Summit Presbyterian Church
February 22, 2015
Psalm 25 - Lent 1
Lent is For Learning
If you’re a college student, or know of someone who is, you may be familiar with a site called rateyourprofessors.com On this site, students rate their professors for helpfulness, clarity, easiness and something called “hotness.” They also post comments. I never had a reason to look at it and I’m opposed to using the internet to publicly praise or shame, but recently my curiosity got the better of me. So I looked up a friend who’s a college professor. I’d heard her laugh about the site and she even quoted it once, so I figured she wouldn’t mind. My friend had a solid “B” rating, and the comments were revealing. Positive ratings generally spoke about how you could get a good grade if you followed her instructions; negative ratings said it was hard to get a good grade because she was bad prof, and sadly but predictably, the better someone’s grammar, punctuation and spelling, the more likely they were to rate my friend highly. There were also helpful tips for anyone thinking of taking her class: be on time, do the reading, “TURN OFF YOUR CELLPHONE!!!!” (all caps, lots of exclamation points). Some of the students on rateyourprofessors - I browsed a bit - spoke about the excitement of learning and the expertise of their teachers. But most spoke about their professors in terms of how easy (or not) it was to get good grades. It’s understandable — we tell students scores matter more than anything else from a very early age. Most college students are in debt and need the degree. But it’s a limited view of teachers and students and learning.
It’s also very different from the way the psalmist speaks about her teacher, the Lord. The psalmist praises God as trustworthy, able to protect her from shame. She praises God as merciful, and ask that he remember her, not her transgressions or the sins of her youth. She trusts that God will lead her in the truth, that God’s paths are steadfast love and faithfulness; that God teaches the humble what is right. It may seem odd: talking about God’s love and mercy in the same breath as talking about God as a teacher, but the two are connected. As a 2nd grade teacher I knew that children learned best when they felt safe, loved, and cared for, at home and in school. Shame and anxiety impedes learning. Of course, in a safe, caring classroom or home there are rules and deadlines and consequences for misbehavior or not doing homework. Not learning also has consequences, and we have to be honest about that. But honesty is different than trying to motivate children through ridicule, or standardized test scores or a rigid tracking system that tells some students they’ll never make it. Learning can be hard; it requires courage and trust; we learn better when we know we’re loved and protected. You wouldn’t know that listening to some preachers, who seem to think we learn best through threats of hellfire and damnation. But the psalmist is wiser: she knows God’s teaching cannot be separated from God’s mercy and love.
The psalmist also has a different view of learning and of her role as a student than your typical rateyourprofessor user. She begins by saying she lifts up her soul to God. She trusts in God, she waits for God, she asks to be led in what is right and true. Although she says later in the psalm that those who follow the way of God will prosper, that’s not her focus. Her desire is to learn: “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.” She promises to listen for God, to pray, to wait patiently and to approach God with humility, recognizing that there’s much she doesn’t know and that she’s often strayed. She offers her life to God; she longs to be his student.
Now, in comparing ratemyprofessor with psalm 25 I”m not suggesting that college students should think of their professors as God. Nor is this a sermon on educational reform or the problems with standardized testing — although I’m always ready to talk about that. But this is the first Sunday in Lent, and this psalm offers us an alternative way to think about our Lenten journey. Lent is a season of repentance, of turning. Often we “give something up” that’s getting in the way of our relationship with God. It could be something sinful, that we hope to keep abstaining from beyond Lent — such as unkind gossip. Or maybe it’s giving up something pleasureable, such as sweets or alcohol, that will help us learn what it’s like to do without and to focus on God instead. Some folks like to add something during Lent, a prayer discipline or volunteer work or weekly giving beyond their pledge. In my Ash Wednesday sermon I encouraged us to attend to communal disciplines: worship and Bible study. But a third way to conceptualize our Lenten journey is to ask: what can I learn in these 40 days that will help me in my Christian journey?
This way of thinking about Lent opens up exciting and rewarding possibilities — for learning is exciting and rewarding, and maybe we should think about Lent more like the first day of Kindergarten rather than the first day of a difficult diet and exercise regime. I had fun thinking of possibilities. One project could be to learn more about the life of Christ by reading or re-reading a gospel from start to finish. (This year we’re reading Mark and it’s the shortest gospel if you wanted to start there). On Wednesday nights we’ll learn what Barbara Brown Taylor says about Sin and the lost language of Salvation, to better discern what God may be saying. A Lenten project could be learning a prayer discipline that will help open your heart and mind to the promptings of the Spirit. It could be learning to make some new vegetarian or even vegan dishes, for good stewardship of both health and planet. It could mean learning something about the world — a piece of history, or more about a troubling issue, because understanding God’s path includes understanding God’s world as best we can.
And as we embark on this learning adventure,it helps us to remember that the wideness of God’s mercy is like the wideness of the sea. That God’s paths are steadfast love and faithfulness. Christ will not meet us on judgement day with standardized test scores. We don’t need to fear failure as we seek to learn more, nor do we need to let past failures burden us with regret and keep us from God. In those 40 days with the wild beasts we can be sure Jesus learned much, just as the people of Israel received God’s instruction in the wilderness. In this season of Lent may we good students, allowing ourselves to be schooled in God’s ways.