4 November 2012
Isaiah 25:6-9, Revelation 21:1-6a, John 11:32-44
Did you notice that in each of today’s readings people are crying—or more literally are in “tears”? When Isaiah tells us that God is preparing a feast for all and will “swallow up death forever,” these events will “wipe away the tears from all faces.” Then in the Book of Revelation God makes all things new “wiping every tear from” from all “eyes.” And then in the gospel Jesus dries Mary’s tears as well as his own by raising Lazarus from the dead.
God, as Isaiah says, will lift “the shroud that is cast over all peoples.” That shroud, of course, is death. As God says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” Once there is no more Time there can be no more death because Eternity is a timeless state. No wonder, then, that there are no more tears! Were God running for political office, he would have made the absolutely perfect speech: No more tears, just one big timelessly happy event filled with good health, “rich food” and “well aged wines.” And one other thing is notable in the readings today. No one is required to be especially well-behaved. Other places in the Scripture, obviously, are concerned with good behavior. But in today’s readings all the good deeds that bring about a wonderful eternity are done by God. We can therefore—today, at least—happily relax.
Just recently I read Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s remarkable book Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters (Harper Collins 2009; paperback Harper 2010). The highlight of it is of course his landing his Airbus, flight 1549, on the Hudson River on 15 January 2009 without a casualty among the 155 souls aboard it. Not a single individual among the passengers and crew was lost.
Now this is not the only thing that happens in the book because we learn how Sullenberger learned to fly, how he did his first solo flight at the age of 16, and how from that time on he prepared himself to know everything he could possibly absorb about flying by studying the significant literature, by serving in the United States Air Force, and by flying commercial aircraft. And while in the USAF he served on its “aircraft accident investigation board” and in his professional life as a commercial airline pilot he was an “investigator of complex arial situations.” There was nothing that this man did not know about the causes of crashes that could humanly be known. And I hasten to add here immediately, so as not to cause alarm, one of the things he learned was that travel by air was the safest mode of travel anywhere in the world. So if, for instance, you are traveling from Chicago to say Shanghai, you are in much greater danger in driving from Madison to O’Hare Airport than your are in flying from there to China.
Of the many interesting and amazing facts that I learned from reading Highest Duty and the one that struck me most was a single word: that passengers on airplanes are not technically called passengers. They are called, as I called them before, souls. When Captain Sullenberger is asked how many people he is carrying on his Airbus, he is asked how many souls are aboard. This distinction allows the crew as well as anyone who is flying free of charge, like a pilot on his way to another station, to be counted. And it also excludes the cello that may be strapped into the seat next to you. If you want to think of Sully as a saint, as many have called him, you can legitimately say that he saved many souls. Or to quote Isaiah, he “wipe[d] away the tears from all faces.”
We will on Tuesday be voting for the individual as President whom we think will do the very same thing for this nation. We will want to think that his goal is that articulated in the subtitle of Sullenberger’s book: “My Search for What Really Matters.” Some of us may even be looking for a world that will give us Isaiah’s “feast of rich food” and “well-aged wines,” which rather appeals to me, I must say. But most of us by voting will, I suspect, be looking to become a political version of Chesley Sullenberger, who did the nearly impossible by not losing a soul in doing his duty.
Our way of finding that kind of candidate is the way Sully found to land his plane. Study the facts, sort what works from what doesn’t work, and act on what you’ve learned. Also consider that as Christians we’d do well to remember what Jesus said (quoted in the Gospel of Matthew 25:34-36) in speaking to those who wanted to inhabit the new world that both Isaiah and John proclaimed to be God’s—to be the Omega:
“Come you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
If we do that, it won’t entitle us to think of ourselves as saints, but it will entitle us to think that we’ve done our best for the souls we care for.