Communion Meditation delivered by The Rev. Ronald W. Botts at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, September 9, 2001, Pentecost 14.
Proverbs 1:20-33; I Timothy 1:12-17
In July of 1876 the body of General George Custer was found in Montana near a stream called the Little Bighorn. Surrounding him were the other men in his unfortunate command.
Custer came to that particular hill on a summer afternoon, largely as a result of ignorance. His small cavalry band would soon face perhaps the greatest assembly of warriors that had ever come together on the Plains. What he didn't know was the extent of his opposition. Had he known the size of this enemy, he would have known the inevitable outcome of this engagement. As it was, their end came swift and sure. He and his men had no chance whatsoever.
In the truer sense Custer's enemy on that day was not the men he did battle with, but it was lack of knowledge. Custer was an able commander, but he had no idea of these overwhelming odds stacked against him. If he had known what he was up against, and taken other actions, he and his regiment might have survived. He simply didn't know, and this was his downfall.
And so it is for us all. Not knowing is often our problem, too. Pity the poor investor who finally decided to get into the stock market six months ago with the hope that prices would soon be going up. Consider the person who's still got a closet full of survival supplies left over from the Millennium scare. Think about whoever scheduled Akron as a pushover for OSU's first home game of the season. John Dewey once gave his opinion as to the four common enemies of humanity. He named poverty and disease and injustice, but only after he had first listed ignorance.
Perhaps the Apostle Paul would have agreed with that assessment. In writing to his younger colleague Timothy, it's clear that he has not forgotten how zealously he once persecuted Christians as heretics." Even though I was a blasphemer," he reflects, "even though I was a persecutor and a man of violence, I have received forgiveness through God's mercy. I received mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief."
Paul was an educated man for those times. He could read and write, knew the Hebrew scriptures, and had a good general understanding about life and people. But he was honest in saying that, of what was truly important in life, he had no knowledge at all.
Up until a short time before, he readily confessed, he was like a child who had not yet even learned his letters. That was how unaware he was of the divine will being expressed in and through Jesus. He couldn't see it and he couldn't understand it. So prior to his experience on the Damascus road he acted on what he knew then, seeking out and crushing those who followed Christ. He truly did terrible things to others. What he didn't know did hurt him, and ended up hurting others, too.
Both George Custer and the Apostle Paul suffered from decisions they made with limited knowledge, just like we do at times as well. When we lack crucial knowledge, we move ahead blindly to face whatever may be waiting around the next corner. Our ignorance can cost us.
Our other reading this morning from Proverbs addresses knowledge as well, but from a different standpoint as it underscores the importance of learning. It starts out by saying, "Wisdom cries out in the streets, `How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?
Apparently history is full of people who seemingly know nothing and, ironically, are proud of it. Why does this passage remind me of politicians? The ancient Chinese poet, Su Shih, has a few verses on the subject that go like this:
Most men, bringing up sons, wish for them intellect;
But I, by my intellect, have had a lifetime of failure.
I would only desire that my child be simple and dull,
That with no ill-fortune and troubles he may reach high office.
Being a "know nothing" can also be a way of rejecting a certain snobbishness that sometimes comes with being highly educated. As evidence of this there's an organization called The Right Stuff. You can meet other singles through them if you are a graduate of an Ivy League school or if you have a degree from a short list of other prestige schools such as Stanford, MIT, Barnard, Northwestern, or Duke. If your school isn't on the list, no use to apply. So if your degree is from Ohio State, forget it. If it's from Otterbein, like mine, sorry. Didn't finish college? Didn't even go? Save your stamp. You won't get a reply.
Knowledge is still important even when it's denied. Without it, we wouldn't have made the discoveries that allow us to be here today in a lighted and air-conditioned sanctuary. There would be no cars to bring us to this place, no clothes to wear other than those we might weave or craft with our own hands. We would have had to raise the food we ate for breakfast. With no past medical advancements, some of us would be here in great pain today or not here at all.
God gave us intelligence for a purpose, and that purpose was to use it. It's too bad that some haven't taken full advantage of this great gift.
Persons can educate themselves through many means. One way is to go to school, and that's something we would all recognize; but you can also be self-educated through what you read and watch, what you see and what you hear. All of our lives give us some opportunities for growth if we are just open to the possibilities. Each day is like a laboratory for learning if we have the motivation.
Learning, too, is life long. That's one of the exciting things that comes with each new day. We will never exhaust our capacity to learn. With many jobs, you have to keep up with your education or you'll lose out completely. In a more subtle way, that applies to life in general.
Learning about our faith is, or should be, a high priority as well; yet, it isn't always that way. I've found in churches over the years that there's a tendency for many to become complacent with their "religious" education. It's easy to close our minds and hearts to what God has yet to teach us. It's tempting to think we already know enough to get by. Most of us take preparation for our professional life seriously. Why wouldn't we have the same need for preparation in our spiritual life? We gain in proportion to what we're willing to invest.
"Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so" may be a synopsis of our faith but, if that is the sum of our understanding, then we've only just begun. This is a great starting point, but you can't stop there. Such a basic affirmation may be the centerpiece of faith, but it doesn't give us much direction as to how to really live our lives.
"Jesus loves me" is a wonderful truth, but if I love Jesus then I need to understand all I can about what Christ would show me about his life and mine. I dare not stop learning before I've even begun. There is no badge of honor in being a "know nothing" when it comes to this most important area of faith.
No one is so learned that he or she doesn't have more yet to discover. No one is so far behind others that they can't catch up. No one is so lacking in intelligence that they can't gain some degree of wisdom.
Beware of rationalizing away a lack of knowledge. The Fundamentalist may say "I recognize that Jesus is my Savior, and that's all I need to know." Mainline church members have learned to express the same thing in a way that sounds a bit more sophisticated, something like, "I believe in the basic tenets of my faith, though perhaps I am not quite as knowledgeable as I could be." It means about the same thing.
When we stop learning we close ourselves off to much of what the Spirit is doing around us. We miss out on the greater understanding that God intends for us. There is no bliss in this kind of ignorance. An unexamined faith leads us to make major mistakes that otherwise could have been avoided. Ignorance about our responsibilities toward others is a poor excuse when we are brought to accountability.
What we don't know can hurt us. That's true in most of life and it is true in our religious life as well. We should especially avoid the pitfall of knowing a little, and then assuming we know all.
If we are sincere about our faith, then we should take advantage of all possible opportunities before us to deepen our understanding. This means a commitment to regular self-study and also participation in church school classes, small group studies, and the like. Learning should be a joy, not a burden; a privilege, not an obligation. Jesus taught his followers long ago and he teaches us still, if we accept his invitation.
What kind of disciple says, "I know enough. Don't bother me any more. I'm happy just where I am?" Well, not a very good one.
May that not be said about us.
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