Eastern Airlines flight 401 was a scheduled flight from New York to Miami. On December 29, 1972, the jumbo jet crashed near Miami causing 101 deaths. As the plane circled the airport a landing light indicating whether the wheels were down wasn’t lit. The plane flew in a circle around the airport while the cockpit crew tried to figure out what was wrong. The question was: had the landing gear fully deployed or was something simply wrong with the indicator?

The flight engineer tried to remove the bulb, but it wouldn’t budge. Another member of the crew tried to help him out and then another. Eventually, all eyes were on the light bulb that refused to come out of its socket. No one noticed that the plane was gradually losing altitude. Before the crew could adequately respond, the plane crashed in the nearby swamp. While an experienced crew messed around with a tiny light bulb, an entire airplane and many of its passengers were lost. — Wikipedia

The crew obviously forgot the most important rule of aviation: “Don’t forget to fly the plane!”

Don’t forget to fly the plane, could be applied under almost any circumstances. As a pastor, it’s tempting for me to focus on the day-to-day issues that constantly demand my attention at our church and lose sight of what a church could and should be. But the next question has to be: “What is flying the plane for the church? What is the main thing we should be doing before anything else? What is critical?”

Some would say that we come to church to be spiritually fed, whether through preaching, music or small groups and that is certainly important. But, is this the main thing? There are mission projects, children and youth activities, ministry programs to watch over. Churches counsel and comfort the struggling and visit the sick. There are bills to pay, buildings to maintain and grass to mow.

Yet somehow, if we’re not careful, our diligent attention to these tasks may cause us to miss our true mission as disciples of Jesus Christ. As the church, we can so easily forget to fly the plane?

Jesus entered Jericho and made his way through town. There was a man named Zacchaeus. He was the chief tax collector and became very rich. But for some reason, Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus as he passed by but was too short to see over the crowd. So, he climbed a nearby tree. – Luke 19:1-4

Zacchaeus was a tax collector, despised by everyone in the community. Jesus would soon be very busy preaching to a large crowd. He needed to get to his destination and be ready but for some unknown reason, Jesus stopped what he was doing and reached out to Zacchaeus among the crowd.

Jesus looked up at Zacchaeus and called him by name. “Zacchaeus!” he said. “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today.” Zacchaeus quickly climbed down and took Jesus to his house in great excitement and joy. But the people were displeased. “He has gone to be the guest of a notorious sinner,” they grumbled. – Luke 19:5-7

Why would Jesus pay attention to any one person within a crowd when he had a job to do elsewhere? And why pay attention to someone like Zacchaeus? The answer is a critical lesson on never forgetting to fly the plane.

Zacchaeus stood before the Lord and said, “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!” Jesus responded, “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.” (Luke 19:8-10)

There is the lesson. There is the main reason for the existence of the church. Zacchaeus is making the life-transforming decision to dedicate his life to serving God. He is confessing his shortcomings, attempting to heal those he harmed and committing to a radically different future. And just in case you missed it, Luke reminds us: “For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.”

A highly trained crew who should know better tried to fix a light bulb and forgot to fly the plane. Pastors, churches and denominations who should know better get caught up fixing light bulbs when all around them are people who desperately need the life-saving grace offered by Jesus Christ.

Rev. Sam Shoemaker was addressing a group of recovering alcoholics: “Everyone in this world is some kind of weakling. If they think they are not, then pride is their weakness, and it is the greatest weakness of all. The basis for Christian fellowship is found not in our human goodness but in our common need for forgiveness and healing. The church has always been a scratch company of sinners. It is not the best people in the community gathered together for self-congratulation; it is the people who know they have a great need, gathered to find its answer in worship toward and fellowship with on another. The church is not a museum; it is a hospital.”

The church is not a museum where we stand around and admire the exhibits. We are a hospital, a moving, flying hospital at that. So, whatever you do, whoever you are, don’t forget to fly the plane!