Math, Word Problems, and Logic

Pentecost 2B

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So I have a bit of confession to make.  I hate math.  I always have, and I probably always will.

It’s not that I can’t hold my own.  I can do math.  I can make sense of it.  For years I’ve had to write budgets for churches and programs and read the even more complicated budgets of multi-million dollar organizations that I’ve helped to govern.  I can balance my checkbook.  I can even pretty quickly calculate a tip in a restaurant (even if I do tend to err on the side of rounding up).

It’s not that I can’t do math.  It’s not even really that I’m not good at it.  I just don’t like it.

The one exception I ever found to the “I don’t like math” rule, was word problems.  I always loved word problems.  I think putting the problems into real world scenarios helped me to visualize the math.  It certainly helped me to see the value that could come of the work - in a way that random sets of numbers never could.  For me, word problems gave math purpose.

A couple of weeks ago there was this silly post making the rounds on Facebook - maybe you saw it.  It said, “Every time I see a math word problem, it looks like this: If I have 10 ice cubes, and you have 11 apples, how many pancakes will fit on the roof?  Answer: Purple. Because Aliens don’t wear hats.

That seemed to be the way that most of my peers encountered word problems, but not me.  Rather than complicating a problem, to me, the words would give the problem structure and relevance.

My disdain for math goes back as far as I can remember, and continued even through college.  I would always try to take required math classes in college during summer school - again, not because I couldn’t do the work, but because I just wanted it to be over as quickly as possible, and summer classes didn’t last as long as regular semester courses.

As I moved toward graduation at LSU, one barrier that kept slowing me down was that one final math requirement.  Fortunately, as a liberal arts student, I had the option of getting that final math credit through taking an introductory course in logic.  Imagine - a math course that was all about word problems!  Numbers would never be a part of the program!

I loved that class.  I loved the grace of logic as a field of study: identifying fallacies, building premises that would lead to elegant, irrefutable conclusions.

Logic left the world in such neat, manageable packages.  All through the simple manipulation of words.

As much as I loved studying logic, it’s ironic that now I should find myself called to a vocation that so often and so easily eschews logic.

The practice of faith seeks to identify truth even when it’s conclusions don’t follow from the premises logically.  Think about it: how often does faith stand at odds with every premise on which we build our lives and our choices?  It happens so often that there’s even a recognizable pattern that we hear from Jesus about breaking down previously held logic.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  “You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.  If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”

There’s a whole list like that - examples of Jesus taking the established logic of the world and asking us to toss it aside in favor of a new logic.

And this assault on logic is elsewhere, as well: think about death for a moment.  Every human experience of death is that it is final - the end.  Existence ceases.  That’s what our experience shows us.  Our faith, on the other hand, dares us to imagine beyond our empirical experiences.  Our faith challenges us to look beyond the premises that have been neatly laid out for us, and to find another, unforeseen conclusion.

We hear it today in the gospel lesson, yet again.  At the start of the lesson, the crowds had swarmed around Jesus and his disciples - such that they could not even eat!  The people had heard of this one whose actions seemed to defy all logic, and they wanted to see him.  The leaders of the people - the defenders of the established logic - had also heard of him, and they feared the affront to the establishment that he represented.  A human being with that kind of power meant one of two things: he was either of God or of Satan.  They couldn’t accept that he might be of God - it would challenge all that they knew to the core.  So they accused him of being of Satan.

In the face of these princes of the logic, Jesus answers in their own language - with logic: “How can Satan cast out Satan?  If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.”  In other words: how can these good works be the product of embodied evil?

It’s a triumph of neat and orderly logic.

But surely we know this Jesus well enough by now.  He’s not going to let it go without challenging us and our own logic at least a bit…

As the story winds to a close, the people around him remain baffled - how can this man do these things?  It just doesn’t make sense!  Even his own inner circle - his family: his mother and brothers and sisters begin to question how it could be.  They wonder if he’s lost his mind.  They resolve to pull him out of the situation before things get too out of hand.

When the word gets to Jesus that they are looking for him, he turns logic on its head once more: ‘my family isn’t who you think it is.  It isn’t even who they think it is.  These - the ones who have stayed by my side and who have accepted the challenging world order that I’ve laid out for you - these are the ones who are really my family.’

“Purple.  Because aliens don’t wear hats.”

It seems to come from out of nowhere - a new way of seeing the world.  Again.

That’s the gift of the Jesus experience: in it, we take everything that we had taken for granted, everything that we thought that we knew, and find new ways of knowing.

That’s what faith is: a new way of knowing.  It doesn’t tie itself up into neat little arguments and conclusions.  It doesn’t have the clarity of numbers and solutions.  It’s a word problem that, at first glance, seems to mean nothing; but, through prayerful engagement, struggle, time, and more than a little bit of grace, begins to show truth.

There are those who say that faith is a weakness - that it obscures the answers and the facts.  Perhaps it does.  But it isn’t a weakness.  It a means by which we might break through the answers and the facts and the logic to see the deeper nugget of truth that lies beneath.

For the past several months of the church year we’ve been mostly consumed with festivals and other observances - Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday.  But now, for the next few months, we move out of the festival season into what the church calls “ordinary time”.  It’s the time between all the more specific times.  But it’s anything but “ordinary”.  It’s the time when Jesus does the work that he was with us to do.  It’s the time when he tears open all logic, and dares to share with us a glimpse of the truth underneath it all.

It might not seem, on the surface, as exciting as the past few months have been.  There may be times when it doesn’t have the kind of drive that we’ve come to expect from church.  But it’s a very important time.  I invite you into the journey.  Who knows what truth you might find?  Amen.