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Who Counts?

Rev. Nancy S. Taylor
Nov 20 2011


The sermon is based on the story of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes (and preached on the occasion of the 56th annual return of the congregation of Old South Church in Boston to our ancestral home, the Old South Meetinghouse, for a Service of Thanksgiving).

The story of the miracle of the loaves and fishes concludes with this bit of data: “Those who ate were about five thousand men ….to say nothing of the women and children.”1

So I gotta ask: Who was doing the counting?

Whether you are counted, and how much you count for, depends on who is doing the counting.

When the Old South congregation gathered in this house in the 1700 and 1800s some counted more than others: American Indians, African Americans and children counted for less and were relegated to the upper galleries.

White families, families of means, land-owning families counted for more and were granted pride of place on the main floor.

Whether you are counted, and how much you count for, depends on who is doing the counting.

When this congregation was first gathered in 1669, they called themselves the Third Church of Boston. In point of fact, we were the fifth church in Boston, but because the way our Puritan forebears figured it, the Quaker Meeting and the Baptist Church just didn’t count.

Whether or not you count, and how much you count for, depends on who is doing the counting.

One day, some months after my husband Peter died, I found myself looking out over the congregation and counting the widows. So many widows. I had hadn’t thought to count them before then.

Whether or not you count, and how much you count for, depends on who is doing the counting.

At Old South Church in Boston, an usher counts Sunday attendance, adult attendance and children’s. We count cookies, granola bars, cups of coffee, and Sunday bulletins. We count the money in the Donation Box and the Collection Plate and pledges. We count Christmas poinsettias, Easter lilies and hits on our Web page.

We count and keep track of numbers of chairs and tables, numbers of pianos (seven), numbers of organs (2), numbers of pipes in the Skinner organ …Well that is a matter of some dispute!

We count members, visitors and tourists. We even count cockroaches. We do. We keep a notebook in which we document every single cockroach sighting. We like to know what we are up against.

Our gardeners at the church recently planted bulbs … crocus, tulips, narcissus, and allium … How many bulbs, you ask? I asked Jim Hood that question last night. The answer: 6,974.

Those who occupied this house in 1773 were also counters. They counted pews and pew holders, silver and children. They counted the poor and took up collections for them.

Among all the things they counted, were the ships in the harbor belonging to the East India Company. In November of 1773 they counted three ships: the Dartmouth, the Beaver and the Eleanor. They counted the total chests of tea aboard those three ships: 342 chests. They counted and deeply resented the taxes they were obligated to pay to the British Crown for their beloved tea.

After the Boston Tea Party, after the three ships had been boarded and after the chests had been pried open and the tea poured into the Harbor—all 342 chests, all 90,000 pounds of tea—Benjamin Franklin, a son of this congregation … counted the cost.

No fan of such wonton waste of good tea, Franklin urged the colonists to pay back the cost of the destroyed property (which, at two shillings per pound, came to £9,000, or, in today’s numbers: £888 thousand). A tidy sum.

But counting is a tricky business … the counting being in the eye of the beholder.

I wonder who was counting on the day Jesus produced the miracle of loaves and fishes. Matthew tells us someone was counting the loaves and fishes: they started with a count of five and two … but then, after all had eaten, they ended up with “twelve baskets full.”

And someone was counting the people … or at least someone was counting some of the people: “those who ate were about five-thousand men … to say nothing of the women and children.”

Whoever counted, only counted the men. They only counted the men because only men counted.

But those who have studied Christian history know this: women have been drawn to Jesus and his story from the beginning and often in greater numbers than men.

One theory about this story proposes that there were likely twice as many women as men
at this particular Jesus-picnic … and, moreover, that each woman was accompanied by an average of two children.

If this theory is right, in addition to the 5000 men, there were roughly 30,000 women and children. Which answers the question about all that food. For what mother leaves the house with her child without bringing along snacks: juice boxes, animal crackers, yogurt, Cheerio’s, string cheese?

Biblical arithmetic is inscrutable. Jesus said if you own two coats, that’s one too many: give one away. On the other hand, if someone slaps you on one cheek, that’s one too few: invite them to slap you on the other cheek … and make it an even pair.

Biblical arithmetic is inscrutable. Jesus said we are to forgive those who sin against us, not seven times, but seventy times seven times … which is a lot … five hundred and thirty-nine times … The point is that none of us, not even those who make an art of holding a grudge, can count that high.

The moral of the story: stop counting and start forgiving.

Jesus has an unusual way of counting. He said this: If you have 100 sheep and one goes missing, you should abandon those 99. Leave them defenseless against wolves and go chase down that one that was lost. That’s quite a gamble.

So, here’s a riddle: What if those numbers are reversed? What if it’s the other way round? What if it is not the one who is lost, but the 99? Put it another way: If the 1% are okay and the 99% are in trouble, what is a Christian to do?

Here we are, in this ancient house, the site of America’s first great act of civil disobedience … only blocks from Occupy Boston, the site of a movement of civil disobedience … a movement of those claiming to represent the 99%.

As others have pointed out before me, the Boston Tea Party and the Occupy Movement share more than a few similarities. Here is my list:

Like the Occupy Movement, the Boston Tea Party had its many detractors: those who condemned it as the ill-conceived act of a lawless mob2. And it had its defenders: those who, like John Adams, found it dignified, majestic and sublime.

The Boston Tea Party was, and Occupy is, fundamentally about money and fairness.

Both movements sprang from a similar conviction: that a small percent of those in charge are playing by a different set of rules than everyone else.

The Boston Tea Party involved trespassing on private property and the temporary occupation of ships belonging to the East India Company … while Occupy involves the occupation of public spaces.

Unlike Occupy, The Boston Tea Party, centered on, depended on the intentional, calculated destruction of property.

Like the Occupy Movement, the Boston Tea Partiers were comprised of more than its serious organizers and activists … there were other elements along for the ride: common thieves, smugglers, hooligans, drunkards, and provocateurs … all of whom attracted the attention of detractors and gave to the committed activists a bad name.

If Biblical arithmetic is inscrutable, it is not alone in that. One of the most inscrutable statistics about Occupy is this: half of the top 1% of earners in this country don’t count themselves in the top 1%3 … according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.

Whether you are counted, and how much you count for, very much depends on who is doing the counting.

It is in the hands of the Old South clergy to pray the prayers left in our Old South Prayer Box. We will tell you the truth as we figure it: that the number of those begging for God’s help with employment, loans, mortgages and debt is steadily rising. The Old South clergy can also attest to an ever-increasing number of our friends and members who have lost jobs, can’t get jobs, are in default of loans, have lost or are losing homes … an ever increasing number of people for whom desperation and anguish are daily companions.

Here’s the thing: when we are in God’s house, we are obliged to honor to God’s arithmetic, calculations that, while inscrutable, can be counted on for this: counting the poor, the least, the lost, the hungry and those who are cold.

The story of the loaves and the fishes … is the story of a day, long, long ago, when the Son of God fed everyone who was hungry … deaf and blind to human counting and calculations.

That is God’s arithmetic.

And yours? What about your arithmetic? How do you count?

1The Gospel According to Matthew 14.13-21
2Alexander, Revolutionary Politician, 129 (on Samuel Adams)
3“The 1% Who Don’t Think They’re the 1%,” By Robert Frank, WSJ 11/ 15/ 11