St James Fordham • Proper 7a • Tobias Haller BSG
Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
What is a human being worth? It used to be said that if you reduced a person down to the chemicals that make up the human body you’d have just over a dollar and change worth of carbon, sulphur, nitrogen, potassium, and so on. But one day a doctor pointed out that organic compounds, not chemical elements, are what you should go by to determine the value of a human being. Our bodies are, after all, more than mere combinations of chemicals, but rather intricate producers of complex biological compounds. Some of the hormones and secretions we generate in our bodies are very valuable, only recently synthesized by virtue of the advances in molecular biology and genetics. On this basis, the doctor calculated that just a handful out of all of them were worth over $6 million. Quite a difference from the buck-fifty we were once told we were each worth, adjusted for inflation or not!
However, I still think the doctor fell short on estimating the value of a human being. We are certainly worth more than a few jars of elemental chemicals, but we are also worth more than a few vials of steroids, hormones, and factors our bodies produce.
To reduce human worth to this sort of inventory — even the valuable inventory of a medical supply company — is like saying a painting by Van Gogh is worth more than one by Rembrandt because the paint is thicker. The worth of a great painting has almost nothing to do with the amount of paint that makes it up, and everything to do with the painter, with the love and the care of the artist who created something that others could value. We human beings are worth more than all of the chemicals on all of the shelves of all of the DuPonts and Dow Chemicals of this world. We human beings are worth more than all of the inventory of GlaxoWellcome-SmithKline and Pfizer put together. And that is because the artist who created us took great pains over us — took the ultimate pain over us — and finished us off in perfection to the last detail, down to the number of hairs on each of our heads. Worth more than sparrows? You’d better believe it!
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Yes, indeed, we’d better believe it, even though sometimes it may seem so hard to believe, this idea that each and every one of us is a great work of art by the greatest artist. As G.K. Chesterton once said, “Everyone matters. You matter; I matter. That is the hardest thing in theology to believe.” It is hard to believe, and sadly, we human beings don’t often act as if we believed it. We treat each other as less than who we are. It’s hard to remember that the person who cuts us off on the highway is a child of God. It’s hard to remember that the mugger and the addict and the prostitute are supremely valuable in the eyes of God. It is so easy, as it were, to hold the telescope backwards; to look through the end that makes everyone else look small.
I’m sure you are all familiar with Charles Dickens’ classic story, “A Christmas Carol” — most likely because you’ve seen one of the many film or TV versions of it. Most of these version leave out one of the most powerful statements in the story. When Scrooge’s heart begins to soften, as he begins to show the first glimmer of concern for little Tiny Tim, he asks the Ghost of Christmas Present, “Will Tiny Tim will be spared.” The Ghost responds by quoting something Scrooge had said that very day when he was asked to contribute some money to save the lives of the poor: “If he be like to die, he had better do it and decrease the surplus population.”
Scrooge hangs his head in shame; and that is where most of the dramatizations end the exchange. But Dickens pressed the point, and put powerful words into the mouth of the Ghost of Christmas Present, a bit too strong for popular entertainment, but not out of place in a sermon. The Ghost fixes Scrooge with a stare, and says, “Man, if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child.” Powerful words that cut to the heart.
And of course, Scrooge needed to be cut to the heart — he needed a kind of spiritual heart surgery: to have his heart of stone replaced with a heart of flesh. And he had vision problems too, Old Scrooge did: The same vision problem that afflicts so many of us, the inability to see the value of others, especially those deemed the poorest and weakest. This is what comes from looking through the wrong end of the telescope.
In just the same way, but long before telescopes, it was hard for people to see a wandering preacher, convicted and sentenced for having gone too far, stripped and nailed to a cross to die in agony — hard to see in that pitiful figure the perfection of human nature. But this is the challenge we have been given: to acknowledge the presence of the supremely worthy even in those whom the world counts as worthless, and to acknowledge them before that world, so that it might have its vision cleared and finally see, and believe, and have its cold heart melted and warmed to life, and realize just how supremely valuable is every human being made in the likeness and image of God.
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For our Lord himself became one of us — and not among the great and wealthy, but among the poor and lowly, to show us that our human worth does not consist of the abundance of our possessions or our position in society. Had he come as a mighty monarch, proud to win over the crowds by pouring out wealth upon them, it would have been very easy for them to accept and acknowledge him as Lord.
But he did not do so. He came among us as a member of the lowest class of people, the common people who toiled and worked with their hands to make a living. Even when he worked miracles, he gave the people not gold, but at the most bread and fish, and wine for a wedding party — consumables for use, not treasure for accumulation. In short, God did not bribe us or try to win us over when he came to us in the person of Christ. He came to us as one of us, as one of the least of us.
And he came not merely as one of the least of us, but for the least of us: as we heard in our reading from Romans last week, he came not only for the least of us, but for the worst of us — for all of us, while we were still weak, while we were still sinners. Which is, of course why we should never presume to judge anyone else’s sins — for all of us have fallen short; and yet God still loves us and forgives us.
That is why we who acknowledge him — with the expectation that he will fulfill his promise and acknowledge us before his Father in heaven — why we must also acknowledge our fellow human beings — all of them, including the poorest and the weakest, the most admirable and the most reprehensible — as sisters and brothers in the great human family. We dare not single Jesus out and neglect the rest of his family — for as we have done to the least of them, we have done to him.
This gives added weight to his warning that whoever denies him before others will be denied by him before his Father in heaven. For it is not only the poor we deny when we turn away from them — in doing so we are denying Jesus himself.
We have the choice — but it’s a package deal: we cannot embrace Christ unless we also embrace our sisters and brothers, we cannot claim his forgiveness of our sins unless we also forgive those who sin against us, who are his children as much as we are. To deny them is to deny him. We dare not turn aside from or presume to judge the least of these — each and every one worth more than many, many sparrows.
We are each and every one of us so valuable, that a sage of the Eastern church once said, “Before every human being there go ten thousand thousand angels shouting, ‘Make way for the image of God.’” How the world would be changed were we to treat each other — all of us, high and low — as worth what we are in the eyes of God. May we always, every time we encounter another person, open our eyes to see another child of God, open our hearts to embrace them, and open our ears to be able to hear the voices of those angels reminding us just how much each and every one of us is worth; for, to echo Tiny Tim, God has blessed us, every one.+