A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on September 11, 2016, by Christopher L. Webber.
On a crystal clear September morning fifteen years ago today, two airplanes full of people like you and me plunged into the Trade Towers in lower Manhattan where nearly 20,000 people were at work. Another plane hit the Pentagon and a fourth plane plunged into a field in Pennsylvania. When the day was over some 3,000 people were dead.
So 9-11 has become a date to remember and this year it falls on a Sunday when the Gospel reading talks about the value of a single life. Jesus asks, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? … Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
God places such value on one.
Today is the fifteenth anniversary of a tragedy we still can barely comprehend. In a matter of only two or three hours, nearly three thousand people died. Some were simply passengers on a plane as most of us have been at one time or another, some were pilots and stewards, some were ordinary people who were just beginning another day’s work, some were police and fire fighters, and some, of course, were people we label “terrorists” – people whose thought processes we can’t begin to understand. Over the next number of months after 9/11 the New York Times ran a series of biographies of those who had died. One by one, the pictures were printed and a short paragraph describing something of who they were: people, human beings like us, who died suddenly, unexpectedly, because they happened to have a particular job and work in a particular place.
The Times series served the valuable purpose of reminding us that it was not an anonymous 3000 who died but individuals, each one with a life that had value not only to them, but to friends and family. The Times didn’t say so, but we believe those lives had value to God. And I wonder whether a non-Judaeo-Christian society newspaper would have done such a thing.
I learned from reading the 9/11 Commission Report that there were some 16,000 to 18,000 civilians in the Twin Towers that morning and that of the over 2,000 civilians who died almost all were at or above the impact zone, only 110 of those who died worked below the impact zone while some 14 or 15 thousand on those levels escaped. Therefore, the report says, “the evacuation was a success for civilians below the impact zone.” It was a success because only 110 died.
If you put it that way, it sounds good. But if, apart from everything else, you heard of an accident that killed 110 people, I think your first thought would be “how awful.” No recent terrorist attack in the United States comes close: 14 in San Bernadino. 49 in Orlando – small numbers – but not “numbers” to their friends and families. Every one of them valued as one. If you knew only one of those 110, those 14, those 49, if you were related to one or married to one, I’m pretty sure you would not be impressed by the ratio of success to failure. Terms like success and failure somehow wouldn’t have much meaning, if one person you cared for had died. There are statistics on the one hand and human lives on the other.
When Jesus talks in the gospel today about one missing sheep, I think we know what he means. Jesus is not looking for statistical success but human souls. And yet, how much of our world operates on statistics? And why is it that somehow statistics lack the urgency of personal, individual knowledge? 35 million Americans live in households at risk for hunger. That’s a statistic. But in parishes I have served, I have known a few of those 35 million and they are not statistics, they are real people, human beings like yourself trying to make their way in a world that seems to be harder on some than others. You and I can’t do much about the 35 million but perhaps we can do something about one or two, the people who live in San Francisco or the Sunset. When I had a garden, I would sometimes take some vegetables from my garden to a nearby food pantry. Statistically it made no difference, but one or two people got a bit of help.
Politicians debate the role of government and whether it should do more or less. I happen to think it’s our government and it ought to do what we want it to do and I want it to do all it can; I want it to be more help to more people. Why else is it there? I believe that our government ought to work harder to meet human needs. But governments deal in statistics: 3 million jobs lost, 1 million new jobs created. That kind of thing. You aren’t likely to find a government agency that sees you as an individual human being. Maybe not even a church agency.
I got a mailing a while back from the Episcopal Relief and Development Fund, which does excellent work relieving poverty and hunger. But this mailing talked about “IDPs.” What’s that? I wondered. I went back and read the document more carefully and learned that an IDP is an “internally displaced person.” In other words, a refugee who hasn’t crossed a border. Someone uprooted by famine or violence or natural disaster who is now homeless in their own country is an “IDP.” Think of the Sudanese people of Darfur; think maybe of the people of New Orleans after the hurricane. But an IDP? The minute you use terms like that for human beings you’ve forgotten what it’s all about. It’s about John; it’s about Mary; It’s about Muhammed and Amina; it’s about real people with real names and precious in the sight of God; not statistics, not categories, not numbers, and not, for heaven’s sake, IDPs!
When Jesus speaks of himself as a shepherd concerned for even one lost sheep in a flock of a hundred, he’s giving us an insight into the nature of the God we worship here. He’s telling us that in this huge, impersonal world where candidates vie for votes by talking about unemployment and creating jobs and so on and all our experience tells us it’s smoke and mirrors, he’s telling us that there is a heart at the heart of the universe, a God who cares about each and every human being: the hopeless refugee in a makeshift shelter in the deserts of western Sudan, the single parent trying to stay above the poverty line, the young American soldier who volunteered to serve his or her country and became a statistic in an Afghan province none of us had heard of before, the office worker struggling down a smoke filled staircase in the North Tower, yes, and the hijackers who thought that somehow they were serving God by killing others. They, too, are not statistics but human beings whom God loves for themselves, not for their actions.
Each human life matters to God; God is the good shepherd who cares about each human life, including yours and mine. That’s the first point: God is a God who values each one.
The second point is very similar, maybe just a different way of saying the same thing. God values each one in part at least because each one is unique. If you go to the post office to buy a first class stamp you don’t ask to see a sheet of a hundred identical stamps so you can select the particular one you want. It makes no difference. They’re all the same. Human beings are not like that. We have unique fingerprints and irises and DNA. They say no two snowflakes are alike and certainly no two human beings are, not even so-called identical twins. I think it was Abraham Lincoln who said, “God must have loved the common people; he made so many of them.” I disagree. Lincoln was wrong. God must have loved uncommon people; because it’s the only kind God made.
