Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost — November 5, 2023

I thought I knew God. Then I went to seminary, writes Teri McDowell Ott. I thought I knew God. Then I volunteered in a prison.

Year A
Matthew 23:1-12

“Teri, what do you think?”

My seminary professor called on me because she’d noted the “thoughtful” look on my face.

Did I dare tell the truth? My brain had lost track of – or just plain given up on – the class’s deep theological conversation and was comfortably contemplating a sparrow sitting on a branch outside the classroom window.

I did not tell my professor about the sparrow. Instead, I stumbled and stammered my way to the answer that often came to me during my seminary days.

“I don’t know.”

I thought I knew God. Then I went to seminary.

“Deconstructing” is a term post-evangelicals use today to describe how they are working their way out of toxic Christian teachings. But we could all use some deconstruction – and reconstruction – when it comes to our faith. Seminary shone a light on the ways my faith was not only superficial, but in some ways, even wrong. Theological education, studying the works of Augustine, John Calvin, H. Richard Niebuhr, James Cone, Delores Williams, Gustavo Gutiérrez and so many more can be a radical upheaval; an exercise in humility where you come to know all you don’t know about God.

In Matthew 23, Jesus denounces religious leaders who lack humility — misusing their authority, expecting seats of honor at banquets and in the synagogue. But the scribes and Pharisees of the first century were not a monolith. We should not read Jesus as condemning all the religious leaders — just those who assume they are above others; those who need a lesson in knowing all that they don’t know.

Jesus teaches an egalitarian ordering. We have one teacher God — and we are all students. Despite our tendency to exalt ourselves and judge others, we always have more to learn in God’s classroom.

When I walked into a men’s prison to volunteer teach for the first time, I didn’t realize I was walking on holy ground. In my book, Necessary Risks: Challenges Privileged People Need to Face, I tell the story of co-teaching my first class.

Moving through all the gates, metal detectors and heavy automatic doors that locked behind me, I grew more and more anxious. When we finally reached the classroom, my co-teacher David and I paused outside the door to take a few deep breaths. Through the glass window of the classroom door, I saw the men standing around, chatting and joking in their blue, prison-issue shirts and pants. Some were over six feet tall, others were shorter, but all of them appeared huge to me — like giants. They were all Black or Latino except for one White man.

What I would soon come to learn was how biased I was against these men before I even stepped foot in that classroom. I expected them to be hard and disrespectful. I expected to have to assert my authority, take charge and control. So, before I walked through the door that first day, I hardened myself, determined not to let these students make a fool of me.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

After some brief introductions, David and I asked the class to summarize the plot of the two chapters we had asked them to read.

“We can do better than that,” said Jarek. “We can summarize the whole book, if you want.”

What did he just say?

“We read the whole book,” Jarek clarified.

David and I glanced at each other, shocked. In what classroom do you assign two chapters and the students choose to read the whole book?

What followed can only be described as the ideal classroom experience. The conversation between us so animated, the students so hungry to learn, that our hour together was gone before we were ready to stop. When the guard rapped on the door, the men packed up their books and headed for the door. But before they left, each stopped to shake David’s and my hand. They purposefully looked us in the eye and said, “Thank you. Thank you for coming here to teach us.”

We stood there for a moment after they had all left, paralyzed by the experience. I turned to David, “When do students thank their teachers like that?”

“Never. It never happens,” he said, laughing.

“Was that anything like you thought it would be?” I asked.

“No,” David said. “They defied all my expectations.”

I thought I knew God. Then I volunteered in a prison.

We are all students. We all have more to learn, both in places we arrive to learn and places where learning surprises us. Let us not exalt ourselves or presume to know, evaluating and judging before we’ve even stepped foot in the classroom. God’s best students are humble, eager to learn and willing — students who want to read the whole book when they’re assigned two chapters.

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