“Measure for Measure”  Mark W. Harris

 December 11, 2011 – First Parish of Watertown, Unitarian Universalist

 Call to Worship- – from  Luke 6:37-38

 “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.  For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”



 Psalm 39- 4-7

 Lord, let me know my end,

            And what is the measure of my days;

            Let me know how fleeting my life is.

You have made my days a few handbreaths,

            And my lifetime is nothing in your sight.

Surely everyone stands as a mere breath.

            Surely everyone goes about like a shadow.

Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;

            They heap up, and do not know who will gather.

 And now, O Lord, what do I wait for?

            My hope is in you.


“The Water Jug” by Jane Rzepka

 See also A Wind Swept Over the Waters by John Nichols





            My wife and I have been known to disagree.  I know you’ll find this hard to believe, but in fact, it’s true.  This happened when Andrea was trying to write the introduction to our book.  She began with a story that includes Michael Servetus, the first person to question in print the truth of the doctrine of the Trinity.  She called him a cartographer, one who makes maps, while I highlighted in the next chapter of the book his subsequent career as a physician, for which he received some fame due to his findings on the circulation of the blood. Fearing that this would make it appear as though we did not know what we were talking about, I lobbied her to change her chapter. Surprisingly, she was unwilling to do so. With some reluctance, I then changed my wording in my chapter to read, Servetus, cartographer and physician.  While it is not unusual for people to change professions, I did not comprehend the connection between these two seemingly unconnected occupations until I recently attended an exhibit called: “Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe” at the Sackler Museum over at Harvard. The exhibit includes lots of prints, map and instruments used to measure things, many of them celestial bodies.  Artists contributed a great deal to scientific investigations in the 16th century. Their work served scientific interests because it was used as a tool for research and the spread of knowledge. While walking through the exhibit, light bulbs began to flash above my head, as many of the prints were maps of the human body and the brain – bones, muscles, tissues were all graphically displayed with drawings showing how to use medical instruments and provide treatment.  Of course if you help make visual how the body works, then you can deduce how this actually happens in flesh and blood –seeing is believing, or better yet, knowing.  From cartographer to doctor made sense.  Andrea was right.  Again!

            It is perhaps not surprising that the birth of modern science and Unitarianism happened about the same time. You can see from our story how a more recent Unitarian, Fannie Farmer, wanted to apply scientific approaches to cooking, wanting much more than a few recipes on index cards. She hoped to explain why things in the kitchen work the way they do, and also wanted to systematize, meaning organize and sanitize everything, and most famously, standardize measurements to produce standardized results. For example, a handful of sugar from me, and a handful from a child produce very different batches of cookies.  For the invention of teaspoons, tablespoons, and cups, I am eternally grateful; because when I cook I measure everything in a very exacting way, following the example of my mother who painstakingly added cold water to her pie dough one measured teaspoon at a time.  My wife is one of those cooks who can just throw things together, but if I make something like pizza then it requires a careful measuring of oil, sugar, salt, yeast, water and flour. So before this sermon becomes a measure for measure comparison with my wife, we will move on.

Humanity has probably been obsessed with measuring things since the beginning of time.  Last week’s sermon based on the book and subsequent movie, Moneyball intimated that we look at, not only how professional athletes are evaluated and judged by a complicated sabermetrics system that goes far beyond mere batting averages, but that an analytic method is also symptomatic of how our whole culture, partly grounded in the power of the dollar, is based on numbers, test results, and data. And so some people purely on the basis on statistics, measure success.  Sometimes we presume you are a good teacher if your students do well on the test. This gets into all kinds of unfair and untestable variables. I promise not to make this a diatribe against MCAS testing again, but our obsession with measurable results has perverted the way many of our professions conduct business.  I often react negatively when I receive one of those standardized print outs after a visit to the doctor.  Every man over fifty now has to take a children’s low dose aspirin daily to prevent the risk of heart attack.  A quick look at my family history shows that heart attacks are unlikely, but that kind of personal data seems secondary because we do much of our prognosticating by numbers. Yet it does not take into account a stomach that might be irritated by the aspirin.  Does the statistical likelihood of something always make it the best option?    

An example of this reliance on numbers occurred recently when my son Asher brought home a form from his school nurse.  The form said that our 5’9” child was obese, and thus we needed to take several subsequent steps to reduce his weight, and get him checked out by a doctor and nutritionist.  There were a couple of problems with this.  First, my son Asher is a tall 13 year old.  In fact he is 6’ 1 1/2” tall, and not 5’ 9.”  Thus if she had measured him correctly, she would not have made the presumption that he is obese.  In fact, all she really needed to do was look at him. Asher is actually kind of slim, and you can see that by simple observation.  So she made all these presumptions, followed by all these demands based purely on false data. Of course, the lesson is we cannot purely measure health or success on numbers alone.

