We vividly recall the heroism of people at the World Trade Center 13 years ago, especially the courage of firefighters and first responders. But you may not recall a similar act of heroism: On a freezing morning in January, 1982, an Air Florida jet crashed into icy waters of the Potomac river right after take-off. There were only six survivors, all in the frigid river water, clinging desperately to a fragment of the jet's tail section.
Only minutes were left before these six survivors would succumb to the cold; there was no time for an organized rescue. There was only a small helicopter in the vicinity at the time, but it could handle only one person at a time. The helicopter hovered over the survivors in the icy waters, lowering a lifeline and flotation device, waited till one of survivors was holding on tightly, and then lifted and brought that survivor to shore as quickly as possible.
Each time the helicopter returned and lowered the lifeline, one of the survivors still in the water, a middle-aged balding man with a mustache, would grab hold of the line and flotation device and pass it on to one of the others in the river with him. After the other five had been rescued, the chopper returned one last time for the mustached man, but he was gone. Overcome by the cold, he had slipped quietly into the dark water and was not seen again.
What prepares people to respond instinctively to danger with such greatness of heart? What predisposes people to act so quickly, decisively and generously when the consequences are so costly? Surely this doesn't happen out of the blue!
Today's psalm response, the one we together sang a few moments ago, might give us a clue: “The Lord is near to all who call upon him!” I have no idea what religion that balding, mustached man professed, no idea what name he used for God, no idea how he prayed. But I surmise that somewhere in his life he had allowed God to enter into the depths of his heart and had kept God there. I surmise he was on familiar terms with the comfort, the generosity, the unfailing love of God. So when this life-or-death moment came upon him in the frigid waters of the Potomac, he knew precisely what to do, and he did it. His heroism was no fluke. It was the final act of a life lived with a deep personal awareness of the nearness of God.
We all like to think of ourselves as 'winners.' We enjoy being complimented as gracious, trustworthy and bighearted. It's music to our ears! Yet we often personally feel the very opposite. We feel the tugs of selfishness, of narrow-mindedness, of prejudice, and these can be very strong! Too often we do what the day workers did in today's Gospel: we become jealous and envious of God's generosity to the neediest and poorest of those working alongside us in the vineyard of life.
How do we resist this “tug to smallness of mind?” We resist by welcoming and embracing God in our hearts: “The Lord is near to all who call upon him!” So call upon God. Make it a habit! Welcome God into our hearts. Allow God to work in us and through us to make real God's reign of peace and justice, of compassion and thanksgiving. Let no one doubt that we are sons and daughters of this wonderful God, this God of unimaginable and surprising generosity. Let's each and everyone reflect this generosity of God in word and deed.