In Praise of Teachers

September 9, 2018 — Rev. Paula Norbert


We are now past Labor Day and schools at almost every level are back in session.  Even if it has been years since we have attended school, I think it’s hard to forget the mixed emotions of back to school time as September comes around again.  Since I am a former teacher, married to a teacher, and have two children in high school now, I could feel all of the anxiety and excitement that the start of a new year of school brings.  For many, it often feels more like a new start than even the New Year on January 1st.  I find myself remembering some of the great teachers of my own life at this time with gratitude for so much of what they offered to me in my life.  Let us pray, O God of love and mercy, we gather today as a worshipping community and as a learning community as we seek to grow in faith and love in you and one another.  May our time today be a source of enrichment, of inspiration and of hope.  Amen.

I imagine that if I asked each of you to name a few of your all-time favorite teachers, you could still bring back their names to memory, perhaps along with a face and a quality that they shared with you.  I really believe that I was fortunate to have many teachers over the years who inspired me, challenged me, and believed in me and that made such a big difference in my life.  From my first grade teacher, Mrs. Drake to Mr. Walker and Mr. Gribbon in high school to Dr. Green and Fr. Manning in college and so many more, I have such respect for their dedication, their intelligence, and their inspiration.  Let’s pause a moment so you may bring to mind a special teacher from your past.  While we know that not all teachers are superb, there are many heroes out there who devote their lives to their students and I’d like to think about some of those teachers today and some of the spiritual teachers from our lives as well.  For we might also consider who it was that taught us about God and faith and love and community.  Who were some of the people who inspired us along the way in our respective spiritual journeys?  There is an expression that says that ‘faith should be caught and not taught’ and that underscores the importance of people living out their faith in explicit ways that allow others, especially those who are younger than us to catch some of that spiritual meaning and purpose, to become seekers and explorers, and to try to integrate their faith into their daily lives through compassion and love and justice and prayer and so many other ways that help make our world a better, more loving place.

Over the centuries, there have been many outstanding teachers who have touched the lives of those who came to know them.  Confucius was born in 551 BC in the Chinese state of Lu. He began teaching at 20 years of age and became an influential Chinese philosopher, teacher and political figure. His theories and principles were spread throughout China, and many people learned from his wise sayings.

“They must often change, who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.”

“It is not possible for one to teach others who cannot teach his own family.”

“The one who knows right principles is not equal to the one who loves them.”

Many of the Chinese Proverbs we often hear can be traced back to the wise teachings of Confucius. He was a teacher of great wisdom.

The one who came to be called the Buddha lived around 5oo BCE.  Although born a prince near the border of Nepal and India, he realized that experiences could not provide lasting happiness or protection from suffering. After a long spiritual quest, he entered into deep meditation, where he realized the nature of the mind. It was then that he achieved the state of unconditional and real happiness: the state of enlightenment, of buddhahood. This state of mind is free from disturbing emotions and expresses itself through fearlessness, joy and active compassion. For the rest of his life, the Buddha taught anyone who asked how they could reach the same state.  “I teach because you and all beings want to have happiness and want to avoid suffering. I teach the way things are.”– The Buddha

In 1589 Galileo became a professor of Mathematics at Pisa. He proved that light objects dropped from a height would hit the ground at exactly the same time as a heavier weight dropped at the same time, from the same height.  In 1609, he invented the telescope. That  same year, he became the first person to study the surface of the moon using his telescope.  As Galileo continued studying the moon, Saturn, Venus and the sun he observed that Copernicus’s theory that the earth, and all the other planets revolved around the sun, and not the other way around as most believed.

This observation shook the established church and their belief that earth, and humanity, were at the center of creation. The church called Galileo’s theory heresy. After a trial, Galileo was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Because of his age and poor health, he was eventually allowed to serve the remainder of his sentence under house arrest. He died nine years later.

Galileo’s contribution to humanity, was more than his discoveries, but his persistence to teach truth in the face of adversity and at great personal cost.

