The ninety-and-nine

Luke 15:1-10

Eighteen years ago this past week, many of us sat and watched, in confusion and fear, as two airliners flew into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Unbeknownst to most of us at the time, concurrent tragedies were unfolding in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon in Washington, DC. In the end, two thousand, nine hundred and ninety-six brothers and sisters from practically every race, nation and creed on the face of the planet would lose their lives as a result of this, the deadliest terrorist attack in the history of the world. And that doesn’t count the thousands of people whose lives and health and relationships were irrevocably altered by the events of that dreadful day. September 11, 2001, or “9/11” as we’ve grown accustomed to calling it is, and will remain, a visceral reminder of man’s seemingly inexhaustible capacity for inhumanity towards man. The stories of the suffering that took place on 9/11 are almost too many to count. But there are other stories: stories of love and sacrifice that offer cause for hope. Isn’t it odd how tragedy so often brings out the best in us? So many brave first responders: police officers, firefighters and paramedics put their lives on the line on that day of days. And too many paid the ultimate price.

I’m reminded of a song by Tom Paxton titled, “The Bravest” (Appleseed Records, 2002) that tells the story of the women and men of the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) working to evacuate the towers during the attack. It is told from the perspective of an office worker in the south tower. After the initial impact, he had grabbed some personal mementos from his desk and joined the throng of building occupants as they worked their way down the fire stairwell from the top of the tower towards the safety of the street below. All he could think of was his wife, his children… and survival. As the evacuees descended, they encountered a team of heavily-laden firefighters headed in the opposite direction—UP—who urged them to “hurry up and get out… the whole thing’s gonna go!” The firefighters knew the score, yet they continued to climb. No one would be left behind on their watch… not if they had anything to say about it. Of course, there were many that day, including hundreds of firefighters, who found their final dwelling place in the paradise of God. Though this particular group of evacuees made it out… they would never be the same. Paxton’s haunting chorus has stuck with me all these years: “Now every time I try to sleep, I’m haunted by the sound of firemen pounding up the stairs, while we were running down.”

Cops and firemen in particular are an odd bunch. Most cops think firemen are crazy… and vice versa. After all, firefighters run into burning buildings… and cops towards the sound of gunfire. It really is crazy when you think about it: suppressing the most basic of all human instincts—that of self-preservation—and putting one’s own life at risk so that others might live. Why would a person do such a thing? Why would whole cohorts of people: police, fire and emergency medical responders and members of the military regularly put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of others? It doesn’t make biological sense. Perhaps it’s a spark of the Divine. Certainly not all of the first responders on 9/11 were Christian. It is likely that some did not consider themselves to be people of faith in any sense. But that doesn’t mean that God couldn’t work through them to accomplish his purposes. That which is not of God, God can redeem. It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe in God. God believes in you!

Certainly Jesus was crazy. I mean, what sane deity would willingly become incarnate on a little blue planet… orbiting an insignificant star residing in the outer arm of one of several billion galaxies, spinning around and around in an unimportant corner of God’s Universe… for the sole purpose of reuniting us with Himself, and each other… and to die an ugly, excruciating death so that we might live, I mean really live? That’s crazy. Are we properly appreciative of that sacrifice? Can we even conceive of it? And yet Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is not content to save most of us. No. Jesus will save all of the sheep that are entrusted to him, at whatever cost.  Not one will be lost (cf. John 6:39). “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). Our Gospel story today is one of joy. Joy in the finding… and joy in being found. I’ll say it again and again… as many times as I need to say it: it doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been… what you’ve said or what you’ve done. God wants to bring you home. It’s never too late. Give in! Let yourself be rescued. It’s OK, you know. We all need rescuing from time to time.

I’d like to share a song with you that my mother used to sing to me as a lullaby when I was young. It’s titled, “The ninety-and-nine,” and was written in 1868 by Elizabeth Cecelia Clephane. This version, sung by Christian singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson is a little more “upbeat.” You can click on the link below to listen…

“The Ninety and Nine,” sung by Andrew Peterson

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