by Rev. Joe Connolly
“Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure, the rich deposit of faith entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit who is living within in us.” — 2 Timothy 1:13-14.
I said this in my comments just a couple of months ago. Because I am a lyricist with professional credits, I am a member of A.S.C.A.P., the American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers. Better than thirty years ago I was invited to participate in the A.S.C.A.P. Musical Comedy Workshop.
This was and is, essentially, a Master Class in Musical Theater for composers, lyricists and librettists. At the time it was run by Charles Strouse the composer of, among many other works, Annie.
When I say master class, aside from the presence of Mr. Strouse, at every meeting a well known theater professional from various fields would visit. Each schooled us from their particular points of view, their learned disciplines, by listening to songs and scenes written by members of the workshop and then offering advice and criticism.
Among those who came were Patty Lapone, originator of the title role in the Broadway production of Evita; Peter Stone, librettist of 1776; Sheldon Harnick, lyricist of Fiddler on the Roof; Alan Menken, best known as the composer for many Disney movies including Beauty and the Beast.
Stephen Sondheim also graced us with his presence. He is, of course, the lyricist for West Side Story and the composer/lyricist for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods to name just a few.
When I say Sondheim graced us with his presence that is exactly what I mean. Yes, he is a great composer, a great lyricist. He is an even more amazing teacher— kind, considerate, giving, sensitive, generous— a coach, a guide— everything you would hope for in someone of his stature and notoriety.
Here’s an example of what I just described. At one session a participant presented a piece. And it was good, very good. And Stephen said it was good, very good. Then, after a bit of discussion of about how good it was, Sondheim got up, went to the piano, sat and said, “From the seventh measure on you might want to try something like this progression” and played a couple of bars.
Please note what he did not say. He did not say, “I think you didn’t do that very well” or “I think that rots” or “I know how to do it better.” He said, “Try this and see what happens, see if it’s productive for you, see where it takes you.” In short, what makes Sondheim an amazing teacher, coach, guide is an emphasis on discovery by the student. (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the work known as First Timothy: “Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure, the rich deposit of faith entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit who is living within in us.” (Slight pause.)
In the Gospel reading the Apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith. Using some brief parables Jesus effectively says, “Not doing it. Your job.” Why? It’s not as if faith can be measure out as in “more” or “less.” Faith is not a quantity.
All of which is to say, in one sense at least, there is no such thing as teaching. There is only learning. Yes, someone can be, like Sondheim, an effective teacher, coach, guide.
There are many effective teachers, coaches and guides in this room. I know some of them are here right now. But unless there is a willingness on the part of the learner, teaching can become immobilized. Teaching and learning together are, you see, a single process which cannot be divided into distinct parts.
Teaching and learning together is a covenant between parties. Teaching and learning are not mutually exclusive. (Slight pause.)
The term covenant leads us into another area. Tell, me, what is your vision of church? What should church look like? Is church a place for learning? Can church be a place for learning?
Please note: even though the term “a place for learning” implies a location it’s more than location. A place for learning is a space— a safe space— a safe space to grow, to mature, to develop, to grapple, to better understand life with the help of those around us, the guides and teachers among us, those with whom we are in covenant. And we are all here to teach one another for we are all in covenant with one another. (Slight pause.)
I think the basic implication of what I’ve stated is twofold. First, if church is a place where faith is nurtured (and I believe it is), then we, in the church, need to be and must be a safe space for that to happen. Second, church is a place where education does need to happen. Why?
Well back to enumeration, first, education is a part of the covenant. Second, acquiring an education, by definition, means growth. And growth is a part of covenant relationship. Static doesn’t work in covenant. Growth is a part of it.
That leaves us with an obvious paradox, two of them in fact. I suspect in our culture church is rarely thought of as a place of education. Second, we live in a culture where education is often held suspect. Hence, it is little or no surprise that church is not too often thought of as an institution were education and learning happens.
That, of course, turns me back to my favorite word: covenant. Sound teaching is what happens when our covenant with God is honored.
Why do we need to honor that covenant and to be a place where learning happens? Well, for starters this is what it says in First Timothy (quote:) “Guard the good treasure, the rich deposit of faith entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit who is living within in us.” (Short pause.)
What do you think? Do you think we should honor the Spirit and the presence of the Spirit. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York.
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “I hope we engaged in some various learning styles of each of us with our special World Wide Communion Sunday service today. It is sometimes said there are seven learning styles— visual, aural, verbal, physical, logical, social, solitary. I would suggest the many combinations of these actually means that it’s seven to the power of seven available learning styles. That’s over 800,000 learning styles. And because there are so many ways of learning anyone who is a teacher knows these words of Oscar Hammerstein II, who was the teacher of Stephen Sondheim: ‘It’s a very ancient saying, / But a true and honest thought, / That if you become a teacher, / By your pupils you’ll be taught.’”
BENEDICTION: We are called by God to serve faithfully, trusting in God’s grace. May the gifts of God be rekindled within and among us. May our trust grow as we are empowered to do God’s work in this, God’s dominion. And may the peace of Christ which surpasses our understanding keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and companionship of God’s Spirit this day and forevermore. Amen.