Sunday, October 31, 2010

Inquiring Minds

Deuteronomy 6:1-6
Mark 12:28-30

In the novel The Help Mrs. Hilly Holbrook is the president of the Junior League in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963. 1963 - - the year Medger Evers, the civil rights activist, was shot in the back and killed in Jackson, the year Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his speech about his great dream from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But Miss Hilly, as all the maids must call her, isn’t too concerned with all these things. In fact, she’s working on a movement of her own in Jackson. As president of the Junior League she is trying to make sure that all respectable white folk with black hired help build a new bathroom in their garage or outdoor shed for their help to use exclusively. It’s for their own health, she insists.

Miss Skeeter, a lifelong friend of Miss Hilly’s, isn’t quite so sure about this movement, though. Fondly remembering the African American woman, Constantine, who raised her, Skeeter doesn’t understand why the women who care for the whites’ children and cook their food, among other things, should have to use the bathroom away from the rest of the house. It just doesn’t make sense to her. Skeeter begins to get to know “the help” on the sly. She secretly researches the Jim Crow laws she has always known exist, but has never learned much about. She begins to think for herself instead of just accepting what has always been a part of her experience and worldview.

When Hilly starts to discover the kinds of thoughts her dear friend is thinking she questions accusingly, “Who does she think she is? Does she really think she is smarter than the government?!?”

I have to admit I was sort of a little proud about the cover Skeeter uses when lying to her mother about her coming and going as she develops relationships with some of the African American maids. I’m proud that this brave and inquisitive woman is portrayed as a Presbyterian. Now I doubt that this was done intentionally. Our denomination, like all other Protestant denominations other than the Episcopalians split over the issue of slavery in the 19th century, and we remained divided into northern and southern churches until the 1980s. While there were civil rights activists in some southern churches in the 1950s and 60s, we Presbyterians weren’t known anymore than other for our support of the movement.

I don’t think the author Kathryn Stockett really meant to lift up the Presbyterian church, but it made me kind of proud that heroine used Presbyterian church meetings as her excuse when she was going out under the dark cover of night to expand her mind, broaden her experience, and learn more about the lives of the African American women she knew so little about. Skeeter was no longer comfortable just swallowing what was passed down to her uncritically. She realized a time had come when she needed to think through these things for herself and draw her own conclusions. She had been blessed with a mind to think, and it was definitely time to use it.

Jesus lifts up this particular blessing when he challenged by a scribe to choose one commandment over all the others that could be declared the greatest. The scribe like so many others was trying to trip Jesus up more than he was seeking his wise opinion. Other religious and political leaders were there, too, shooting questions at him like darts. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” “Who will a man be married to in heaven if he had multiple consecutive marriages while alive on earth?” And now a question about the greatest commandment from a scribe, a man who had spent countless hours copying the hundreds of laws in Scripture, writing decisions and commentary for the priests and religious leaders based on these laws. He was trying to catch Jesus in an obvious mistake, so I know he MUST have heard Jesus’ small, but significant change of Scripture.

“Hear O Israel,’ Jesus began to quote. “The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” One thing is different in Jesus’ quote from the original in Deuteronomy. And it’s not that he would have messed this one up by accident. It is and was one of the best known passages in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is one that many faithful Jews recite to themselves daily as part of their prayers. Known as the “Shemah,” which means “Hear” as the community is commanded to do in the opening lines, this passage is too important and too familiar for Jesus to just have gotten wrong. Therefore, his addition must have been purposeful, and it must have been important.

In counting the ways in which God’s people are called to love God, Jesus adds in loving God with all our mind. Heart, soul, strength—these are all a direct quote from Deuteronomy, but mind is something different, something that didn’t appear in the Hebrew Scriptures. And for that reason, since Jesus bothered to add it to a crucial text for the people of his faith, it is something to which we should pay attention.

