We know the story.
United Airlines flight 93 took off from Newark, NJ, on September 11, 2001, headed for San Francisco. Terrorists took over the plane, and at some point during the ordeal, passenger Todd Beamer and a small group of other men on the plane decided to take down one of the hijackers.
As they flew over Pennsylvania and the moment came for them to execute their plan, Beamer looked at the others and said, “Let’s roll!” And, as we know, flight 93 crashed in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, shortly after that, killing all aboard.
Through their heroic acts, Beamer and the others most likely saved countless other lives – authorities have speculated that the plane was to fly next to Washington, D. C., with targets such as the Capitol building or the White House.
“For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake,
and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
Jesus tells us that if we save our lives, we lose them and if we lose our lives, we save them. How can this be? What does this mean? We know that Beamer and the others lived this truth to the fullest, but what are its implications for us?
We can give of our lives at different levels, of course. If we arrive at the door of a shop or restaurant just as another person does, we can allow her or him to go in before us. If we’re headed into the check-out lane with a cartful of groceries and come across another shopper with just a couple of items, we can choose to let that person go ahead of us. And if we’re spending time with a person who needs to talk, we can listen. Even if we want to talk about what is on our hearts and minds, we can choose to focus on the other instead and hear the emotions behind the words. All ways of giving of ourselves, of giving a bit of our lives for another.
But what about going the full measure of what Jesus is talking about? What about actually giving up our physical lives for another, for our faith? Like one we know:
“And he stretched his arms upon the cross and offered himself in obedience to your will a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.”*
Can we think of people for whom we would literally give up our lives? Can we imagine circumstances in which we would make that sacrifice for others, for our faith? Can we think of others who would literally give up their lives for us? Men and women in the military, of course. And we continue to be unendingly grateful to them for their courage and their willingness to lay down their lives for their friends. But what about the rest of us? In our ordinary, familiar lives?
In cleaning up the rubble at ground zero in New York City, officials discovered a small pear tree – burned, scarred but alive. Authorities decided to move it to the parks department where it could be nurtured back to full life. And in 2002, the pear tree came home to ground zero, and we can now cluster around it at the 9/11 Memorial Plaza. Known as the “Survivor Tree,” it blooms fully in the spring, bursting with delicate white blossoms. New smooth limbs grow out from gnarled damaged limbs.
And as we stand in its shade, we glimpse the resilience of this country as we have come back from those horrific days. We glimpse the resilience of the human spirit. And we glimpse the resilience of sacrificial love. We glimpse the paradox at the heart of our ultimately paradoxical faith that when we save our lives we lose them and when we lose them for love we save them.
And the life we save is life eternal.
St. David’s Episcopal Church
*Excerpt from Book of Common Prayer
Image of the Survivor Tree © 2004-2011, National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center Foundation, Inc. All Rights Reserved.