The Fake Bliss of Ignorance – Part 4 of our Advent Sermon Series on Walls

Calvin and Hobbs practicing the idiom ignorance is bliss
Calvin and Hobbs practicing the idiom ignorance is bliss

You’ve probably heard the saying, “Ignorance is bliss.”

But ignorance is bliss only for the ignorant.  Ignorance is bliss, but only for the ignorant.  The saying comes from a poem by Thomas Gray called Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, and is itself maybe it’s own best example of our ignorance.  Gray writes these last two lines at the end of his poem, “…where ignorance is bliss / ‘Tis folly to be wise.”[1]  Most people take the quote at face value having never read it in the context of the poem, but Gray isn’t actually writing about the value of ignorance or saying that it is something to be admired.  Instead, he’s remembering a time before life has worn him down, when in his youth he was carefree and had none of the concerns that weigh heavy on him today.  He’s pining for the simplicity of the past rather than actually taking the position that “ignorance is bliss.” Instead we should heed the words of Solomon when he writes, “A wise man will hear and increase learning, And a man of understanding will attain wise counsel… (Proverbs 1).”  Think about how many problems we would avoid if we did that – hear and increase in learning or seek to attain wise counsel.  Too often, our problems stem from having just enough knowledge to be dangerous.

Which is why I like the saying, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” which in itself is a derivative of a more fascinating quote by Lord Francis Bacon who said, “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”[2]  Interesting that Bacon felt that the more we sought the depths of knowledge the more we would come about to the humbling realization that God exists.  Only in our ignorance do we deny the existence of God.  I do believe that saying is true though, “A little knowledge IS a dangerous thing.”  Because too often we satisfy ourselves with a little knowledge and never bother to obtain more.  Sometimes it’s really innocent.  We don’t even think to dig deeper.

This American Life with Ira Glass
This American Life with Ira Glass

I heard this cute story on “This American Life” with Ira Glass and one of his producers was talking about how when he was 11 or 12 he first heard the term “Nielsen family” and thought it was funny that they only asked people named Nielsen what they thought about television shows.  He did some research and found that Nielsen was a very common name that cut across economic and social lines and so he just figured they did it this way because it was a representative sample of all Americans.  Then he tells the rest of his story and he says,

Fast forward 20 years. I was talking with a friend of mine, who was telling me about her friend, who had been selected to be a Nielsen family. And I said to her, isn’t that weird that they’re all named Nielsen? My friend looked at me for what seemed like a long time. Somewhere during her very long pause– because of the very long pause, in fact– I realized, of course they’re not all named Nielsen. That makes no sense at all. At the time of this conversation, I was 34 years old, and I couldn’t believe I had gotten this far without ever stopping to think it through.[3]

Funny and a bit embarrassing perhaps, but harmless.  It happens to a lot of us that somehow an idea we’ve had for ages never gets challenged and we hold on to it until it finally bumps up against reality.  But what happens when that little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing?  What happens when our little bit of knowledge shapes our entire mindset about people of a certain color, or religion, or way of living?  How does that affect the life we’re supposed to live?

In our reading this morning, Jesus reiterates for us what that life is supposed to look like.

If you have your Bible or a Bible app on your phone, we are going to read from Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life.  So if you’ll go to Matthew 22 beginning with verse 36, we’ll read that together this morning.  Matthew 22:36.  This is probably one of the most famous passages in the Bible and odds are you’ve already heard it, but it’s a good reminder for us of the kind of life Jesus expects for us to live.  Here, the Sadducees, one of the main groups among the Israelites, just got done trying to trick Jesus into saying something that would uncover him as some sort of heretic, but instead, Jesus turns the tables on them and completely embarrasses them.  So now that the Sadducees have failed, the Pharisees are trying to come up with a question to stump Jesus and this one guy decides to test him and that’s where we pick up in this short reading.

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[c] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[d] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

This is the way we are supposed to live.

Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.  Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.  But ask yourself, how can we love our neighbor unless we take the time to get to know our neighbor?  How can we put our neighbor’s needs above our own when we don’t even really know or understand what it is he needs?  The Pharisee asks Jesus which commandment is the greatest, but instead of giving him just the one he’s looking for – “Love the Lord your God” – Jesus gives him two.  He says, “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  Jesus is trying to make it clear that loving your neighbor is the same thing as loving God.  Jesus is trying to make it clear that loving your neighbor is the same thing as loving God.  These two ideas are linked inextricably.  They’re not two separate commandments like “Thou shalt not steal” and “Honor thy mother and father.”  I mean you shouldn’t steal from your mother and father and certainly that wouldn’t honor them, but they are separate commandments.  Jesus is saying that these two are connected.  A person can’t say they love God but not love God’s creation.  You can’t say you love God and not love your neighbor because your neighbor is ALSO a child of God.  It’s like saying you love your parents but don’t love your brother or sister.  Now, we know that happens, but we also know that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

Yet how often do we hear or see expressions of hate coming from others?

Worse, how often do we see or hear irrational, emotional, nonsensical expressions of hate coming from people who claim to be Christian?  It happens more often than it should.  Terry Jones pops up in my mind.  He’s the self-proclaimed pastor of a group of people in Florida who call themselves Christians and who have made it their mission to drive out anyone who might be a follower of Islam.  He was just on the news a couple of months ago for trying to burn 2,998 Korans, one for each person who died in the 9/11 disaster.  This isn’t the first time he’s done this.  Every time he pulls one of his stunts, riots and protests break out and people are incited to violence.  Yet he persists in this behavior because he thinks it’s the right thing to do.  How about people who bomb abortion clinics?  It seemed like a thing of the 90’s, but just last year a clinic in Wisconsin was fire-bombed and the year before that there were bombings in Detroit and North Texas.[4]  Thankfully, it doesn’t happen as often, but generally these attacks are from groups proclaiming to be Christian. And these examples are only the most visible manifestations of hate, because they make news headlines, but what about those subtle acts of hatred that happen all the time around us?   When I went to my first appointment in Washington, GA, I followed the first female pastor to the Methodist church in that town and I found out that she had been denied membership in the Christian Ministerial Association simply because she was a woman.  Now, we’ve talked in the past about how Jesus himself upheld women serving in ministry and how Paul routinely worked with women who were teachers of the Gospel and even one who was a disciple, yet this group of men decided that a woman pastor was not Biblical and so in an expression of “love” (I say that with irony) they denied her a place amongst them.  For simply being a woman.  What was even more sad was that the Methodist and Baptist churches in town often did charity work together and held services together until she was appointed.  At that time, the Baptists decided that they would no longer work with the Methodists in town.  I can’t help but think that if each of these groups only overcame their ignorance of the Bible and took the time to read it for what it is instead of what they want it to say, they would see for themselves that God’s love extends to all of these people that they have rejected.  And while God may not direct us to follow in their footsteps, he certainly commands us to love one another.

Biblical ignorance is only one of the many types of ignorance we have to face today.

Issues surrounding racism, sexism, ageism, and every other kind of “ism” out there are not limited to Christians, but AS Christians, we are called upon by God to overcome our ignorance and embrace others in love whether we agree with them or not.  Violence against the gay community, violence against followers of Islam, violence against women or anyone is incompatible with that teaching.  Jesus tells us directly that the two greatest commandments which are linked together are to love God and love thy neighbor and any action that is inconsistent with those commandments are not from God.  Our challenge is to overcome our ignorance, to challenge ourselves when we feel tempted to act in an unloving way.  The only way for us to do that is to equip ourselves with more knowledge, to know what God has to say, to read our Bibles, to know something about other cultures, religions, and lifestyles so that we don’t go off with only half-baked ideas about “those people.”  Ignorance is not bliss.  In fact, it’s downright painful.  For you, and for me, and for those around us.  And if we are to take seriously the command by Christ to love others, we must break down the walls of ignorance and equip ourselves with the knowledge and love of God.  Only then will we succeed in truly loving our neighbor.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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