The original source of the quote is uncertain, but the words have stayed with me since I first heard them in seminary many years ago.
“A preacher,” the theologian said, “should have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”
Since I spent many years writing for and editing newspapers it’s no surprise that those words resonate with me. The Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other is often my approach to preaching.
That is not to say that every Sunday’s sermon has to focus on the issue or news of the day. What it means is that scripture is the lens through which we view the world, that scripture has something to say about what is happening in the world around us.
Sometimes that means looking at the actions of our government, or proposed policies and legislation, through the lens of scripture. How are our actions affecting those whom God commands we care for – widows, orphans, immigrants – Biblical code words for the most vulnerable among us?
And sometimes it means there is someone or something in the news that we can hold up as an example of scripture, or the gospel, being lived out.
Recently watching or reading the news has mostly been an exercise in frustration and sadness. Surging pandemic numbers, stories about racism and economic hardships, worries about schools reopening — it sometimes seems too much to bear.
And underneath all of these are examples of the polarization of our country, a time when something as simple as wearing a mask to help protect others and curb the coronavirus is seen as a political act, or an infringement upon one’s individual rights.
The common good, caring for one another, seems like an alien concept rather than the heart of our gospel mandate.
So when I was looking through my sermon files and came across a story of profound hope, a story of caring for one another, I knew I had to share it again. It took my breath away when it happened three years ago. It took my breath away again when I reread it this week.
It doesn’t relate directly to any of our scripture passages today, except that both the gospel reading and this story involve crowds on the beach. But it is such a vivid illustration of the gospel message of love and courage and hope that it must be shared.
The story was in The Washington Post, but the event occurred in Panama City, Florida – not too far from where we go to the beach most summers.
The area is notorious for riptides, those dangerous currents that can carry people far from shore.
On this Saturday evening, the riptide was about to claim the lives of 10 people.
The first two were young brothers, Noah and Stephen, who had gotten separated from their family while chasing waves on their boogie boards. The tide carried them 100 yards into the Gulf of Mexico.
Their mother, Roberta Ursrey, went after them, but she, too, got caught in the tide.
Two other women, Tabatha Monroe, and her wife Brittany, also heard the boys’ cries for help and swam toward them, planning to grab their boogie boards and tow them back to shore.
But the current was too strong, and they also were caught.
They tried to swim straight ahead; they tried to swim sideways, parallel to shore, but nothing worked.
In short succession, Ursrey’s 27-year-old nephew, 67-year-old mother, and 31-year-old husband, as well as another couple, strangers to them, tried to come to the rescue. All became trapped.
It looked like 10 people were about to die.
So much water went up Tabatha Monroe’s nose she was sure she would drown. Others began to tire from treading water, trying desperately to stay afloat.
“The tide knocked every bit of energy out of us,” Roberta Ursrey said.
There were no life guards on the beach. Someone called 911 and a police truck arrived, lights flashing. But the police made the decision to wait for a rescue boat to arrive.
In the meantime, the 10 people caught 100 yards out at sea grew more and more tired and afraid by the minute.
That’s when Jessica and Derek Simmons arrived on the scene.
When Jessica saw what was happening she had one immediate thought, “These people are not drowning today. It’s not happening. We’re going to get them out.”
“Form a human chain,” she shouted, and others took up the chant.
The chain began forming. First there were five volunteers, then 15, then dozens more as the rescue mission grew more desperate. Volunteers who couldn’t swim, became part of the chain in shallow waters. Stronger swimmers took the chain farther from shore.
As the chain formed, Jessica Simmons and her husband Derek swam past the more than 80 human links, and headed for the stranded swimmers.
They started with the kids, grabbing Noah and Stephen, and swimming them back to the chain, which passed them all the way back to the beach.
Next they went for the boys’ mother, Roberta, who could barely keep her head above water. As Jessica reached for her, Roberta blacked out.
She woke up safely on the sand.
The rescue efforts became more desperate as Roberta’s mother, Barbara, still in the water, appeared to be having a heart attack. As her nephew and son-in-law struggled to hold her head above the water, her eyes rolled back.
“Let me go,” she cried. “Just let me die and save yourselves.”
The rescuers were having none of that.
“That’s when the chain got the strongest,” Roberta Ursrey said later. “They linked up wrists, legs, arms. Everyone there was helping.”
Barbara was carried back to shore.
The rescue went on for nearly an hour. Over and over and over again, Jessica and Derek grabbed a weak and desperate swimmer and pulled them to the chain – where 80 sets of hands and arms embraced them and passed them from person to person to person down the line.
Just as the sun began to set, all of the stranded swimmers were safely back on land.
The entire beach exploded in applause.
Two of the rescuees were taken to the hospital. Both recovered.
“This showed me that there are good people in the world,” Roberta Ursrey told the Post.
Jessica Simmons agrees.
“To see people from different races and genders and ethnic groups come together into action to help total strangers was absolutely amazing to see,” she said. “People who didn’t even know each other went hand in hand into the water to reach them.
“Just pause and try to imagine that,” she said.
It’s a story I desperately needed to hear this week.
People hand in hand, putting aside their differences to work together, risking themselves to save those in need.
Children of God at their best that day, living out the gospel imperative to love and serve one another.
Let those who have ears listen.
And wear your damn masks.