Tag Archives: September 11

The Lost and the Found


The full readings for today can be found here.

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

          In the name of the living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

          Good morning, good morning. It’s such a grace to be back with you good people at Holy Spirit again.

When I was growing up, out in West Texas, my parents used to tell me that you could tell a lot about someone by the company he keeps. So, in today’s Gospel, we find Jesus spending his time with tax collectors and sinners . . . again. It’s the kind of thing that he does. Jesus runs around with the wrong crowd. He does it so regularly we might get the impression that he likes spending his time with them. But we know that can’t be the case. Surely, the incarnate God would rather spend his time with decent folk, you know, church going people: people like you and me.

But here’s the funny thing (and when I say funny, I mean the kind of terrifying thing that keeps me awake at night), Luke tells us there were good church going people there that day. And Luke tells us what they were doing that day: they were grumbling.

Now I know that comes as a shock to you. When I read it, you could have knocked me over with a feather. You see, I’ve never heard good church going people grumbling about what’s happening around them: I’ve never heard them complain about the music they don’t like, or the reckless spending in the Church, or about another member of the congregation who has done them wrong, or about the family that always comes in late or children that just won’t behave. But somehow, Luke tells us that’s what the good church people were doing that day, those Pharisees and scribes.

And we’re told that Jesus welcomed the sinners and the tax collectors. This is the scandal of the Gospel, the scandal of God spending time with sinners, the scandal of an unwed mother, the scandal of a God hung on a tree like a scarecrow. Jesus welcomed these sinners. That word, however, that we translate as “welcomed” means a little something more. In the original Greek, the root word is dechomai, which can literally mean to bring into one’s arms. It’s hard to think of that idea without thinking about the parable of the prodigal son, which we find just a little later in the 15th chapter of Luke’s gospel. And in that passage, we have the story of a son who is lost and found, and of a brother who stands around grumbling about the situation.

So, I think this story today compels us to think about what it means to be lost, about who is lost and about who is out looking for them. Jesus offers a couple of parables to help us understand this notion, but as is usual, the parables force us into a place where we spend easily as much time looking for an answer as we do finding one.

In the first of these, Jesus tells us about a shepherd with 100 sheep, but one of the sheep is lost. He leaves the other 99 sheep in the wilderness to go and look for the one sheep that he’s lost. Jesus asks, “Who of you would not do that?” The answer is simple: nobody would do that. No one would put the other 99 sheep at risk, leaving them without protection or shelter. That’s just not the smart play.

And then, he tells a story of about woman who had ten silver coins and lost one of them and spent all night sweeping up and looking for the lost coin. Then, she found it and was so excited she threw a party for her friends and neighbors, a party which probably cost as much as the coin she lost. Again, it’s unimaginable: a ridiculous kind of celebration.

And yet Jesus tells us this is the response in the Kingdom of heaven when one sinner repents, when one sinner decides to turn toward God. In one sense, each of the images Luke uses for God in this chapter of his gospel would have been a bit offensive, or at the very least shocking, to His audience: a shepherd, an old woman, and a father who has no pride. Shepherds occupied a very low place in the social order, followed by women. And the father in the story of the prodigal son, well, it seems like he’s making a bit of a sucker bet on his wandering no-good child. None of these images of God would have appealed to a first century audience in Palestine.

I think Jesus was intentionally shocking his audience into new ways of thinking about God―thinking about God not much in the celestial or the abstract, but about a God who could be found in the lives of ordinary people doing ordinary things. And Jesus brought the good news of the Gospel, for people who were desperately looking for God in the world, good news that God was desperately looking for them, too.

But as we read this passage, I think Jesus is forcing us to rethink our ideas of who is really lost. You see, in this story, it’s neither the sinners nor the tax collectors (who were collaborators with the Romans) who are lost. Rather, it’s those sitting on the sidelines, frozen in their self-righteousness and judgment who are really lost.

We might ask ourselves who is lost in today’s world. Could it be the parents who wrap their whole lives into their children’s ball games and dance recitals, instilling a drive to succeed that crushes the joy out of those things? Could it be those who have struggled their whole lives to save for their retirement, only to find that there’s no meaning left in their remaining years? Could it be those whose addictions have taken over their lives until they can no longer find any peace in the world? Or maybe it’s the woman who’s trying to raise her family while taking care of a parent with Alzheimer’s until there’s just nothing left of herself in her life. Or could it be those of us whose sense of our own piety and holiness compels us to look at those who are down on their luck with the smug assurance that such a thing could never happen to good people like us. You see, I think we’re all a little lost.

And I guess today we can’t help but think about the anniversary of those tragic events 15 years ago in New York.  And we all know about the sorrow of those days and the terrible losses that were suffered. But there’s another story about that day that I’ve heard recently. It’s the story of the man in the red bandana.

His real name was Welles Carothers, and he was 24 years old and worked as an equity trader on the 104th floor of the south tower. His building was struck at 9:03 in the morning, when United Flight 175 crashed into the tower. But he was alright and left a voicemail for his mother 9 minutes later in which he said, “Mom, this is Welles. I want you to know that I’m okay.”

