"Search and Rescue"

Message preached September 16, 2001
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  Luke 15:1-10

Order of Worship

Before last Tuesday, I had intended to bring a very different message. This very scripture was speaking to me then about our need to get our attitudes straight before we reach out to other people, persons who may be lost and searching for meaning in life and connections to God and others - sharing with them the good news of Christ. This message was to be a challenge to you - to invite a friend to church who may not be connected to a fellowship of believers, who may not know Jesus. We even had (and still have) a date picked out for a special "Invite a Friend to Church Sunday" - November 4th.

However, in the aftermath of last Tuesday, what I had intended to say doesnít seem very appropriate. Not that sharing good news, evangelism, isnít a vital concern. Itís just that ... well, I think (I hope) you understand. Our world is different from what it was last Sunday. Then, such violence only happened elsewhere, not here. We were safe then, relatively speaking. Now, safety has been called into question. Then, such an abominable act was unthinkable. Now we canít get the pictures out of our minds. Then over 5,000 persons were still alive. Now, they are not, having become the intentional target of terrorists who acted in the name of God. Itís enough to make you want to tear your clothes, to pull out your hair, to pour dust on your head.

Today is "different." As Sue Ellen said to me in an email, "to sit in church on Sunday like our lives havenít changed feels almost grotesque." In the same breath, though, she continued, "I'm struggling with my own sense of my life not being much different than it was Monday." Indeed. Life goes on. Yet, it has totally changed in so many ways.

Today, brothers and sisters, is a bit like a funeral. At the same time it is not, for the dead are, for the most part, still missing. The search and rescue continues - though, as the days go by, the possibility of finding (alive) persons trapped under the rubble diminishes. At some point the work shifts to recovering bodies, though no one involved wants to make that shift. It means giving up hope.

Reading this morningís gospel stories in the light of what has happened this week, and continues to happen even as I speak, we find this text strangely appropriate. These are parables of search and rescue. The lost sheep, the lost coin, are valuable to someone. In fact, they are considered so priceless in these stories that the other 99 sheep, the other 9 coins are left behind in the effort to find them.

Please note, if these lost ones were considered to be of equal value with all the rest, then, judging from the fact that 99 combined totals more than 1, and 9 is also greater than 1, it would appear that the needs of the many would more than outweigh the needs of the one. However, in these brief tales of Jesus they are not placed on a par. The one is more important at this moment. The math is different here, isnít it? One is greater than 99. One is greater than 9. And those who listen to these words realize that they are standing on ground that is different from "life as usual."

Friends, weíve seen these parables acted out this week. I recall watching a television reporter a few blocks away from the World Trade Center in New York City as he described the rescue workers racing to the scene. In the background I could see the firefighters heading that way. So many of them were operating by a different math. Yes, they had loved ones somewhere, but still they journeyed toward peril in the effort to save even so much as one person. The value of their own lives was also laid on the line... And then a while later this same reporter, in the same location, spoke in disbelief about that high rise tower collapsing. The scene in the background involved fewer firefighters, who were covered in dust, stumbling back.

I really donít want to be reliving that day, my friends. Nor do I wish to get all melodramatic. Itís just that this scripture reminds me of that scene. At the same time, however, it lifts my thoughts beyond the horror we all (to some degree) witnessed... Jesus, when he told these parables, was painting a picture of God. As we try to come to grips with this week, with the non-stop barrage of terrifying images that came into our homes via television and were etched on our brains, we need this picture of God. Title it, "Search and Rescue."

Scripture tells us that God is steadfast and true. His love never ends. Even when lost in the variety of ways that those whom God loves have gone astray, become disoriented, buried under a mountain of human debris, still God is steadfast in the search and rescue. The foundation of our faith as followers of Jesus is the story of how, when we were lost, God left no stone unturned in reaching out for us. By "us," I mean all of humanity. Like a fireman, Jesus ran to the scene and into the human skyscraper when it was in danger of tumbling to the ground. He disregarded his own safety. Along the way of our salvation, the whole structure fell down upon him. He died, giving up his life for the sake of those he came to rescue - for that "one lost sheep," if you will, which in "kingdom math" totals us all. He died to save.

Of course, there is a whole lot more to our story of faith than that. We believe that on the third day he rose from the ashes, God having pushed away the stone. "This is the will of him who sent me," Jesus said, "that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day." (John 6:39-40)... This resurrection faith helps us, here and now, to rise from difficult times knowing that death is not the end of life.

Having said that, however, let me back up. Since this terror is still so very fresh, since today feels more like Good Friday than Easter Sunday, this portrait of a Shepherd seeking out that one lost sheep is so very important to us right now. Can we overlay that image on top of those other pictures we canít seem to get out of our heads? "Though I walk through the Valley of the shadow of death," that beloved Psalm affirms, "I fear no evil." Why? "For thou art with me." The Shepherd is there, the One who searches for and rescues the lost.

Now for those who wonder at the ability of a man to really look for and find something, Jesus gave us another parable. Picture God as a woman cleaning house, bothered by that one coin which refuses to be found. She lights up the house, sweeps it thoroughly, and searches carefully. This image may not be as dramatic and potentially dangerous as the thought of a shepherd leaving his flock when predators are around, and searching for the one lost sheep in the wilderness. However, when something is lost in your house, who donít you ask about where it is? Who usually doesnít see beyond the end of his nose? Thatís not like God. Instead, picture a woman who will not give up until she finds what is lost...

And when she finds what is lost, just like when the shepherd finds that one lost sheep, there is "rejoicing." Brothers and sisters, I think this part of these parables may need to wait a while for us to embrace. Yes, we have witnessed scenes of persons who emerged from the rubble, still alive after being buried. But they are getting fewer and fewer. We have, though, seen many bright spots, as this terrible deed brought out the best in people. We do need to rejoice in these things, with a joy that flows - strangely enough - even in the middle of adversity. But this isnít party time. Even so, we need to sing.

My daughter, Caitlin, asked if she could sing a song this morning that spoke to her this week. So, in the spirit of the old Brethren practice of "passing the privilege," I welcome God to speak through her.

[She sang  Shout to the North by Martin Smith, performed elsewhere by the group Delirious.
Click here to listen to a clip from their album (#13).]


My friends, I know we havenít touched on the "why" behind what has happened - but, to tell you the truth, I donít know any answer that begins to make sense of it all - at least not in my heart. Nor have I really said much about what we should do now. I hope you have already responded by giving blood, or contributing to the Red Cross or our denominationís Disaster Response Fund. Furthermore, in light of our long history - as Brethren - of witness for peace, I urge that thoughts of vengeance be placed at the foot of the cross, that we might pray for and encourage responses from our nation that make for a just peace, not a continuing cycle of violence.

Having said this, however, this preacher just wants to plant these pictures of our God in Christ as a shepherd searching and rescuing that one lost sheep, and as a woman looking everywhere and finding that lost coin - I want to sow these images into our awareness overtop the terrible sights we saw this week. And my prayer is, as the Psalmist said long ago, "may those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy" (126:5).

Check here for some Brethren Responses to the Terrorist Attack.

©2001 Peter L. Haynes

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