As you know, today is the fifteenth anniversary of the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It’s growing increasingly difficult to remember the shock, horror, and fear that we felt as we watched the events unfold that day and in the weeks and months that followed. It’s hard to remember the unity and sense of purpose that was shared across party lines and throughout our nation as we struggled to make sense of and respond to the devastation and grief.
A little news item I came across this week reminded me of all that, not only the events themselves but the way our nation has changed. The White House announced that President Obama was extending the state of emergency that President Bush had declared on September 11, 2001. Think about it. We have been in a state of emergency for fifteen, now going on sixteen years. The surveillance state, the eternal war, the militarization of our society and police, torture, Guantanamo—all of it has become routine. It’s hardly a state of emergency, or perhaps to put it better, the USA has become an “Emergency State.” So much of what we’re seeing in our political processes, the breakdown of our institutions, our deep divisions, I think can be traced back to forces unleashed by 9-11. Until we make an honest reckoning with ourselves, with the violence and injustice that we’ve perpetrated, with the harm we’ve done to our culture’s norms and values, we are doomed to wander in this wilderness.
Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean to dishonor the sacrifices of those who died trying to save victims in the wreckage of the WTC or the Pentagon, nor do I mean to disparage those who were killed, wounded, or traumatized by their service in our endless wars. What I do mean is that the violence unleashed in 2001 has affected us all and not just us, but the whole world. And the greatest tragedy perhaps is that after all of the death and suffering, we are no closer to peace today than we were 15 years ago. Worse yet, we still haven’t learned that conflicts cannot be solved by violence, in fact it seems we are more likely to resort to violence today than ever before. It was hard to sing the last line of our processional hymn this morning, “Give us peace in our time, O Lord” as our nation is in a constant state of war
Our response to all of this is to turn away, avert our eyes, distract ourselves. We don’t want to hear about Syria, or Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Yemen. We only pay attention to terror attacks unless they strike closer to home, in Paris, or Brussels, or Nice.
Today, as we think about the events of the past fifteen years, the reading from Jeremiah may seem especially appropriate. This stark, disturbing vision is not merely a vision of God’s judgement on God’s people. It is structured to recall Genesis 1:
I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,
and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins
before the Lord, before his fierce anger.
Creation itself is undone by human evil and sin, not just the violence of war, but the degradation of our world by our greed and choices, as climate change causes drought and violent storms, threatening to make our planet uninhabitable.
So Jeremiah is piling on today and we look to the gospel for words of hope and reassurance. Two brief, familiar parables, the lost sheep and the lost coin which Luke has reshaped for his own purposes.
Luke places these two little stories in a more immediate context that provides the setting for the stories. Luke says that “all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’.”
To understand what’s going on, it’s helpful to know what these categories meant in first century Palestine. Tax collectors were not employees of the IRS. There were no payroll deductions, tax tables, and 1040 forms. Instead, Rome determined what each province or administrative district needed to submit; the let the tax collecting contracts out to bid, and sold them to the highest bidder. In turn, the tax collector might further subcontract the work. You weren’t paid by the Roman administration. Rather, you made money by extracting more from the people whose taxes you were collecting than you needed to send up the hierarchy. As the money went up towards Rome, everyone took their cut. People were very much at the tax collector’s mercy. They were hated, especially in Palestine, where they were seen as collaborators with the Roman government.
Sinners, too, were much more than what we think of when we identify ourselves as sinners in need of God’s grace. For Luke, sinners were habitual. It wasn’t the occasional peccadillo that was in question—it was a lifestyle. We see something of that distinction when in v. 7 where Jesus says “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance.” So these sinners with whom Jesus was hanging out were not folks like you and me, they were the most reviled, hated, despised in society, or in a way outside of society. So, too, the tax collectors.
No, if there were people like us in this little interchange with Jesus it was the Pharisees and scribes. Not that the Pharisees were “hypocrites” as we often perceive them. The scribes and the Pharisees were the ones in first-century Palestine who took their religion seriously. They volunteered at the synagogue; they studied their bibles, prayed, tried to live out their faith. They also organized the synagogues. And they complained, because Jesus didn’t hang out with them, he spent time with tax collectors and sinners.
That brings us to the parables. The Pharisees and scribes were grumbling about Jesus’ outrageous behavior and in response he tells them two stories. To get what these parables are about you have to shift your focus. We are inclined to put ourselves in the story—as the sheep or the coin that was lost. But that’s exactly the wrong place to begin. Instead, we need to begin with Jesus’ question to the scribes and Pharisees: “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?” Which one of you would do that? None of us would. We would do a cost/benefit analysis and cut our losses, leaving the one to die while making sure the 99 were safe.
And the second story—about the coin? We can imagine losing something precious and search diligently for it, high and low, systematically.
The parable describes in great detail the woman’s actions, she lights a lamp, sweeps the floor. The narrative almost stops for a moment, heightening tension, so that the discovery becomes even more dramatic. But then what happens? She throws a party, invites her friends, spends what, as much or double the worth of the coin she had lost? We can see ourselves searching for something, but throwing a party, and throwing what we found away in rejoicing? Who of us would do that?
Two people behaving completely unexpectedly, in ways that make utterly no sense by any rational analysis. They were so overjoyed by the finding that it’s almost as if they lost their bearings. Nothing else mattered but that joy, and offering others the opportunity to share in that joy.
It’s clear that Luke wants us to see the point of the story to be God’s extravagant joy in welcoming a repentant sinner. So be it. No doubt it fills us with love and gratitude toward God to imagine ourselves welcomed in such a way. But how do we respond? Do we show forth our gratitude as extravagantly as God shows forth God’s love? Is our joy so great that we show it by sharing it as lavishly as the shepherd or the woman shared their joy?
On this day, when we remember the victims of violence, terror, and war, when we acknowledge and lament our ongoing state of emergency and unending war, let us also remember our God who loves us and the world, a God who rejoices at our repentance and the repentance of all sinners. Let us also rejoice and be grateful. Let us live in and create, a state of joy.