Sunday’s Sermon – From an Old History Teacher


Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, July 17, in Two Ridges Presbyterian Church, Wintersville, Ohio and Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. You can find other sermons, devotions, essays, articles, and announcements on The Cove Community blog. 

If you find this sermon meaningful, please consider supporting this ministry by sending an offering to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.

Romans 10:9-17

If you acknowledge with your mouth the Lord Jesus and trust in your heart that God raised him from death, you will be saved. For with the heart, a person trusts which leads to righteousness, and with the mouth, a person acknowledges which leads to salvation. For the scriptures say, "All who trust in him will not be shamed." For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek. For he is lord of all, he who makes rich all who call on him. For "all who call upon the  Lord's name will be saved."

Now how will they call on him in whom they don't trust? And how might they trust in whom they haven't heard? And how might they hear without a preacher? And how might they preach unless they might be sent? Just as it has been written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news." But not everyone has responded to the good news. For Isaiah says, "Lord, who trusts in our message?" Trust comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

From an Old History Teacher

In George Bernard Shaw’s great drama, Man and Superman, when one character says, “I’m so discouraged. My writing teacher told me my novel is hopeless;” another responds by saying, “Don’t listen to her, Bob. Remember: those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Now that’s what he wrote. And it personally hurts because I was a teacher.

Of course, I recognize that if Shaw had really wanted to twist the knife he could have continued: “and those who can’t add or spell, those who are mechanically challenged or scientifically dense, I talking about those who assume that a zygote is an alien from Star Wars and parallax is something you take when you have digestive problems, these fine upstanding folks teach...history. And you can trust me when I say that, because I was a history teacher, and I still can’t add or spell or yada, yada, yada.

But I don’t want you to think teaching history is all bad; there are some definite perks. I mean, even though we don’t get the respect given to our colleagues who teach all those unnecessary subjects like science or English or math, we in the field know that history teachers have mastered complex material. And we’ve learned to communicate that material to others in a way that’s exciting. And we’re absolutely sure that we’re loved by our students. There’s something else you need to know about history teachers, we have rich fantasy lives. Oh well, such is life.

But I’ll tell you, after all this sarcasm, there really is one thing you can say about history that doesn’t apply to the other stuff kids get in school. You see, what makes history special is that it has to be taught. Now let me tell you what I mean. If you’re talking about the sciences, you can conceivably figure that out on your own. I mean, that’s how science advances, right; with people researching and testing and coming to a conclusion. And doesn’t all mathematics start with “if I have one apple and you give me another I’ll have two apples”? And my gosh, if you’ve got enough monkeys and enough typewriters and enough time, one of them’s going to write Hamlet. Now, don’t get me wrong, building on the ideas of others will make the process go faster, much faster, and that involves teaching. Still, conceivably it could be done by me sitting under a tree, holding one apple and then having another hit me on the head. You see, science and math and English are grounded in ideas and concepts and principles.

But that’s not the case with history. No, history is grounded on people and places and events, all of which are involved in real time. I mean, if we want to understand what the election of 1828 might teach us about what’s politically happening in our country right now, no amount of experimentation, no amount of calculation, no amount of meditation is going to give you an answer, if you don’t know anything about the election of 1828. I mean, dah. You see, there’s only one way to learn history; it’s got to be taught. And this teaching can be done by a person in a classroom, with leather patches on his corduroy jacket, or by a program on television or by a really good book, but is all comes out the same. You see, if you want someone to learn the history our country or the history of our church or the history of our families, someone has got to teach it.

And I’ll tell you, I think it’s exactly the same with Christianity. Christianity just has to be taught, because it isn’t grounded in an idea. And it isn’t grounded in a concept. And it isn’t grounded in a set of ethical principles, although sometimes we act like it is. No, unlike any other religion that I know of, it isn’t about philosophy or theology or morality. I’m telling you, given enough time we can figure out for ourselves the fundamental nature of existence and of God and of what’s right and wrong. And we can discuss it and debate it until the cows come home. But we can’t do that with Christianity, and here’s why. At it’s core, Christianity is about a person, not an idea, but a person who lived in part of the eastern Roman Empire around the beginning of what we now call the “common era.” And it’s about what he taught: about how, “...after John was arrested, [he] came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’” and how he told his followers exactly what being a disciple was all about when he said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” and how, when he was asked about which law was most important, he said, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these”. Now that’s what he said. But you know, more important than what he taught, Christianity is all about what this person did, you know, how he was nailed to a cross, for crying out loud, to save the people who drove the nails and how he was raised by the power to God to show that we could all look forward to our own resurrections and how he ascended back into heaven so that we could feel a genuine sense of peace, knowing that we’re praying to a God who really does know our doubts and fears and pain. You see, Christianity is about the word becoming flesh and literally pitching his tent among us. Man, it’s about Jesus Christ.

