God’s Arithmetic (10/31/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
When I was a kid there was this big controversy in education. It was called new math. New math became a big deal about the time I went from elementary school to junior high. We were in the middle of that strange decade called the 60’s, and frankly, most adults had seen all the changes they cared to see for a while. There were riots in the streets over everything from race discrimination to the war in Viet Nam. The birth control pill was causing many young women to view their sexuality in new ways. The Beatles had started taking hallucinogenic drugs and writing popular music that was unlike anything people had ever heard before.
Enough with all this change cried the newly villainized establishment. And then, right when it appeared things couldn’t get any crazier, educators started touting this new way of teaching arithmetic. They called it new math. You could almost see people’s heads exploding when they heard those words—new math. New math? What? One plus one isn’t two anymore? People felt like the last thing they could rely on to remain unchanged—simple arithmetic—was being corrupted. It sounds funny now, but back then, it was a really big deal.
And frankly, new math sort of fizzled. It stressed set theory, and if my math skills are any indication, it was a total failure. The fact is, math is math. It is about as pure as science gets. One plus one is going to be two yesterday, today and tomorrow. Of so it would seem. But God has some different ideas about arithmetic. In the world of theology, we like to think that one plus one is equal to a whole lot more than two—or at least it can be if the circumstances are right. Our thoughts are not God’s thoughts, even on our best days. Perhaps God’s arithmetic surpasses our understanding as well. Perhaps God is constantly trying to shake us up—to get our attention—with some new math.
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God’s arithmetic. I have to believe God looks at things differently from you and me. In God’s view one and one can equal much more than two. The first example that comes to mind is revealed in that passage from Matthew we heard read from the lectern this morning. Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there with them.” Okay. One plus one equals three. If Dick and Jane are gathered—alone—in Jesus’ name, Jesus is there also. Dick plus Jane equals Dick, Jane and Jesus. One plus one equals three.
That’s some strange arithmetic, but I believe it is true. And it goes to the very heart of the Christian faith. Where is Jesus? There was a flesh and blood man who walked the earth two thousand years ago, and Christians make an outlandish claim. We claim that Jesus lives. Many Christians envision Jesus out there in space somewhere, physically sitting at the right hand of God. That is not a part of my theology, but there is nothing wrong with thinking like that. I personally believe that people who think about Jesus in that way are closer to the truth than those who believe Jesus no longer lives at all.
A long-time tenet of the Christian faith is that Jesus will come again. And for those who envision Jesus as a physical being, sitting out there, somewhere, with God, that coming again often involves his physical return on the clouds of heaven. The Second Coming is a powerful idea. If you throw yourself into the Christian faith without reservation, you come to believe that God does indeed rule over all time—including the end of time—and that image of Jesus coming again is the sign of God’s ultimate power over all things. It is the conviction that in spite of all the loose ends, our lives—and the universe itself—end well.
But a lot of us have really played fast and loose with the Second Coming. In fact, as I’ve often said, most of the Christians I know who are obsessed with the Second Coming are people who can’t stand the guy we got the first time. That Jesus of the first coming—Jesus of Nazareth—he told us to love our enemies, and not to return evil for evil. That Jesus told us that judging another person was the worst thing we could do. And he told us quite simply to love God with everything we’ve got, and to love our neighbors just as much as we love ourselves.
But some of the folks who build their theology around the Second Coming tend to ignore everything the original Jesus had to say. They promise us a returning Jesus who will, in effect, be just the opposite of Jesus when he was here the first time. Before, he said not to return evil for evil; next time he will repay evil a thousand times over. Before he said to love our enemies; next time he will righteously throw our enemies into an unending lake of fire. And as for not judging others, well, the ultimate judgment you can make against another person is to judge them worthy of hell. And most of the people I know who are obsessed with the Second Coming are convinced that everybody is going to hell except for them and their small circle of like-minded friends.
So I don’t get too excited about the idea of a physical Jesus out there beyond the stars, biding his time until the day comes when he returns to earth in anger. But I do believe that Jesus lives. And in today’s passage from Matthew Jesus tells us exactly where he can be found. Wherever two or more are gathered in his name, he is there.
And I know it is easy enough for us to say, “Well sure, when we think about Jesus, he is there in our memories.” And that’s true. But it is much more than that. The holy love of God—the eternal Christ—was embodied in Jesus as he walked this earth, and that very same love is with us in a real and tangible way when we gather in his name. I can’t explain it any more than I can explain why one plus one is three, but that’s the way it is with God’s arithmetic.
And people may think that means God’s arithmetic only works on some mystical level, some mysterious plane so far beyond the physical world it can never be seen or proven. But there are other ways in which God’s arithmetic works, right here in the material world… which leads us to an equation that is almost as strange as one plus one equals three. The new equation: one plus 120 equals two billion.
One plus 120 equals 2 billion. To arrive at this formula we must consult two sources. The first source is the biblical book called Acts of the Apostles. Acts explains what happened after the death of Jesus. Judas had killed himself. The remaining eleven apostles hid out for a short time, and then gathered together all the people who had been following Jesus. We are told quite specifically how many people that was: one-hundred and twenty.
