"When the Lights Go Out"

Sunday sermon from September 15, 2013
Text: Luke 15:1-10
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa

I don't know that we could have asked for a more exceptionally beautiful weekend. Yesterday, as if to break in the fall, Charlie and I put some good mileage on the car -- we went up to Crabtree Falls to throw rocks in the water (his idea, not mine), and to Saunders and to the Nellysford Farmers' Market, and then yesterday afternoon I had the joy of going down to Monroe to celebrate the wedding of Chris Wimer and his new bride, Jenny. It was, all in all, not a bad day to spend driving around Nelson and Amherst Counties, and I even begin to feel like I know where most of the big roads go. And it's nice to begin to feel like we have spots that we know and return to and begin to feel like home. But for me the truest sign that I have begun to know these roads is that I have begun to fill out a mental map of where in the area I can go for the cheapest gas.

You see, I really hate overpaying for gas. I mean, it's the same stuff no matter where you go, so why would I ever pay the $3.50 up near Roseland when I know it's barely $3.25 on 29 through Colleen. Okay, sure, those pump owners are charging what the market will bear, and there's no shortage of spots around here where gas stations don't have any immediate competition, so I suppose it's to be expected. But I'll make the drive; I mean, I hate overpaying for gas. If I'm putting 10 gallons in the car for 25 cents more for the gallon than I would be elsewhere, then I'm spending, well, two dollars and fifty cents that I don't have to, which, you know, now that I do the math, isn't really very much money, but there's a principle at stake here, right? That's why my father always seems to know the prices at every pump around town, and the apple didn't fall far from that particular tree. It's the principle of the thing, and it's best if you don't think too hard about the actual money you're trying to save. That's why I have this fixation, and it's hardly rational, it's just the principle of the thing. That's why I'd gladly drive all the way across Lynchburg, and probably use three or four bucks worth of gas doing it, just for the chance to save a dollar at the pump. That's why even on the highway, even driving down some interstate that I hardly even know, even when the fuel light comes on the dashboard, even then, I will drive past perfectly open gas stations simply because I don't like the looks of those prices and maybe, probably, hopefully there's something else, two or three cents cheaper, hopefully not more than ten or fifteen miles down the road.

This is not helpful behavior; one might call it borderline self-destructive, but I find it best just not to think about it too closely. It looks rational on the outside, but on the inside it's just principle, and it says a lot more about me than about the price of gasoline. But just when I begin to think that I'm alone, just when I begin to think that I am carrying some sort of unique psychological defect, or, at least that my father and I share some kind of unique genetic misprint, just at that moment we come across the parable in our text from Luke this morning, the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin, and here I find very good company for the completely irrational principles that drive me up and down the highway. In fact the very bedrock of these parables are the irrational lengths we go to when principles are on the line.

By the time of our text today, Jesus is some time into his ministry, and as tends to be the case his parable starts as a response to some misguided comment. In this case, the Pharisees and scribes have noticed Jesus welcoming sinners and tax collectors into his audience, and it causes them to grumble and complain, and the text unfolds into parable. The shepherd abandons the 99 sheep to find the one who has gone astray. The woman searches high and low for the single coin that has gone missing. In both cases Jesus clearly portrays their searching, their relentlessness, as representative of how God, too, seeks and welcomes those who have themselves gone lost. You've heard that part before; it's not the surprising part. The surprising part in this text isn't that the shepherd leaves his flock, which, by the way, would expose his sizable investment to quite a bit of risk - who's to say that two more would not wander off while he was in search of the one? - and the surprising part in this text isn't that the woman lights a lamp in search of her single coin, which, by the way, is not the most obvious economic investment - it's hard to know for sure, but ten coins is not any kind of wealth and the cost of the oil in the lamp is certainly nothing to scoff at compared to the value of the coin; no, the surprising part in this text is that Jesus paints this kind of principled-yet-irrational, reasonable-yet-crazy behavior as just the sort of thing that everybody does.

Listen to the way he poses the question: which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness? Well, when you put it that way, it just sounds totally reasonable. I mean, it's what any normal shepherd would do. Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? Well, you've gotta find it. I mean, it's in the house somewhere; that kind of thing is liable to drive you a bit batty if you don't find it; so what if it takes all day? It sounds reasonable, but it's not, not really, not in the big scheme of things, not if the other sheep wander off, not with the cost of lamp oil what it is. Jesus knows perfectly well that when it comes to our stuff, our possessions, our property, when it comes to the stuff we own, try as we might to convince ourselves otherwise, we act in deeply principled and deeply irrational ways. The problem, of course, is that when it comes to people, all of a sudden we get reasonable for no good reason. Why does Jesus welcome sinners and tax collectors? That's the question that got us here. And Jesus's answer is: look, I know this sounds unreasonable to you. I know it sounds unprincipled. But here's the thing: you do this all the time. You all act unreasonable all the time. You just do it with your objects. You treat your objects like people. So why do you treat your people like objects?

