The Value of One

Yesterday, September 11, was the ninth 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, 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 and to God.

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 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.” And if you knew one of those 110, if you were related to one of those hundred and ten or married to one of those 110, 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. But 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 I know a few of those 35 million and they are not statistics, they are human beings like yourself trying to make their way in a world that seems to be harder on some than others. I can’t do much about the 35 million but I can do something about people who live in Bantam and the Northwest Corner.  We bring food to the altar every Sunday to help.  I took some vegetables from ny garden to a food pantry two days ago. Statistically it makes no difference, but one or two people will get 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 be more help to more people.   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 a individual human being. Maybe not even a church agency. I got a mailing recently from the Episcopal Relief and Development Fund that 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. 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, Mary, Muhammed, Amina, real people with real names, not statistics, not categories, not numbers.

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 until recently, 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 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 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. God must have loved uncommon people; because it’s the only kind God made. You are uncommon.

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 some 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 this serum, all hurricanes blow clockwise, all plants need water, but science is helpless when confronted with something 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? That’s God’s area of expertise, 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.

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, the qualities, needs and abilities both 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 on teams and send the academically advantaged on to colleges and we put uniforms on policemen and military and put salesmen in used car lots and financial manipulators on Wall Street and senior citizens in their groups and so on. Birds of a feather and human beings with similar interests flock together and church is maybe the one place in our world that pays no attention to 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. The cross reminds us that God cares that much – for each one, each single wonderful one, and also, very much, for you.

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