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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

September 29, 2013

Scripture:  Matthew 5:1-16


In first grade, I was in Ms. Archer’s class.  She was a great teacher.  My best friend had had her the year before, and I was so excited to follow in her footsteps, because everybody knew that Ms. Archer was the best.  She was warm and kind, creative and encouraging.  She brought the best out of her students, and we all loved her.

She had a saying that she would repeat whenever someone was struggling to grasp a new skill.  It’s a lesson that sticks with me to this day, a message that encourages me even now.  Here’s what she said:  “If you’re doing your best, you’re doing well.”  We didn’t have to read with perfect fluency, or spell every word correctly, or add the numbers exactly right every time—we just had to do our best, each at our own level and in our own time.  “If you’re doing your best, you’re doing well.”

*          *          *

In middle school, I was in Mr. DePalo’s band.  He was a great teacher.  When it was time for our music period, we would come pouring into the band room and pull out our instruments and start blaring away, or goofing off, or talking with our friends… but when he tapped his baton on his big conductor’s stand, we would quiet down and focus in on what he was asking us to do.  He somehow managed to wrangle a hundred or so wild pre-teens into a united ensemble.  Kids responded to him naturally, and here’s why:  because he loved us.

He had high standards and expected us to work hard to meet them.  He could be silly at times, for sure, but when it was time to rehearse, he asked us to focus, and we did, because everything he did, he did with love and appreciation for us.  No matter how mixed-up and hormonal we might be, no matter if we were cool kids or sports kings or drama queens or the nerdiest of the nerds, he loved and respected us, and so we learned to love and respect one another.

*          *          *

In eighth grade, I was in Mrs. Locke’s English class.  She was a great teacher.  We didn’t always like her very much, because she was hard—I mean, hard.  She used some old-school teaching methods that we may not have appreciated very much at the time… but I’ll tell you what, her students learned that grammar and vocabulary like no one else.

We learned to diagram sentences—subjects and verbs, predicates and prepositional phrases; we learned the roots of words that came from Latin and Greek; we learned the difference between transitive and intransitive, definite and indefinite, and much, much more.  And even though she was strict, even though she demanded a lot from us, even though we may not have listed her class among our most favorite periods—in the end, we appreciated her, because we learned a lot from her, and the challenges she issued helped us to grow.

*          *          *

In high school, I was in Mr. Lerner’s biology class.  He was a great teacher.  He thought science was really, really cool, and his enthusiasm was contagious.  He approached everything he did in a spirit of curiosity, of observation, of careful attention, and he taught us to do the same.  His pedagogy focused not on memorizing answers, but on generating questions—on wondering how things work and why they are the way they are, and then coming up with experiments to try to figure things out.

We peered through microscopes and analyzed DNA; we tromped through forests and identified plants; we dissected dead things and tended living things and marveled at the amazing diversity and resilience of life on earth.  Through all that we studied, and more importantly, through spending time with a teacher who was so passionate about his subject, we grew to engage the world with curiosity, and attentiveness, and wonder.

*          *          *

In college, I was in Prof. Lee’s environmental studies class.  He was a great teacher.  He was a brilliant thinker, an eloquent writer, and a compelling speaker—but those were not his greatest gifts.  The most powerful gift he had was the ability to ask just the right question, the question that would unlock the doors when of learning when they seemed to be impossibly stuck shut.

As I was working on my thesis, this was such a blessing to me.  I would come to him frustrated and impatient, having beaten my head against an obstacle all week long.  He would listen while I explained my latest difficulty, and when I had talked myself into silence, out would come the question.  “Have you thought about this?”  “What about that?”  And all of a sudden, my perspective would shift, and I would be able to see around that obstacle to the new ideas beyond.

*          *          *

In divinity school, I was in Prof. Paulsell’s ministry studies class.  She had a wonderfully insightful mind, able to bridge the gap between academic theology and the practice of ministry.  She cared deeply about her students and offered us compassionate support as we wrestled with theological dilemmas and found our way into our vocations.  What I appreciated most about her was what a particularly adept listener she was.

I would meet with her every so often and share stories of what I was doing in my internship, what I was learning in my courses, what I was thinking about and praying about and struggling with in my spiritual life.  And somehow, amidst that tangle of ideas and stories and questions, she would hear what I was most passionate about and reflect it back to me.  Her discerning ear helped me to understand my own call more fully, and to shape my learning in the most helpful ways.  Her wisdom and insight gave clarity and strength to my emerging vocation and helped me to grow into the person God was calling me to be.

*          *          *

Now, I know that many of you are great teachers, and I’m sure that many of you have had the chance to learn from some great teachers, too.  Who was a great teacher in your life?  What did she or he teach you?  How did she or he shape you?  Turn to someone near you now and tell them about it.


