PostHeaderIcon Two Planes, One Choice


Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Epiphany United Church of Christ
Pastor Frank Rodgers
June 27, 2010


“Two Planes, One Choice”

The car is comfortable,
But people warm in the headlights
carrying kettles and babies. 
It’s his birthday.

Sometimes the road shakes.  Buildings drop to rubble,
and dust dulls the hood of the Mercedes. 
Which birthday?  He tries to count. 

The dead lie beside the road, looking surprised.
He sings a phrase, forgets to sing,
curls against cool leather.
The car follows whichever roads
aren’t blocked with debris.
This must be someone else’s movie.
He takes another valium.

Among the buildings flames stand up,
and then gray light connects them.
He sees small fires fall into line:  an airfield.
When he leaves the car,
heat and Spanish assault him,
and smoke, and people coughing. 
He knows the set:  “Hell’s Angels,” his crews running
and stunt pilots carried away on covered stretchers.
He walks slowly, but no one recognizes him.
Which birthday?  He will ask.

Nothing is more elegant than
the empty white jet touching down.
It will bring him codeine and the sky,
which is never busy.
He will ask someone how old he is,
and the answer will come
quietly on a piece of paper.
People die in movies. 
He will sleep and wake up in a different country.



So goes the poem by Pamela Alexander entitled, “Howard Hughes Leaves Managua:  Peacetime, 1972.”  She compellingly describes what it must have been like as Howard Hughes fled Managua after an earthquake that left 90% of the capital of Nicaragua completely destroyed.  Hughes, one of the world’s richest men at the time had an estimated worth well over 1.3 billion dollars.  Hughes had become famous as an aviator, engineer, industrialist, film producer and director, entrepreneur, and philanthropist.  He was living in the Intercontinental Hotel near Lake Managua in Nicaragua, seeking privacy and security, when the 6.5 magnitude earthquake damaged Managua in December of 1972 responsible for killing 25,000 people.  He stays at the country palace of dictator Anastas Somoza before fleeing to Florida the next day.
At the same time that the plane carrying Howard Hughes was leaving Managua, another plane filled with relief supplies was flying into the devastated nation’s capital.  On board was another famous person, all-star outfielder of the Pittsburgh Pirates Roberto Clemente.  Born in Carolina, Puerto Rico as the youngest of seven siblings.  His father, Melchor, earned a modest income a a foreman at the local sugar plot.  To supplement his meager earnings, Roberto worked from a young age in odd jobs in his neighborhood.  His parents encouraged him to pursue and education, but from an early age Roberto’s attention was dedicated to baseball.  By age 16 Clemente earned a spot on the Puerto Rican amateur baseball team.  In 1954 the Pittsburge Pirates drafted him and he began a wonderful 17 year career.  After his rookie season he maintained a batting average of at least .300 for thirteen  r of 1972 Clemente had spent nearly a month in Nicaragua managing a team of Puerto Rican amateus all stars.  He had made many friends there before returning to Puerto Rico for the holidays.  Two days before Christmas the world awoke to the news of the fierce earthquake and Roberto immediately began to respond as he had often done in his life.  He appeared on television organizing a relief effort—collecting food, clothing and money to send to his Nicaraguan brothers and sisters.  Tens of thousands of dollars poured in as people of all ages responded to his urgent plea.  All Christmas Day, Clemente labored to box al donations while his own presents went unopened.
Clemente had received urgent requests for food and medicine from his Nicaraguan friends, who told him that the government was commandeering the relief supplies that were arriving in the city.  Clemente was outraged.  He decided to deliver the next shipment personally.  At 5 p.m. on December 31, 1972, he kissed his wife goodbye and boarded the aging DC-7 cargo plane headed for Managua.  Less than one mile off the coast of San Juan the plane crashed into the sea.
One city…one disaster…two planes…two famous and wealthy people…two very different views of what makes for a faithful life.  On the one hand we have an individual who had the means to make a difference, who could have helped so many people and yet chose an alternate path.  In the language of the Apostle Paul, Howard Hughes chose the way of the flesh.  We often jump to the conclusion that when Paul speaks about the “flesh” that he is talking about sexual desires, and while some of that may be present in his list of “desires of the flesh,” and some of those present in Hughes’ life, Paul is talking more all the sins that cause divisiveness and dissension.  He speaks about our actions that are centered in selfishness, our sins that cause us to lose sight of what it means to live in community and to care for one another.
On the other hand we have an individual who had the means to make a difference, who knew that he could help many people, and chose to do so.  In the language of the Apostle Paul, Roberto Clemente chose the way of the Spirit.  When Paul speaks about the fruit of the Spirit he speaks about the characteristics found in Christ, things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.  These are the actions that build up community and allow us to fulfill all the law by loving our neighbors as ourselves.  
We often think that that is easy enough:  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  The great cartoonist Charles Schulz summed up what many of us have difficulty with in this Christian path when Linus once said, “I love mankind…it’s people I can’t stand!”  Paul understood that loving our neighbor, especially those who hurt us, is not always easy and that fulfilling such a command is difficult and that sometimes we don’t get it right.  He says it is necessary to crucify the desires of the flesh, perhaps even daily, so that we can be renewed and guided in the way of the Spirit.
What strikes me about Paul’s writing in Galatians is that there is a certain “dailyness” about the command to love your neighbor as yourself.  It is not something you just do and you’re done with it.  Nor is fulfilling that command always spectacular or memorable.
Someone once wrote a letter to a local newspaper that said the following:
“Ministers seem to feel their sermons are very important, so they spend a great deal of time preparing them.  I have been attending church regularly for over 30 years, and I’ve probably heard about 1500 sermons.  The awful truth is that I can’t remember a single one.  I wonder if a minister’s time might be better spent on something else.”

