This is my sermon from last Sunday at Redemption Church. If you are pastor, feel free to copy and steal everything.
You guys remember this? This is January, 2009; US Air Flight 1549 out of LaGuardia headed for Charlotte. A normal day, weather was fine, crew was experienced, but about 90 seconds into the flight they ran into an enormous flock of Canada Geese. Airports do all kinds of things to try & keep birds out of the flight path, because one goose striking a jet engine can be devastating. So a whole flock peppering the airplane? They never had a chance. The smell of burned birds filled cockpit w/in seconds of the strike. It was like Thanksgiving dinner gone awry. The plane immediately lost thrust—they had lost both engines.
The captain was a guy named Chesley Sullenberger III (btw… if you name your kid Chesley, you better have last name like Sullenberger… a built-in nickname (thank heavens). He was an ex-Air Force fighter pilot who had been flying commercial airliners for 30 yrs. Everyone on board could feel & hear the impact. Passengers saw the engines on fire out their windows. They immediately stopped climbing (you know the feeling when you start your descent on a flight… like top of a roller coaster?) Sullenberger knew instantly had to make an emergency landing.
At the time they were 8.5 miles out, heading north at just under 3000 ft., right over the Bronx (one of most densely populated areas in country). The captain requested an emergency landing at LaGuardia, and the airport cleared his return & started moving planes out of the way.
At that point Sullenburger had a choice to make. Normal procedure is for the 1st officer to fly the plane, & the captain to manage the situation. His 1st officer was a long time pilot (23 years of exp), but he was new to the A320; this was his first real flight after training. He also knew that since the 1st officer had just been thru training & had been drilled on emergency procedures & checklists. It could be helpful for him to analyze & evaluate. So Sully’s first decision was that HE would fly the plane & keep the co-pilot trying to restart the engines.
Sully turned the plane around which brought them right over the Hudson River heading South (LaGuardia on other side of Manhattan). He was assessing airspeed, altitude, distance how fast they were falling & quickly realized they wouldn’t get back to LaGuardia. He asked the tower, “What’s to my right? Tetterboro airport?” They clear him to land, but he knew it was too far to risk it. There was the Jersey Turnpike… too dangerous to everyone. (Keep in mind this was happening in a matter of 15-20 secs). The tower asks him if he going to Teterboro, and he give a laconic, and now famous reply, “We’re gonna be in the Hudson.”
Now, landing a fully loaded Airbus A320 on water is, you know, not normal. It’s one of those extremely complex situations in which have to do a lot of little things right, and you can’t make any mistakes. Plus you have to do it quickly, so there’s no time to think or consult your checklists. This is just a partial list of what they had to do.
- Assess the situation & make a plan of action (ditch in Hudson).
- Disengage autopilot and take control of the plane.
- Override the flight management system so plane won’t fight them.
- Call Tower, declare emergency.
- Get permissions: to turn around, land at LaGuardia, Teterboro.
- Turn the engine ignition on (if any chance=relight automatically)
- Start the auxiliary power unit, when lose engines, lose power.
- Get their airspeed back up.
There’s only one way to increase your airspeed w/out your engines. You have to dive. It order to fly, you need speed. They were in a climb when they hit the birds so the nose was up. So he had to gently push the nose down & go into a shallow dive to keep up their speed. The problem was, planes don’t land nose down. They land with engines thrusting, nose up, which lets them land at a slower speed. Without their engines, the only way to maintain airspeed was to keep the nose down as long as possible. So their descent was lightening fast… and after all that, he had to land the plane.
If you land nose down the plane will tumble; nose up too much and you lose airspeed & drop like a rock; nose up too much and the rear could hit hard, forcing the nose down too quickly… all those are bad options. Remember, he’s doing all this by sight & feel (instruments don’t work right) and w/no thrust! It’s basically uncharted territory: to this day he’s one of the only men on planet whose ever glided a jetliner w/no engine (only one to ditch w/no fatalities).
