In 2006, several months after Diane died of ALS, I preached this sermon at a banquet for graduating seminarians in West Virginia. I can’t get it out of my mind. I think it wants to offer me something.
Looking for Learners
Come to me,
all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy,
and my burden is light.
The Gospel of Matthew 11: 28-30 (NRSV)
It’s 1977, the first day of school. German language school. In Germany.
I don’t know a word of German. I’m sitting with 29 other adult students behind tables arranged in a U-shape. We have textbooks and notebooks ready. Some are joking around in their native languages. I don’t hear a word of English. Even if I did, I really don’t feel like joking around. We’re about to meet our German language teacher for the first time ever.
The door opens and a man strides in–tall, baggy brown suit, bow tie, blank face. He picks up a piece of chalk and spells out H e r r K – – – – – – – – – on the chalkboard. He faces us, points to the chalkboard, then points back to himself. He pauses. Then he repeats these actions without saying a word. Finally he stands quietly at the front of the room, gazing at us intently.
The room is deathly silent.
Without warning Herr K smiles! He motions with his hands. [points to himself; makes a hand motion away from his mouth; points to the class; tugs a bit on his right ear; then makes another hand motion away from his mouth.]
Not a word falls from his lips. He repeats himself–just in case we didn’t understand. Still not a word.
Suddenly he leaps into action–striding back outside the door, closing it with a flourish. Now he’s in the hall, and we’re in the classroom.
With another flourish he opens the door and strides back into the room, all smiles this time. “Guten Morgen,” he says confidently. He pauses.
No one knows what to do. The smile vanishes. He motions with his hands once more. [same as above] He turns and strides back outside the door. Closes it. Opens it. Strides back into the room all smiles again. “Guten Morgen,” he says confidently.
Somehow someone finally gets it and squawks back – “Guten Morgen.” He replies abruptly, “Ja! Ja! Und Nein!!!”
We dare not laugh. It isn’t funny. It’s terrifying. By the end of the day we’ve been baptized into the drill. The daily drill we’ll fear and hate for the duration of the course.
Herr K goes around the room, one by one, standing directly in front of each of us, drilling us publicly until he’s satisfied we have every inflection, every intonation and every word just right. “Guten Morgen, Herr K!” He spares no one. He has nothing but contempt for students who show up unprepared, who don’t sit up straight at the table, or whose faces give off the tiniest flicker of disdain for him or for his sometimes brutal tactics.
Herr K doesn’t waste time with folks who don’t want to learn German. He’s looking for learners.
Herr K taught me to think, speak and dream in outstanding German. In the process, I learned far more than German. I learned to die – to my pride and to my desire to get things right the first time, all by myself.
Bringing German to life in me meant dying. Daily and publicly. I didn’t like this man. Yet he knew exactly what he was doing, and what it would take for us to ‘get it’ so well that we could pass as German citizens.
It’s the first day of school–well, maybe not the very first day, but the first day of a new semester. Jesus is on a teaching mission. He’s looking for learners, not just good students. Good students are a dime a dozen. He’s looking for learners. Folks who will come to him, who will accept his yoke–a yoke of learning.
Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden….
It sounds so comforting. An invitation from Jesus meek and mild, gentle and lowly in heart. It tugs at our hearts because we’re all so weary, so burdened, so heavy-laden. The words warm our hearts:
learn from me;
you’ll find rest here–soul rest;
my yoke is easy;
my burden is light.
You’d think such an invitation from such a popular and powerful teacher would have folks flocking to his side–making their way to the mourner’s bench, streaming down the stadium steps and into the football field, crying out
Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us!
We’re so weary.
We’ve waited so long for someone just like you–
someone who understands our pain, our longing for something different–
someone who understands how distressed and hopeless we feel most of the time.
Overworked. Overtaxed. Beaten down.
Yes, Jesus! We need a teacher just like you!
Yes! We accept your gracious invitation!
Yes! Just as I am, I come, I come.
You’d think folks who’ve waited so long for just this moment would flock to Jesus. I’m reminded of Soren Kierkegaard’s wonderful description of The Great Invitation. Jesus, arms open, cries out to the throngs, “Come unto me!” Against all expectations, most of the crowd turn their faces, running as fast as they can to get away from the sound of The Great Invitation that offers so much to so many.
Why? Why do they run? Why do they turn away?
Kierkegaard directs our attention to the Inviter—We look. We see the problem immediately:
He had no form or majesty that
we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that
we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
there is no beauty that we should desire him.
Isaiah 53: 2b-3 (NRSV)
Now look at the students in his class—
Not the wise and intelligent—they’ve all run away or turned away. But look! There at his feet are his students:
women, men, young people and children
afflicted with diseases and misshapen bodies locked in deep pain,
outcasts struggling with demons, epilepsy, paralysis and skin diseases,
a woman about to be stoned,
a centurion in distress about his servant’s paralysis,
Peter’s mother-in-law sick in bed with a fever,
fearful disciples caught in a sudden storm,
despised tax collectors, sinners of all kinds and sizes,
a dead girl, a hemorrhaging woman, a blind man,
a thief on a cross
Jesus is looking for learners. Do you recognize yourself?
* * * * *
To be continued….
© 2006 by Elouise Renich Fraser, revised 24 Oct 2014