Sunday, April 08, 2012

The Two Men Who Died in Steve Scheibner’s Place

Steve Scheibner

(Easter 2012: This homily was given on April 8, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Romans 6: 3-11; John 20: 1-9.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Easter 2012]

It was Monday afternoon, and American Airlines pilot Steve Scheibner went online and booked himself on an early morning flight to the west coast—a flight that was scheduled to leave the following day. 

Nothing unusual about that: this was standard procedure for pilots at the time (at least at American Airlines).

But later that same Monday another pilot—a man named Tom McGinnis—decided that he wanted to fly the following morning, so he “bumped” Scheibner from the flight, and scheduled himself to be the pilot.

He was well within his rights to do that, since he had seniority over Steve.

So on that beautiful Tuesday morning Steve Scheibner went off to work at his other job (which was with the U.S. Navy), and Tom McGinnis got on the plane: American Airlines, Flight 11, Boston to Los Angeles—September 11, 2001.

Sadly, we all know the rest of the story.

Flight 11 was the first of the two planes that hit the World Trade Center that terrible day.

It’s extremely moving to listen to Steve Scheibner speak about his experience on September 11, and about his life since then.

As a Christian, he definitely understands the sacrifice of Jesus Christ from a uniquely personal perspective, since he knows what it is to have another person suffer and die in his place. 

Because Tom McGinnis suffered and died, Steve Scheibner is alive—physically speaking.  Because Jesus Christ suffered and died and rose from the dead, Steve (and the rest of us) can have a life in the kingdom of God that will never end.  That’s the foundational truth that we celebrate and proclaim on Easter Sunday.  As St. Paul put it in 1 Thessalonians 5: “[Jesus Christ] died for us, that all of us . . . together might live with him.”  (cf. 1Thessalonians 5: 10)

In some sense, Tom McGinnis “sacrificed” his life for Steve Scheibner—and Scheibner knows it!  As Steve once said in an interview: “Words can’t describe that moment of realizing that you should have been someplace . . . I saw [on television] where I should have died, but I didn’t. “

Of course, every analogy falls short in certain respects, and that’s definitely true in this case.  As great as Tom McGinnis’ sacrifice was, it was not equal to Jesus’ sacrifice for you and for me.

The Lord’s sacrifice was different and greater, and it was different and greater in several respects.

First of all, Jesus knowingly sacrificed himself for us.  He predicted his passion a number of times before it actually took place: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men who will put him to death,” he said in Mark, chapter 9, and several other times during his earthly ministry.

Tom McGinnis, on the other hand, had no idea what would happen to him that day on American Airlines, Flight 11, when it took off from Logan Airport.  He couldn’t possibly have known.

Jesus also sacrificed himself willingly, yielding his human will to his heavenly Father’s divine will: “Father, take this cup away from me! But not what I will but what you will.”

I’m sure Tom McGinnis didn’t give up his life willingly on that horrible morning in September of 2001.  Now that’s not to say anything negative about Tom—in those circumstances he shouldn’t have given up his life without a fight!  Rather, it’s to say something positive about Jesus Christ, and about what he did for us on Calvary 2,000 years ago.

Nor did Tom take Steve’s place out of love!  But that’s precisely why Jesus died for us: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.” 

Jesus died for us knowingly, willingly and lovingly.

And for that we should be most grateful.

Neither Steve Scheibner nor Tom McGinnis deserved to be murdered on September 11, 2001.  In that sense they were like Jesus, who did not deserve the cross—since, as Scripture says, he was a man like us in all things but sin.

But Steve and Tom and all of us do deserve a just punishment for our sins!

In that we are unlike Jesus.

But Jesus was willing to endure the punishment he didn’t deserve on Good Friday, so that we can avoid the just punishment we do deserve in eternity.

Tom took Steve’s place for economic reasons; Jesus took our place for eternal reasons—and out of pure mercy.

I’m sure that every time Steve Scheibner sees news footage of the events at the World Trade Center on 9/11, he remembers the sacrifice Tom McGinnis made for him (how could he NOT think of that?), and I’m sure he thanks God from the bottom of his heart for sparing his life.

Well, if we’re Catholic, this is akin to what we are supposed to experience every time we come to Mass!  Perhaps this explains why many Catholics don’t come to Mass regularly: they don’t know their Faith; they don’t know what’s happening here!

The Mass is the unbloody re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.  To “re-present,” in this case means “to make present,” as the Catechism tells us in paragraph 1366.  Jesus does not die again every time Mass is celebrated.  Rather, his once-and-for all sacrifice on Calvary becomes present to us in a real but unbloody way. 

It’s much more “real,” spiritually speaking, than watching old news footage on TV—which means that we should be much more grateful here at Mass in the presence of Christ crucified (and risen) than Steve Scheibner is when he watches  old news footage of the sacrifice of Tom McGinnis for him on 9/11!

But are we?

If we are, we will definitely be at Mass every week from now on.

How could we not be?

Let me bring this homily to a close now with a quote from Steve Scheibner.  He said:

“What I know is that somebody died in my place not once but twice.  That’s where God comes into the whole thing for me.  Tom sat in the seat I was qualified to sit in, and . . . I should have been in that seat.  In fact I’ve sat in the very seat of that airplane that Tom was in; I’ve flown all of the 757s and 767s American Airlines owns.  So I know what it’s like literally to sit [there]; and I still all these years later am qualified to sit in that seat. . . .

“But Tom didn’t die for my sins.  God sent his own Son to die for my sins.  Jesus Christ was the other one who died in my place—and he hung, and he bled, and he suffered on a cross to pay a price for me that I wasn’t qualified to pay.  I couldn’t have hung on the cross; I didn’t have the same qualifications.

“So one guy sat in a seat that I should have sat in; the other hung and bled on a cross.

“One is far more significant than the other.  That’s NOT to trivialize what happened to Tom; [rather] it’s to elevate and glorify what God did for me and for mankind on the cross.”

Most of us have not known—and will never know—what it’s like to have a man like Tom McGinnis die for us.  But Jesus Christ already has (whether we’re aware of that fact or not)!  And he rose again from the dead that we might have eternal life with him.  But Jesus doesn’t force that life upon us; we have to choose it, by living the faith we profess.

In this regard, I think we can all take a valuable lesson from Steve Scheibner.  Twenty years ago—long before the terrorist attacks of September 11, Steve wrote what he calls a “life objective” (sort of a personal mission statement).  He says that since 9/11, this has deeply intensified in him.  It reads as follows: “To seek, trust and glorify God through humble service and continual prayer.  To raise up qualified disciples as quickly as possible, so that one day I might hear God say, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant!’”

It’s my prayer that this very same life objective will either be born in us—or intensify in us—this Easter.