On January 15, 2009, the plane took off at 3:25 p.m. into clear skies from LaGuardia en route to Charlotte. By 3:27 the plane had risen to 3,200 feet—that’s not very high—and was over a densely populated area of the Bronx when a flock of Canada geese flew headlong into its nosecone. In a split second the windscreen turned dark brown, and both engines sucked in birds. Passengers heard very loud bangs, and exhaust was seen streaming from the engines. Thirty-six seconds later, the captain radioed back to LaGuardia that both engines had failed. He was returning to the airport. But seconds after that, the captain assessed that he had neither the altitude nor the time to make it. “We can’t do it,” he calmly reported, “We’re gonna be in the Hudson.”
The time between collision with the birds and impact with the water was less than three minutes. In that span, the captain accomplished all of the following: Within three seconds of the bird strike, he took control of the airplane from his co-pilot. He considered returning to LaGuardia; identified and ruled out Teterboro, New Jersey, as an alternative airport at which to land; evaluated the pros and cons of landing on the New Jersey Turnpike; decided to land on the Hudson River; and positioned the wings and nose just precisely so, so that the large jet was neither somersaulted end-over-end nor sucked under the current upon impact.
At the same time all of this macro-level deliberation was going on, the captain also had to shut down the engines, set the right speed so that the plane could glide as long as possible, override the autopilot and flight management system, and make a sharp left-hand turn so the plane could land with the flow of the river rather than against it. He did this using only the battery-operated systems and emergency generator, and remember all of this—from the impact with the geese to splashdown—occurred in approximately the amount of time I’ve been preaching this sermon.
As soon as the plane touched down on the river the evacuation began, and the captain walked the aisle repeatedly making sure that all passengers were safely off the airplane before he himself disembarked. All 155 people on board escaped with only a few minor injuries.
The successful landing of USAir Flight 1549 has been called a miracle. I’m sure the passengers on that plane felt that it was so. How else can we explain Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s amazing accomplishment?
For an animated reenactment of the flight, click this video:
“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it would obey you.’”
Jesus’ admonition must be a shock to the apostles. The nature of their request—increase our faith—reveals that they believe themselves already to be faithful disciples. It’s not faith they need; it’s more of it. But Jesus responds that they have not faith even the size of a tiny mustard seed. If they did, they could accomplish miracles. They could, as Matthew and Mark tell this same story, move mountains. Whatever it is the apostles possess, on its own it isn’t faith.
And what do they possess? They surely have religious fervor. They call upon Jesus whenever they are weak or afraid. Each of these things is important in their—and our—relationship with God. We might even say that each of these things is component of faith.
Yet, the remainder of our Gospel passage this morning breaks the concept of faith wide-open. Jesus goes on to talk about a servant who does his master’s work fully and without hesitation before that servant tends to his own needs. In other words, faith looks to God first, and the faithful person is one whose passion is to do God’s work first. Faith is not merely proclaiming Jesus and not merely looking to him for personal solace and strength. Faith is living for him first in all that we do. It is that which the disciples fail to grasp.
Referring to moving mountains, Alan Culpepper says the point is “that faith enables God to work in a person’s life in ways that defy ordinary human experience.”[i] And that faith is displayed when we put the work of God first, before our own ambitions, before our own desires, and even before our own needs. But that’s a big change. How can we begin?
When one reads more about Captain Sullenberger, one discovers some interesting things. It turns out that Sully was obsessive about logging hours in the flight simulator, putting in far more time than required. He once served on an NTSB investigative board that developed new emergency evacuation procedures for aircraft. And crucially, he was trained—unlike the vast majority of commercial pilots—to fly gliders. In other words, Captain Sullenberger had prepared himself for over thirty years for that six minute flight on January 15, 2009.
Nothing Sully did that morning came naturally. By nature, he—like anyone—would have crashed that Airbus into the Bronx. But through dedication and attention over years, Sully developed a second nature, one that kicked-in so that he didn’t panic, he didn’t freeze, he didn’t even have to pause and check the emergency manual.[ii] He landed that plane like a pillow on a swiftly moving river. I’d say that’s akin to moving mountains. When asked on the television show “CBS This Morning” if he had confidence that January afternoon, Sully responded, “I just knew it was possible.”
Landing a plane in horrific circumstances; saving 155 lives without thought of one’s own; doing what for others would be impossible. How did Sully know it was possible? He had been formed, through discipline, in faith.
We’re in the second week of our Every Member Canvass at Christ Church, and both the stories of Sully Sullenberger and Jesus’ apostles are apt. Why should we exercise the faithful practice of pledging our financial resources to the church? Precisely because it does not come naturally! Taking the first five, seven, or ten percent of our paychecks and giving it back to God feels no more natural than landing a plane on the Hudson. And yet, it is a crucial step in developing our second nature, the one by which we are remade into faithful people.
Are we like the apostles? What do we think faith is? Is it an IOU from God for some future reward? Is it fortitude to get through life’s difficult circumstances? In part, yes. But remember Jesus’ words today: Primarily faith is the passion to put God’s work first in our lives. It is the recognition that we are blessed for a purpose: so that we may be a blessing.
We are challenged—as Jesus challenges the apostles—to see ourselves as God’s servants before all other things, including our ambition, our desires, and even our needs. That’s an uncomfortable exercise for 21st Century Americans! The first step in this new understanding is to take on practices and exercises that begin to form our second nature. Sully got in the flight simulator and trained to fly gliders. We must do those things that remind us what we are made for, disciplines that include carving out time for prayer, worship, service to others with our own hands and sweat, and the study of God’s word.
But because we are all—let’s be honest—so defined by our money, the first of these disciplines is to give away to God the first portion of the material things with which we are blessed. Financial stewardship of the church is not just paying our dues or paying fee for service; it is a spiritual practice. And when your pledges and mine are combined for the remarkable work of this Cathedral, we can begin to move mountains.
This is the month to begin. I have faith that we will each give back to God faithfully, and that through the work of this place we will witness miracles.
[i] New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX, pg. 322.
[ii] This idea and the example of Captain Sullenberger are drawn from N.T. Wright’s book After You Believe.