SCRIPTURE LESSON: Matthew 21:23-27

A friend once told me about buying her mother a bottle of exquisite, expensive perfume. As she wrapped the gift, my friend reveled in the thought of her mother spritzing herself lightly and then going out into the world, blessing all she passed with this sublime fragrance, and of course enjoying the lovely scent herself.

Many years went by. I think my friend said seventeen. Now my friend was helping her mother move into a retirement apartment. After boxing up clothes and packing up possessions, my friend began cleaning out her mother’s refrigerator. And there nestled between the mustard and mayonnaise was the bottle of perfume from so long ago, still as full as the day it had been given.

My friend turned to her mother and gently asked why her perfume was in the refrigerator and why it had gone unused. “I love that perfume,” her mother said. “I’ve been keeping it away from light and heat, saving it for a special occasion.”

“Let’s enjoy a little of it now,” my friend suggested, taking her mother’s wrist and applying a wisp of scent. Her mother blew on her skin and then put her nose to her soft flesh.

Her face curled into a question mark. “I am getting old. I can’t smell anything.”

My friend took her mother’s arm and leaned in. “I can’t smell anything either. I suspect your perfume lost its fragrance sitting in the refrigerator all these years.”

A story told many years later, my friend’s sadness was still palpable. She had only wanted to spoil her mother but her mother had not grasped her loving intent. Or perhaps she didn’t trust it.

+++++

This morning we are talking about the third of our Five Smooth Stones, Bring Your Brain. We began our series with Love Wins, a claim anchored in our Easter faith which asserts that hate, indifference, abuses of power, and fear cannot prevail. God’s love wins.

Last week we explored what we mean when we say This World Matters. Or better yet, This Life Matters. We are not here on earth to secure a seat in heaven. Rather we are here to revel in and give praise for everything and everyone God has created.

Wherever and whenever we find life’s fabric tattered or torn, our sacred task is to help God repair it. (For an excellent example of this, go see the film Just Mercy or read Brian Stephenson’s book with us later this year.)

Today we turn our attention to our third smooth stone, Bring Your Brain.

Before we explore what we mean when we say this, let’s spend a minute or two thinking about what we don’t mean.

First, Bring Your Brain is not a call to become Christian intellectuals.

Secondly, Bring Your Brain does not imply that only our grey matter matters and nothing else about who we are counts—not our bodies, our feelings, our experiences, our dreams, our relationships, or our intuitions.

Finally, Bring Your Brain is not about Community Spirit exclusively, something we get to do when we’re together. The reach of this claim is great and it’s vital. Life-saving, even. It’s part of the good news we have been given to share with those beyond our walls, whether they ever worship with us or not.

What do we mean when we say Bring Your Brain, then?

To say Bring Your Brain is to insist that God has blessed us with the most incredible gift: the capacity to think and reflect and question and conjure up fresh ideas and imagine new possibilities.

Like the perfume my friend gave her mother, our brains are exquisite. It grieves God whenever we set our minds on the metaphoric refrigerator shelf, never or rarely to be used and enjoyed.

Consider for a moment the seemingly innocuous religious bumper sticker that goes something like this: “The Bible—God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

In Jesus’ Jewish community, asking questions of scripture, hypothesizing when there were gaps, playfully and soulfully generating a variety of understandings and interpretations, all were evidence of profound respect for the scriptures. Not evidence of disrespect or disbelief.

To say Bring Your Brain is to insist that scripture is much more than God’s worm on a hook, something we must swallow whole if we are going to let God catch us.

Bring Your Brain has everything to do with the way we read and regard scripture. But it’s more than that. It asks us to engage in reflection brought on by the living of our lives.

When we were talking about Love Wins several weeks ago, I shared that when Rob Bell was pastoring Mars Hill Church years ago someone left a note on a portrait of Gandhi that read “Too bad he’s in hell now.”

Thinking long and hard about this assertion is what gave rise to Rob Bell’s book Love Wins and, more importantly, set Bell on a spiritual journey that I have no doubt will continue for the rest of his life.

When you and I say Bring Your Brain, we are insisting that God wants each and every person to think, learn, question, test, imagine, and yes, even entertain doubt and healthy skepticism. God doesn’t just hope we will think, learn, question, test, imagine and make room for doubt and healthy skepticism, God rejoices when we do.

Belonging as we do to a free-thinking and open-minded church, we may not fully appreciate how the other half of Christendom lives. We may fail to grasp the real torment some suffer for being told that to ask a thoughtful, sincere theological or scriptural question is to risk falling in league with the devil himself.