And there are lots of people who remember seeing him, a tall man in a red bandana, helping people get out of the building. One of the survivors, told this story: “A mysterious man appeared at one point, his mouth and nose covered with a red handkerchief. He was looking for a fire extinguisher.” As a survivor named Judy Wein recalls, the man in the red bandana pointed to the stairs and made an announcement that saved lives: Anyone who can walk, get up and walk now. Anyone who can perhaps help others, find someone who needs help and then head down.”

He went back into the towers several times. He saved at least 12 people’s lives. And then, he never made it back out. That man, that man in the red bandana went looking for those who would be lost, he went looking regardless of the cost. And I think that’s kind of what God’s like. God goes looking for us in the rubble of our lives. And God tells us, “If you don’t need help, find someone who does.”

All these parables are about more than what’s been lost. They’re about the foolish, reckless ways in which God goes looking for us when we’re lost. They’re about a God who will bet on us, even when we’re not a smart bet. Right now, God is lighting a lamp and searching everywhere for us, even when we don’t want to be found. And if we want to be Christlike, if we want to be like Jesus, we’ll join in that search. Amen.

© 2016 James R. Dennis

September 11

It was, by all accounts, a beautiful late summer morning.  The temperatures were in the upper sixties, and the sun shone brightly against a brilliant blue sky.  At 8:46, American flight 11 traveling from Boston to Los Angeles crashed into the North Tower.  There were 91 passengers aboard.  At 9:03, United Airlines flight number 175 flew into the South Tower.  It carried 65 passengers, as it travelled from Logan Airport to  Los Angeles.  Then, at 9:30, American Airlines flight 77, which carried 64 passengers, crashed into the Pentagon. A total 2,996 people died, including the 19 hijackers.  At 10:10 a.m., United Airlines flight 93 crashed in rural Shanksville, Pennsylvania killing all 44 passengers aboard.

I thought we might consider those events ten years ago, about the consequences of that day, and particularly the changes in our spiritual lives as a result of that morning.  Among those consequences, our nation has been at war for the last ten years.  4,442 soldiers gave their lives in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and over 1,600 died in Operation Enduring Freedom.  It is extremely difficult to estimate the number of civilian casualties of these wars, but most calculations range somewhere between 150,000 and 1.2 million.  Estimates of the costs of these wars range between one and three trillion dollars, and they continue to mount.

We mourn the deaths of the 2,996 Americans who lost their lives ten years ago, and we may also mourn the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans who have died since then.  We might also mourn the shameless treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, and the wisdom of a place like Guantanamo Bay.  We might mourn the loss of our civil liberties in the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Services Act, which now authorizes searches of emails and wiretapping without judicial review.  We actually engaged in a national debate about whether torture was acceptable, and somehow that debate seemed to hinge on a cost-benefit analysis.

The September 11 attacks led to a remarkable resurgence of faith, or at least faithful activity.  People across the nation filled our churches and rediscovered a need for a spiritual answer to a very worldly problem.  We are right to wonder why people turn to God in times of crisis, but cannot sustain that conversion.  The biblical witness, however, teaches that we have been doing that for thousands of years.  Somehow, as our fears are calmed and our wounds are bound, our spiritual indifference resumes.  While time has healed some of those wounds, we have also acquired a sort of national amnesia about how sorrowful, broken and vulnerable we felt.

One of the other consequences of that day is our national fear, and perhaps prejudice, of those who practice the Muslim faith.  I’m not sure who the boogeyman was on September the 10th, but after September 11, he clearly had a middle-eastern face.  Somehow, these men became “Muslim terrorists,” although we did not use the term “Christian terrorists” to describe the Ku Klux Klan.  As Kofi Anan, has observed so wisely, the problem lies “not with the faith but with the faithful.”

We might look to the reflection of the Archbishop of Washington on this subject.  He said:

All violent acts of injustice, acts of destruction, and the taking of innocent life find their origin in the attitudes of the human heart. Evil dwells within. Jesus told us it is not what enters in from outside that defiles a person but the things that come from within are what defile. (Mark 7:15).

The great cosmic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness, between peace and war, between harmony and violence, between love and hatred, begins first in each human heart, is waged there – and true peace depends on the outcome.

I am deeply troubled by the observation of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said: “We failed the biggest test posed by the 9/11 outrage: In our anger and dismay we failed to recognize our common humanity, that we are made for love and that acts such as those committed on that day are an aberration.”

There’s a certain irony in the name of the massive bureaucracy we created in the wake of September 11:  the Department of Homeland Security.  To create that department and fund our wars, we have incurred a national debt of trillions of dollars.  We might well ask about the security risks posed by that debt.  I suspect the people of Jericho felt very secure behind their walls, and the Philistines probably felt very safe with Goliath on their side.  The Egyptians probably rightly thought of themselves as a superpower as they approached the Red Sea.

I wonder if we really ever will achieve security, and I think the Scriptural witness suggests that our only security, our only real safety, lies in God.   Our spiritual efforts to move forward and get past that day may require us to take a great many risks.  Then again, the Cross is full of just such risks.


James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis