In 2001, Kenneth Feinberg, a fair and well-liked attorney, was appointed to head the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund. He was tasked with determining how much money each surviving family should receive from the sum, of the overwhelming amount of donations, that poured in from across the country, and the world. He worked, painstakingly, to take into consideration all the details he could – like their age, their income and earning potential, the size of the family and number of dependents, and whether or not they had other life insurance policies. In the end, his formula produced a compensation scale of between $250,000 for blue collar workers, and, on the top end, executives who received as much as, $7.1M.
It was an exhausting task, no doubt, and when he was finished, Feinberg took time to reflect on the experience. And the biggest take-away was, after “I met with the 9/11 families,” as he told NPR, “I began to question this basic premise of our legal system. Trained in the law, I had always accepted, that no two lives were worth the same, in financial terms. But now I found the law in conflict with my growing belief, in the equality of all life.”
Jesus tells his newest followers to, “have no fear” of going out into the world with the message of Good News. “…Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; …Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. …So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
A sparrow, the most common of birds, was the poor person’s #1 protein meal choice – the ground chuck, or Hamburger Helper of the day. Jesus assures us that, God loves and cares for each and every sparrow, and not one sparrow’s life is outside the prevue of God. And to all of us, Jesus says, “you are of more value than many sparrows!”
Some of you will remember David Sural, who was our office manager about 8, 9 years ago, which was right at the time of financial collapse that precipitated the Great Recession. And when the economic stimulus was announced, shortly after coming into office by President Obama, I remember David saying, wouldn’t it be better to just give the money directly to each adult person in the country, instead of funneling it through income tax returns? My first reaction was, I’m sure they would if they could. There’s probably some perfectly good reason why that won’t work, though.
But now I’m not so sure. Aside from the extra mailing costs, it turns out that if we would have done it David’s way, and everyone would have gotten an equal, simple, direct check, much more money would have gotten into the hands of lower income folks, and more of it, economists agree, would have been spent on every day goods, and gotten into the economy much quicker. While what actually happened was, the greater your income level on your tax return was, the more you got, and those who were well-off already, didn’t need to spend it, and so it didn’t help the economy as much as hoped for, nor did it help those needing the most financial leg-up, like David Sural and all of us!
How do we value lives? Are some lives of more value than others?
As Julian of Norwich, in the late 14 C. wrote, in her simple ‘vision of the hazelnut,’ as it was called: “I marveled how it might last,” she wrote of the hazelnut, “for it seemed it might suddenly have sunk into nothing because of its littleness. And I was answered in my vision: ‘It lasts and ever shall, because God loves it.’”
To God, our lives have value, in and of themselves – far beyond any financial economy of scale. Each of us, in our rainbow variety and beautifulness, are treasured. We have value because we are God’s creatures, made in God’s image, just like the sparrows. Jesus values all lives equally, but especially goes out of his way to point out how true that is for ‘the least of these,’ and the pernicious disparity and inequality of our human systems that make it so, by lifting up those who are all too often trampled on, and forgotten.
26“So have no fear of them;” says Jesus, “for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” Jesus encourages us to keep our eye on the prize, that is, that in, and with, God, all things will be redeemed; In God’s blessing and grace, we have no fear; ‘God’s eye is on the sparrow, and I know God watches me.’ So there is nothing we can hide from one another, ultimately. The truth, will be revealed!
And, speaking of that! The secret, Senate health care plan was finally released this week, and details are steadily and appallingly coming to light. It was so secret, apparently, that not even all the secret committee members working on it, knew everything in it, since much was given to Senator Mitch McConnell’s aides to write! And, what is revealed, bottom-line, is that it reduces the amount of healthcare delivered to Americans, at a higher cost, while enriching the pocketbooks of the most-well-off Americans, through huge tax cuts.
I can’t find the words to express my dismay and anger at this bill – and my fear, if it passes, for the millions of people who will lose their coverage, and for the safety net, that supports our seniors, the disabled, and those living with mental illness, which is effectively ended. There is no care for the sparrow, here, instead ‘the least of these’ are targeted as the problem, and considered expendable, in this dystopian, so-called, healthcare plan. It’s simply a moral outrage!
It’s hard not to be afraid, sometimes. But Jesus surprises us in this Reading – before we’re even halfway through this gospel story – with the announcement, that, we will find our worth in “taking up our cross and following him.” We haven’t even gotten to the crucifixion yet, and Jesus feels the need to explain the cross and its place in our lives.
In other words, due to all this revealing – secrets uncovered and brought into the light; the truth coming out – there may be suffering and sacrifice involved, there may be divisions, even families may no longer find unity, much less our elected leaders.
“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” Jesus said that too! We fear and respect God alone, the One who has awesomely created us. And we give our lives to follow Jesus, as together we bear one another’s burdens and crosses. And we shout out the truth from the housetops, we tell it in the light. Because then, not only do we have a clear conscience, but we rejoice that we will live, in the light of Christ, starting now, and forever – redeemed by the Lamb of God, whose eye is on the sparrow.
And so, we are not afraid of a healthcare bill, even though lives are threatened. We cannot, and will not, lose our souls, and give-in, to what is opposed to Christ. Because, what is whispered in secret, will be proclaimed from the housetops.
So, it’s interesting – you might remember this – that the next time Kenneth Feinberg got a phone call for his services was in 2007, from the President of Virginia Tech, after the mass shooting, there. And this time he knew he wanted to take a different approach. One based on the fundamental equality-of-life – that all lives are equal and valued by God. And this time, all the surviving families, whether students or faculty, rich or poor, received the same equal compensation, from the fund he managed.
Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But take up your cross and follow the crucified One, the giver-of-life, the one who values each of us for who we are. For God’s eye is on the sparrow; and I know God watches us all.