            Numbers and measuring things are all issues that surface at holiday time.  We often let the numbers dictate how we will feel.  Christmas is a time where we count the days.  As a child I remember the local daily paper counting down the number of shopping days left until Christmas, calculated to raise anxiety in the last minute spenders.  We also felt childhood anticipation on the calendar that counted up instead of down, the successive Advent doors bringing us closer and closer to the excitement of Christmas Eve.  Then we sang of the twelve days of Christmas, lying in wait for the shout of five gold rings.  Numbers have played a role in the birth story, too, as the family trekked their way to Bethlehem because of a census, and scholars have prognosticated ever since when Jesus was actually born.  The season also invites us on an annual basis to count down until we greet the New Year at midnight on December 31.  As a child I remember that new invention, the television, giving people all over the nation the opportunity to tune in live to Times Square, so that this annual rite became something that could be shared with millions across America.  So we count days, and measure years in the march towards the future.  When we were in England a few year back, my family witnessed a more pedestrian daily rite in Greenwich, the mean time for the planet, whereby a pathetic little red ball slowly ascends a pole toward a weather vane, and then once it reaches the summit, keeps gawkers waiting for a couple of minutes, anticipating its own descent at precisely 1:00 p.m. every day.  This replicates an important event that has taken place daily since the early nineteenth century, giving ships on the Thames a precise time to set their chronometers by.  This clumsy little ritual is a reminder of how important it was to have accurate chronometers the instrument that solved the vexing problem of how to measure longitude, and allow ships to safely sail the seas.

            As you can guess by my cooking methods, I am one who puts great stock in measurements despite my fear of our over dependence upon numbers.  As a child I was continuously impressed by the sheer mammoth size of some dinosaurs, the weight of ten elephants for one such creature, and later when I studied the Civil War in such detail, I was engrossed by battlefield statistics of thousands killed, wounded and missing.  What did such overwhelming losses do to the hearts and souls of a people?  While we know that numbers may be a determining factor in our choice of likely successful baseball players or use test results to grade our teachers, what do numbers do for us?  Sometimes we let the numbers dictate how we feel.  I may be feeling the best I have felt in a long time with good diet and proper exercise, but then I may climb on the old scale, and see no visible results. Then it feels like I have made all this effort and have nothing to show for it.  Why do I bother?  But is it always appropriate to let those numbers dictate how we feel, and do we let the numbers control our lives?

            One thing that the Renaissance artists emphasized in their studies of the world was the importance of direct observation. This would have made a world of difference for the school nurse who judged Asher obese. We want her to take a closer look.  The holiday season with its focuses on counting and measuring invites us to take a closer look, too.  How do you measure what you need to do and spend to have a happy holiday?  How do you measure your life right now?  How do you measure the meaning of your days?

            Many of us have preconceived notions of what we should be doing for Christmas, and those pressures of decorating, or cooking, or especially purchasing gifts can make us feel overwhelmed. There is an expectation that we will spend so much, or give so many gifts.  As a family we have decided to cut back on the number of gifts we give this year, and yet I have found myself saying, will there be anything under the tree?  It will look so bare with fewer gifts.  Yet the reality among the adults in the family is who needs anything?  Why do we succumb to this pressure to let the number or value of gifts determine how good a Christmas we have.  Could we give gifts to those who need them, or allow our gifts to be an expression of our values or ourselves?  Could our gift be more time with a family member we have ignored.  Could our gift be to ourselves to take more time for reading, walking, meditating, building friendships, our spiritual development?  The measure of Christmas might be to ask ourselves at what price do we celebrate Christmas, and what a gift it would be if we let go of those expectations, and not feel guilty if we do.  The numbers remind us that it is very easy to get sucked into the promotions and the commercials of the season about invented obligations to family, or what really makes for a meaningful holiday, and most of us can remind ourselves that it is time and love that makes the difference, and nothing but time and love.

