Being Challengers

Each generation has at least one event that marks it forever.

People never forget where they were when they heard that President Kennedy was shot, or when they first learned of the 9/11 attacks.

One of those pivotal historical events was the Challenger disaster in 1986.

I was only 4 years old and don’t remember it at all, but I have heard the stories of family and friends of the horror of watching the space shuttle lift off and only 73 seconds into the launch, explode and disintegrate.

Many American schoolchildren witnessed the horrific tragedy in real time.

Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher, was on the Challenger as the first civilian to travel into outer space, and so the launch was being broadcast into thousands of American classrooms that day for the students to watch.

What was intended to be a spectacle of scientific progress and brave new American frontiers in space turned into a heartbreaking catastrophe in an instant.

Seven astronauts died in the incident, and seeing America’s best and brightest go up in flames on national television had Americans asking for answers.

President Reagan created the Rogers Commission to investigate the tragedy. Its members included familiar names from the space program such as Sally Ride, Chuck Yeager, and Neil Armstrong, as well as Boeing engineers, a Nobel prize winner in physics, a CIA aerial surveillance expert, and several Air Force generals.

The sad findings were that the Challenger disaster was completely preventable.

The scientific proximate cause was the malfunction of something called the o-rings that connected parts of the spacecraft, which failed in the cold temperatures of the launch. The failure of the o-rings led to pressurized hot gasses escaping, which then ignited and caused the explosion.

But the literal scientific explanation did not answer the bigger question: why did this happen?

And the answer was that every step along the way, people did not speak up about their misgivings.

There were multiple moments going all the way back to the design phase of the o-rings where scientists, engineers, and manufacturers had doubts about whether they would fail during launch in certain conditions.

But they kept silent.

The pressure to move the project forward was enormous, coming from the very top levels of NASA. And so the flawed o-rings were allowed to pass and become part of the shuttle.

The o-rings did work fine during most launch conditions. Cold weather was the threat, when they would be most likely to fail.

And it was 30 degrees Fahrenheit the day of the launch.

But the launch had already been delayed six times.

NASA simply would not tolerate the public embarrassment of another delay.

The shuttle as a whole wasn’t certified to launch in temperatures that low, and the o-rings were almost certain to fail.

And yet the launch went forward, and seven talented Americans died as a result.

The Rogers Commission’s findings were damning.

They pointed to fundamental flaws in the culture of NASA.

There were no healthy checks and balances, no means for dissenting opinions to be heard, no external oversight, and an unrealistic launch schedule that was more focused on public relations than on scientific rigor and the safety of astronauts and ground crew.

NASA only cared how they looked, not how they worked.

The end result was the first nail in the coffin of America’s manned spaceflight program.

By their obsessive attention to having a good public image, NASA created the conditions for a disaster that utterly destroyed their public image and shamed them for a generation.

And the system was such that if it hadn’t been Challenger, it would have been another shuttle soon thereafter with an equally tragic outcome.

It was a disaster waiting to happen, because people were afraid to speak the truth to power.

What do o-rings and a 1980s space disaster have to do with the gospel?

The Challenger disaster actually is a helpful modern day illustration of what Jesus is pointing to in our text from Matthew today.

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot,” Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.”

“Stand out,” Jesus is saying. “Make noise. Be noticed.”

The scientists, engineers, and designers on the Challenger project had knowledge of the truth that they were afraid to share.

And that can happen to us sometimes too.

We shy away from words like “evangelism” because it makes us think of the types of Christian malpractice that coerce other people and devalue their spiritual journeys.

But if the Challenger engineers had spoken up and said, “Hey, this is not going to work, it’s actually dangerous,” would that have been coercive? No!

Similarly, we need to look at the rampant greed, militarism, and cynicism permeating our society and say the same thing: “Hey, this is not going to work. It’s actually dangerous.”

It is very difficult to speak truth to power.

It is frightening and exhausting to say to huge institutions that directly impact your own well-being, “You’re wrong.”

But when the church and the state have historically collaborated to oppress people of color, LGBTQ+ folks, and other marginalized people, someone on the inside has to be strong enough to stand up and make a fuss.

And Jesus tells us today that we’re it. The salt of the earth, the yeast in the dough, the light on the hill.

The yeast is mingled among the dough. The salt is sprinkled over the food. We’re part of the larger whole.

But we are to be piquant, spicy, noticeable, disruptive.

Questioning the status quo is a core part of discipleship, and standing up to say, “The way we’ve been doing things is wrong, and people are hurting because of it,” is a sacred call that lies upon us.

There is no Rogers Commission in the spiritual life.

When we come to the end of our era, there will be no government panel assembled to take stock of the cost of our choices, the price of our silence, and the number of people who suffered because we were afraid to speak up.

But we will know in our hearts exactly when and where we compromised our integrity for the sake of our comfort.

For every Rosa Parks there were 15 other people on the bus who privately thought, “Why is she making a fuss? We all just want to get home from work.”

For every Frederick Douglass there were a thousand white people who said, “Slavery is terrible, but it’s just the economic reality of this nation. The economy will collapse if we make any changes.”

I won’t stand here and enumerate the types of injustices that are perpetrated today in the name of maintaining a strong economy and everyone going along to get along, but I’m sure you can think of a few.

I’m not very good at being salt and light. In fact, I’m terrible at it.

I hate being what I perceive as impolite, and ever since I was a child I’ve conformed to systems and bowed to authority. I function well in a hierarchical structure like the Episcopal Church.

But the spirit of Jesus speaks through the pain of the oppressed.

He came to preach good news to the poor.

And he commands us, begs us, not to be eaten alive by the systems of power and money that own the earth.

He asks us to be salt and light, to demand change, to not allow one more unnecessary death because we knew something was wrong and we didn’t speak out.

Being salt and light as Jesus commands us means that we have to challenge the status quo, speak up when things aren’t working, risk the fallout of throwing a wrench in the works.

The Challenger disaster is only one example of what happens when salt loses its saltiness, as Jesus says.

If anything, the stakes are even higher in the gospel life.

The lives of seven beautiful souls and a multimillion dollar spacecraft are indeed a grievous loss.

But we stand to lose the very concepts of peace, justice, and love themselves if we are afraid to advocate for truth and the downfall of tyranny and oppression.

But Jesus promises that being salt and light, while scary at the beginning, creates the potential for change and a new era of grace and well-being.

We need courage to be challengers, but Jesus has faith in us.

He tells us so himself in our gospel today: “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

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