Saturday, March 14, 2015

An irrational, non-repeating, approximate, constant, transcendent act of faith

A Sermon for the 50th Wedding Anniversary of David and Ann Gerns, March 14, 2015.

Happy Pi Day!
That’s why we’re here, right?
We’re not? Well, darn!
You’ll have to forgive me because I do not often have the opportunity to geek out about two totally divergent things at the very same time!
Do you know what the coolest thing is about pi? Well, to me, anyway…is that is you can do so much with something that refuses to be nailed down.  
Both the ancient Chinese and the ancient Greeks figured out Pi. Why? Because you need Pi to calculate circles. You know: the circumference of a circle is the diameter times pi. And the area? Pi r squared. (Which is silly because we are know that pies are round!)
Not only do circles suggest completion, but you need them to build things, measure things, and move things. Without circles you can’t navigate. Without circles there are no arcs, and without arcs you can’t have model railroads, radios, and it would make sewing very, very difficult … not to mention boring.
But here’s the thing: for all the cool things you can do with circles, the best we can do when we calculate them is approximate. As a transcendental number, Pi never ends and it never repeats. So we have to always say approximately 3.141592857. Computers have divided 22 by 7 and calculated out to, I don’t know, maybe a million places and they just cannot nail this sucker down! It won’t end, and it won’t repeat. It just keeps going. And yet it is constant. Showing up in every circle from your thimble to your tires.
Pi is not only irrational and transcendent, it defies  fundamentalism of any kind--scientific, rationalistic, or religious. If you are the kind of person who must have everything exactly nailed down, perfectly defined, and all questions definitively  answered, the Pi will drive you bonkers! Because sooner or later you have got to get on with moving what you've got to move and building what you've got to build. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to say “The heck with it! For our purposes, 3.14 will just have to do!”
To me it is both beautiful and at the same time a wonderful kind of cosmic joke that is built into the heart of our universe: this most basic element of math, technology, and science is this rare, precious, transcendental, and ambiguous thing. But in order to be of any use to us  at all, we have to finally take on…faith.
And we can and do every single day… because it works.
Irrational, non-repeating, imprecise, approximate, constant, transcendent. Kind of like a fifty year marriage, right? (You were wondering when I would get down to business, weren’t you?)
When I was five or six years old, my cool big brother who was in college and had this amazing crew cut and rode a bright red Vespa, brought home one day… a girl. Now I have to tell you, at the time I wasn’t sure about this whole “girl” thing. Like the little boy whose grandfather read to him the story of The Princess Bride, I was pretty skeptical, especially the kissing. But this girl…played the guitar. And she sang. Yes, she did. And that pretty well sealed the deal as far as I was concerned.
Later on, I would become the only kid in my class who was an uncle. A very important job. Not that I always very good at it. I seem to recall leaving said nephew stranded in an apple tree while I attended to some other important matter involving Tonka trucks. And then again, and then again, this role would come my way.
It’s been a blessing these fifty years. In fact, I would say it has been transcendental, slightly irrational, and wonderfully constant. (You knew I would bring pi back into this, didn’t you?)
The Gospel you two picked today comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as found in The Gospel According to Matthew. Matthew is an interesting guy because this Gospel is the most concerned about The Law…about good behavior, and how Christian communities work…and yet he is the one who repeats over and over again that the most important part about the Law…about seeking and following God’s will…is not what you know but what you do. Over and over again, he reminds us that Jesus in his teaching divided people up into two general categories. The wise and the foolish.
Not the smart and the dumb. Not the heroic and the cowardly. But the wise and the foolish.
The foolish people are the ones who build their houses on sand, or don’t save enough oil for their lamps, they sew their seed on roadbeds, and turn life-giving faith into the death-dealing rules.  They hear Jesus’ teaching and even understand it, but ignore it.
The wise people are the ones who build their houses on firm ground, trim their lamps until the bridge-groom arrives, sew their seed on good soil, and live their faith by how what they do. They hear Jesus’ teaching, and do it.
The foolish see the naked, the hungry, and the outcast and do nothing. The wise see them and clothe them, feed them, and give them hospitality. That’s how the Gospel works in Matthew.
However the house is built, the wise build it on firm ground. And that foundation is faith, of learning and doing the work of Jesus every day. A solid faith, like a solid house, doesn't exempt one from difficulty but stands up to the storms. A solid faith stands despite the storms and wind and turmoil.
Faith is also a choice, but not always a rational one. In the iconic passage from Ruth from the Hebrew Scriptures we hear about three widow-women—two of them foreigners and aliens—who come to a point where the smart thing to do is part from each other and go each to their own country. But Ruth decides to stay with her mother-in-law, Naomi. “Where you go, I will go,” she says.  “Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die…” In choosing to stay together; in choosing to be respectful; in doing what you could to make your household a safe, stable, place, you have chosen a life a faith.
Hmm. Stability. Amendment of life. Obedience to something bigger. Where might we have heard about that before? (Huh. Interesting. Never mind!)
But where will this all end? Where is this chosen life of faith take us? Well, let’s do what the early church did and look at a marriage feast. In Revelation, the image of how God will wrap up all of everything from creation to culmination is a marriage feast! And at this marriage feast we see that at long last the very thing we pray for all the time actually happens! God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven!
And you know the truth about marriage feasts, don’t you? They are always followed by a marriage. After the hokey pokey and clinging glasses comes the sacrament.  One that is created, celebrated, and repeated every single day. So when God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven, it’s only the beginning!
Fifty years ago, the show that was taking Broadway by storm was “Fiddler on the Roof.” One of my favorite songs from that show happen when Tevya is there with his wife Golde. He is troubled that the oldest daughter has married a poor tailor, and the next daughter wants to marry a revolutionary, and suspicious that the third daughter may be in love with a Gentile…and knowing that a pogrom is coming to his village to banish all the Jews. Everything that Tevya has built his life on, tradition, is falling down around him. While worrying about all this, Teyve, turns to Golde and asks “Do you love me?”
She thinks he is crazy.
Do I love you? 
For twenty-five years I've washed your clothes
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house
Given you children, milked the cow
After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?
But he persists. Do you love me?
Do I love him?
For twenty-five years I've lived with him
Fought him, starved with him
Twenty-five years my bed is his
If that's not love, what is?
Then you love me, he says.
I suppose I do, she answers.
He smiles at her and says: And I suppose I love you too.
Then they sing together, which I will paraphrase:
It doesn't change a thing
But even so
After (fifty or so) years
It's nice to know.
Irrational, non-repeating, approximate, constant, transcendent…and an act of faith that works.
Happy Pi Day.
And may God continue to bless you both.

See a wonderful video here.

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