“Stick with it, you’ll get it.” That was the encouragement from my fourth grade teacher when it came to my times tables.
Mathematics and I were never close friends, and the movement from the world of addition to the concept of multiplication baffled me. I would try to simply “add faster”… dots on the numbers, — work harder, count faster…. and she would encourage me to instead memorize the tables.
Now we acknowledge that there are a variety of ways to teach multiplication, and not everyone learns in the same way.
But in those heady days of the 1960’s memorization of the times tables ruled the day, and so rather than trying a variety of approaches, the one trusted approach was urged and hammered.
“Stick with it.” She would say. “You’ll get it.”
I don’t begrudge Ms Ellis for not having other tricks up her sleeve.
I won’t deny that her urgings eventually served me well, particularly the ones induced by having a student who had to catch the bus stay after class to “work harder on it.” That did indeed put enough fear and pressure on me to do what I otherwise always found a way to push aside or delay.
In all, the encouragement (even under duress) served me well. I learned my times tables.
But was it an uncomfortable time? You bet.
Did it feel like she was demanding “works” from me? It sure did, and as a good Lutheran I knew (even in the fourth grade) that I was not saved by my works, but by grace.
I carry the image of my fourth-grade self all hunkered down and desperately trying to get something all these years later.
“If I keep this up, I’ll get it. Ms. Ellis told me I would.”
But in that moment of being urged by her to stay after school and study, there was nothing but pressure and resentment, and my wondering whether I would make the bus or not.
“If you continue in my word… “Jesus says. I hear Jesus’ urgings to those who believed in him, and I find myself right back there in my desk in fourth grade trying desperately to drill these things in my head.
I wonder if that was what it was like for those to whom Jesus was speaking? We are told they believed in him, but there was however something that eluded them as well. This talk of freedom, and of truth.
“Knowing the truth,” that is what continuing in the Word is supposed to make possible.
I have to admit that in this day and age I am as perplexed about the truth anymore as anyone else.
We can search a thousand databases with the swipe of a finger now. We can gather information from a world wide web.
When I searched for a Cherry Pie recipe yesterday “Google” fetched me Four Million responses in 0.64 seconds!
But what Google could not reveal to me was which one was the best!
Which one was the recipe which seemed most “true” to my memory of what a Cherry Pie made by Nancy Haberstich, ought to be? (She always made the best Cherry pie and I was once scolded in no uncertain terms for trying to figure out just what she put into it.)
We have always treated truth as simply a matter of getting the right information, and we can thank Martin Luther for that in many ways. The events of the Reformation which we celebrate now these 500 years later were kicked off by his questioning about truth.
Truth was found in the 95 theses, or teased as he raised questions of authority.
Truth was found in asserting the rights of the individual, the giftedness of each person. The “priesthood of all believers” which asserted that all people had equal worth or value by virtue of being children of God.
Truth was found by those who inquired of it, and who sought it out by translating the bible into the common tongue.
If we could but ask the right questions, and have access to the right information, read the scriptures for ourselves in the right way we could understand, we could figure things out for ourselves.
This was the belief of the modern world kicked off by Luther’s 95 Theses and the Renaissance.
Truth was knowable.
Truth was attainable.
Truth was just a matter of asking the right question, and getting to the single, essential answer.
There was a “truth” to be found and we could get to it – and the unspoken addition we’d usually add is “if we work at it hard enough.”
But today that seems elusive.
Today we are more likely to find ourselves voicing Pilate’s comment. “What is truth?”
It does not appear to be found in information. We can’t discern between real news and fake news.
Truth does not appear to be found in analysis, for one can no longer discern what sources are reliable, and surveys reveal only what the clever crafter of the questions wants to affirm in their own bias, and statistics can be massaged and altered to prove any point, and contradicting viewpoints can be suppressed by taking down the information with which you do not agree… or so it is now on government web sites.
Yes, we are more likely than at any time in history right now to agree with Pilate’s assessment. “What is truth?”
And yet, Jesus stands above us like Ms Ellis did above me encouraging and urging even those who do not understand and who argue with him. “Continue in my Word….”
Keep at it, you’ll get it!
And so, I wonder how it is that I am supposed to “continue” in Jesus’ word?
I used to think it had to do with memorizing things. Get the right Bible verses down, remember the Catechism if you are a good Lutheran. “We are to fear and love God so that..” Work at it harder, you’ll get it.
And, there is nothing wrong with rote memorization.
There is nothing wrong with remembering as Luther did the passages from Romans and Hebrews and Habakkuk that remind us “the just shall live by faith,”
There is nothing wrong with seeking the truth, and asking the right questions, and earnestly inquiring.
But what Jesus is pointing to is something much deeper than just memorizing or giving intellectual ascent to something, or “working harder.”
Jesus is urging us to take this following thing into our very being. To truly be his disciples is not just to know what to say, or when to say, or parroting back the right phrases or ideas, “doing” the right things.
Rather, it has to do with continuing, abiding….living it.
This is what I didn’t get right with what Ms. Ellis was trying to encourage me to do. Not just knowing the tables, living them, taking them into my consciousness in such a way that I could not look at 5×7 without seeing 35 in my mind. Living a whole new understanding of things. Not “faster addition” but a very different way of seeing the world.
The “Continue in my word” is not about knowing Jesus’ words. It is about living your life in such a way that you become a visible sign of those words, such that one cannot help but see Jesus in your actions.
This is the “I don’t get it” that is being voiced in this gospel today by those who believed in Jesus but are not yet living as if they are Christ in the midst of this world.
“We’ve never been slaves to anyone!” They protest. Our Ancestors were slaves in Egypt, yes, but look here, no one is pulling our strings! We are free!
“Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. Jesus says to them. Committing sin is always a matter of living, not just theory. It has to do with what you do, and how you act, and what you say, and what you leave unsaid, — all those “doing” things that trip us up.
Sin is always about action, in one way or another.
So, when Jesus urges “Continuing in my word” he is also talking about a different kind of action, not just intellectual ascent, or knowing.
Continuing in the Word has to be about taking Jesus into your life choices, into your decision making, and into how you choose to model your own actions, and the words you choose to use on a day to day basis.
If you do that, you will be free.
That is the promise.
And now I get it, because it makes sense.
When it is no longer I who does things, but the Christ within me acting, I cannot see myself doing anything other than what Jesus would have me do.
I am free.
Free from the questioning of my own motivations.
Free from the wondering if this is right or not.
And that freedom then spills over into my ability to discern the truth in others, and in other things.
If I can see Christ at work in their actions, then they are of the truth, and I can support them.
If those actions are not consistent with what Jesus came to proclaim as being the living Word, and the bringing about of the Kingdom? Then they are actions the are the marks of slavery, and they will lead only to suffering. My own perhaps, but surely others.
“Stick with it.” Ms Ellis said. She knew that if I made these tables a part of my life I would see the world in a different way.
“Continue in my Word.” Jesus urges us. Not just so that we will know some nice things and can repeat them, but so we will be set free to live.
Not sure what is true anymore? Continue in Jesus’ word. Live into it, and you will begin to see what is of God, and what is not. You will begin to live the truth, and the truth will set you free indeed.