            This is where the reading by my friend Jane Rzepka can be a worthy guide. It is important that we not let these fabricated rules and ideas about what we need to do be the measure of our holiday celebrations.  We are the measure.  And when it feels like we are contemplating the jug the boy presented to Jane with no willingness to bargain, then we need to do exactly what Jane did, and walk away.  We all need to weigh again, or measure again, what it is we are doing with the way we intend to celebrate.  This applies not only to the measurement of the holiday season, but also the measurement we make of our lives, which is something the end of the year or even a birthday often calls up in us. When Caroline Dall, one of the leading feminists of the nineteenth century, turned sixteen she reported in her diary how her conscience trembled in contemplation “for wasted opportunities, slighted talents, and ungrateful murmurings.”  While we might not be so Puritan like in our self-examination of our shortcomings, we all tend to ask ourselves about vexing problems and issues, wondering if we should weigh the problem again.  As Jane suggests, if are we hanging on to the baby clothes, maybe we need to weigh again what we keep, and clean house.  Am I too old to go back to school?  I may think so, but weigh it again, and perhaps decide that you are never too old to study and grow into doing what you love.  Can’t paint?  Weigh that self-judgment, or that fear again, and find that artistic center.   Perhaps Fannie Farmer is the perfect example of how we should not measure an illness or a disease as a bellwether of possibility.  In Farmer’s case, she had this paralytic stroke that forced her to stay home, and she had limited use of her body.  Her weighing of this condition was not that she was useless or that her limp must hold her back.  She measured her illness differently, and asked instead, now that my body is like this, what can I do?  This led her to cooking, and ultimately to methods that involved nutrition, sanitation, child development, and even proper diet for the sick and elderly.  She created the science of running a home.  What if she measured herself useless?

            In the case of Fannie Farmer she literally showed what the author of the gospel of Luke wrote, “For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” If we don’t measure ourselves by our highest ideal, then we won’t end up measuring much of a result.  As I said last week, we need to look, not prejudge, nor presume.  We need to look at how broad and deep a measurement we can take. 

            A measure is many things.  In Biblical terms, a measure is actually a given measurement, as in weights and measures, and you get more in a measure like a bushel by pressing down, just like we press down on leaves to fill the bags.  It is good to put in as much as you can.  The implication is that when we give, more will be given back.  While that may not be our experience, we do know that if we don’t measure out a new possibility for ourselves for the condition we have, like Fannie Farmer, then the little we have will be lost.  It is sort of the like the diminished muscle tone I was feeling in my body.  I felt like I need to make a choice of going to the Y or losing my body strength.  The idea is that you establish a “character.”  If you are generous, people will be generous to you when you need it.

            So measure in the Biblical sense is an amount, and it is also the development of a giving character that is not always counting the cost.  It is also the measure of our days.  We worry about spending and getting on the holidays, and the Psalmist says, surely for nothing you are in turmoil.  We worry about success and money, and the Psalmist says it is all mere shadow, and you are grasping at mere breath.  How do you measure your days?   None of us knows how long we will live.  We can guess at genes and family history. We can eat right and lift weights.  We often want a number to measure our days, but numbers do not give a measure of quality or even of the time we have.   If I become sick tomorrow, will I grieve the time I fear I am going to lose? Will we regret the short time we have, or use it to its best advantage?  Would I count the days down in dread? Would I hope that I could change things?  Sometimes we measure Christmas by how much we are able to get done.  What if we measured our days by enjoying the time we have together.  What if we measured every hour as valuable?  What if instead of wishing that out loved ones loved us more, that we see the love and care that is offered to us now? What if we are so anxious to see or do or buy the next thing that we fail to see what life is offering us right now? What if instead of planning the next thing, or waiting for something to be over, we simply enjoy the experience?  We never want to measure our lives by what we did not do. We need to measure the health in our bodies by what we have right now, and not worry about what tomorrow brings. When we measure that life is short (my Biblical three score is gone), and life is beautiful (seeing a red sky at night, a visual delight) and that people need each other (measure the look of someone wanting to be noticed by you), then the greatest measurement we can make is to glean meaning from every single day.  Measure the gift that you are and what you can offer to others, and then, what more is there to measure?  Let us not miss what life offers each day.  As Psalm 90 offers the wisdom not to let our days slip away, but “to count our days rightly, that we may get a heart of wisdom.”


Closing Words – from Edward Ericson


If we fill our lives with things, and more things

If we feel that we must fill every moment that we have with activity,

If we feel we can only follow loud voices and bright lights,


When will we have time to make the long, slow journey across the burning desert, as did the wise men?

Or sit and watch the stars, as did the shepherds?

Or brood over the coming of a child, as did Mary?

For each of us, there is a desert to cross, a star to discover and follow, and a being within ourselves to bring to life.

May we make room for the gift of Christmas, and bring love into our hearts.