And I’ll tell you, this is something that those guys we talked about last week, you know, the ones Jesus called to be fishers of people, it’s something they recognized. I mean, just listen to what Peter said soon after Jesus died. This is part of the sermon he preached on the Day of Pentecost. He said, “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know—this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” You see, Christianity is about Jesus, and because it’s about Jesus, it’s also about history.

And I’ll tell you, because it’s about history, this stuff about Jesus, man, it has got to be taught. There’s just no other way. Man, we can’t understand Jesus by sitting under a tree, even a lotus tree, and thinking about why things are the way they are. And we can’t understand him by grazing into the heavens and mediating on the being of God. We can’t understand him by looking around the world and developing a system so that we live better lives. No, to understand Jesus, we’ve got to learn the story. I mean, we need to make the intentional decision to come to church on Sunday and listen to the sermon, what a radical thought, or to attend a study on Sunday or during the week or to listen to a good, solid Bible lesson offered on television or on DVD or in a podcast or, and this one is really easy, to find a Bible that’s written in a language that people living in 2016 can understand and then to read it, not just carry it around. We need to learn.

And I’ll tell you, once we’ve done that, then we’ll be able to make the decision to trust: to trust that the story is true and meaningful, to trust that Jesus really is the hinge on which the history of the world turns and that he can make a difference in the way we live each and every day of our lives, and to trust that when Jesus said, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life (in other words, a relationship with God right now). For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him”, I’m telling you, when he said all that, he was talking directly to you and me. You see, when we believe that, we’re going have a faith that’s grounded in something real, not just ideas and concepts and principles, not just philosophy and theology and morality. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” This is an event, not an idea; done by a person, not a principle.

Once we know the story, then we can trust. And then that trust is going to enable us to see the world in a different way and to enter into a new kind of relationship with God. And trust me, this won’t be a relationship with an idea or a concept or a principle. And it won’t be a relationship with a philosophy or a theology or a moral system. I mean, give me a break, you try to have a relationship with moral system. I’ll tell you, I dated a walking moral system back in high school. It was not cool; it was cold. No, we’re going to have a relationship with the one who loved us before he laid the foundation of the universe and who will love us after time has lost its meaning and who loves us right here and now even when we’re less than lovable. You see, when people learn, they can trust. And when they trust, they can enter into a whole new relationship with God. But brothers and sisters, for them to learn, they’ve got to be taught, either by us ourselves, men and women who’ve been called to be fishers of people, or by someone or something we might send.

And I’ll tell you, isn’t that exactly what Paul was getting at in the passage we read at the beginning of the sermon. I mean, not only did he start by saying, “if you acknowledge with your mouth the Lord Jesus and trust in your heart that God raised him from death, you will be saved. For with the heart, a person trusts which leads to righteousness, and with the mouth, a person acknowledges which leads to salvation,” but in his next breath he said, “Now how will they call on him in whom they don’t trust? And how might they trust in whom they haven’t heard? And how might they hear without a preacher? And how might they preach unless they might be sent?” Since Christianity is grounded in a person, we have the responsibility and opportunity to share him with others.

Now, remember how George Bernard Shaw wrote, “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”? Well, Woody Allen put a slightly different spin on it when he wrote, “Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym.” I’m glad Bob Rosnick isn’t here this morning. Allen must have forgotten about those of us who are purveyors of the past. But regardless of what Shaw and Allen thought, since Christianity is grounded in a person who lived in history, who lived in time and space, teaching must be important for Christians, because if we’re not somehow involved in teaching the people around us about Jesus, you know, who he was and what he said and did, then they may never learn or trust or see God as anything more than an idea or a concept or a principle. You see, that’s why we’re called to share, to teach the good news, an appropriate challenge from an old history teacher.