One-hundred and twenty people, and rest assured these were not the crème de la crème of society. These were the beggars, prostitutes, tax collectors, and other misfits who had found in Jesus a new way of life. And after his amazing ministry—after all those miracles and all those great teachings and all those arguments with the powers that be, Jesus had acquired a following of how many people? 120?
That’s not really all that impressive. What can God do with a situation like this? What can God do with one homeless preacher hanging from a cross and 120 men and women that anybody belonging to proper society would cross the street to keep from coming near? This is where God’s arithmetic comes in once again, as we discover when we consult our second source: a modern almanac. The number of Christians in the world today is approaching two billion. Two billion. And it all started with a group of people about half the size of the group gathered here this morning. So in this case, one plus 120 equals two billion.
Where else do we find God doing some new math? One plus one equals three—that is some pretty weird arithmetic, as is one plus 120 equals 2 billion. But how about this equation: one plus two equals infinity. It doesn’t make sense, but in God’s strange way of looking at things, one plus two equals infinity happens all the time. One heart, plus two hands, equals infinite possibilities.
This mathematical miracle is playing out all over the planet, every day. These hands of ours—they are amazing things. They can bring both great goodness and great evil into the world. It has something to do with the opposing thumbs, I suppose. Scientists tell us that is when our brains started getting bigger and bigger and bigger—when our forebears developed thumbs, and evolved to the point they could start holding things in their hands, staring at things, shaping things, molding things they way they wanted them to be.
That little brain behind our forebear’s eyes kept trying to make sense of things, and the next thing we knew there was this big mass of gray matter sitting on top of our shoulders, and that gray matter started telling our hands—opposing thumbs and all—to start doing all manner of strange things.
And even today, that blob of gray matter can tell our hands to grab a gun and hold up a convenience store, or bring all manner of mischief into the world. But add a heart to the equation, and suddenly those hands become miracle workers. Those are the hands that can bake a loaf of bread and take it to the homeless shelter, or write a letter to a lonely friend, or dial the phone just to tell somebody they are loved.
Take a pair of human hands and add a heart oriented toward the greater good and you have a mathematical miracle. Right now, at this precise moment, somewhere there is a person who feels a call on their heart to become something more than they’ve ever been before. Right now, somewhere, somebody is making a commitment to live for something greater than himself, for something more than her own self-interest. This world of ours is going to be a better place ten years from now because of the change of heart somebody is having right now. God’s arithmetic! One heart plus two hands equals infinite possibilities.
I like the way God’s arithmetic works, at least the way we’ve looked at it so far. But there are some other formulas in God’s math that seem awfully strange to me. Consider the words that come from our mouths. While our hands are amazingly powerful things, their power pales in comparison to our words. Remember the old saying, Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me? That is the biggest lie we teach our children. Because nothing could be further from the truth. The truth of the matter is, sticks and stones can break my bones, but words… words can absolutely destroy me.
And if we take the sum total of words emanating from human vocal cords over the course of a day, for every word of love there must be about ten words of hate and another thousand words of meaningless babble. And yet, and yet, God continues to hold this universe in being, and God continues to call us forth from the dust, and for the most part, we continue to be glad God is doing so! So here is a formula that makes no sense, but which must surely be true: one word of love is equal to a thousand words of hatred and babble.
One equals one-thousand. God’s arithmetic. It doesn’t make sense, all these crazy equations. They are irrational. But they all have something in common. Each equation has a wild card that makes it defy our normal ways of thinking. Consider our first equation; one plus one equals three. The wild card in that equation is Jesus. When two are gathered in his name, he is there among them.
Consider the equation one plus one hundred and twenty equals two billion. Once again the wild card in that equation is Jesus. If that had been anybody else hanging from that cross, one plus one-hundred and twenty would equal something far short of two billion.
Consider the equation one plus two equals infinity. The reason one heart and two hands are capable of infinite possibilities is because of the one who lives in our heart. Once again, Jesus is the wild card that makes God’s arithmetic possible.
And last, that crazy equation that says one equals one-thousand—that one word of love is equal to a thousand words of hatred and babble. Love is the wild card. The very same love that Jesus embodied when he walked the earth; the very same love that is present when two or three gather in his name; the very same love that fills our hearts and guides our hands—love is the wild card that renders all our old ways of thinking obsolete.
Jesus and love—I can’t separate those two things. And they are what makes God’s arithmetic possible. And that leads us to our final equation of the morning. This equation causes a lot of us in the liberal wing of the Christian church some problems. The reason is simple. Part of this equation involves Jesus on the cross. We have had a lot of trouble with those who view Jesus on the cross as God’s sacrifice of his son. The language of sacrifice does not work for us, because we simply do not believe in human sacrifice, and can’t imagine that God does either.
But we recognize that there is amazing power in the Cross. We see there a sign of God’s love unlike any other. We see there the very nature of God—the God who loves us so much, we could take God’s human incarnation and spit on him, laugh at him, whip him, torture him, and nail him to a cross, forcing upon him the most painful and humiliating death we are capable of imagining with our sometimes twisted minds—and God would look at us and say, “I forgive you. I still love you and forgive you, because I am God, and I am love. That is who I am.”
And that is what makes the last equation so amazing: One innocent man on a cross equals salvation for all humanity. I don’t understand it. It really doesn’t make sense. But it sounds a lot like the way God does arithmetic.