Sunday, September 11, 2011

Search and Rescue

Search and Rescue

Luke 15:1-10

Robert J. Elder

September 11, 2011

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them,

does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?

Writing sermon titles for preaching every Sunday is sometimes a challenge, maybe even harder than writing sermons themselves. I was looking over the scripture for today some time back, and seeing the words about going after the one sheep that was lost brought to mind a thought for a title: “Search and Rescue.” And then it struck me what the words “Search and Rescue” would call to mind for us this morning, on the 10th anniversary of that awful day. I remember that week very well, I recall that every day our televisions greeted us with the video footage of rescue workers meticulously piecing through rubble. Hundreds of men and women working 24 hours a day, regardless of cost, in hopes of finding one more survivor amid the wreckage of what was the World Trade Center.

Survivor. That word calls to my mind a sort of entertainment that I once hoped would soon fade from the public fascination. No luck. In fact, I have heard that a special 90 minute Survivor is scheduled to air this coming week on CBS – check local listings. It strikes me now as the antithesis of what we saw 10 years ago in New York and Washington D.C. The television show, Survivor – I’m sure you have all heard of it even if you may not have watched it – brings together a hand-selected group of people. Their task is to outwit, outlast, out maneuver all the others in the group until they are the last one standing. This has been our modern idea of entertainment for many seasons now: Survivor, The Weakest Link, Lost, so-called “reality” shows.The programs work on the premise that it is entertaining to watch people deceive, manipulate, and outwit others, make group decisions to throw others out, all within a philosophy declaring, in the end, it is every man or woman for him/herself. I think it represents a sort of anti-gospel destruction of community, the pitting of one against another, with the ultimate goal focused on the individual, the final winner.

I would have wished that one good outcome of our national tragedy 10 years ago might have been that we think in a new way about such things. Perhaps there is still hope, perhaps there yet could be a new television show or two, called Everyone Survives!, or, perhaps, Community.

In our new show, a person would find themselves alone on a deserted island. They might have some resources with them, a bit of food, or perhaps a special skill or tool. But their skill, tool, resources would be practically useless to them unless they can find others with complimentary abilities, tools, or resources which they lack. Let’s say the first person we see has some matches and access to kindling and wood. They build a fire. Their task then would be to look for others, and, on finding them, to welcome them to their campfire and begin building a social bond. Every member would count in this TV program, and the loss of even one would be unacceptable, would, in fact, threaten the survival of the group as a whole.

Difficulties which would carry interest in the program along would include the well-known fact that where two or three are gathered together, there is almost always a disagreement about something. The challenge would not be how to dissolve community and win all alone, but how to maintain community in spite of the difficulties that any of the members would bring with them when they were found. It would be great if some of the people to be found on the island did not speak the same language, had different racial and social backgrounds, or the usefulness of their ability, tool or resource might not, at first, be readily understood. How to bind up the sick, how to make sure everyone has enough to eat, is warm and dry, how to deal with the one who complains all the time, how to limit the power of the one who wants to control everything, these would be among the interesting challenges for the participants on the show.

Perhaps several groups could be underway at the same time, and the unknown quality to judge the success of one group over another would be measured by the willingness to welcome group members who happen to bring no apparent ability, tool, or resource with them. This could be a secret compassion test, to see how these communities go about seeking the highest goal of including rather than excluding, even when it is not always apparent that including everyone is useful.

I might watch such a show, rooting for the success of community in the face of threats to its existence.

A friend of mine wrote that we would do well, as we think on the stories of the lost sheep and coin, to recall Abraham’s conversations with God (Genesis 18:16 ff.). Sheep and coins can’t really be blamed for being lost, they just go around doing things that sheep and coins do when their human overseers fail to pay enough attention. But lost people, that’s another matter. Remember Abraham bartering with God, pleading with him to spare the sin-filled city for the sake of the handful of righteous ones who might be there, expanding the odds of Sodom’s survival, first bargaining God down from 50 righteous to 45, then 40, 30, 20, 10. God agrees to spare the city if only 10 righteous people are found there. Oh, if Osama Bin Laden had only undertaken the same search in the World Trade Center towers.