So, he put them in a shallow dive to pick up speed. Glided over the Hudson (avoiding the GW Bridge). He picked a spot on the river to land & brought it down fast. Now, he had to land with the wings perfectly level, the nose slightly up. But keeping enough speed that he could still fly the plane… not so much speed it would break apart on impact… all of those things simultaneously w/out his instruments or engines… Here’s a clip of the landing:
So they come to stop, but nobody’s safe yet & the plane is sinking. In seconds the water was chest high in the back of the plane. The crew hustles everyone onto the wings, or into life rafts. When everyone else was off, Sully walked up & down the aisle twice checking for anyone left behind before leaving himself. Then to top it all off, he gave his jacket to a passenger who was wet & cold (it was 20˚ that day). No word on if he lit up a cigarette, and had himself a quick Dos Equis… “Stay thirsty Manhattan!” but he’s definitely most interesting man in the world.
It’s been called “miracle on the Hudson.” Which is not a bad name for it. Except for the fact that Sullenberger had spent thousands of hours training to be able to do something like this. It’s only because he trained so hard for so long he pulled it off.
We are in the season of the church calendar known as “Ordinary Time.” Which sound dull and boring. And that’s too bad because ordinary time is where we do some important work, especially in the area of discipleship. Last week we talked about how the heart of discipleship is the intentional formation of our character over time. Dallas Willard’s definition goes like this. Disciples are with Jesus learning to be like Jesus so that we react to our world the way Jesus would react if he were in our shoes.
And the process of discipleship is all about ordinary time: day-to-day ways of being, relating, knowing, & doing that shape our character over time, so that our lives take on the look of his life; our lives begin to do (in part) what his life did. This is discipleship. This is what Jesus called us to.
Sully Sullenberger is an example of what it means to be a disciple & it took an incredible amount of effort. He wasn’t just lucky. He was well trained. Ever heard of Gary Player (great PGA player). He was in Texas once, practicing shots out of a bunker. A brash Texan with a big hat stopped to watch: Player hit 1st shot in the hole and the Texan said, “I’ll give you $100 if you can do that again.” He did it again. The guy said… “Double or nothing.” Player sank in again—three in a row. As the man paid him he said, “you are the luckiest man I’ve ever seen!”
Player shot back, “I find the harder I practice, luckier I get.”
Sullenberger was 5 yrs old when he decided to be a pilot. He got his pilot’s license during high school. He went to the Air Force academy and trained as a pilot. He went into active duty and trained as a fighter pilot & flight instructor. He trained as a commercial pilot including yearly training for 30yrs. He was a disciple of flying. 45 years of discipline & devotion that trained his mind & body to do things that don’t come naturally; drilling over & over on mundane tasks that formed his character; instilling things like: courage, judgment, self-control, concentration. Days & days in a flight simulator crashing wounded airplanes; then landing every once in awhile; then landing them consistently; rehearsing over & over for a disaster that, odds are, would never come, and yet he practiced for them anyway.
After all that training as a kid, in the Air Force & commercial flying guess how many times he had practiced ditching in water before he did it one time for real. Never. Not one time. He had never done it before. It was such a remote possibility, that nobody even trained on it.
And yet, when he ditched in the Hudson, it was picture perfect: His character was so perfectly formed by years of training that, even though he had never practiced that exact situation, he could do it. That’s discipleship.
Our text for today comes from Mt. 10:24-33. And Jesus has been training his disciples. They’ve been w/him 24/7 learning to be like him; he’s about to send them out in pairs to preach & heal.
