Posted by: dacalu | 28 May 2015

Applied Faith

This week I had the privilege of worshiping with the Lutheran Episcopal Ministry at MIT. Here are the words I shared.  I’ll note here that they come in the context of discussions about the the rites of Eucharist and Baptism, whether we can and should change them in certain circumstances (e.g., to be more inclusize), and who gets to decide (i.e., the community, the presider, the denomination…). Though the words stand on their own, they carry that as well.

 

Readings

Micah 6:6-8 (“what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”)

John 21:1-19 (“Feed my sheep”)

 

Sermon


One of my favorite comics (Cowbirds in Love #46 to be precise)
	goes something like this:

“Figure 1: Why did you build a death ray?
Figure 2: To take over the world. (cue maniacal laughter)
Figure 1: No, I mean what mad hypothesis are you testing? Or are you just making mad observations?
Figure 2: Look, I’m just trying to take over the world.
Figure 1: You’re at least going to leave some of the world as a mad control group, right?

Sad truth: most “mad scientists” are actually just mad engineers.”

Our lessons today are all about the fundamentals of Christianity,
	the core of our faith, if you will.
“Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly before God.”
“Feed my sheep.”
Countless commentaries have been written on these passages,
	arguing for mercy over justice – or justice over mercy,
	faith before works, or practicing what you preach.
Being the person I am, I thought of Cowbirds.
	What can I say?
I am not a Christian Scientist,
but maybe I am a Christian Engineer.
(On the side I should say that my Grandfather was a Christian Scientist,
	in the Mary Baker Eddy sense.
	I have great respect for many Christian Scientists,
	but that’s not really what I’m aiming for here.)
Another way to put it would be to ask whether
	my focus is on the truth
		“and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” Jn 8:32
	or whether my focus is on action
		“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these 
who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Jn 25:40
Scientists find things out and Engineers get things done.
Many Christians think that faith 
is about finding correct propositions about the world
or at least having the right mindset
Other Christians think faith
	is about accomplishing things in the world.
What do you think?

Both positions leave me a bit cold.
I don’t like faith as science.
	While there is an aspect of observation and hypothesis.
	There is no control group, no fixed parameters.
	I don’t try loving Thea but not Kari Jo to see what the different effects are.
	I don’t compare the Lutheran Eucharistic Prayer
		to the Episcopal to see which one makes better Jesus.
I’ll admit Jesus could be saying:
	Watch the goats and watch the sheep and see which one fares better.
		But truthfully the goats do better by most popular measures,
			so that’s not really helpful 
(despite what some Calvinists tell you).
	God has a soft spot for the chosen people and it usually means
		sacrifice for the sake of others.
Alternatively, Jesus could be saying:
	Feed the sheep and see what they turn into…
	This is, I think, I little closer to the truth,
		but it’s more a matter of curiosity than testing.
	Nowhere are we asked to “not feed” the goats.
		Nowhere are we called to create a control group of outsiders.
		To mangle a popular saying:
			Christians are about all of the sheep, all of the time.
Paul does tell us to “test everything and hold fast to what is good”
(I Thessalonians 5:21).
Still, I think neither truth nor careful inquiry is at the heart of Christianity.
	They are important additives.

Nor do I really like faith as engineering.
	That seems to imply that I have a goal in mind before-hand
		and I’m just using my faith to get there.
Jesus could be saying:
	Be sure that all the sheep are fed,
		but presumably Jesus could have actually fed the sheep himself:
		manna, loaves and fishes, you get the idea.
	So I think a strictly goal oriented approach to faith
		misses out, whether our goal be earthly justice
			(as the liberation theologians propose)
		or purity or inclusion or enlightenment or submission…
	All of these are important, but I think they cannot be all important.
Are any of you familiar with Soylent and Schmoylent
	and the array of drinkable foods that streamline nutrition?
I must admit that I’ve considered it – I still do.
But somehow, I don’t think Jesus would really be happy with
	a werehouse filled with sheep hooked up to IVs.
If that sounds too far fetched, I’d be happy to direct you to Aquinas,
	who feels comfortable telling us about the least possible
	elements necessary for Eucharist and Baptism.
	(He was a Christian Engineer par excellence.)
	Only one kind is necessary (bread or wine) and you can receive visually,
		if necessary.
	Only a drop of water is necessary.
	All of which has led to some very silly rituals of feeding and washing
		that utterly fail to communicate nutrition or cleanliness
		to anyone who is not, likewise, a Christian Engineer.
So I don’t think we are given faith in quite that light.
	The “get the job done” mentality
		is a bit too mercenary.
Once again, Hebrews says we must 
“run with perseverance the race” (Hebrews 12:1).
I do not claim that this future focus is necessarily wrong,
	but it appears to be attached to something else.

The conclusion I’ve come to, this week at least, is that I am
	mostly a Christian technician.
	I carry out the protocols handed down to me.
	Like any good technician, I pay attention and try to improve the protocol.
	I tweak and adjust:
		sometimes it makes things better. Often it has little or no effect.

A big part of the protocol for me IS true curiosity.
And a big part of the protocol IS tinkering for the sake of better results –
	where better results are measured by people loving other people.
But at the end of the day, there is a certain amount
	of entering into the experience,
	following the steps without being entirely sure why,
		or where they lead.

So, when I look at the Gospel,
	I see this.
Jesus is giving Peter something to do.
It’s not a command – what the philosophers call deontological ethics:
	morality as obedience to a standard.
Nor is it, strictly speaking, philosophy – 
done for the sake of coming into harmony with the cosmos.
(Though I suppose there is an element of that.)
It’s something Jesus did, and it worked, and he asked us to keep doing it.

I’m going away for a while; would you water the plants?
I’ll be at a conference, could you check the power levels while I’m gone?

We feed the sheep because we care about the shepherd,
And we feed the sheep because we care about the sheep.

We may not understand how it works – though it’s worth trying.
We may not always see the results – though that shapes our concern.
It’s a protocol; and it works.

[Protocol definition 3.1 from the OED: a procedure for carrying out a scientific experiment or a course of medical treatment.]

And, lest you mistake me – I will add this caveat:
	No one blindly follows protocols.
	No one waters the plants after the house has flooded.
	No one checks the power levels when the CPU is smoking.
	And no one attempts to feed sheep that are throwing up.
Oh, wait.
	Sometimes Christians do.  It is a metaphor after all.
Protocols require some understanding,
	even though they don’t require complete comprehension.
Indeed, they are often the best tool we have
	for learning from those who’ve done it before.

This week I ask you to join me in thinking about Christian protocols,
	why and how we do them.
I ask you to help me remember what we have been asked to do,
	as we live in this strange world
	of nurturing an experiment in progress.
	Or was that carrying out a technological plan?
God can be a bit inscrutable after all.

Let me suggest that every time we
Feed,
Bless,
Heal, 
Forgive, 
Challenge, 
Join, or 
Remember
we are invited into a protocol for making the whole world new.


 

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