One morning I walked into one of my college classes and took a seat. It was an 8:00 a.m. class and the professor was Ed Nelson. Professor Nelson taught a number of my classes and was a great teacher. This particular class met in a basement classroom of the science building. It was a concrete block room that had a noticeable echo. Because it was an 8:00 class I had a tendency to fall asleep in the class quite often.
On this morning I noticed a really large book sitting on Professor Nelson’s desk. It was a really, really large book. It didn’t take long to find out the purpose of the book. About ten minutes into the class I was asleep, and Professor Nelson picked up the book, walked over, and dropped it on my desk. In that concrete block classroom it created quite a boom as the echo bounced around the room and made it even louder. I bolted upright and knocked everything off my desk and there was Professor Nelson, standing in front of me grinning. He turned around, went back to his desk, and resumed teaching. I remained very much awake for the rest of the class.
I’m sorry to say I was not a very ambitious student. I very much regret that now and wish I had taken advantage of the opportunities presented to me. But I am grateful I had teachers who made me think, teachers who poked and prodded at my mind even as I tried to let my mind wander to other things. I was blessed to have teachers who would not allow my mind to remain static or unchallenged. Those teachers made sure I carefully considered what I believed and they challenged me to examine closely every one of my beliefs, because they wanted to be sure they could stand up to scrutiny and challenges.
I believe one of the most important things we can do for our children and our young people is to challenge them to think and to teach them to think, to analyze their positions and their beliefs carefully, and with an open mind. I believe we should not do what some told me. There were some people in my life who told me everything about God was always very neatly tied together. They had a complete package – which were just a collection of their opinions – and said that if you take away just one part of that package, it all falls apart. Here’s how you interpret this passage and that passage, and you can’t interpret it any other way. Here is what you must believe about the origins of the universe and mankind and you can’t believe any other way, because if you question or change just one part of this whole package you make the entire package of faith no longer valid.
That’s not a very healthy way to look at faith, because when someone walks into a classroom and part of that whole package of beliefs is challenged they decide they must throw away faith. Some people criticize colleges and universities as places that take away the faith of some students, but it’s more likely that we have not prepared those students for when a different perspective of faith is presented or their particular interpretation of faith is challenged.
We’ve been going through a series of messages about historical events and how they shape our thinking, and this morning there are many that could go with this message. Today’s message is The Tragedy of A Closed Mind. In our Scripture passage for this morning we find Jesus is in a very familiar situation – he is under criticism. It seems almost every page of the gospels finds Jesus being criticized for something. How wearying that must have been for him.
In today’s passage he is responding to that criticism. No matter what he did, someone out of his group of critics was going to find fault with him. His response is very pointed. He said John was criticized because he would not eat or drink; he led a very rigid life, so he was criticized. Jesus came eating and drinking and he was criticized. He was accusing them having minds so close they couldn’t hear what God himself was saying to them when he was standing right in front of them.
One of the problems that can arise in faith – and in all of life, really – is the closing of the mind. This was a problem very evident in the critics of Jesus. It was a problem later with the critics of Paul. And it has continued throughout history. Several centuries into the life of the church a turn came about, when the church began to enforce a uniformity of belief. It was an attempt to force the closing of people’s minds by saying here is what you must believe. Creeds were developed and adopted that laid out beliefs that were required for everyone.
This attempt to enforce the “correct” beliefs reached its height during the Middle Ages when the Inquisition came along. The Inquisition lasted, in various forms, for over five hundred years. It was five hundred years of putting people on trial because of what they believed, or didn’t believe. It was five hundred years of persecuting, and sometimes putting people to death, because they would not think the way they were told to think. The Inquisition is a terrible blot on the history of the church, because church leaders sought to control what people believed and punished them if they dared to stray from what they were told they must believe. It was a tragic closing of minds.
One of the things I most value about Disciples is we don’t complicate things with a long creed and list of requirements. We don’t tell people if you don’t agree with us you can’t be one of us. Disciples churches are, I think, one of the few remaining places where people of differing views can still gather. People often ask me what Disciples churches believe. I guess they are looking for some list of things we require people to accept, which we don’t have. We gather around the great affirmation of faith – I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God. When you begin requiring anything beyond the recognition of this central confession of faith, you run the risk of imposing personal opinions upon others as a required tenant of faith.
It is sad that we have become so stratified as a society, and in churches as well. We gather with like-minded people and live in a bubble with other like-minded people. We become unable to hear what anyone else is saying. Left, right, Republican, Democrat, believer, nonbeliever, affiliated, unaffiliated – there are lots of closed minds in all those groups. Politically and religiously we stay safely entrenched in our own particular camps, assured our side is correct while the other side is wrong. Those with no faith stay behind their walls, smugly looking on in condescension at those silly enough to believe, while those with faith stay behind their walls and judgmentally look at those who they find foolish because of their lack of faith.
It’s not that beliefs are unimportant, but you run into problems when you start imposing a set of beliefs upon other people. Beliefs, ultimately, don’t necessarily change your life. James 2:19 says even the demons believe and shudder. What good do their beliefs do? Here is the point – beliefs don’t necessarily open a person’s heart, and that is what God’s work is about. What Jesus was seeking in people was for them to open their minds to what he said so they could then open their hearts. I’ve known people who, if there is a list of all the correct beliefs, were perfectly lined up in their beliefs. And yet some of those people were some of the most unkind and unloving people I’ve ever known.
It is an open mind that will lead to an open heart. Until our minds open to the truth that every other person is a child of God and loved by God we our hearts cannot open to them.
In 1984, when I was finishing seminary, I had an interview with a church looking for a Student Minister. I knew there was one particular question coming at some point in the interview, and when it did I started explaining my answer. One of the committee members stepped in and said it’s a yes or no answer. I said I didn’t think it was. He said we’re done, and the interview was over. That bothered me for a while, but I realized I was better off in the long run.
Faith asks us to open our minds, so that we can open our hearts. May our hearts, and our minds, remain ever open.