30th Sunday in ordinary time
Readings for this Sunday: Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 | Psalm 1 | 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 | Matthew 22:34-46
A quick test of your knowledge: Who can tell me about Samuel Pierpont Langley?
Anyone? Has anyone heard of Samuel Pierpont Langley?
Don’t worry. I hadn’t heard about him either until I was listening to a TED talk the other day.[i]
Back in the early 20th century, the pursuit of heavier-than air human-powered flight was like the dot com boom of the day. Everybody was working to be the first to do it. And Samuel Pierpont Langley had what many would think was the perfect recipe for success. He had those three things that companies typically look to for successful ventures: capitalization, expertise, and good market conditions—money, the right people, and good timing.
[i] See Simon Sinek’s TED talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” Filmed at TEDx Puget Sound, September 2009: http://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action?language=en.
Samuel Pierpont Langley was awarded $50,000 by the War Department to figure out the flying machine. So money was no problem. He had all the capital he needed. He held a seat at Harvard and worked at the Smithsonian. So Langley was extremely well-connected. He knew the greatest minds of the day, and he hired them. And the market conditions were perfect. Everyone was watching him. Everyone was rooting for him. The New York Times followed him around everywhere.
Rudyard Kipling met Samuel Pierpont Langley and wrote in his autobiography about one of his experiments:
I met Professor Langley of the Smithsonian, an old man who had designed a model aeroplane driven—for petrol had not yet arrived—by a miniature flash-boiler engine, a marvel of delicate craftsmanship. It flew on trial over two hundred yards, and drowned itself in the waters of the Potomac, which was cause of great mirth and humour to the Press of his country. Langley took it coolly enough and said to me that, though he would never live till then, I should see the aeroplane established.[i]
Now a few hundred miles away in Dayton, Ohio, Orville and Wilbur Wright had none of those three elements commonly considered necessary for success. They had no money. They cobbled together whatever funds they could pull out of their bicycle shop to pay for their dream. So they had next to nothing as far as capital was concerned.
It would also be hard to claim that the Wright brothers had the right people. Samuel Pierpont Langley hired the brightest technical minds of the day. Not a single person on the Wright brothers’ team had a college education—not even Orville or Wilbur. And the New York Times. Well, let’s just say they didn’t have a beat reporter on the scene at the Dayton bike shop.
So why have we never heard of Samuel Pierpont Langley, but everyone knows about the Wright brothers?
Orville and Wilbur were propelled by a cause. They were driven by their belief, by a unifying purpose. They believed that if they could figure out this flying machine, it would change the course of history. They believed this thing mattered. They were out to change the world. Samuel Pierpont Langley, well, he was different. He wanted to be rich. He hungered for fame. He was in pursuit of a result.
The team who believed in the Wright brothers’ dream worked with them day after day. They didn’t just work for a paycheck. They gave their blood, sweat and tears to the dream they shared with the two brothers. Every time the Wright brothers went out, they would have to take five sets of parts because that’s how many times they crashed before they came in for supper. There was no quit in them, because this thing was bigger than them.
And you know the rest of the story. After years of pursuing their dream, on December 17th, 1903, the Wright brothers took flight, and no one was there with them to experience it. It wasn’t until days later that the world found out about it.
And Samuel Pierpont Langley? The day he heard the Wright brothers took flight, he quit. He could have said, “What an amazing discovery! Imagine how we might improve on this technology.” But he didn’t. He wasn’t first. He didn’t get what he was looking for, so he quit.
People don’t give themselves to what you do. They give themselves to what you believe. They give themselves to why you do it.
I think that’s why Jesus had so much power when he possessed none of the ingredients typically assumed necessary for success. He had no money. In fact he relied on the hospitality of others. He didn’t have the best people. His “A Team” was a bunch of unqualified fishermen. His timing always seemed questionable. But what he believed captured the heart of those who followed so that they were willing to give their lives to him and to his Way.
You might even say it this way: Jesus’ disciples didn’t follow Jesus for Jesus’ sake; they followed him for their own sake. They followed him because his dream was their dream. The people who believed what he believed joined his cause because he was able to fan the flame that burned within them.
All the law and the prophets are summarized in this: Love. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. And the people believed it. They believed that God is for all the people, for all of creation. They believed that at the heart of religion is life, not institutional protection, not self-service, not fear, not control, not power over.
And Jesus’ opponents had nothing that could compete with that. And in losing his life he saved it, and saved those who would follow.
I believe the fate of the world hangs on this truth of love—love of God, love of neighbor, love of self. Do you? What do you believe? What gets you going in the morning? What fire burns in you that refuses to go out despite the odds?
We live in an age of lost trust. We can’t trust the banks. We can’t trust the government. We can’t trust big business. So many people and institutions in our society seem to be simply playing with power. Any interest in the truth seems to get lost in caricature and trying to get people to one side or another for power or profit.
I sent my ballot in this week, but not with a great deal of excitement. The fire in me is not fanned by the way things are. It is hard to believe at this point that there is much hope of making a difference given the current conditions. Even those who enter politics as believers seem to get chewed up and spit out by the process.
But I believe that you and I are the only ones who can change that. I believe the fate of the world hangs on this law of love that refuses to disengage. I believe it will ultimately prevail, and I refuse to give up on it. Do you believe this?
Paul and his companions endured embarrassment and shameful mistreatment on the part of the church at Philippi. They faced tremendous opposition from those who were in the game with them. But they believed in this Way. They believed what Jesus believed, and they endured. And it changed the world.
We follow those who lead not for them, but for ourselves.
I might even go this far: We follow Jesus not for his own sake, but for ourselves. We follow him not for what he believed, but because we believe it, because we believe it will change the course of history.
We love our neighbor for ourselves—because it pays off for everyone. It gives us hope for the kind of life we need, the kind of life we believe in. We do it because we believe it.
Thanks be to God who believes in us and shows us this way.
[i] Rudyard Kipling, Something of Myself: for my friends known and unknown, (London: MacMillan and Co., 1951) First published 1937. p. 123. Quoted in Widipedia.org: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Pierpont_Langley. Accessed October 25, 2014.
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