Can you remember where you were on 9/11, when those two aircraft hit the World Trade Centre in New York? I happened to be seeing a patient on the ITU at Fazakerley hospital when those unbelievable, unforgettable images suddenly appeared on the TV set in the ward office. They are certainly burnt on everyone’s memory. But I also remember, later on, the recordings of those on the aircraft, and in the twin towers, who used their mobile phones to say good bye to those they loved. Even in the numbing, nauseating grip of fear, seconds before they died, they somehow found the strength to do what they valued most – to express their love to those who were dear to them. What an extraordinary triumph of the human spirit that was!
Just over two years ago there was another plane crash in New York, which on this occasion had a miraculous outcome. Three minutes after take off from LaGuardia airport, US Airways flight 1549 sustained what they call a ‘bird strike’ from a group of Canada geese flying at high altitude. Both the aircraft’s engines were instantly knocked out of action. Without power, and without anywhere to land, the plane, its passengers and the people in its flight path seemed doomed. But only three short minutes later the pilot, by an incredible act of heroism and skill, managed to ditch the aircraft safely on the Hudson river. Not a single soul was lost. Nothing like it had ever occurred in the whole of aviation history. To me, that was an event of biblical significance, not so very different from the crossing of the Red Sea.
We know that during the Hudson river incident the passengers felt the need, as was the case on 9/11, to say goodbye to their families and partners, to speak to them for the last time. And because everyone survived, they have been able to tell us what passed through their minds during those agonising three minutes. They have spoken about seeing the whole of their lives all at once, but from a totally different perspective. What had previously seemed to be so important now appeared meaningless and trivial. Even the image of themselves and of their personalities was changed so that each saw themselves not as a mere individual but as someone who loved, and was loved. And later, after the trauma of their experience had gradually receded, came the questions. Who am I, exactly? Where might I have gone wrong in the past? What should I be doing with my life? Several of the survivors decided on taking a completely new direction: a change of job, the adoption of a child.
I said just now that I thought the incident had biblical significance. It’s not too difficult to attach religious or biblical words to the passengers’ experience: words like loving-kindness, judgement, repentance, deliverance. But it is perhaps in the bible readings this morning that we get the best clues to understanding the significance of events like these. The prophet Zephaniah was writing in the seventh century BC, shortly before one of the greatest crashes, one of the greatest disasters, which overwhelmed the Jewish people in ancient times: their capture and exile in Babylon. This disaster concentrated the minds and souls of the Israelites just as much as any modern day mid-air crisis, and the response that Zephaniah recommends is the same, it is one of humility and integrity. Humility: the gift of looking at ourselves afresh, seeing ourselves as God sees us, seeing ourselves as a child, stripped of pretences and play-acting and dependent upon Him and upon those who love us. And integrity: the gift of single-mindedness, the gift of knowing that what defines us as human beings is not our ambitions, or our life-style, or our so-called ‘choices’, but the ways in which we have been loved, are loved, and give love.
What happened to the passengers on flight 1549, and to the Israelites in the time of Zephaniah, was that they were ‘turned inside out’, so that their whole being could be renewed. But as Christians following our Lord, and with all the benefits of His teachings, and the life and worship of the church, we shouldn’t need the threat of death or disaster to make us seek humility and integrity. They should be as familiar to us, and sit as comfortably on us, as the clothes we put on each morning. They are as much the Christian badge as the cross itself, and of what does that speak except of humility and integrity? St. Paul saw the Cross as the only thing that a Christian could really boast about. Writing to the young church in Corinth, St. Paul repeatedly urged them to seek humility as a way out of the bickering and petty power struggles that had overtaken them.
When poised between life and death, the human spirit seems to be given a clear vision of the things that bring real happiness. And aren’t we, those of us here on earth, always poised between life and death? Put another way, when we understand our total dependence on God and on our fellow creatures, then at long last we grasp who we really are, how our life is bound and contained in love, and what true happiness really means. What God has on offer is not the sort of shallow happiness measured by the opinion polls, not the sort of counterfeit happiness that can be bought for cash, like a new car or a glitzy holiday. The happiness that God offers is deep down shalom; wholeness, peace and reconciliation for all humanity and for all the world. As Our Lord himself tells us ‘Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Happy are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’.
As passengers on the flight of life we can never be sure of how long our journey will last, or even of how we will leave the aircraft. But most of us still have time to pray, in mid-flight, for those precious gifts of humility and integrity that bring true happiness to our world. Happy are the poor in spirit, happy are the pure in heart. Happy indeed.