The other day Judy took me shopping, and I noticed that everything seemed to be “artesian” these days. Artesian cheese, artesian bread, artesian beer, and artesian chocolate were all artfully displayed on the shelves. I’m not completely sure what artesian means, but apparently it is good these days if a food is hand crafted in small batches, using carefully selected ingredients and lavished with attention to detail by a craftsperson dedicated to that process. It’s all good, this artesian thing. And there is this subtle food theme to the lessons we have before us today.
But years of pastoral ministry have me focused on something else in these lessons. I would call it the calculus of consequences. The calculus of consequences is this sense that living well and right will lead to good things. Further, leading life less well can have difficult consequences: not only for our bodies, but also for our souls and the well being of those around us. Each of these passages from the Bible raises up this calculus of consequences for our consideration.
This is a matter we all face as we get engaged in the life of the spirit as well as daily living. We sense that there are consequences for our actions. Living well does bring its rewards. And those who do not heed the warnings may suffer. But we also know that we can be good people and still suffer. Or we can be scoundrels and seem to get by with it. Apparently the calculus is not a simple equation.
Often smoking leads to lung cancer. But sometimes people who have never smoked get cancer. And sometimes someone who smokes dies of something else. Usually those who conserve their money do well financially. But sometimes those who risk their assets do better. Usually those who are honest and hardworking in business last longer than those who cheat. But sometimes the sloth seems to be just in the right place at the right time. Usually those who exercise live longer lives. But sometimes those longer lives are simply more months spent in a nursing home somewhere far from family and friends.
Generally speaking, we know that the good is rewarded and the bad face difficulties. But we also know that the calculus of consequences is a rather complex or ambiguous equation and not an exact mathematical formula. Apparently the divine calculation involves some rather imponderable variables.
One variable to factor in the calculus is that we really cannot understand the mind of God or know what is in the head of God. This is one of the points of Isaiah this morning. We really don’t know what God ultimately has in mind as we face this or that particular difficulty. Sometimes what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Sometimes a larger good is at stake, but that larger good is not yet apparent. Sometimes God is balancing several goods and evils over several generations all at the same time. And so it’s hard for us to be able to do a calculus of consequences with any sense of precision. We don’t know the mind of God.
A second variable that complicates the calculus is the infinite and eternal nature of God. Infinity is always hard to work into equations. But there is this sense that life as we know it is transcended somehow. Because of that we are not able to fully assess the ultimate outcome of things. That makes it difficult to say what the ultimate consequences are for the lives we lead. The infinities to be calculated are not only the infinite time involved in life through and after death. The infinity of God also refers to the depth of the human heart. It seems that the soul, created by God is a complex thing, not easily plumbed by the calculators we use to define so much of life. Do we really know who is miserable and who is happy?
A third variable that complicates any calculus of consequence is the sense of the individual and the community. In these matters, we are usually focused on individual consequences. But the Bible and all of these lessons this morning are more focused on the consequences to the group or community. And so how things affect the larger community need to be factored into the calculus, even if we are more focused on our own lives. The good of the community may sometimes be more important than the success of the individual in the Bible.
A fourth variable that complicates the calculus is this thing called the meantime, or the interim, or the period of grace that is found in the third lesson today in the story of the fig tree and the fertilizer. Apparently consequences do not happen automatically and often not quickly. We are given period of grace. And sometimes this meantime can be a long stretch that will cause us to wonder if or when things will ever get sorted out. It may even be the case that things get changed in the period of grace. People do repent it seems, in all of the lessons today, and then things get recalculated in other mysterious ways.
So the calculus of consequences generally works but is complicated by the mind of God, the testing of faith, the presence of infinity, the importance of the group and community, and the period of grace as well as the possibilities for change.
Now if I have not muddied the waters too much, all this makes a few things clear. First, we need to be less judgmental of people who seem to be violating all the rules. It’s going to be hard to calculate ultimate outcomes. And we need to be more concerned about the common good, and the well being of all citizens in ways we usually are not. And we need to attend to our own lives, not assuming that our period of grace will go on forever. We can amend our ways and it will help us to live life gracefully.
Above all, this calculus brings us back to a sense that God wants us back, that God wants to bring us home, and that God wants not just to walk with us through the valleys and shadows, but to live life well with us. Note the size of that us is bigger than just you and me. And note that there will still be consequences. But we are given some time yet. Let’s use it wisely and watch our intake as they say.
Which brings me back to that artesian thing. Trees need fertilizer the Bible says. People need good food, spiritual nourishment in Isaiah and Corinthians. Our spiritual nourishment is the bread and wine, the presence of God with us, in, with, and under the Lord’s Supper. And then there is the nourishment of the Word of God. Which speaks the Lutheran artesian tradition regarding the nourishing word. Sermons, grounded in the word are artesian like cheeses, beer, chocolate, and bread. Good sermons are perishable food, are hand crafted, based on good ingredients, prepared by someone who is dedicated to the craft, and wants us all to be nourished through this locally prepared reflection meant for the here and the now. May the sermons here be “artesian” in that good sense of the word.