Search and Rescue
Based on Psalm 14, 1Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10
Before I became a preacher who has to come up with sermons approximately 50 weeks a year, I wondered how someone could do this creative work for 40 years. Where did all the material come from – how does a preacher find something to say that is hopefully both interesting and helpful for living our lives? Turns out that everyday life provides more than enough material to write sermons. Case-in-point, I’m driving from Rose Park to here two Sundays ago and pull up behind an SUV at the light near the Sheetz. I can’t resist looking at bumper stickers, and there on the bumper is a Coast Guard themed humorous thought. It said, “Support your local Search and Rescue…get lost”! Having a brother-in-law who flew helicopters for the Coast Guard for much of his 31-year career – and participated in many S&R missions, I smiled at the multiple meanings of this statement and then moved forward to lead worship here.
Turns out that the United States Coast Guard is the leading organization for search and rescue operations in the country. On average, they provide this service to 114 persons every day at an estimated annual cost of $680 million! In addition, the National Park Service in 2007 had 3600 search and rescue missions at a cost of $3 to $5 million. These numbers are staggering and help us to understand how unprepared the average person is to venture out into the unknown. The other sobering pieces of these data are both the number of fatalities that occur and the limited nature of how long humans will search before giving up.
This week our scriptures are talking about some of our forms of spiritual “lostness” and how our God will never call off the search and rescue operation to find us and bring us back home. The cost of those search and rescue missions was beyond calculation – it cost God a Son. That is really the point of all of our scriptures today; a conversation around how we end up getting lost and the good news about how it is that God never abandons us to life without grace and redemption which can rescue us. Let us go now to God in thanksgiving that our loving God never stops searching…
The writer of Psalm 14 begins his song of lament by talking about the majority of humans who are practical atheists (“fools”) of his day who “…say in their hearts that there is no God….” God is searching for persons who are wise and who believe that there is indeed a God. However, the writer sings, “…They (humans) have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one….” Things are bleak for this writer, yet, as with most lament psalms, the writer finds some hope in God’s steadfast love and faithfulness (God’s hesed). The writer states, “…When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad….” That one word, “when” makes all the difference. It is never “if” God will rescue God’s people, it is only a matter of “when”.
The writer of 1Timothy, ghost writing as the Apostle Paul, tells of how that faithful man had been lost, “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence”. It also then tells of how God searched for and rescued him as he “…received mercy because he [sic I] had acted ignorantly (like the Psalm writer’s fools) in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus….” The writer has the Apostle saying that Jesus displayed divine amounts of patience, reworking Paul into a living example for those who would come to believe in Jesus. He was rescued so that he could go and rescue others…this is always God’s plan for us.
The scribes and Pharisees are “grumbling” among themselves about the company that Jesus is keeping when he eats. They obviously have not learned anything from the parables contained in the Gospel of Luke from the last two weeks. In their own way, like Paul was described and like the Psalmist wrote about, they are foolish and have gone astray. Jesus begins a set of three “lost and found” parables which will culminate in the parable of the Prodigal and his brother. Today’s parables relate the search and rescue missions that were commonplace in those days – a sheep wandering away and a coin being misplaced. Unlike many human search and rescue missions, these do not cease until the sheep and coin are recovered. Once found, those that searched gather together friends and neighbors saying, “Rejoice with me” for they have found what had been lost. Jesus says that this is what God does with all the company of heaven when one sinner truly repents and comes to believe.
The transformative power of scripture lies in their applicability across the ages. People lost meaningful things in Jesus’ time and they are still losing prized items today. The Psalmist and the writer of 1Timothy are also speaking about things that we can relate to here in 2019. The growth of “nones” who state openly that they have no church affiliation and no belief in God are now in the majority. The tale of Paul being overzealous in his pursuit of the Law over faith in God are also all too familiar to us in our day. The schisms in the Body of Christ over which human interpretation of God’s inspired writings are “true” are nothing more than an updated version of the grumblings of the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day.
Jesus points to the universality of these stories by saying what man or woman of you wouldn’t undertake a search and rescue mission when you lose something of great value to you? Every one of us undertakes these missions to find where we left our phone, wallet, credit or debit cards, laptop computers, tablets or Kindles. More to the point, what parent hasn’t had that moment of shear panic when a child has wandered off and doesn’t respond to repeated calls? Which one of us, when someone we care about deeply wanders from the faith, does not seek to find and return them to right relationship with God and with us? When what has been lost is found, there is an overwhelming sense of relief and joy! Especially when we have been at that point of almost giving up – but decided to continue to search just a little longer; to look just one more time!
This is the moment that Jesus highlights in his three parables contained in Luke. The searchers go all out to party with the whole community now that the sheep, coin and son have been found. They are not like us who might celebrate with those closest to us but would never bring our carelessness which caused the issue in the first place, to light within the greater community. We fear the recrimination and ridicule of those around us who would make us feel worse instead of rejoicing fully with us. God, however, is not like us and sets the mood as extravagant, abundant and generous. The occasion is unambiguously designated as time to rejoice and to celebrate in community with all that we have and all that we are!
The spiritual lostness of the human community is just such a search and rescue mission for God, Jesus says to all of us. God’s passion is bent toward the rescue and return of the lost; God’s grace is boundless and extravagant. As 1Timothy says, “…The grace of our Lord overflowed….” onto Paul to redeem his spiritual lostness brought on by his foolishness and zeal. God’s grace is a passion beyond our human capabilities; our concept of salvation is miserly in comparison. God’s search and rescue missions are not limited to the salvation of souls—it is the whole person, body and soul, who is saved and then returned fully into the community to join in the party. There are no limits from God on who can join the party either; no barriers for certain classes or types of people. From Luke’s perspective, the primary question is who in the story are those spiritually lost? Are they the tax collectors, the sinners, the prodigal son? Alternatively, are they the Pharisees, scholars and older brother? For our purposes today, those in need of rescue are those who deny the existence of a love so patient and persistent that it can save us from our worldly ignorance and unbelief. The United States Coast Guard and National Park Service perform countless search and rescue missions to the limits of human endurance. God on the other hand, is a love that is infinite and endures forever – never abandoning us when we allow our foolishness to lead us astray. Thanks be to God for persistently loving us so much! Amen!