Eight years ago this past month Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast with destructive power few of us will ever know. Power went out throughout the region, and, at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans, the backup power generators, located in the basement, were soon flooded and themselves failed. The hospital was left without electricity for what was at that point an unforeseeable amount of time. In the wake of the power failure, and with dubious options for evacuation, doctors and nurses were faced with diabolical ethical considerations: who can you save? Who can you help? And who, with prospects this grim, should simply be relieved of their suffering? It was, by all accounts, a dark time, whose events have been brought to light largely by the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sheri Fink. In her new book Five Days at Memorial, she dives into this moment when the lights went out and the ethical framework we might expect went topsy-turvy. See, when the waves first crashed towards the hospital, the staff went ahead with a fairly normal evacuation plan: babies, ICU patients, those people who might not be the easiest to evacuate but certainly would be the most at risk once the hospital actually lost power. Take a moment to notice that such an evacuation protocol is by its definition unreasonable; it's un-utilitarian; it's not about saving the people with the greatest chance for survival but rather about prioritizing people according to their need.

But once the lights went out, the ethical system flipped on its head. Once the flow of evacuation slowed to a trickle, and with no obvious hope for a widespread return to normalcy, the doctors decided instead to prioritize for evacuation those patients who were the healthiest to begin with. Fink quotes one doctor as saying that this reflected "a sense among the doctors that they would not be able to save everyone." And so all of a sudden it was the healthiest among them who got priority access to evacuation. And what's more, with the lights out, the paradigm of caregiving changed completely. Without immediate hope of rescue, some doctors began to proscribe excessive quantities of morphine for terminally ill patients, or, in some cases, simply administering excessive doses to otherwise reasonably healthy patients without their consent. New Yorker blogger Amanda Schaffer picks out this detail: "A three-hundred-eighty-pound paraplegic named Emmett Everett had eaten tuna fish, crackers, and relish for breakfast. "I knew he was sick," one staff member later said, "but, um, you know, he could talk and everything." In fact, he told one of his nurses, "Cindy, don't let them leave me behind." Then a doctor allegedly ended his life - without his consent."

More than a few of the dead bodies later pulled from the hospital included abnormally high levels of both morphine and a sedative called Versed. Whether doctors set out to relieve pain or hasten what they thought to be an inevitable death is not clear, even following the legal battles that would later ensue. What's clear is that once the lights went out, the normally unreasonable, un-utilitarian system of medical ethics - the one that first evacuates those with the lowest chance of survival - it got thrown out the window, and in its absence awoke a deeply rational, deeply logical, fundamentally broken monster of a thing. The doctors knew better. We all know better. Who among you, having ten silver coins and losing one of them, would not light a lamp and sweep the house until you find it? This is the observation that Jesus makes: that in fact searching for the lost thing, however unreasonable, is just the sort of thing that we do every day. But when it's a human life on the line. When it's one of us on the line. When the lights go out, something in us breaks. We who so lovingly treat our objects like people. And then when it matters, we treat our people like objects.

Fortunately, we are not the ones with the final say. For as much as this text speaks about our own brokenness and our own sin, for as much as it speaks about our own callousness and the nighttime turns of the human heart, it says even so much more about the light by which God searches for us and seeks us out and reclaims us as his own. For as much as the shepherd and the woman with the lost coin represent a reminder of the normal irrational ethics that we carry around with us, they even more so represent the normal and irrational ethical imagination of God. For as much as Jesus is trying to help the Pharisees realize the sinfulness by which they treat sinners and outcasts as objects, he's even more so trying to remind them that God searches for them even in their sin and even when they have cast themselves out. So it's not just that we are shepherds who have forgotten how to do our normal, irrationally principled duty; it's not just that we have fled from the risk of seeking out even that one lost coin; it's that we go missing. We get lost. We wander from the flock. We roll under the couch. We wander down by the stream. We turn out the lights. And still, God seeks us out. Irrational as it may sound. Illogical as it may sound. But our God is nothing if not a principled God. Our God who has created the earth and everything within it treats his objects like people. And his people like children.

One final story. A few weeks ago, in the Atlanta suburbs, a man named Michael Brandon Hill, armed with an AK-47, snuck into the Ronald McNair Discovery Learning Academy, an elementary school just like so many others. Obviously, at Columbine, Sandy Hook, and others, we've heard this story before. Fortunately, Michael didn't go straight for the classroom. He went to the front office, fired shots at the ground, and demanded that the receptionist call 911 so that he could negotiate his demands. Her name was Antoinette Tuff, and she's the reason this story isn't like so many others. Of course, they'd all had training for this sort of thing; in fact, in accordance with her training, once she had the police on the phone, she made a sort of secret signal to her office-mates to let them know that they could secure the classrooms and get the students to safety. That's what you have to do, of course; that's why we have emergency procedures, so that we absolutely minimize the loss of human life. It's the only rational, reasonable response. But Antoinette did something even more powerful and much less rational. She talked to him. With 911 on the line, and staring down the barrel of Michael's gun, she talked to him. It started like idle conversation: she told him about herself, about the things happening in her life. But it got personal. She told him she cared for him. She told him she'd walk outside with him to surrender so the police wouldn't shoot. By time the police finally came, never themselves having spoken to the gunman, Antoinette and Michael were discussing where he would put down his weapon and where he would lie on the floor. On the 911 call, you can hear her say "It's going to be all right, sweetie ... I just want you to know I love you, though, OK? And I'm proud of you. That's a good thing that you're just giving up and don't worry about it. We all go through something in life."

The 99 sheep will be just fine. But what amazing things happen when we believe in a God who can indeed save everyone!