We may not realize that for far too many, to confess that a line in a creed or a point of doctrine or—heaven forbid—something the pastor said doesn’t ring true is strictly verboten. That to say “I’m not sure I agree” is to hazard God’s anger and even jeopardize one’s eternal salvation.

Jesus did not come like a high school teacher with a pop quiz and consequences if we can’t score better than 70. He did not come so that we could say to him what he wants to hear or say what the church expects us to say about him. Jesus did not come to demand we put our exquisite brains on ice.

Years ago, the Jesuit priest John Dear published The Questions of Jesus. The title alone could cause a revolution in certain circles. After years of closely reading the four gospels, the very dear John Dear noticed that along with all the things Jesus did and said, along with all the truths he taught and all the love he embodied, the four gospels give us nearly 400 occasions when Jesus asked people questions. Not rhetorical questions but open ended, think for yourself questions. Questions requiring not only original thought but soulful reflection, as well.

Imagine this for a moment. Imagine Jesus truly being curious about what you think—and why you think what you think. Not so that he can do a “gotcha” and prove you wrong. Not so that he can hand out an “atta girl” or “atta boy” for giving an answer he wanted to hear.

Imagine Jesus asking you about what constitutes real compassion. Or inviting you to think aloud about when breaking the Sabbath would be more pleasing to God than keeping it, as one of the ten commandments insists. Imagine Jesus asking you to share with him your thoughts on what makes a life meaningful, what brings about true healing, or what kinds of idols our world worships even though they don’t look anything like the golden calf the rebellious Israelites fashioned for themselves on their way to the Promised Land.

Imagine Jesus asking you a question and being entirely engrossed by what you are moved to share. And then imagine him following up with more questions, more engagement—all while he is making plain how much he loves you, cherishes you, believes in you and the fabulous working of your mind, as well as your mind laboring in service to your heart, experiences, intuitions, and uncertainties.

At root, Bring Your Brain is an invitation to every person on the planet to enter into a relationship with the God who cannot be threatened by what we do or do not think. A God who, because God loves us without condition, is genuinely interested in what we think about and wonder about and aren’t quite sure about.

We all know how oppressive it is, how diminishing and disappointing it is, how hurtful and unproductive it is to be in the presence of someone who is not interested in hearing our thoughts, who scoffs at our questions, who insists that their truth is the only truth. Why would we ever, for even a moment, suggest that God would behave similarly?

We are each free to Bring Our Brains with us into our relationship with God because God has nothing to defend. A God who says “you can’t ask that,” a God who says “you can’t think that,” is a God who is far too puny and insecure to be called God.

I love many things about Fr. Richard Rohr but at the top of the list is this: toward the end of very talk he will say “Don’t take my word for it! If you recognize anything I’ve said as true, it’s because the Spirit who dwells within you has already taught you this.”

If only the religious elites who were giving Jesus grief that day at the temple understood this.

In our reading this morning, they question Jesus’ authority to teach because he lacks the outward credentials, because he’s not a company man. His authority comes from the Spirit within him. That same Spirit dwells within us.

You and I are not Jesus, though. And as the apostle Paul reminds us, while we walk the earth we are all seeing through the murky glass, we’re all limited in our capacity to grasp the full extent of the truth.

God’s truth isn’t something that can be nailed down, confined, regulated, thought-policed. The truth Jesus was in touch with, the truth he hoped to expose us to and invite us into is a truth that defies intellectual comprehension or adequate articulation.

Just as the God who can be named is not God, so the God who can be explained is not God.

John Dear’s book reminds me that the necessary companion to faith is questions. Not rhetorical questions, not questions meant to elicit a single correct answer, but questions that carry us far beyond our information-seeking brains and into places of wonder and soulful imagination, into places of uncertainty even.

In these places, in these opportunities we may not find clarity or certitude, but we will—most assuredly—find God.

And above all else, we will find that God loves us, that this life matters, and that by bringing our brains but not worshipping them, we can and do find a spaciousness and a graciousness nothing on earth can supply.

Bring Your Brain. Thunderbolts will not rain down from heaven if you dare to think. But don’t just Bring Your Brain. Bring all of who you are—your body and what it knows and wants to know, your heart and what it knows and yearns to know, your imagination, your intuitions, your questions and your uncertainties. Your whole self, made by God, for God. Made by God in love, that you might be moved to love God back.

Amen.