Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Counting and Measuring

The following sermon was written by the Reverend Scott Walters of Christ Episcopal Church and is published here with his permission.

The poet Billy Collins once noted that “Of all the questions you might want to ask/ about angels, the only one you ever hear/ is how many can dance on the head of a pin.”

The interest in countable or measurable things isn’t limited to those curious medieval theologians who debated about the necessary dimensions of an angelic dance floor. The old question about angels is a question not unlike what the world record is for hot dog eating, which happens to be 59 1/2, buns included, by Joey Chestnut of San Jose, CA. And it’s even kind of similar to the challenge of reciting the number pi out to a further decimal place than anyone else. (Akira Haraguchi broke his old record of 83,431 places by passing 100,000 last year, in case you were wondering.)

In a way, if one happens to believe in angels, it makes sense to wonder how many of them might dance on the head of a pin, because we make sense of our world quite often by counting or weighing or measuring what we hope to comprehend.

Of course we make sense of ourselves by counting and measuring, too. I didn’t realize at the time that I was finding my place in the world when I envied Steve Ruble’s impressive Lego collection, but I was. Wishing I had half of the colorful plastic building blocks that spilled from container after container in Steve’s house just set me on my way to wishing that I had an iPhone 4, could stay in 5 star hotels, buy my wife a 6 karat diamond, and drive a 7 series BMW.

We’re counting all the time in this life. The weary, weary question is “Do we ever add or measure up?”

Well, we’ve been reading through the middle chapters of the gospel of Luke for a while now. And Jesus has been saying one astonishing thing after another. He’s told us parables about precious lost coins and sheep, about foolishly storing up treasure in barns, and the return of a prodigal son. He’s told us to hate our families, invite the poor to our banquets, and how many times has he told us to give up our possessions this summer?

At every turn, Jesus has been upending our expectations and turning the ways we usually make sense of ourselves and our world on their heads.

So finally, in our reading today, it seems like a few people have got the message. They don’t approach Jesus asking him to settle an inheritance quarrel or to rebuke him for healing on the Sabbath.

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” What could possibly be wrong with a request like that one? Surely to this, Jesus will simply say, “I’d be happy to. Finally I’ve gotten through to someone. Finally someone has seen that the only quantity of anything—wealth, power, even family—the only quantity of anything that matters to God is faith. Here’s how to get some more…”

But Jesus doesn’t say that. And I suppose, after all we’ve read in Luke this summer, what would surprise us most would be for him to make one, clear, logical response to anyone. No, instead of commending his apostles for their oh so insightful request for more faith, Jesus blows them off again.

“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

Even if it’s true, what help is this strange fact? If increasing faith is something that Jesus thinks is important, why won’t he give his disciples even a little advice about how to make that increase happen? Why does he blow all their calculations up by saying the tiniest amount of faith you can imagine can do things you’ll never believe.

Why would he say such a thing? Unless, strange as it sounds, Jesus wants to get us out of the counting and measuring business altogether. Not just with regard to our possessions. Maybe we’re to get out of the measuring business when it comes to faith as well.

Now, old habits die hard, and it will take some work to quit counting. Jesus has been rearranging our expectations and priorities throughout this gospel. After reading his hard teachings about wealth and possessions, maybe we decided to pawn the 6 karat rock, trade in the 7 series Bimmer, and promise to stay only in Super 8 Hotels from now on. Will that fix things for us?

Maybe we just need to start counting and calculating downward with regard to earthly things and upward with regard to godly things. There are a few verses that kind of sound like that in Luke. So we recalibrate. If Jesus says that a mustard seed sized faith can uproot a mulberry tree, could an apple seed sized faith could bring the Little Rock school board together? Could a peach pit of faith cure cancer? Could faith the size of an avocado pit bring peace to the Middle East?

This is how we usually hear the mustard seed parable read. But something doesn’t quite work in all this. Because we’re still trying to make a commodity out of faith, aren’t we? We’re trying to find its value in some exchange. And, of course, the ultimate exchange we wonder about is whether we’ll have enough faith in the end for the salvation of our souls.
But maybe Jesus’ response doesn’t add up, because God is finished with the whole business of adding up. A mustard seed is the tiniest little thing. Jesus seems to be saying if you had any, you could do anything. It’s as if he says one equals infinity. Which blows all our calculations to bits.

Unfortunately, the mustard seed part of this reading is the part we thought we understood. The second half is where it gets weird. Jesus makes this strange analogy to slaves coming in from the field and expecting some great honor just for doing their job. What’s that all about?

Well, once upon a time, modern interpreters of the Bible would simply point out that St. Luke seems to have strung together some sayings and stories of Jesus that have been passed down. At times he seems to be snipping newspaper clippings and stapling things together. But more recently scholars have wondered whether the gospel writers actually knew a bit more about what they were doing.

They agree that Luke was piecing things together, but maybe he was piecing them together with some purpose.

So by placing the odd little parable about the slaves next to the mustard tree teaching, it becomes another way of emphasizing that what Jesus wants is for us to get out of the measuring business altogether.

The slaves coming in looking for praise at the dinner table are just like the disciples who want supercharged faith. They’re still trying to be better or greater or holier. They’re still sorting out their world in the same old way. They’ve just substituted faith for wealth. Or, to keep things in the religious realm, they’ve just made faith a work.

Jesus kept breaking down that persistent understanding of religion as performance. Humans are always tallying up burnt offerings or acts of charity or lists of virtues, but they may be nothing more than another Babel. Because they’re all about us. They’re all about the goodness we’ve achieved, and the grace we’ve earned. Which isn’t the message of the cross at all.

The message of the cross is that all bets and calculations are off. One broken down soul, full of uncertainty and petty resentments, full of good intentions and attempts at a good life, one human soul is of infinite worth. Your broken down soul and mine are redeemed. Period. The whole human project of weighing out goodness, counting up sins has been called off. We’re each the one sheep God will leave 99 to come after, we’re each the prodigal who the father has forgiven before we can stammer out explanations or apologies. Even how much faith we have isn’t the point. The point is that your ordinary life is worth saving to God before you do a single thing to make it worth something.

Saying that a mustard seed of faith will move a mulberry tree might be another way of saying there is an infinite value to one in God’s calculus. We can’t work our way into salvation, and we can’t accumulate enough faith for salvation (which sounds like a lot like work, doesn’t it?), because the saving work is already done. Stop counting, Jesus says, stop wondering if your life measures up or your faith is enough. Stop measuring. Your life, as it is, before God, is enough.

Which is why Billy Collins might have been onto something when, contrary to the speculations of theologians about how many thousands of thousands of angels might dance on the head of a pin, he said, “perhaps the answer is simply one:/ one female angel dancing alone in her stocking feet,/ a small jazz combo working in the background./ She sways like a branch in the wind, her beautiful/ eyes closed, and the tall thin bassist leans over to glance at his watch because she has been dancing/ forever, and now it is very late, even for musicians.” Amen.

And may the peace of the Lord be always with you.

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