You are uncommon. For better or worse, there is no one in the world quite like you. I’ve heard priests say, “I was in a parish where the people were X or Y” as if you could sum up a parish with a label. I’ve never known a parish like that myself. I’ve never known a parish with two people alike or one person who didn’t have a unique story. But I don’t think we live in a world that really understands that. Candidates hone their message for groups: soccer moms, race car enthusiasts, NRA members, bleeding heart liberals, stony hearted conservatives. Do you know one person summed up by such a label? I don’t.
We live in a world dominated by science because science works so well at identifying commonalities. Science works with groups, things in common. It makes rules: all water boils at 212 degrees, all type-A flu bugs can be prevented by serum B, all hurricanes blow clockwise above the equator, all plants need water, but science is helpless when confronted with something or someone unique. There are no rules for one. You can’t say, “All Linda McMahons think this way” or “All John Malloys think that way.” You can’t make rules like that for one. How can you tell until there’s a group to compare? The scientist’s area of expertise is groups, classes, phila, and genera. But God’s area of expertise is different. God specializes in one: caring for one, knowing one, loving one.
And come to think of it, when the Bible says we are made in the image of God it’s that kind of thing it’s talking about. God is one and so is each of us. We are like God in the unscientific ability to love one, to care about one, to respond to what’s unique and wonderful about the human beings we encounter. It’s what churches ought to be about. It’s what we try to do here: to care about one, to value each one for who they are, for the qualities, needs, and abilities that we will never meet in anyone else.
Anywhere else, you will find people sorted out by what isn’t unique: we start out by putting all the five year olds in the same kindergarten, and then we put the musically inclined in the band and the athletic types on teams and we send the academically advantaged on to colleges and we put uniforms on policemen and soldiers and put salesmen in used car lots and financial manipulators on Wall Street and senior citizens in assisted living facilities and so on. Birds of a feather and human beings with similar interests or characteristics flock together and church is maybe the one place in our world that pays no attention to any of that – ideally anyway – that brings us together with people with whom we have nothing in common except the same Creator and the fact of baptism and the life we share first at the altar and then, as much as possible, in our common life.
Again, it’s the value of one that God is trying to teach us. And the uniqueness of one. Faith challenges us to deal with difference, uniqueness, the things science can’t account for and doesn’t understand. I’ve heard it said that 23 children die every minute from malnutrition. That’s a scientific fact and I think we express it that way because we can’t cope with the enormity of it, to know and care for and weep for each single one of those children, each single soul, precious in God’s sight. But God can and God does. It’s why the Times found a story to tell about every one of those individuals who died fifteen years ago. It’s why our police departments need to be trained to see individuals and to understand that the use of a gun to kill an individual human being, to destroy a human life precious in the eyes of God, is always a last resort, and a dreadful failure.
I want to take a few minutes at the end to read you a remarkable document that came my way last week. I get regular e-mails from Senator Chris Murphy, the junior senator from Connecticut for whom I made phone calls and house calls a couple of times when I wasn’t in charge of a parish. He doesn;t write often, but when he does it’s always worth reading. Senator Murphy improved the end of his summer by setting out to walk east to west across Connecticut in a week, averaging 30-35 miles a day. How he did that and still had time to talk to people, I don’t know, but he told some stories, and he did what I’ve been talking about: he met and responded to individuals, one by one.
Senator Murphy wrote this: “Upon arriving in Clinton, I meet one of the most memorable people from the entire walk. At a gas station I introduce myself to James, and after exchanging pleasantries, he starts telling me his story. He is a drywaller, and though he has lots of experience, he still makes ‘as much money per hour as I made when I was fifteen years old.’ He works as many hours as he can get, often more than 50 hours a week. But life has thrown James a few curve balls which means that expenses usually exceed his salary on a weekly basis. James has four great kids, but one is blind due to cerebral palsy and another has been diagnosed with autism. The expenses for these kids add up and often, James says, he can’t afford enough food for his family to eat. Other months, he puts off paying the rent in order to fill the kids’ lunch boxes, but that just makes matters worse when he has to later pay interest on the overdue rent. Food stamps help, but they are inconsistent due to his fluctuating income. James is frustrated – he doesn’t understand why his children go hungry when he is playing by the rules, working his tail off, and staying out of trouble. ‘What is wrong with this country,’ he asks me, ‘when I do everything I am supposed to, and I still can’t pay my bills?’ In fact, the working poor are a silent crisis in Connecticut and across the country. And during this walk, I meet them, almost every hour of every day. They are everywhere — and they want to tell me their stories. Cindy in West Haven who works the overnight shift at a grocery store but still has her electricity shut off. Ed in Bridgeport who travels hours to a moving company job in New Haven that doesn’t even pay enough for him to live on. Several years ago, I spent a full day with a homeless man in New Haven, so I have some sense of what they are going through. They are caught in a vicious catch-22: they can’t get a job without an address, and they can’t get a home without a job.”
Politicians tend to talk about policies and programs, and some policies and programs are certainly better than others, but a politician needs to be thinking first about people, James and Cindy and Ed, and how they can help each one, each one whom God values. That’s what Jesus is reminding us of today. That God cares that much for each one, each single, wonderful one, and also, very much, for you.
© 2016 by Christopher L. Webber. All rights reserved. Used by permission.