By: David H. May, Rector
Several years ago I found myself buckling myself into my seat as the big commercial jet I was in was taxi-ing out onto the runway at the airport. The man sitting next to me was probably my age, a cheerful healthy looking guy in a sporty blazer and smart tie. A few minutes later as the jet’s engines began to rev to get us turned out onto the runway for take-off, he turned to me and said, ‘well if this thing falls out of the sky, I’m not worried – I am ready for heaven!’ He sat there beaming at me broadly waiting for me to say something. But what he had said, he had said with a kind of kind of exuberance and excitement that left me not sure what to say. So I only sat there with a half-hearted grin til he gave up and turned away.
It was a big jet with two aisles so I had a good view of those sitting nearby. Just across the aisle, a mom I guessed was buckling her three or four year old daughter into her seat and then brushing back her little girl’s bangs from her face and leaning in speaking with her reassuringly. The little girl’s eyes were as large as saucers. Nearby, was an older couple their two hands clasped together and perched on the armrest between them. His head was leaned back, his eyes closed. She stole a glance at him and a smile came across her face. In another seat, a man was scanning an Excel spread sheet on his laptop screen and then scrunching up his face thinking about something with a small little ‘worry-line’ that came creeping across his forehead. What was he thinking of: an especially important presentation on which much was riding professionally and personally? the hope to get home soon and get off the road and see his wife and kids for a few days? Right at hand, two young people – maybe college kids – dressed pretty eccentrically, tapping away at their SmartPhones with one of them saying something to the other in a funny made-up accent. Towards the front, I could see the two flight attendants sharing something funny and then one of them shooshing the other. The one looked momentarily worried that she’d said something wrong til the other placed her hand on the other’s forearm reassuringly.
And next to me was the man – just a man – whose faith was real and heartfelt I am sure smiling broadly, contented he had said by the prospect that if the plane we were on fell out of the sky he would be on his way to heaven. I wondered, didn’t he see those around him, his fellow passengers – the people around us with their lives, their people, their stories, their cares, and their dreams? And if he did, what did he make of them falling from the sky and the terror of that and the shudder of such a violent ending to it all?
We all of us hope to be spared the experience of life going so terribly wrong, like when it feels as if life is falling out from beneath us. Maybe that’s what this man’s faith in the seat next to me gave him, that made the glories and the tragedies, the boredom and the unexpected joys of his life and the uncertainty of what might come next make sense. I wouldn’t begrudge him that. Because what Jesus speaks of from the experience of the cosmos losing their bearings and spiraling wildly out of order, to the nearer horrors of our natural world like the death-dealing destruction of the typhoon in the Philippines, all the way down to the nearer experience of the relationships nearest our own hearts being permanently fractured…all of these things we people know too well. And not just as strange apocalyptic visions. We have known them and somehow survived. And maybe now is a time of relative peace and calm – but gazing down the road a bit we sigh, ‘Lord have mercy,’ for what may come.
Jesus words of calamity piling up on calamity at the end of all things are dramatic, but don’t we all get the ‘existential willies’ from time to time about what is to come just in our own lives? Please, Lord, don’t let the worst happen. Please don’t let the stars of my life fall. Please keep the ground firm beneath me, keep us safe, and keep us from all hurt and harm. Me. The ones I love. The ones I know. And while you’re at it, Lord, even the ones I don’t know. Even strangers. Like the older couple hand in hand or the flight attendant up front. Or the man in the seat next to me that day. Please don’t let the fear of something awful coming steal our present hope that there is deep meaning in the goodness of life itself, the life you give.
As much as we may worry about our own lives and what awaits us and what will become of us and the ones we love, I think these words of Jesus are a call for those who would follow him to keep hope and faith alive for more than just our own sakes. Frankly, I have never been able to understand how a follower of Jesus could think joyfully about the Parousia and how they will be snatched out of the air and whisked away and out of the maelstrom straight into heaven without a word of care for what happens to others, the passengers we travel with.
That lacks charity, I’m confess, but the Church has a higher call to a more life-giving word for the sake of the world God loves. And that is this, the Church, Christ’s own Body in this world lives by the hope of faith that at the end of our days and at the end of all days – even should the stars fall from the heavens and the earth convulse as in childbirth – past the calamity of this present age is the goodness of God. Calamity will pass away. God’s goodness to heal and mend and restore and redeem to glorious life the life he has given is everlasting.
Hear the Prophet Isaiah proclaiming God’s everlasting word of hope:
“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating;…no more shall the sound of weeping be heard…or the cry of distress….The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ok; they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.”
Our call is to live by that hope even now, to keep that alive for the health of our own souls, but especially for the sake of this world and those with whom we are fellow passengers now: the man far from home, the woman wondering if she has – once again – done said something wrong, the child whose fear makes her feel like she is falling, the older couple grateful for another day together, the kids reveling in their conviction that they are different, and the man in the sporty blazer and smart tie looking for someone to encourage his faith. ‘Do not be afraid,’ are the words of the One we follow. That is our witness to give, this is your opportunity to testify in this world, a joyful privilege given by our heavenly Father who was and is and ever shall be the giver of all-goodness. Amen.