These was my message to the inaugural meeting of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, where over 1700 United Methodists gathered in Chicago on October 7.
In January of 2009, 7 years ago, U.S. Airways flight 1549 took off from New York’s Laguardia airport headed for North Carolina. The passengers settled back in their seats for the takeoff, but they weren’t settled for very long. Three minutes into the flight the plane struck a flock of geese. Passengers looked out the window and saw that one of the engines was on fire. Then both engines shut down and without power the plane quickly began to descend. Suddenly, all those emergency instructions we all ignore when the flight attendants give them were very, very important. What happened next was the news story of the year. Captain Chesley Sullenberger known by his friends and now the world as Sully, made more split second decisions than you and I can even imagine. Realizing he couldn’t make it back to the airport, he called the cabin to brace for impact and then took aim for the Hudson River. He even had the presence of mind to look for an area that was clear but also close to the ferry boats that criss-cross the Hudson, knowing they would need someone to come to their aid quickly. A few moments later, the plane plummeted into the River, and began to sink.
This is the iconic picture that sticks in most of our minds from that amazing day.
The plane, half submerged in icy water (it was January in New York, remember? It was 20 degrees outside) with all 155 passengers and crew standing out across the wings, crowding together as boats raced from all directions toward the sinking plane. On that day, every boat within sight became a rescue boat. The Ferryboats Capt Sully had seen from the air were the first to reach the plane to snatch the stranded passengers from the freezing waters. The passengers, literally saved by grace, were ferried quickly away and taken to dry land. What could have ended very differently ended with everyone safe in their own bed. The news stations called it “The Miracle on the Hudson.” Every single passenger on that flight was saved. Captain Sully was an immediate hero. You know you’ve reached international hero status of epic proportions when they make a movie about you and you are played by Tom Hanks!
As inspiring a story as the miracle on the Hudson is, here’s what I really want to talk to you about today: the miracle that happened after the miracle. Within a couple of months of the accident one of the passengers hosted a reunion at one of their homes for passengers and crew. Now picture how that went:
The doorbell rang. A person answered it and found, standing on the doorstep, someone they may never have spoken to, may never have even made eye contact with before, but they were on the same flight that went down in that river, their lives miraculously spared and instantly they had an incredible bond. People who had never spoken a word to one another embraced and wept as soon as they were introduced. They said they felt as close as family because of what they had been through together. They agreed that no one in the world could quite understand what they had been through except the other people on that flight that day. Soon these get-togethers became a monthly practice. I love what they called their reunions: “celebrations of life.” They also began to call one another by their seat-numbers. As in: Nice to see you again 22C! This term of endearment served to remind them of their connection and the miracle they experienced together.
One young man, Ben Bostic, was 20A. Before the flight, he had spotted a beautiful young woman in the airport with sandy brown hair grabbing a bite to eat. It seemed miraculous that she ended up on his plane – but he couldn’t find the courage to talk to her or ask her out, which he really wanted to do. He noticed her again as they all scrambled onto the wings after the crash, he remembers checking to make sure she was OK – but never said a word. Finally, 6 months later, at a celebration of life gathering – he got up the nerve to approach 17D, whose name was actually Laura. They have been inseparable ever since. Here’s a detail I love – the couple now flies around the world together. When asked if they’re afraid of flying, they said that experiencing a miracle made them want to get as much out of life as possible. Another couple, Karin Rooney and her boyfriend had been on the flight together. They had been struggling with their relationship, and were about to break up, but Karen said “when the plane crashed, I just knew on that wing he was the one I wanted to be with.” They married shortly after the crash and have a daughter named Elena. There are other miracle babies born after that day who would never have been born if things had gone differently. One baby was born three years to the day after the event to two parents who had been on the plane was named (appropriately) Hudson. As the survivors continue to gather for reunions, they say they always pass the babies around, and that Captain Sully always wants to hold each of them. “These children are special”, Sully says, “it’s just another great reminder of how much good happened that day.” Every gathering they hold is a miracle after the miracle; it’s a reunion of the rescued.
When you told people you were coming to Chicago for some strange new thing called the WCA, it’s likely that you were asked questions. What are we doing here in Chicago? What is the purpose of the WCA? Why, in a quadrennial year when Methodists have met ad nauseum in annual, jurisdictional and general conferences –Why in the world would anyone choose to have another meeting? If you need an answer to these questions when you go back home tomorrow it’s simply this: This is a reunion of the rescued. We are meeting together because – together we were saved, together we find hope in our shared faith, and so together we stand. While you may never have laid eyes on most of the people in this room before today, we know the deepest thing we have in common is this: when we were sinking deep in sin, Christ reached us and Christ redeemed us. We meet not just to find a way forward, but to remember how we found the Way, the Truth and the Life in the first place and to remember that to fully know life is not just to be rescued from something, but to be rescued for something. To become the rescued and transformed means to be those intent on the rescue and transformation of others.
It’s no secret that United Methodism suffers from a perennial identity crisis. We have to remind ourselves from time to time who we are. If you want to know who we are you don’t just look back at the merger that occurred in the 1960’s. You don’t just look back to the circuit riders or Asbury and Coke. You don’t even just look back to Aldersgate and Wesley’s heart strangely warmed. If you want to know why we’re here, you have to go back to the cross – it’s our miracle moment. There can be no unity among United Methodists without the unity of the cross.