24“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! 26“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
This text is part of this long speech Jesus gives to his disciples before he sends them out. So this is an important moment. And when you’re trying to get your point across there are many different approaches you can take. In newspaper business they have a saying, “Never bury the lead.” It means put the most important sentence up front. Don’t bury it in the middle of the story. In fiction or screenwriting, you make your point at the end of the story, that way people read or watch till the end. Matthew often presents Jesus’s speeches in a form called chiastic structure, which is built like a pyramid w/the central idea right in the middle. Today’s text is the middle section… the heart of the message. (Here’s a look @ the structure)
A. Sharing the Authority of Christ & his Reception (1-15)
B. The Fate of the Disciples (16-23)
C. Call to Courageous Confession (24-33) – OUR TEXT
B´ The Cost of Discipleship (34-39)
A´ Sharing the Presence of Christ & his Reception (40-42)
The main point is this call to courageous confession; but on either side of that call are these ominous predictions about the cost of discipleship…people will scorn you, you’re like sheep among wolves, you’ll be flogged & arrested, you’ll have family feuds & a big fight w/in Israel. And yet floating in a sea of ominous warnings, is this line: “Do not be afraid.” What an interesting thing to say in that context.
He starts off saying, basically, “A disciple is not above the teacher, so don’t expect that you’ll get off easy if I don’t. I mean, if they call ME a son of the devil, think what they’ll call YOU.” So persecution is coming from somewhere… Rome… Jewish leaders.
Then Jesus says: 26“…have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” He’s actually quoting an old Jewish saying… like a proverb about people who live together in a small town or village; a tight knit community where people stay for generations. The saying meant that nobody keeps a secret for long in those places. So if somebody was putting on an act for the village, they’d say, “nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered… nothing secret that will not become known.” It just means we all know what’s really going on. Jesus is drawing discipleship back to the issue of character. What lives at the heart of a person will come out in community.
I mentioned last week, one of the ways I think about this is: our character, (what lives @heart of our life) reaches up & writes its name on forehead. And everyone we come in contact with can see it. That’s what Jesus is referencing here: “Nothing is covered up that won’t be uncovered; nothing secret that will not become known.” So even if his disciples are smeared & slandered, the truth of their lives will come out… So they have to just trust that the people around them are wise enough to see it.
This is really hard to do when someone’s trashing you behind your back, no? It’s hard to not fire back, & trust that others can see through it, trusting they’ll see you’re trying to live honestly, and you have nothing to hide. Jesus wants his disciples to live a transparent life because that is the only way people will ever trust them & listen to their message. This transparency has to come from your character—you can’t fake it.
Part of why this point mattered so much to Jesus here is that he’s sending them out to tell people that God’s Kingdom has come to them. That’s the content of the message. And in God’s kingdom people can be themselves. You don’t have to put on an act, or pretend you got it all together. In God’s kingdom you can tell the truth about your own life. And the common life of his disciples is meant to be a foretaste of that kingdom… among all of us, we live this way now, as a sign. Jesus’s followers need to live a transparent life, an authentic life.
Challenging, right? In order to make a courageous confession, we must live a life of transparent honesty so those around us can see our character & catch a glimpse of what life is supposed to be like. This is our chief form of witness. I always say the greatest proof for the veracity of the gospel is a transformed life. Your character is your truest witness: because “everything that is covered will be uncovered; nothing is secret… not become known.”
This is one of the reasons we make confession a part of our worship service; to confess our imperfection gives our witness credibility. That way nobody get the wrong idea about Redemption Church. We are ragamuffins. Jesus seems to think this will help our witness to the wider world. And somehow this is connected to our ability to live w/out fear.
Once when I was in 3rd grade, I got an F on a math test. I’d never gotten a bad grade & was so upset I hid it from my parents (which I never did). I was just sure I was gonna flunk math… After school I wouldn’t play w/friends, wouldn’t eat my dinner. After bath we went to bed & I just laid awake… I couldn’t sleep. Finally I got up & took the paper to my mom – I was inconsolable. She had to call my teacher at home, have her talk me down. But after it was all over, mom tucked me back in bed & I slept like a baby that night.