That Sunday, a minister read the letter to his congregation and said he’d be interested in any replies the congregation might wish to send to him.
The following Sunday, the minister reported that he had received many responses, many of them expressions of indignation aimed at the letter writer.  He thanks the church members for the responses but said he was most thankful for one in particular, which he read to the gathering:
“I have been married for 30 years.  During that time, I’ve eaten well over 32,000 meals—mostly my wife’s cooking—but I can’t remember the menu of a single meal.  Of course, I can recall some of my favorite dishes, but not the menus.  And yet, I received nourishment from every single one of them.  I have the distinct impression that without them, I would have starved to death long ago.”

I share that with you not to let you know how important I think sermons are (though it might not surprise you to know that I think they are!).  I share that because I believe that all aspects of being in the community of Christ are important—sermons, music, education, mission and fellowship.  There is a rhythm to being in community, a dailyness that we take on as we become followers of Christ.  And we make the decision to love our neighbor, to resist selfish ambitions and to be guided by the Spirit every day.  Each day we are bombarded by commercials and advertising that often tell us to only be concerned about ourselves.  We are surrounded daily by a culture that continues to preach to us an ethic that says you must make more money, that you should have a bigger house or a more luxurious car, or the latest video game or sports shoes or clothing, or another piece of real estate.  We are constantly taught about upward mobility. 
I’m not saying that it is wrong to be successful or to be educated or to have a good job, or to strive to improve yourself, but we also have to remember that when we believe in Jesus we become followers of one who often taught us a different ethic.  When you remember who Jesus associated himself with, who he helped, what he valued, what path he took, one sees a person not exemplified by upward mobility but rather downward mobility—by a love for his neighbor, especially the poor, the outcast, the alien, the forgotten. 
I was glad that this past Sunday you heard from Rev. Alex Stroie, and I’m sure you heard firsthand about how Epiphany, guided by the Spirit, has positively affected so many Roma or “Gypsy” children in Romania.  We continue to give those forgotten and discriminated against children a greater chance to be what God intends them to be.  It is an example of how we have decided to, for a moment, crucify the desires of the flesh, the concern for ourselves, and think and act for the good of our neighbors, even neighbors in far away countries and people whom we will never meet.
Yesterday at Summerfest we banded together guided by the Spirit to raise funds to continue the ministries of Epiphany.  We hauled tables, set up auctions, donated items, ate pie, got sunburned, put in a little extra money, took time out of a precious Saturday because we’ve made the choice to be guided by the Spirit.  We do all that, not just at Summerfest, but in the daily decisions of our lives because we want to follow the example of Jesus Christ and support ministries that are centered in a concern for our neighbors, that seek to lift up the poor and welcome the outcast and the forgotten.  Daily we crucify our the desires that make us think only of ourselves and take on the new life centered in Christ and life that continues to call us toward downward mobility, toward loving our neighbors as ourselves.   
Few of us will have the means to make a huge difference in the lives of individuals or have to make the decisions that a Howard Hughes or a Roberto Clemente had to make.  But nevertheless the choice is there for us as well—what will we do with our resources today?  Who will we choose to help today?  What positive difference will we make in our community today?  Each day we make the decision whether to take the first plane out of town, or take the plane toward love, toward joy, toward peace, toward patience, toward kindness, toward generosity, toward gentleness, toward self-control.  Thanks for not taking the easy way out, for flying into risk, for recognizing that loving Christ is all about loving your neighbor as yourself.  Amen.

 

 
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