There’s another reason we are here, it’s because many of us feel that the church we love has been in a free fall of sorts, declining in influence, power and purpose. While we have looked for a steady and decisive hand to provide a safe landing. What we have witnessed is indecision, fear and dysfunction from many who should be providing leadership. We have wanted someone or some group to say it’s not too late. The people called Methodist may have a rough landing ahead of them. But we can still make decisions and we can still take actions that will save this great gift of Wesleyan orthodoxy and that will keep safe those who are in our care, and will stir to action those looking for leadership.
We are here because we need our own miracle and I believe that’s what is happening here. Leaders have stepped up and said, the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the church of God matter too much to do nothing but wait and hope and see what happens. We must act. We are here to say regardless of what the future may bring, we will stand together. We are brothers and sisters; we are family; and we will never forget or walk away from each other. That’s why we’re still standing with our friends around the global church. Friends who tell me that although in many cases the Western Church brought them the Gospel many, many years ago sometimes it seems to them we have left the Gospel behind but by the grace of God they have not left the Gospel and praise God they have not left us. Thank you for standing with us. That’s why we’re standing with United Methodists from the most embattled areas of the church. All over this room are men and women who come from embattled annual conferences where those who hold to traditional United Methodist beliefs and standards are treated like outsiders within the church that ordained them. Even in great times of pain and division in their own context, we want to stand with them. We praise God that have not left us and we will not leave them.
We’re thankful you’re here today – to know that our connection to the cross and to each other has not weakened, and even though these days are difficult and uncertain ones for many people in our churches. Many of us have sensed that this is a new day for United Methodists. This is not business as usual. I’m thankful that today is not your typical Methodist gathering. I know I’ve attended so many United Methodist events throughout my ministry and wondered if it had been worth the time. When my family and my church ask me when I return home: How was that Methodist thing you went to? And all I can think to say is: Well, at least the fellowship was good. I’ve grown tire of things with the Methodist name lacking the purpose and drive of the Methodist movement that the Wesleys began. But there are also times when we can’t even give that answer. Perhaps you may have been in gatherings where you found yourself attacked and accused of being harmful and hurtful because you stood on the Word of God and chose to uphold the covenant you made in your vows of baptism and ordination, a covenant that holds us together not only with United Methodists and other Wesleyans, but with the historic and orthodox Christian faith throughout time.
Are these our only options? A bland Christian unity where maybe the fellowship is good but we never do anything of purpose or one long fight with no end in sight. When people ask you “what was it you went to in Chicago? Was it one of those typical Methodist things? “ You tell them “NO” This, finally, was a celebration of life, not of decline and death. This was a reunion of the rescued. That the cross of Jesus – the narrative in which death is overcome, in which our worst day becomes our best, was not some abstract history but a very present and driving reality pushing us into a new day when the Church, vibrant and alive, acts again as the agent of Christ for transformation of the world. It’s a story so old that it becomes new every time someone is rescued again.
This is why we have given our lives to Jesus and His church, for the joy of seeing the next person pulled out of icy water of death, brought to life and restored to wholeness and joy. Our churches have sometimes come to resemble ferry boats, just shuttling the comfortable back and forth across the river on the same predictable path, but in reality we are meant to be a fleet of powerful agents of rescue and restoration. Our presence here together today says that we won’t be sunk by disobedience or nonconformity to the Word of God or the Book of Discipline. It says that instead of being content with the lot that we’re handed. You and I are committed to turn back to the river, don captain’s hats, and circle the waters to pull out people who need rescue.
We believe we are standing within the stream of a movement begun by John Wesley himself. In a season when the Church of England seemed to be heading toward icy waters, Wesley and the Methodists had the audacity to believe they could turn it back toward life. They dared to believe that it was prayer, Scripture, accountability, seeking justice, ending oppression, and serving the poor; that would renew the Church. Wesley said if he had just 100 people like this he could shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on earth. We have more than 16 times that just in this room. What will God do with the WCA? I’m excited to find out.
Even all these years later, The Miracle on the Hudson passengers continue to gather for regular reunions and celebrations. At their 5-year reunion the passengers who gathered decided to do something different. They went back to the scene where it all happened. They gathered at the New York Waterway ferry terminal to shake the hands of the ferry boat captains who came to their rescue; those everyday heroes who left their course to rescue people perched precariously, clinging to each other– oddly enough in the shape of a cross –across the body of the plane and its wings.
At this special anniversary, they looked out into the cold and murky water of the Hudson – and one passenger remarked: “It still feels like yesterday, every day.” Then they boarded a boat and sailed out to the very spot where the plane had gone down, and Captain Sully raised a toast to mark the spot – to mark the spot where they were rescued. This afternoon when two United Methodist Bishops lift a chalice in an invitation, a reminder of the Body of Christ, I invite you to take a look around at the Body of Christ standing next to you. These are not strangers. This is the Church. And it’s nothing short of a miracle.
We didn’t come here just to fellowship or to fight. We came here to be reminded that there is great power in what is behind us – and still more ahead of us. To be reminded that we’re standing together; that we’re part of a movement; that we’re on a mission: Full of the hope of the cross, committed to each other no matter what the future may bring, and we will not be sunk.
Thanks be to God.