Summary: A sermon on hope, using the rescue of the nine coal miners in Pennsylvania as the central illustration.
This morning, I’d like to consider the topic of "hope". Is hope important? Is it something we need? Is it essential to our happiness, essential even to our survival? For an answer to that question, we could probably talk to the nine coal miners who were rescued this week in Pennsylvania. They spent more than three days trapped 240 feet underground, not knowing if they would ever again see the light of day, or whether the water-filled mine they had been working in would become their tomb. We all know the story by now. Watching the drama unfold, we learned that the miners had accidentally breached the wall of an old abandoned mine shaft, filled with millions of gallons of water. As their own tunnel began to flood, they retreated to an air pocket, only four feet high, where they crouched together in the cold, wet, darkness, praying and waiting for someone to come. And finally, someone did. First, a six-inch shaft was drilled to pump in warm, pressurized air. That kept the water at bay; it also provided oxygen for the men to breathe, and helped protect them against hypothermia. Then, giant pumps were used to draw water out of the mine, preventing the water level from rising. And finally, a shaft was drilled, large enough to drop a rescue capsule and bring the men up, one at a time, almost eighty hours after their ordeal began. All alive, all healthy, all grateful to be alive.
What sustained these men during their living nightmare? Cold, wet, hungry, exhausted. Not knowing what was going on above them, not knowing if they would ever see their families again. What kept them going? And what sustained the rescue workers, and the families? What kept them from giving up, what kept them from giving in to despair? Hope. An editorial yesterday in a Mississippi newspaper put it this way: "teamwork and hope helped to save the nine trapped miners in Pennsylvania". At one point, the CNN reporter on the scene remarked , "There’s a lot of hope here." And the pastor of two of the families who had relatives trapped in the mine, Reverend Glenn Sadler, said the same thing, that they were living "totally in hope."
Hope is what brought them through. Hope in the face of very long odds. Yes, they made use of the best equipment available. They brought in the most experienced and knowledgeable people. But from the very beginning, the likelihood of bringing up all nine miners, alive and healthy, was very small. Many things could have gone wrong, and did go wrong. For example, at one point the drill bit being used to create the rescue shaft broke; it took eighteen hours to bring out the pieces and start again. The system for pumping in pressurized air, which proved key to their survival, had never been tried before. The miners were at risk of developing hypothermia from the cold water; they were also at risk of getting the "bends" from breathing the pressurized air. But most seriously of all, the rescuers had no certain knowledge of where the men even were. They had no way of communicating with them, no way of determining exactly where in the maze of underground tunnels they had gone to escape the rising waters. And so the location of the air pocket where they had gathered was a matter of informed guesswork. David Hess, the state secretary of environmental protection, called it a "one in a million shot" that the six-inch air shaft they drilled would hit the precise spot where the men were located. "Those guys could have been anywhere down there," he said in an interview. And so the miners and their families couldn’t rely on the machinery, or on the expertise of the rescuers. They had to rely on faith and hope. And that was what kept them going, kept them alive. Without hope and without faith, the outcome might have been very different.