But Jesus’ parables take us beyond even that standard. It turns out, in his teaching, for the sake of just one righteous – Jesus – God spares the whole earth. The mathematics of mercy strain our comprehension, our belief in bottom lines, of acceptable levels of loss. My friend asked, “If God is holy, how can God stand the likes of us? If God is so merciful, how can God be holy?”[1]

“You have heard it said,” Jesus appears to say, “that one bad apple spoils the barrel, but I say to you, one good apple saves the barrel.” We have in these stories from Jesus the affirmation that the renewing power of good exceeds the corrupting power of evil. This is the only way we can live in community, by recognizing that we can come together for good, even in the face of horrendous, overwhelming evil. We spend lots of resources separating ourselves from evil, we build prisons, we establish and maintain armies, police departments, security forces. We want not to have to associate with those whose claim to righteousness is less than ours, we, like the fussy leaders of Jesus’ day, are concerned about the company we keep. They saw that Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them. Others may see us at the same task and wonder if Christians have all their marbles.

Leaving aside for the moment all the Sunday school artwork about this story depicting Jesus in a sparkling white robe, carrying a sweet little freshly-bathed white lamb on his shoulders, and remembering instead that adult sheep in the wilderness are not only stupid but big, heavy, and smelly, not to mention that they represent dollars on the hoof to their owners, I had to re-ask myself Jesus’ initial question: “Which of you does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost?” I realized that if Jesus were telling me this story, I would have to raise my hand. Which of you would not leave ninety-nine valuable sheep at risk in the wilderness in order to go after one stray? Me! I wouldn’t do it!

Why did Jesus tell these little stories? To whom was he telling them? Jesus told these stories to the grumbling religious leaders of his day who were put off by his willingness to eat with villainous traitors and pagans. Those leaders were like we are. Some people you just can’t help. Some people are just goners. Some religious people, then and now, were willing to cut their losses, make utilitarian decisions about people. There are just some folk who are destined for the old lost-and-found box. Lost, for sure, but chances are good they will never be found again.

There are lots of souls in the lost and found, bleeding in Libya, suffering desperate oppression under the Taliban, but especially they are right here with us in Vancover if we learn to look the right way. And Jesus spins for us a little story about a lost sheep and a lost coin and the kind of kingdom of heaven thinking that, like firefighters in New York, never fails – never fails – to make a mad rush to save what is lost without remembering to stop and count costs. 99 out of a hundred may be a good percentage on an exam, but it still leaves out one, and God desires the salvation of every single one. It may not be our arithmetic, but it is God’s new math. For in God’s sight, people are not sheep, and certainly more precious than coins, and there is literally no extent to which God will not go to find what is lost.

Once the President of Southern Methodist University was stopped by one of those religious zealots on the streets of Dallas, Texas.

“Are you saved?” she demanded to know.

“I think so,” replied the president.

“That’s not good enough!” she announced, “you have to know so!”

A little undone, the president pulled himself to his full height and declared, “Madam, I am the president of Southern Methodist University, and therefore president of Perkins Methodist Theological Seminary as well.”

“That’s OK,” she allowed, “you can still be saved!”

One of my favorite authors over the years has been Annie Dillard, and in her first – and most famous – book, she wrote,

“When I was six or seven years old, growing up in Pittsburgh, I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find. It was a curious compulsion; sadly, I’ve never been seized by it since. For some reason, I always ‘hid’ the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street. I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk. Then I would take a piece of chalk, and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe. But I never lurked about. I would go straight home and not give the matter another thought, until, some months later, I would be gripped again by the impulse to hide another penny.”[2]

In the end, Jesus’ parables are stories about the way God seeks out the lost, not the way we would go about doing it. And in the end, the joy which characterizes the heart of these simple stories of finding is the key to knowing the joy which fills God’s heart when any person turns to Christ in faith.

Where are we to draw the line between righteousness and sinfulness? We look at Jesus, and suddenly we see. The line is drawn, not between ourselves and others, but between Jesus and us. He is righteous, we are not. That is all. We are the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the good news is that, like those brave fire fighters in New York ten years ago, the one who is left standing will come looking to save us.

[1] Bill Leety, in an unpublished paper presented to the January 2001 meeting of the Homiletical Feast.

[2] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Bantam, 1974), pp. 15-16.