When the Teacher Sleeps in Class
Who was the finest teacher of your childhood or youth? What was her name? Why was she such a fine a teacher? Did he lecture with passion and eloquence like Dean Fowler when I was an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary? Did she have the magic words to explain iambic pentameter to a fifth-grade mind as did Mrs. Waggle? What made your finest teacher so fine?
I ask those questions because in Mark’s Gospel his favorite term to describe Jesus is “Teacher.” He refers to Jesus as “Teacher” no less than twelve times in sixteen chapters. So, you might think that with Jesus as “Teacher,” this Gospel would be filled with Jesus teaching ethics lessons like the Sermon on the Mount, but no, he gives that lesson in Matthew’s Gospel. You might also expect that this Gospel would be filled with Jesus recounting memorable parables like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, but no, those stories are found in Luke’s Gospel alone. Jesus may be the “Teacher” in Mark, but he teaches in very unconventional ways.
We live in a time when those inside and outside the church tend to understand this “Teacher” called Jesus in one of two ways. One group sees Jesus as their own spiritual guru, someone with an answer ready for every overwhelming dilemma, if only you have a close personal relationship with him, whatever that means. Another group sees Jesus as elite among other elite teachers, a scholar worth adding to your “favorite” list, a favorite teacher, but nothing more.
The “Teacher” we meet in Mark fits neither description. Nor does he look anything like Jesus, the “Teacher” I met in my boyhood Sunday School classes in Newport News. The Jesus of my childhood was a competent teacher, white, of course, polite and respectful and about as interesting as watching grass grow.
The “Teacher” we meet in Mark’s Gospel is many things, but boring and placid, magical or one among many other similar teachers, are not on the list. In this first Gospel, Jesus is not yet dry from stepping out of the Jordan before the Spirit of God shoves him into the wilderness for a rugged version of teacher training. Jesus is no sooner out of the wilderness before he is pulling fishers from their nets and families, taking them on a road trip to God-knows-where, just as he takes anyone, then and now, who is willing to learn and follow at the feet of this “Teacher.”
It takes four chapters into Mark before Jesus is first called “Teacher” and when it happens, the “Teacher” is fast asleep in class. A violent sea storm is tossing about the boat with Jesus and the disciples in it in, and Jesus is snoring in the back of the boat.
Brian Blount observes, “The disciples are ‘out to sea’, literally and figuratively, when a squall threatens to capsize the boat. And, what does the Teacher do in this `teachable moment?’ He sleeps. They panic. He sleeps. How does Jesus teach faith? He sleeps. That DOES something in the disciples. They want to know more. That’s the greatest measure of good teaching – students want to know more! In this case, they want to know WHY?” (Blount and Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices).
It is not the last time these frazzled disciples are going to ask Jesus WHY. In the next chapter, Jesus leads them to a place where every teacher in school had told them NOT TO GO, but this teacher goes anyway. Later, Jesus leads them to Jerusalem even though common sense says never to sail into a storm. Defying common sense, this teacher sails straight in.
In Mark’s Gospel, if you want to know what Jesus teaches, you have to pay attention to how he lives, where he goes, and with whom he gathers. You want to know what Jesus teaches? Watch him. Watch him tear down long-standing boundaries between Jew and Gentile, between male and female, between wealthy and impoverished. Watch him hold onto a leper and rather than he being made ritually unclean, he makes the leper clean.
To learn from this Teacher is to DO the faith and when you DO the faith you find out what the Teacher already knows who is asleep in the boat. The Teacher knows that the greatest impediment to learning about faith and living in faith for the disciples in that storm-tossed boat is not ignorance, but fear and hopelessness. It is no surprise, then, that when the “Teacher” does finally arise from his nap, the first question he asks this group of students is: “Why are you afraid?”
To me, that has always felt like a bit of an unfair question. Had I been in the boat, I suspect I would have said something snarky like, “Jesus, we are about to sink and drown, how else should we feel?!” But this parable in Mark is not nearly so obvious or literal. It is a parable full of paradox, a parable that says if you want to follow this Teacher, you will often find yourself facing squalls, engaging fear and hopelessness in the world and in you. The parable is not so much about the panicked question the disciples ask the Teacher, but the direct question he asks them after achieving a dead calm, “How will you navigate the storm from a posture of faith?”
The storm still surges and there is still plenty of fear and hopelessness to engage. Some are afraid, hopeless that partisan politics in America can ever be less toxic. Some are afraid, hopeless that we will ever crash through the brick wall dividing gay and straight, liberal and conservative, privileged and not-so-privileged. Many are afraid, hopeless about the test results they are awaiting.
Fear constricts our hearts and hopelessness calcifies our brains. Israelis and Palestinians live in existential fear of what the other side will do next. Fear of not being tough enough on illegal immigrants led elected officials in the U.S. to separate infants from their parents. Fear leads us to say things that we should never say and hopelessness leads us to conclude that how we speak to one another really does not matter. Fear is a regular companion on life’s journey and hopelessness often finds deluxe lodging in our souls.
The early church loved the story of Jesus calming the sea. It often pictured the church as a boat in the midst of a storm being stilled by the “Teacher” asleep in class. The disciples wake him up and want to know if he is going to do something because they are sinking. He stills the storm and asks them, “When you are going to stop living in fear and start living in faith? When are you going to do something?”
To follow this “Teacher,” says Mark, is to DO the faith. This “Teacher” does not simply convey information from a pulpit, shaking his head with dismay while a broken world remains broken. This “Teacher” does something about our brokenness, and anyone who follows Jesus will DO the same, knowing that the One who casts out demons from the troubled sea has far more demons waiting to cast out in us, in the church, and in the world. When you and I follow this “Teacher” we can let him finish his nap, no matter what the squall; we can let go of the fierce grip of fear and the disabling hold of hopelessness on us, because this “Teacher” has grabbed hold of us.
We can get moving because this “Teacher” was and is always on the move. We can get moving beyond this lovely, historic sanctuary because this “Teacher’s” classroom spills out from in here to out there where the demons of poverty rob people of hope and humanity; where the demons of war deceive people into thinking that more weapons will make us safer; where the demons of racism and prejudice harden our hearts, blinding us to see God’s image in each other; where the demons of affluence whisper that there is no problem we face that cannot be solved with just a little more cash and a little more privilege.
Class begins when you and I walk out of this sanctuary, not in fear, not in hopelessness, but in faith. We leave ready to learn from, be inspired by, be transformed by the finest “Teacher” I have ever known.