Our minds are a gift from God. Our minds are a huge part of what makes us uniquely human and they are definitely what makes us individuals different from one another. Our minds, like every other part of our bodies, have been given to us in order that we will use them to bless and honor and worship God. We do this by using them. That sounds a little strange, sure, but it isn’t. In too many situations, in too many churches, the expectation is that we will check our minds at the door.

In the marketplace, sellers pray that we won’t think to hard about the products that we buy, that we will trust their words in advertising and buy what they are selling, hook, line, and sinker. In some church traditions it is the same, but hopefully without the malice. Believers are called to do just that “believe,” but belief doesn’t involve critical thinking. Leaders at the top hand down doctrine and opinions on issues, and members are expected to accept them or at least keep their disagreements silent.

In our tradition that’s not the expectation. In fact, it is the opposite. Believers not only have the right we have the responsibility to think through matters of faith with our own minds and hearts. We have official doctrine, but in it are ten different documents written in the last 1800 years, and occasionally they disagree. Each one of us is called to put our minds to good use to think and pray and discern our beliefs and actions within the guidance and framework of these beliefs that have been lifted up over the generations.

We say in our tradition that God alone is Lord of conscience, and therefore each one of us has the responsibility to pray and study and discern our beliefs with the support of the Word and Spirit of God which we find in our life as a community. None of us are islands working out our faith in solitude, but each of us is called to explore our faith and beliefs for ourselves. There is not one among us who is not equipped to do this because God has given us each minds and has blessed each one of them for service in God’s name.

At same there is not one among us whose mind is perfect and full of all knowledge of God. Our growth in Christ is never complete; it is never whole and finished. This is why we are persistent in our offering and invitation to further engage our minds through education and small group ministries. This is why we don’t just offer Sunday School for children and nothing for our adults. There is not one among us who is done learning and growing and stretching our minds with the knowledge and love of God. Each and everyone one of us is called to continually love and worship God with our minds as we engage them in matters of faith, questioning, wondering, and growing in our understanding of the way of Jesus.

A few years ago the editors of storytelling SMITH magazine called for submissions from readers for project they called six word memoirs. The challenge to authors known and unknown was to sum up their lives in just six words – no more, no less. Some examples:

“Nobody cared. Then they did. Why?”
One from a 9 year old girl “Cursed with cancer. Blessed by friends.”
A couple of confessions:
“I still make coffee for two.”
“Most successful accomplishments based on spite.”

In an exercise of engaging our minds we’re going to try a twist on this theme. In each worship announcement bulletin and then coming through the aisles from the ushers are some pieces of blank paper or index cards. We are going to take time this morning to love the Lord our God with our minds by writing not six word memoirs, but six word theologies. Using no more than six, and no less write down what you believe. You may craft it yourself in a Trinitarian form as so many of the traditional statements of faith do. You may write a phrase or two that get to the core of what you understand about God. You may quote a portion of a favorite song or hymn that expresses your deepest faith. It does not matter from where it comes; it is your theology, your worship with your mind.

Those who are willing will have a chance to share after a few minutes, and all that are turned in in the offering plate later in worship will be posted to a bulletin board for others to read. Including your name is, of course, optional.
So now, let us enter a special time of prayer and worship, loving God with our minds.

In a way, Jesus blessed the very ones who are testing him. He blessed the Pharisees and Sadducees and the scribes who were trying to catch him and find something in what he said that they could hold against him. He blessed them by lifting up the importance of loving God with our minds. He blessed them by making their questions OK, their exercises of the mind an expectation of faith.

Jesus did here exactly what he does in just about every other situation. He blesses the ones we would least expect. He blesses his challengers, his enemies, those who seek to judge him and condemn him for the words that he says and the life that he lives. He blesses them by lifting up the kind of work they do with their minds, and he calls us to engage in that kind of work and worship ourselves, to love God by exercising the minds we have been graciously given. May God bless the minds we have and the faith we discover with them.

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