By The Rev. J.C. Austin
“Are we rich, Daddy?” That’s what my son, Liam, asked me as we were walking together one day when he was around four years old. I remember that he was four because we were in the midst of trying to figure out where he was going to go to elementary school.
In New York City, where we were living at the time, getting into elementary school is a process only slightly less complicated and demanding than the college application process was for me in my final year of high school. And it was that much harder because Liam was one of the only kids in his preschool who intended to go to public school; the preschool was full of Wall Street executives and corporate lawyers, nearly all of whom intended to send their children to Manhattan’s most elite private schools.
The only reason Liam was in that preschool in the first place was because it was run by the church I was serving and we had an all-but-guaranteed spot and a massive tuition discount!
So when we met with the preschool director about Liam’s ongoing school plans, she freely admitted she knew very little about the public school options and basically just wished us good luck, because what she knew about was trying to get children of those high-powered families into the private school of their choice, and in many ways the reputation of her and the school was staked on the fact that she was very successful in doing that.
So when Liam asked me that question, “Are we rich, daddy?” I have to admit, my immediate gut reaction was to say, “Not even close!” It was those other families who were rich, the families who could spend more than my annual salary on private school tuition for multiple kids and still use the word “summer” as a verb, as in, “yes, we’re summering at our house in the Hamptons again this year, but we’re thinking about getting a place in Telluride so we can summer there next year.”
But then I remembered a conversation with a wealthy person not too long before Liam asked his question. She and her husband owned a large penthouse apartment, vacationed in St. Bart’s in the Caribbean over Christmas every year, and were fixtures on the charity event circuit among Manhattan’s elite.
But she was troubled because their young daughter had just come home and asked her, “Mommy, are we poor?” She asked that because, when they flew out of town on vacations, her family flew business or first class on commercial airlines, while her best friend’s family owned their own private jet. “I mean, what should I tell her?” she asked me, seemingly at a loss for what to do.
“Well,” I said, with visions of my last flight of being crammed into a middle seat in coach dancing in my head, “I would start with telling her that you are not poor!” Not even close, though I managed not to say that part out loud. But it was all I could do to contain my outrage at this woman’s lack of self-awareness.
At least, that is, until I realized something of the extent of my own. Because, of course, being crammed into the middle seat of coach class on an airplane is still a privilege, not a hardship. Literally billions of people on this planet would give all they have, so many of whom have so little that you and I can scarcely comprehend it, for the chance to work in a job or go on a vacation in the middle seat of coach class in an airplane.
Recently, I was watching an episode of “Chef’s Table” on Netflix that focuses on Rodney Scott, the James Beard Award-winning chef who is considered one of the best barbecue pit masters working in the United States today. He owns and operates a renowned restaurant in Charleston and has recently opened satellite restaurants in both Atlanta and Birmingham.
But Mr. Scott began his life as a very poor child in rural South Carolina. He talks about his early years as an only child whose parents were often away working long hours, leaving him alone to both entertain and care for himself. “Sometimes,” he says, “playing out in the dirt road, you hear a plane overhead. I would always look up to see, and wonder, who’s in it? How far is this place that they’re going to? Can they see me? I said, ‘I want to ride on one of those.’”
There are few symbols of hope, of rescue, of salvation, that are more potent in our culture today than aircraft; people all over the world want to “ride on one of those” as a means of getting out of dead-end or even desperate circumstances to a safer and better life. Just this week, we’ve been reminded of that in multiple ways.
Early this week, images of the cargo holds of a U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane jam-packed with 640 refugees from Afghanistan circulated on social media, a microcosm of the heroic efforts of our Air Force service members who have been conducting one of the largest airlift operations in history to evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghan allies from that country after the fall of its government to Taliban forces two weeks ago.
Yet this operation has had even more urgency than it should have had. Partly, this is because the U.S. government failed to anticipate the speed with which the Taliban would reconquer the country, and so it failed to begin evacuations in a timely and effective fashion, leading to the painful scenes of thousands of desperate people converging on the Kabul airport and trying to get inside and onto planes, even attempting to cling to the sides of aircraft taking off in one particularly horrible story.
And partly, it appears to have been so urgent because the U.S. had failed to evacuate even our Afghan allies who should have qualified for evacuation and immigration to the United States long before the events of the last two weeks under a special visa program literally created just for them, but were stymied by a remarkably ineffective and convoluted immigration process.
But news reports this week indicate that the process was so bad not only because of the usual bureaucratic problems, but because of longstanding in-fighting between U.S. officials who felt Afghan allies had earned the right to immigrate because of their service, and those who felt that it was not in our national interest to admit such an influx of refugees from Afghanistan, regardless of their service and our promises, and so created unnecessary obstacles and barriers in the process to make it difficult if not impossible to navigate.
And so, despite the heroism of our service members conducting the airlift, what’s behind that airlift and who is being rescued through it, and who is not, is a series of answers to the question, “who has earned the right to be saved?” Who, in other words, is literally worth saving?
