William Barter – Pentecost 17, 9/11/16 – The Value of the Lost

lost-sheepGospel Text: Luke 15:1-10 Lost Sheep, Lost Coin

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You may have heard of this. There is a prankster in California who goes by the name of “obvious plant”. His claim to fame is that he goes around and replaces placards and signs with satire that reflects his comedic genius. He recently gained access to the Los Angeles Zoo and replicated the informational placards at various animal exhibits. While the placards look like those provided by the zoo, the narrative on them is satire which I find particularly hilarious. I would like to share the descriptors on a few of those placards.

I found these fake animal facts hilarious. The ridiculous nature of the animal descriptions makes it highly unlikely that most people would see these as anything more than pranks. Unfortunately, when it comes to ridiculous descriptions about human beings, we tend not to be quite so insightful.

Blanket descriptions of other people that separate “them” from “us” come to mind. On this 15th anniversary of September 11, how many people out there believe that all Muslims are terrorists? What happened on September 11, 2001 was horrific. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to be setting tables in a restaurant 100 stories up one moment and then feeling a skyscraper crumbling under my feet the next. Unimaginable horror. September 11th was a turning point in our relationship with the world around us, and not only must we never forget, but it is nigh impossible to turn back to where we were before that day. And the secondary tragedy of 9/11 is the reality of the terror, suspicion, violence, and yes, bigotry that has ensued.

All Muslims are terrorists many say. It is reminiscent of other generalizations made about people. All gay people are pedophiles. All people who oppose marriage equality are homophobes. All Frenchmen are stupid. All black people are lazy, all women inferior, all people living with mental illness dangerous. All liberals are irresponsible, and all conservatives uncaring. You can add your own examples here, but you get my point. We live in a world of “them and us” that builds upon the foundation of categories and grossly inaccurate descriptions. We see this in civil society in our political life. All Mexican immigrants are rapists. And now there are baskets of deplorables. Putting people in categories and calling them names has become blood sport, or worse, the norm for interpersonal and political discourse. And against all of this, Jesus eats with sinners and talks about lost sheep and lost coins. His words could be no timelier than they are now.

I believe that there are two perspectives on today’s gospel parables of Jesus. From the human perspective, the perspective of the reader, the lost sheep is valuable because a shepherd depends on sheep for livelihood; the silver coin is valuable for its monetary value. But I would strongly suggest that for Jesus, the author and narrator of these parables, the one who comes to redeem the sinner, for Jesus, the sheep that is lost and the coin that is lost have their value in the fact that THEY ARE LOST. In the mind of Jesus and in the grace of God, being lost is what is most important about sheep and coins and us.

It is a miracle of grace that my being lost gives me such value in the eyes of a God who would never give up on me. Luther taught the Reformation doctrine that names us as “simul justus et peccator”, that is, simultaneously saint and sinner. We are redeemed in spite of our sinfulness, and in our relationship with an incomprehensibly merciful God, it is our sinfulness that brings about God’s opportunity to redeem us and to show us how to live with others.

Faced with the reality of our own brokenness, reassured by the fact that our value in God’s eyes is a direct function of our being lost, then we sheep and coins who will momentarily sing the hymn “Amazing Grace” are in no position to put anyone in categories or baskets or behind walls or in corners . On the contrary, we are charged with moving beyond labels and silly, ridiculous descriptions of others to a place of humility and gratitude. Allow me to be decidedly Lutheran one more time and quote Martin Luther whose last words were simply, “We are beggars. This is true.”

I may not always agree with you. I may not look like you. You may at times drive me to insanity or commit a fashion faux pas that I find hard to understand. You may not vote like I do at the polls, including on the issue of Maine’s minimum wage. You may be an introvert or an extrovert. You may be a vegan, or you may eat anything that has the word meat in its name. But when we gather at the Lord’s Table, I am like you and you are like me, sinners, beggars, lost coins and lost sheep who are immeasurably valuable in the eyes of the God who created us. This transcends labels and titles and name-calling. God’s love is indeed a wondrous love (Oh my soul!) And that love is written with the blood of Christ on the cross.

My dear fellow sheep and coins, let us pray. Dear God, give us the insight and the humility to show to others every day, an image of your ridiculous, overly generous, never-ending love. Amen