It’s a silly story, but it demonstrates the power of living authentically. When you don’t have anything to hide, you can live without fear. (Not, btw, “when you’re perfect in every way you can live w/out fear.”) So disciples who live transparent lives anticipate the KOG, just by living transparently, and they embody the kind of peace & authenticity that drives away fear.
So Jesus says, 28“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Gehenna)” Don’t fear those who can kill the body but not soul. Do fear the one who can soul & body? Who is this? The NRSV says “fear him who can destroy both soul and body.” The NIV says “be afraid of the One who can destroy both…” And the “one” is capitalized. They do this because the NIV editors think this is referring to God; God’s the one who can destroy to soul & the body. In the NRSV it’s not capitalized, they don’t think this is about God. They seem to have in mind either the devil or maybe Rome.
So how do we read this? It’s important to remember that Christ is sending his disciples out 2 by 2. And they are told to go only to the “lost sheep of Israel.” Their task is to tell them “the kingdom of God is at hand.” (v.7) And he’s warning them that if they do these things they’ll surely face persecution. When they do, they will naturally start to feel afraid. So, Jesus says, “don’t be afraid of those who can kill the body, but not the soul. Be afraid of the one who can kill both body & soul.” Our task, then, is to decide who we think it is talking about.
I think we have three decent options. First, it means fear God… not fear God as though God is waiting to pounce on you, but fear as a kind of respect for God’s power. Fear in terms of reverent awe.
Second, it could mean they should fear the Romans. Jewish leaders could only whip or scourge in their courts. They could only hurt the “body” the soma. The Romans could kill you—kill the “soul” the psuche. (your living essence). This is a good possibility, especially since Jesus’s commission is, “only go to the lost sheep of Israel, not to the Gentiles.” He could’ve just meant, “don’t be too afraid of the Jewish leaders. They can only mess w/your body. But the Romans can mess with your body & kill you, take away your living essence, your psuche, and throw your body on the heap of Gehenna.” – you should be more afraid of the Romans who can.
Third, he could’ve meant: fear the devil: The devil is the Hebraic personification of the powers of evil at work in the world. The devil can entice you to live in such a way that will destroy your soul. This is particularly interesting given that the devil’s primary mode of accomplishing this is to get you to live an inauthentic life—something Jesus has just encouraged them to do.
I think it could be any of them, but I lean toward believing he means either Rome or the devil (Gehenna is the giveaway for me—this is the realm of the devil, this is the ruins of life). But I’m not sure what the right reading is…
I don’t think the NIV has it right, though. I don’t think Jesus is talking about his heavenly Father, because in the very next verse he says, “29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
It’s a tender response about a compassionate and loving God. Jesus says, “Look, sparrows are the cheapest animal you can buy—two for a penny. And yet God is numbering even the sparrow’s days. You think God doesn’t have you? He has you down to the hairs on your head. So do not be afraid. You are of more value than many sparrows.”
What a fascinating passage this is. He’s sending them out to be witnesses, among folks who’ll be hostile to their message; to bear witness to the in-breaking kingdom of God through their presence & love; being transparent and honest in everything they do. And even though they’ll be persecuted for it, Jesus says: “do not be afraid.”
If you & I become disciples, we will get the same speech. Everything in our lives will begin to change; becoming more authentic and transparent: How we relate to God, other people, ourselves, and even the world around us. How we engage money, sex, and power. How we treat marginalized people. Everything’s going to change & not everybody will like it. We can expect some kind of persecution.
Most persecution comes in the form of subtle resistance, & it almost always comes from the people closest to us. It looks more like subtle pressure from your parents… your in-laws… even your kids.
When your life changes—and when those changes run counter to the cultural norms—this disrupts many of our relationships. Often the people closest to you will become your biggest critics. Which is exactly what happened w/the first disciples. It was their Jewish brothers & sisters who really went after them. Jesus says, “You can’t be afraid of them, because the fear will entice you to act in ways that ruin your witness. In fear you will no longer image the kingdom of God, and you will cease to be true to who you are as my disciples.”