I can’t help but hear that question as we all watch Hurricane Ida churning towards New Orleans and the Gulf coast, where it is expected to make landfall later today as a Category 4 Hurricane sixteen years to the day after Hurricane Katrina hit.
As almost all of us know, Hurricane Katrina was the cause of one of the most devastating disasters in U.S. history, first from the damage of the storm itself and second (and even more profoundly) because of the levees that broke and flooded the city of New Orleans itself as a result of the storm.
If you remember that time, I’m sure you remember the scenes, day after day, of floodwaters rising and swallowing cars and even houses, people clinging to the roofs of their semi-destroyed homes and creating makeshift signs for the helicopters circling ceaselessly above the city that all said basically the same thing: “SAVE US.”
Those aircraft, those helicopters, or their absence, were literally the difference between life and death for thousands of people; the Coast Guard alone rescued more than half of the 60,000 people stranded in New Orleans by the hurricane through the fleet of aircraft that they deployed.
And yet in the aftermath of Katrina, similar to the aftermath of the fall of Kabul, there were many heated arguments, on television or in personal conversations, asking questions and offering answers about whether these people were even worth saving. “The danger was obvious, they were told to evacuate,” people sneered; “why should other people risk their lives to save them if they’re too dumb to leave when they should have?”
What generally gets missed, in both circumstances, is that for almost all the people who are left in such dire straits, they did not have the option to leave. Forget about private planes, they didn’t have private cars, they didn’t have money for bus fare; or, in the case of Afghanistan, they literally couldn’t get visas approved or even get to the airport. But almost inevitably, it seems, when the question comes up of saving people from something terrible, the next question, implicitly or explicitly, is whether they are worth saving.
The question of who is worth saving is actually the question of the crowd who are listening to this exchange between Jesus and this “certain ruler.” You heard the story: the man asks what he has to do to be saved, to “inherit eternal life.” Jesus reminds him of the commandments, and he affirms that he has been diligent in keeping them since he was a boy. Jesus tells them that he’s only lacking one thing, which is to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor.
At that, the man becomes very sad, Luke tells us, because he was very rich. In fact, what Luke literally says is that “he became encompassed with painful grief,” because he is faced with incalculable loss either way: either the loss of his great wealth, or the loss of eternal life, of salvation from sin and death. Then Jesus tells him, with some real sympathy, how hard salvation really is for rich people, so hard that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.
What’s really interesting is that the crowd, and even the disciples within it, are completely baffled by Jesus’ response. “Then who can be saved?” they ask incredulously. They ask that because they assume that if anyone can be saved, it’s the rich people. That’s partly because that’s how the world has always worked: those who can buy their way out of peril, whatever the peril might be, tend to be the ones getting saved, and certainly getting saved first.
But second, and more disturbing and profound, is the simple fact that the world generally assumes that it is the people with wealth who are worth saving. They are the ones who have worked hard, succeeded well, and contributed much. They are in peril despite their best efforts, we think, while others are in peril because they couldn’t and probably wouldn’t do any better.
That idea, of course, is dangerously flawed: plenty of people accumulate their wealth in ways that are less than righteous, and plenty of people are mired in poverty for reasons that have nothing to do with their own abilities or willpower. And that was no less true in the first century than it is today.
But the deepest problem is how we tend to think about salvation: that it is primarily salvation from something, something that threatens our lives, our well-being, and our humanity. In Christian theology, this is usually expressed in the conviction that in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, we are saved from the power of sin and death over us, which opens the path to eternal life.
And that is true; but far too often, the full promise and power of the gospel is lost because that is understood as the sum of salvation rather than a part of it. But salvation in Jesus Christ comes to us not as a reward, or even a gift, but first and foremost as a calling.
We are saved not simply or even primarily from something terrible, but for something good beautiful and important: a life of love and service for God that, yes, is eternal, but which begins right now, in this world and for this world and to this world, this world that God loved and loves so much that God will not abandon it nor destroy it, but is determined to save it by becoming incarnate in Jesus Christ, plunging down right into the middle of it, and refusing to be pushed out of it, even by death itself, and invites us to be a part of redeeming it; right here, right now. The question for us, then, is whether and how we will respond: are we willing to be saved not simply from something, but for something?
“Are we rich, Daddy?” Liam asked me; and after a long pause and much thought, I finally said this: “We are richer than most people who have ever lived in the history of the world; and there are many people who are much richer than even we are. And we don’t need to worry about that; the only thing we need to be concerned about is how much good we do with what we have.”
Liam thought about that for a moment. “Are we doing enough good with what we have, Daddy?” he asked. “Probably not as much as we could be,” I said; “but we’re going to always try our best and see what happens. How’s that sound?” He thought for a moment. “It sounds hard,” he finally said, “but it sounds good. I think we should try.”
And he was right. Because all of us are worth saving, and all of us can share the saving grace of Jesus as God calls us to; because nothing, nothing, is impossible with God.