Luke 15: 1-10
We have a family dog; his name is Rudy. He’s a great guy. He’d been abandoned on the Chicago lakefront and to make a long story short, a dear friend who walks her dog along the lake knew the gal who took him in and got us connected. Rudy’s been our guy since last December, and it’s been love at first slobber.
This past summer our family got to spend a whole month in Maine – July – in between the Chicago and Princeton chapters of our lives. It was heavenly. We were in a house right on the rocky coast, in a 3-acre meadow with 7 acres of woods between us and the nearest road. Early in our stay I took Rambunctious Rudy for his dusk potty trip off the leash. He’d done well like this a few times before. He was only a few feet away from me when he stepped into the woods. I called his name. And I called. And I called. I tried not to get worried or frantic (he was probably – stubbornly – only a few feet away but it was getting dark and the woods were thick). Minutes passed of calling “Rudy!”, then yelling it, then screaming it. By this point our 8 and 9 year olds kids had gotten into the act. I had to admit that Rudy was probably lost. I left the kids in the meadow with a walkie talkie, with instructions not to walk into the woods, while I drove up to the road and looked around. My heart was aching. I was trying not to acknowledge that this evening might be the end of Rudy.
I drove up and down the busy road. I saw nothing. I turned around in a driveway and headed for home. All I could think to do was go home and call the town police, and hope against hope.
I noticed a car following me down the dirt driveway to the house. I stopped for a second, the car followed the other fork, and I drove down to the house. I was in the midst of giving the kids the good news about not finding a dead dog on the road and the bad news about not finding the dog at all when a car came down to our garage. Martha, my 8 year old daughter, yelled out, “It’s Rudy!”. And there he was, silly hound, in the middle of the front seat of an old Jeep Cherokee, surrounded by a sweet young couple. Rudy, sitting primly with his tongue handing out, jumped out to say hello. The couple said they’d seen him running along the road quite far away. He’s almost been hit, and was very glad to jump into their front seat. They’d seen from his tags that he was from Illinois. They saw my license plate in the distance and played hit-or-miss following me down dirt driveways. I thanked them a billion times for bringing us Rudy – the Rudester – and offered to be of similar service to them in any way possible. They were just glad to be helpful, of course, but the kids and I were totally shaken and totally elated. The Rudester got to sleep wherever he wanted that night, alternatively stewing his big, wet hound nuzzle right next to one of ours.
The story has a happy ending, but it is not one of my happier memories of this past summer. I was panicked at the time. But it came back to me in force recently as I reflected on our text from Luke. There is a person who has one hundred animals – or maybe many more, but one hundred sheep. And when one goes missing he can think of nothing else and can do nothing else until he gets that little creature home. One animal among so many, but he knew it by name perhaps, and was inconsolable until he could bring it safely back. If he had 99 others, this one couldn’t be financially worth much to him. He must have just loved them all. And when he finds the sheep, he calls his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him because his joy was so great. Did they think, “One ignorant, bleating source of wool? Out of a hundred? Great, sure, time for a party.”
Then Jesus tells the story of a woman who loses a coin. She turns her house upside down. She goes through the cushions on the sofa in front of the TV. (Lots of things fall out of pockets there.) She retraces her steps when she was gardening earlier, pulling aside the hosta, combing through the paca-sandra; she goes through all the pockets of all her slacks. She moves the dryer to see if it rolled under there. And here friends tell her, “You know, I could spot you a quarter. Do you need it for parking?” But she won’t be deterred. And when she finally finds it she throws a party for the whole neighborhood, a party costing much more that a quarter. And her friends come, gladly, but they think she’s a little daft to care about one little coin. “Rejoice with me!” she says. “It was lost, but I found it.”
And so we learn what we are worth – we are one of some almost six billion people on earth, and yet we are of infinite value to God and canst. It doesn’t matter what are our gifts or abilities; it’s not about what we do or are capable of. Like that dumb sheep we may wander far in search of what we hope will be sweet grass and find ourselves completely lost. We may be clueless. We may be responsible, through our choices, for our own stupid fate. We may have committed hideous sins. It doesn’t matter. The comment here isn’t about us but about God in Christ. We never lose our infinite value in their eyes, no matter what we do. This is the Good News. As my old minister liked to say, “There is more love in God than sin in us.” It is for us to be thankful: Christ, the one who teaches us to forgive limitlessly and to seek out the clueless lost is the one who can’t wait to find us, no matter how far we’ve strayed, who works around the clock to find us until he has us safe in the palm of his hand.
Jesus told these stories about the shepherd and the woman householder in response to people who were complaining – not to his face, of course – who were grumbling to one another about the kind of company that Jesus kept. He certainly couldn’t be taken seriously as a teacher or any religious authority for being caught in the presence of them. They were low-class individuals by the standards of the day. Folks knew then as now that the company you keep is the measure of your real worth. Do you have friends in high places? Are they cool? Do they were the right clothes and socialize in the right places? Are your colleagues and friends publishing in the right places? Do you socialize with people who have the respect of the major talents in your field, if you yourself can’t get into the company of those major talents yourself? Jesus was socializing with the most dispensable people imaginable. Tax collectors were the Jewish stooges of the violent Roman occupiers. They got their own small economic rewards for being the enforcers in a system that fleeced their fellow Jews, whose little coins only went to support the vicious terms of their own subjugation. And Jesus hung out with rank and file sinners, people whose really bad choices had put them outside the pale of “decent” company.
The first thing we learn in our parables for today is that we are of infinite value. Infinite. There is no place so far from God that our actions can take us that is farther that the capacity of the love of God to reach us there and bring us home. And Praise God! This is what we are worth. We are priceless, and nothing we do or say or descend to can change that. We remain always in the very image of God - imago dei.
The second thing we learn is that everyone else is as priceless as we. Some of can’t hear the first part, about what we personally are worth. Most of us can’t hear this second part, about what others are worth. What would it mean for us to treat every human being as if they are of infinite value. That would mean meeting the humanity in every other person with limitless respect, no matter what we think of their opinions or choices. If we really believed that every human being is of infinite value we couldn’t sleep at night knowing that tens of thousands would die the next day alone of hunger-related causes. Most of them are children. Like the shepherd, we’d have to do something now before our life could go on – simplistic as it is, like I couldn’t breathe until I found my wayward pooch. How could we make our peace with the fact of substandard public education in this country. We say that the poor don’t share our values rather that admitting that the poor don’t share our tax base. And how could we sleep at night knowing that some people in the United States don’t survive their diseases because they can’t afford to. On the radio last night I heard a story about the American Cancer Society. They’re diverting their whole fifteen million dollar advertising budget from information on stopping smoking to stroking our moral outrage that cancer survival rates in the U.S. are tied to income and access to health insurance. The idea that human worth should equal net worth is unconscionable to the Christian. It contradicts the very heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There, the human being is so beloved of God that no expense or effort is spared to find any who are lost and to bring them home. Every human being is worth it. No one is dispensable. Our parables for today tell us how infinitely deep is the love of God in Christ for every one of us. But they also teach us to strive for others, to be that shepherd, that householder. They teach us to be inconsolable, unplacatable until we bring in all who are lost, lost to their delusions, their hatreds, their sins, lost to our greed, our prejudices, our hardness of heart, our sin. These parables teach us to live in awe of the infinite value of every person on earth, not just in our affections, not just in our worship, but in work of our very lives.