[pause for conversation]


With all these great teachers now summoned into our midst, I think it’s safe to say that Jesus is here, too.

Many times in the New Testament, Jesus is described as a teacher.  He taught the disciples; he taught the crowds; he taught in marketplaces and on shorelines and on mountains.  He had a lot to say, and he certainly didn’t mince words in saying it.

In today’s reading, Jesus went up a mountain, and his disciples gathered around him, and he taught them.  He said:


Blessed are the poor in spirit…

Blessed are those who mourn…

Blessed are the meek…

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…

Blessed are the merciful…

Blessed are the pure in heart…

Blessed are the peacemakers…

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…

You are the salt of the earth…

You are the light of the world… 


I don’t know about you, but when I hear these words, I immediately start to wonder whether I fit into them.  Am I poor in spirit?  Am I merciful enough?  Is my heart pure enough?  Am I a dedicated enough peacemaker?  How can I be the salt of the earth, the light of the world?  Could these blessings possibly apply to me?

But you’ll notice that Jesus didn’t say, “If you are merciful enough, you will be blessed,” or, “If you are pure in heart, you will be blessed.”  These were not conditional statements, not prescriptions for blessing to be earned—they were definitive assertions, declarations of blessing already given.  Jesus knew his disciples.  He knew to whom he was speaking.  He knew their characters; he knew their experiences; he knew their questions and doubts and struggles; and he spoke to them directly.

Surely there were some among the disciples who were feeling poor in spirit.  Perhaps Simon Peter was feeling far away from the love of God that day… and Jesus blessed him.

Surely there were some among the disciples who were mourning a loss—a death in their families, or the lives they had left behind to follow Jesus.  Perhaps James and John were missing their father that day… and Jesus blessed them.

Surely there were some who were meek.  Perhaps Andrew was feeling timid and quiet that day… and Jesus blessed him.

Surely there were some who were fired up, hungry and thirsty for righteousness.  Perhaps Matthew was advancing the cause of the poor with passion and commitment… and Jesus blessed him.

Surely there were some who had shown mercy that day.  Perhaps Judas had reached out to a friend or to a stranger in need… and Jesus blessed him.

Surely there were some whose hearts were pure.  Perhaps Thomas was totally focused on God that day… and Jesus blessed him.

Surely there were some who were peacemakers.  Perhaps Philip had resolved a conflict in the group that day… and Jesus blessed him.

Surely there were some who had been persecuted for following this itinerant preacher and healer from Nazareth.  Perhaps Bartholomew was nursing bruises to his body or his ego that day… and Jesus blessed him.

Surely each of Jesus’ blessings went straight to the heart of at least one of those disciples.  But Jesus didn’t bless them privately, with a quiet word whispered in their ear.  He blessed them aloud, publicly, in front of one another, so that they could appreciate one another’s gifts, and empathize with one another’s struggles, and be inspired by one another’s passions.

As the disciples heard Jesus’ words, as he looked around and met their eyes, surely their faces lifted and their backs straightened and their spirits rose, and they found themselves wanting to do what he called them to do… because they knew that Jesus really understood them.  Jesus knew his disciples; he knew to whom he spoke.  He saw his disciples for who they were and for who they could be, and he loved them for it.

And isn’t that what a great teacher does?


The disciples called Jesus “Rabbi,” a Hebrew word that means “My Teacher.”  Not just “Teacher,” but “My Teacher.”  The one who knows me, who understands me, who sees me for who I really am, who loves me… the one I choose to follow.

What might happen if we did the same?  What happens if we look to Jesus not only as a teacher for the whole world, but as a teacher for us, individually?


We just might find that he blesses us, just as he blessed the disciples.

When we are mourning, he just might bless us with comfort.

When we are feeling poor in spirit, far away from the love of God, he just might bless us with the loving presence we seek.

When our hunger and thirst for righteousness fade, he just might bless us with a challenge.

When we make war instead of peace, he just might bless us with a reminder of who we are.

He just might teach us that if we’re doing our best, we’re doing well.

He just might love us, no matter how mixed-up and hormonal we might be, no matter if we are cool kids or sports kings or drama queens or the nerdiest of the nerds.

He just might challenge us so much that we don’t always like him, but we appreciate the way he makes us grow.

He just might spark our spirits to curiosity and attentiveness and wonder at the world around us.

He just might ask us powerful, insightful questions that enable us to see around obstacles to the new ideas beyond.

He just might hear what we are most passionate about, and reflect it back to us, and help us grow into the people God is calling us to be.

For Rabbi Jesus, Our Great Teacher, is the one who knows us, who understands us, who sees us for who we really are, who loves us and blesses us always.

If that sounds like a class you’d like to take…  If that sounds like an advisor you’d like to have…  If that sounds like a teacher you’d like to learn from…  If that sounds like a leader you’d like to follow… then say Amen.