate, it must have been her fault. She must have given poor instructions.
She then told us she had written extensive comments on the papers she was handing back in the hope this would help. At that point she went around the room handing back papers with comments scrawled across the sheets.
She had said, however, not all the papers needed to be redone. She said nearly everyone was going to have to re-do the paper.
When she gave me my paper at the top of the first page I found scrawled in red the grade of A+. She made some other comments throughout the text, as she always did. But the A+ stopped me cold.
I never had the nerve to ask Ann what it was I did right. I have always, however, attributed the success of that paper to the fact that when she said something I heard it fully. We connected on some level beyond any logical explanation. (Slight pause.)
We hear these words in Mark: “And so when Jesus went ashore, there was a crowd waiting; and the Rabbi felt compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So then Jesus began to teach them many things.” (Slight pause.)
For me the story I just told about Ann Johnston and myself raises three questions. First, does one study with a professor, a teacher, or does one study under a teacher? I think that answer is evident. Unless you work together, work with a teacher, deep learning will not be accomplished.
Learning is, you see, not about acquiring a set of facts. Facts are often readily available. Learning is discovering how to think, not what to think.
And it is a mistake for a student or a teacher to think learning is like filling an empty gas tank. Any student, even the youngest, comes to any learning situation with knowledge and experience. So learning is not filling a tank. It’s designing a new one.
Second, what can you learn from a professor, a teacher? Surely there are limitations, no matter how solid the personal connection. Yes, there are limitations, especially if we’re talking about how to think. I’ve always said you learn what you can from a given teacher. You leave the rest, what cannot learn from that teacher, behind.
From the perspective of the student that means you first need to understand how you think, your methods and patterns of thinking, before you can learn different methods and patterns of thinking with which a teacher might help you. It is, of course, hard to break out of current methods and patterns. However, I would suggest when you do get to those new patterns of thinking is when learning truly begins.
The last question I want to raise is, I hope, obvious. What kind of effort, what kind of involvement is necessary on the part of the student?
That brings me to the story we heard about Jesus, the disciples and the crowd who followed them to a remote, deserted place. I think we too often read this story with Twenty-first Century eyes and we, therefore, miss something vital.
We presume Jesus, the teacher, is the sole driver of the story. What we miss is how the crowd is involved, drives the story, the eagerness of each individual in the crowd, their willingness, their journey to that remote, deserted place. For me that willingness to go to a remote, deserted place tells us something different, something new, a new way of thinking, a new way of life, is being sought by these people.
So, let me repeat something I said earlier. Learning is not about acquiring a set of facts. Learning is about discovering— eagerly discovering— how to think, not what to think.
And that’s another Twenty-first Century mistake we make as we read this the story. We assume Jesus, the disciples, the teachers, are merely dispensers of facts.
No! After all, what is Christianity about? Is Christianity about a set of facts? Or is it about a new way of life, a new way of thinking, a new way to think about the call of God on our lives and the call of God on the life of the world?
Is Christianity about the Realm of God, the Dominion of God being present to us and about our participation in the Realm of God, the Dominion of God here and now? Is Christianity about being empowered to live into that Realm, that Dominion, that new way of thinking, or is it simply an ability to spout facts, recite Bible verses? (Slight pause.)
In a couple minutes we will invite those who have volunteered to be leaders in the Vacation Bible School, Rolling River Rampage, forward. We shall pray with them. They shall pray with us. I ask that you hold them and the lives they will touch in your hearts and prayers as they help the participants in this year’s journey of learning.
But I also ask that you understand what education is really about. It’s not about facts. Yes, facts are important. But how you think about facts is more important. Frankly, I believe if there is any deficit in Twenty-first Century thinking it is our lack of critical thinking.
How so? We do not seem to realize Christianity isn’t about facts. Christianity is about our involvement in seeking a new way of thinking, a new way of life. Christianity is about being empowered to live into the Realm of God, the Dominion of God. Christianity is about God Who invites us to a new way of thinking, a new way to see life.
This new way of thinking and seeing life is called covenant love— love of neighbor, love of God. And from what I see and hear in Twenty-first Century society, love of neighbor, love of God would appear to me to be in short supply. So, indeed, love of neighbor, love of God is, for Twenty-first Century society, a new way to think, a new way to see life, a new way for us to understand God is present with us— here, now. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York.
A Union Service with the First Baptist Church of Norwich, the VBS Kick-off Service.
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “The text from Mark says the people (quote:) ‘…were like sheep without a shepherd.’ But again our Twenty-first Century way of thinking does not understand what’s happening here. The text also says the people needed a shepherd. A shepherd is not someone who dominates and orders others around. A shepherd is someone who guides, helps. Jesus is a shepherd, a guide, a teacher who helps us to seek new ways of thinking, new ways of seeing the Realm of God, the Dominion of God.”
BENEDICTION: This is the blessing used by natives of the islands in the South Pacific: O Jesus, please be the canoe that holds me up in the sea of life. Please be the rudder that keeps me on a straight path. Be the outrigger that supports me in times of stress. Let Your Spirit be the sail that carries me though each day. Keep me safe, so that I can paddle on steady in the voyage called life. God of all, bless us all so we may have calm seas, a warm sun and clear nights with star filled skies. Amen.