Learn, Unlearn, Relearn

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Advent 1
November 27, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Learning war no more, beating swords into plows and spears into pruning hooks is a daunting task and doomed to failure ... without three - maybe, four - vital life skills.

The football world was stunned, but not surprised, when Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback to ever step on a field, announced that he was retiring after 22 seasons in the NFL. After all, he had just posted the best season-long stats of his career, leading the league in passing yards (a career high of 5,316) and touchdown passes (43). He could walk away a winner. He had nothing left to prove.

Brady fandom was even more surprised when he announced 40 days later that he was unretiring and would return to the Tampa Bay Bucs for another season. So, Brady is out on the gridiron; he is probably playing somewhere this week - barring the unforeseen - and his legend continues to grow.

Of all of the remarkable aspects of his storied career is a skill seldom mentioned. Brady has a gift for unlearning.

For example, he had to unlearn one offensive system and learn another. He did it with limited practice amid Covid-19 restrictions and still won a Super Bowl. His team was going nowhere that first year, but Brady was able to unlearn some bad habits, routines, patterns and mistakes, shake things up, and after the two-week bye, the Tampa Bay Bucs looked like a new team.

The renowned futurist, Alvin Tofler, once predicted, "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn."1

Not many people can learn, unlearn and then relearn life lessons, but those who can, like Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr., future Hall of Famer, are often happy and successful at what they do.


The ancient Israelites, it could be said, were life-long learners. From the hour they fled in the middle of the night from the land of Goshen, running toward the Red Sea, they were learning something new. They learned new things about the one true God, the "I Am That I Am," they had never known. They received new laws and commandments and they accepted new leadership, even if they complained and grumbled. They learned about their future destiny and about a land they would someday occupy.

In this promised land, the Lord God continued to teach them. And in the opening words of today's text, the prophet Isaiah invites the people of God to convene for instruction: "'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.' For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem."

But these same people, led by clouds and fire, by the great prophet Moses and those who followed him, frequently went off the rails. They were lifelong learners of the wrong curriculum. Read the book of Judges for the tale of a nation that 1) sinned against God, 2) were punished for their rebellion, 3) repented of their sins, 4) were rewarded with prosperity, but 5) returned to their sinful ways. The cycle then repeated with little variation.

How would we describe our learning experience? What have we learned about God, who we are, our relationship with God or our purpose in life?

We come into the world as a beautiful tabula rasa , but by the time we're young adults so much has happened. The innocence of childhood has degraded into something almost unrecognizable. Somewhere, we have learned the wrong things.

It's been a long time, perhaps, since we have asked God to "teach us his ways ... that we might walk in his paths." There's some learning to do, some instruction to receive and a word from the Lord to embrace.


And then there's the problematic nature of national learning - geopolitical lessons at which nation after nation fails time and again.

It's not for a lack of trying. We have the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, peace treaties galore, economic pacts, global commerce and a complicated web of international business agreements. But still, we mobilize tanks, arm our missiles and drop bombs - and the innocent suffer, for reasons that are often murky.

The prophet Isaiah foresaw a time when "nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." In what has come to be known as Isaiah's vision of the "peaceable kingdom" - popularized by the Peaceable Kingdom paintings of Quaker minister Edward Hicks (1780-1849) - the people "shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks", and "the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den."2

In other words, in this new vision, people will turn to gardening, not guns. The peaceable kingdom will be a sword-free, spear-free, gun-free world. Turning from weapons, people and nations will tend their gardens instead.

Yet, it's difficult to unlearn bad habits or patterns of history, whether those habits, patterns and behaviors are individual and deeply personal, or coated with national colors and hubris and etched in blood. Often, there doesn't seem to be a will to unlearn war. But as World War 2 wound down, however, nations were tired and fed up. At Dumbarton Oaks in the fall of 1944, talks began about how the world might unlearn war. These talks led to further discussions in Yalta and then in San Francisco in April of 1945 where the United Nations charter was adopted and a new world order was established - or so it seemed.

The United Nations were determined to "study war no more." Enough is enough, they said. But of course, it wasn't and isn't. Count the regional wars that have raged since 1945. It's depressing.3

Yet, think of our own personal wars and destructive behaviors that we can't seem to unlearn. If we cannot hold back an ill-spoken word, a thoughtless gesture or a stupid complaint, how can we expect nations afflicted with longstanding grudges to resolve their differences?

It's hard to imagine, but John Lennon tried: "Imagine there's no countries / It isn't hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for ... Imagine all the people / Living life in peace ... / Imagine all the people / Sharing all the world ..."

Unlearning is necessary for successful life-long re-learning , a topic to which we now turn.


"O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!" A child doesn't learn to walk; the infant simply develops the muscle strength and motor skills to do what comes naturally.

But humans have to learn to "walk in the light of the LORD" - to "do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with ... God."4 History shows that this is not natural.

Rather than describing ourselves as "life-long learners," it would be more accurate to think of ourselves as "life-long relearners ."

Without relearning, walking "in the light of the LORD" is difficult if not impossible. Fortunately, as Jesus himself said (speaking of a rich young man who evidently could not unlearn his addiction to wealth), "Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible."5

Jesus takes this one step further

In his teaching, Jesus urged us to go yet another step. For Jesus, it is not enough to learn, unlearn and relearn. To be a true child of the kingdom, we must outlearn .

Not that this is a competition with other followers of Jesus. Rather, it is a call to go above and beyond, to work harder, to learn more and to outdo ourselves in personal piety and acts of kindness and generosity. It is a matter of working while there is still light,6 of going the extra mile,7 of bearing one's cross,8 of approaching one's task with fierce Bradyesque determination.

It was the way Jesus himself lived. Jesus learned the scriptures, then unlearned them and then relearned or redefined them ("You have heard it said ... but I say unto you."9). And then Jesus outlearned everyone, showing the world what it meant to out-serve, outlast, out-love and out-sacrifice.

We may be at various stages of this journey - some of us still learning, others unlearning, still others relearning. The goal, however, might be to outlearn - to go beyond to a place where we put the well-being of others ahead of ourselves,10 and strain forward to cross the finish line of life completely spent,11 having given everything we had to give.12

On this first Sunday of Advent, may God bless us in this journey of discovery.


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