He was a teacher of the strongest convictions.

Sir Isaac Newton was the Father of the laws of motion and gravity that were foundational to later inventions such as flight, and even space travel. He saw beyond what others could see.  He was a teacher possessing great vision.

Albert Einstein was a Professor in many outstanding institutions in Prague, Zurich, Berlin, and Princeton. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. It took great effort for Einstein to be able to communicate with people who less intellectually gifted than he. He had to find ways to help others understand what was basic for Him.

He was a teacher of rare intelligence.

Mahatma Gandhi was a great spiritual teacher as well as a great leader to his people as he pioneered non-violent protests in India to enable them to win their independence from Great Britain.  He shared that wonderful expression, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”  He was a teacher of hope and non-violence.

Mother Teresa (1910–1997) was a Catholic nun who devoted her life to serving the poor and destitute around the world. She spent many years in Calcutta, India where she founded the Missionaries of Charity, a religious congregation devoted to helping those in greatest need. In 1979, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and became a symbol of charitable, selfless work. In 2016, Mother Teresa was named a Saint.  Mother Theresa taught by example and many were profoundly influenced by her devotion to the poor that they traveled to witness her work and join her in her efforts.  She once said,

“It is not how much we do,
but how much love we put in the doing.
It is not how much we give,
but how much love we put in the giving.”

Jesus is often referred to as “The Master Teacher”.  He is addressed as “Teacher” twenty-nine times in the Gospels. The noun (teacher) and verb (teach) combined are used of Jesus some ninety times.

  • Master of the Object Lesson.

Mustard seed, mountain, fig tree, water into wine, dirt/saliva

  • Master of Communication.

– Was heard. Talking on flat place, “Can I use your boat? Push out a little. There he taught the crowd.”

Sermon on the Mt. Up on a high place. Could be heard by all.

– He was clear to those who had “ears to hear”

– When it was vital, he made it easy to understand.

– Children, educated and uneducated alike understood.

  • Master of Surprise. Kept everyone awake and engaged. Teachers sometimes find that to be a challenge. (Adapted from reflections by Rev. Art Good)

It’s interesting that as I undertook a search to discover the names of great teachers and especially great spiritual teachers, there were very few women who were named and yet, my guess is that a majority of us sitting here today would name our mothers and grandmothers among our best teachers, both in life and in faith, and that we would recall the names of inspiring women who worked every day in elementary and secondary classrooms throughout the years and did so often with very low pay and hard earned respect.

And we may think about the women who pioneered to find their way into the ranks of higher education, who became writers and thinkers and scientists, and poets and artists and musicians and who have shared their vision and their craft with those who were lucky enough to have them as a teacher.

What are the qualities of great teachers, we might ask?  I believe that we are born with an innate curiosity to learn about our world and that early on, that can be nurtured and expanded upon, so that when new vistas are opened up for us, whether it is exploring the woods or our own back yards or visiting museums or new places or being exposed to great music and poetry, seeds are sewn within us and we embark on the quest for knowledge, for wisdom.

Along the way, if we are fortunate to have teachers who continue to nurture that curiosity, who can expand our sense of the world along with helping us gain confidence in who we are, that we move forward on a journey of exploration.  We begin to understand how we may travel by reading books and that our hearts may be touched by listening to a beautiful piece of music or the waves crashing on the beach and we come to a sense of how amazing it is to think and ask questions and listen to our minds, our hearts, our spirits as they continue to open.

In the beautiful piece today from Pablo Casals, he reminds us that it is not only important to teach information and ways to think, but also to teach young people what they are, who they are, that in all the world, there is no one like them, no one like us, in fact.  As I listen to that beautiful reflection, I imagine that is the message of God to us from the time of our birth throughout all the days of our lives, “Do you know what you are?  You are a marvel.”

We have been richly blessed by many teachers in our lives.  My hope is that we may always be open to new learning, new wisdom and new inspiration and that, at our core, we always remember that we are a marvel, that we have gifts to share and that we too have much to teach.