I have to confess this is a temptation for me sometimes, just to downplay the Jesus stuff in public or w/my family. It can be hard as a pastor. Every time I meet someone I know they’re going to ask, “What do you do for a living?” When I say, “I’m a pastor,” it changes the way people act. I’d rather say I’m a writer or a musician. I’m tempted to do the same thing around some family members and friends. I know their critiques. I sense the skepticism, & the subtle disapproval… the lack of embrace. Do you ever get that from people in your family? There’s actually a name for it. It’s called a “null” critique… they don’t really say anything, they just don’t encourage or embrace your commitments. This reaction that is intended to cause anxiety & fear. They are trying to get you to change your behavior. It’s a subtle form of persecution. They refuse to see you; refuse to recognize your witness.
This is the reality to which Jesus is pointing. We can’t let the fear of persecution change the way we act; keep us from being transparent. This choice will often face us. We’ll be tempted to downplay our discipleship in some situations, for fear of facing disapproval, or just to fit in. But at that point we are not being authentic – not living a true life. And people can tell. It says:
32“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.” Literally the word for “acknowledge” is “shall be confessing,” and it is a holistic thing—our whole lives confessing. Our whole lives bending to God’s life. Only then can we live without fear, because we know that Jesus’s life bends toward ours as well.
So Jesus sends them out to preach & teach & heal & serve, and amazing things happened. But, as we read this story, we know this kind of discipleship…this transparency & powerful witness doesn’t happen without intentionality; without a kind of devotion and desire to pursue Jesus; without a day to day commitment to certain habits & practices. You don’t become a disciple by osmosis. It just doesn’t happen without a deep desire & commitment.
Sully Sullenberger had a great desire; he wanted to fly planes & be good at it. So he devoted his life to it & his devotion saved 155 lives 1 day. Gary Player had a great desire; he wanted to be a great golfer. So he arranged his life around the game of golf… the more he practiced the luckier he got.
And the sad reality is that it’s rare in our society to find someone who is willing to follow Christ with that kind of passion & devotion.
Discipleship doesn’t happen automatically, it takes devotion. And there’s so much riding on it. This is the difference between being full of it, & being real—a thousand tiny choices we make every single day. This is the difference between being authentic & inauthentic—an intentional way of living extends to every corner & closet of life. This is the difference between the way that leads to life and the way that leads to death—to embrace modes of being, posture, practices that will form our character to be like the character of Christ.
To claim to be a disciple of Jesus when my life doesn’t look transparent, or my life doesn’t require any courage, or doesn’t look any different from my neighbors… to claim to be a disciple if we never spend time in prayer or the scriptures, never serve the least of these… to claim to be a disciples if we hold grudges, and are critical, and play around w/persistent anger & bitterness, or chase money & affluence… or whatever it is for you or me. To be devoted to those things is a kind of discipleship, but it’s the kind that can destroy both your body & your soul.
I’m not saying you aren’t a Christian if you struggle w/this. I’m a pastor & I struggle with this. But this speech Jesus gives is about discipleship. And our day in, day out decisions, the patterns of how we spend our days, this is the difference between being authentic & inauthentic.
It’s also about shat happens when we lose thrust in the engines of OUR lives. This is the difference between being able to land the plane or a deadly crash. And there’s no way to fake it. And trust me: everybody loses their engines at some point. I have a dentist friend & when people say they don’t like going to the dentist he says, “see me now or see me later.” That’s kind of how this works. You want to do this work of discipleship that forms your character before the engines come off or after? I promise you it’s way easier to do it on the front end! One thing we know for sure is that sooner or later your engines will fail. And what then? What will you have trained for in your life? What habits will you fall back on? How will your character have been formed over time?
My prayer is that our church will be persistent in our discipleship: that we’ll continue to pursue transparency and honesty in our lives, and that we’ll be there for one another when our engines fail.