Editor’s note: This is a sermon preached at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University on Wednesday in Holy Week, March 31, 2010. The text is Hebrews 12:1–4.
“Do the math!” How often have we heard someone say that to us? Normally, if my experience is any indication, the person commanding us to do so is pointing out to us what, at least in their view, is patently obvious. Here are the realities, plain as day; do the math.
Given that I am on the road for about 60% of my work time, you will not be surprised to hear that I was eager to see the recent movie, Up in the Air. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, an ardent road warrior if there ever was one, who travels the country 323 days a year, going from one city to the next, one corporation to the next, doing the dirty work of CEOs by firing their employees in a downsizing economy. He lives in a world of elite frequent traveler programs and what he refers to as systematized friendly touches that make his life livable. “To know me is to fly with me,” he concludes. In his own sphere of meaning, he is truly running the race set before him; as he observes, “Living is moving.” Now, I am hardly a George Clooney clone in so many respects, but there was a lot I could relate to about being on the road in that movie.
At one point Ryan is ushering a new employee into the mysteries of being on the road. His mentee shows up at the airport with a large suitcase which obviously needs to be checked. “How long do you think it will take to check that bag?” He asks her. “About fifteen minutes,” she responds. Ryan sets the stage for her: “Let’s say you are on the road 265 days a year; 15 minutes twice a day times those number of days is roughly equivalent to seven working days —now do you want to waste away seven working days a year by checking bags?” Do the math.
Whether he is scanning the security checkpoint lines, trying to figure out which one will go most quickly, or discerning which express car rental service gets him where he needs to go the fastest, Ryan is always doing the math. Time is money, or, at the very least, time saved is pride kept in tact.
In the very short section of the Epistle to the Hebrews that we just heard, the author uses the word, “consider.” The author exhorts us to consider the sufferings of Jesus so that we might not grow weary or fainthearted. Writing to an audience, perhaps in Rome, that has witnessed the likes of the deaths of Peter and Paul, and may well be gearing up for even more intense persecution in the days ahead, the author asks them to consider the sufferings of Jesus as a way not to lose heart. To consider—a word that seems to evoke the notion of calling to mind, contemplating, reflecting, remembering, being thoughtful.
But the Greek word used here (analogizomai) is different from any other used for the term, consider, in the epistle. It turns out to be more of a mathematical term, one that has to do with proportionality. The author is asking us, as we run the race set before us, to compute and compare the sufferings of Jesus with our own real or potential sufferings. Add up both columns, set them alongside of each other, compare the results. Do the math.
Inevitably, I suspect, most of us, if we were to do the math this way would be left with the feeling that our sufferings and hardships pale in comparison with our savior’s. No doubt, as well, there have been many over the centuries who have been told to consider the sufferings of Jesus as a means of taking comfort and perspective, or perhaps to stop complaining and feeling bad about themselves. “Oh, I guess my difficulties aren’t so bad after all.”
Early on, as a school chaplain, I had invited a priest to come to speak in our upper school chapel, and he shared with the students and faculty the story of supposedly helping a patient suffering in hospital by reminding her, asking her to consider, the monumental sufferings of Jesus—those we will be bringing to life again in the upcoming days (of Holy Week). Like on many other occasions when I had made a mistake about the fitness of a guest preacher for that discerning audience, you can imagine the reaction I got from a number of those who heard this, not the least the school psychologist, who saw in that sermon a blatant disregard for the experiences of that patient. As she put it, “How dare he belittle her sufferings by comparing them to Jesus!”
To be sure, comparisons of this kind are not what we learn in Clinical Pastoral Education, and it is certainly not in fashion these days, inside or outside the church, to be doing the math in this way. The sufferings of the person we work with are real, and it is not our job to diminish them by calculating their scope and depth in proportion to Jesus’.
So, too, I have never found that doing the math tells the full story. I have worked with many high school seniors, over the years, who—in the hype and frenzy surrounding college admissions—attempted to decide what college to attend simply by constructing a graph and rating each college in key categories, the one coming out highest in the end is the one supposedly to choose. Just do the math. (Maybe some of you third-year students have done that with the myriad of job offerings you have received!) Well, as you can imagine, it usually did not work out that way the student intended—some were left with a dissatisfaction over the results (“This was not the one I expected to win!”), others glazed over the final totals as if this was now a meaningless exercise. It left them feeling empty. “Why did I try to do that?” one student told me, as he shared the sense of emptiness he felt as he did the math.
Ryan Bingham ultimately comes face to face with the shortcomings of doing the math. His own company determines that it needs to downsize, to look more closely at the bottom line, by taking its henchmen off the road and doing the work of transmitting bad news to those about to be fired by way of Skype. It entailed not only a potentially drastic change of lifestyle for him, but it also left him with a sense that the bottom line must give way at times to something more important, in this case actually being present in the room, face to face, when delivering the devastating news.
For some, going into these upcoming days that form the core of our faith, considering the sufferings of Jesus in relation to one’s own may be helpful. That activity may allow us in some way to put our own struggles into perspective. Maybe things won’t look so bad after all. So, too, as Hebrews tell us, those sufferings will help us endure the burdens we experience, so not to lose heart. But there is another way to look at this somewhat analytical word, consider, here: mathematics, one of my colleagues far more schooled in the discipline than I could ever be, once told me, is all about relationships. One does not look at any symbol or number in isolation, it is always in relation to another. To do math, she observed, is to enter into a web of relationships, pure and simple.
Which means, to consider what Jesus endured in his passion and death, in these days ahead, in proportion to what we all have endured, is to underscore the relationship that exists between the two. Lining up Jesus’ experience with our own does more than just humble us or put us in our place: it solidifies the relationship between our own lives and the life of Jesus we re-enact this Holy Week.& Our sufferings have new meaning when they are brought into contact with Jesus’. They take on a redemptive quality. Suffering is no longer something simply to be endured, they have meaning; as much as we recoil from the thought of it, it is something to be embraced, as through it we are brought into relationship with the one who, in the wonderful words of the King James Version of Hebrews 12:3, “endured such contradiction of sinners against himself.”
It is a message we need to emphasized to a world so focused on the bottom line, over and over again: our sufferings are not the means of exclusion from the redemption wrought by Jesus, they are the means of inclusion, the gateway for our connection with the one who endures the cross in the days ahead.
In doing so, we ourselves are ushered into that wondrous, but ever so mysterious, process of being humbled and being exalted that lies at the heart of our observances in the upcoming days. Who knew that doing the math can lead to all of that!