As I wrote this sermon, the Canadian Coast Guard and a growing fleet of ships were still trying find a missing submersible on a tourist trip to the Titanic, with the air inside running out. Experts were trying to figure out if a pattern of sounds might be a message from the survivors. “We still have to have hope,” a Coast Guard spokesperson said in a press conference.
The story of billionaires lost on a $250,000 trip to the Titanic in a submersible steered by a no-name game controller and of highly questionable safety, led the news this week and brought out all the worries and pathos and grossness of social media. It showed a side of us that should make us squirm: a willingness to mock and quip jokes while human beings are dying.
And also, a willingness to ignore when human beings are dying. The submersible was not the only tragedy playing out on the sea last week – it was just more novel. What about the other one? Off the coast of Greece, another ship met catastrophic misfortune. More than 500 people, many of them children, were on an overloaded fishing trawler when it began to sink. Many of these people had also – like those unfortunate billionaires - paid an unimaginably high amount for the voyage – likely their entire life savings – to travel somewhere many would not have seen before. In this case, they were not going to the burial site of another great tragedy, but to a new home for the chance at a better life. As the ship began to sink, a rescue operation was slow to respond. As of Wednesday, 300 people were reported dead, with many others missing. While the search for the wealthy in a mini-sub continued deep underwater, on the other side of the ocean, the poor were drowning on the surface for us all to see. And yet the world looked mostly in one direction.
Let’s all be honest: which story did you read the most about, talk to your friends about, scroll on the internet for updates? Let’s not be too hard on ourselves: one story was bizarre and unprecedented; the tragic fate of desperate migrants seeking a better life is so commonplace now its happening is less overwhelming; we are developing a tolerance for it.
Let’s not forget that the destination of that unfortunate submersible has its own class story. The Titanic struck the iceberg – another accident of willful negligence – the wealthy in first class made it to the lifeboats in far greater numbers than the passengers trapped in third class. Inequity of fortune – and of the world’s sympathy and attention – has a long history.
Our gospel this morning tries to reframe the either/or approach. Our responsibility is to everyone in need – the old news and the new news, the wealthy and the poor, the foolish and the wise. It just so happens that those in a position to give the most often need a bigger reminder of that fact.
God sets us an example for this in the first lesson. Hagar, who had born a child to Abraham when his wife could not conceive, finds herself in a tight jam. Sarah has given birth to Isaac and would rather that Hagar and Ishmael were out of the picture. Abraham, the father, is distressed by his wife’s demand. God steps in and tells Abraham to let Hagar go freely; God will take care of it, Abraham is assured. When Hagar finds herself struggling in the desert, fearing for her son’s life, God steps in a second time: Fear not, God tells Hagar just as God told Abraham, promising a better future if they will only believe in it. Both Isaac, the son of fortune, and Ishmael, the son who was cast out, will survive and thrive. It is not a choice; the world, God says, has room for both of them.
Now, we are not God. Our rescues and good works are more earth-bound; our resources have limits. To be pulled in so many directions is exhausting. Especially when the problem – like the fleeing migrants – is so complex and massive, and we feel helpless to solve it. But those fierce words from Jesus step in to set us straight: quit whining, Jesus says, and get to it. Stop worrying about who is where on what rank; you are all sparrows to be cherished by God. Go where the need exists. I have come, Jesus says, to set families apart from one another – not for nothing, or petty reasons, but because the gospel will require sacrifice; it means moving out of safe spaces and comforting embraces and into the cold to bring warmth. Jesus isn’t calling us to be estranged from our families, even when they are difficult; his own story is full of challenging friends and relatives. He is warning us not to align ourselves so closely with our family and our in-group that we fail to see the need beyond. We must look past our mother and our father and our own household, our own city, our own country, to truly serve. The gospel is hard; it is, in fact, exhausting. It is meant to be.
The fact is that on most days the needs of the world will be greatest in one direction: those who have the least, and suffer the most. The master, in the gospel, is being reminded that they are not above the slave because they often forget; the slave, in the gospel, is reminded they are not below the master, so that they know their value is equal in God’s eyes, and they should demand fair treatment in a human world.
As Jesus says, “Those who find their life will lose it; and those who lose their life for my sake, will find it.” We are meant to give up pieces of ourselves for the sake of others, rather than to spend our days in service to ourselves.
How should this inform the events of this week, where our attention was focused largely on one place, and much less so on another? We are to work hard and energetically and with intelligence to pay attention to need as widely and broadly as we are able. We have to accept that complex problems will require the endurance of marathon runners. But we must always look beyond ourselves to serve.
That fact is that there is nothing any of us could do on Wednesday with human beings dying on the ocean. But there are things we can do every day. We can challenge our own appetite for celebrity. Our Western bias for sympathy. We might challenge the toxic tone of our internet discourse, or question our own priorities in the context of our own relative wealth.
And perhaps, when the world is looking one way, we turn to see – and yell and shout - about what everyone might be missing. For that is the gospel as Jesus saw it; to stand against society’s current and reach for the person no one else is catching. Amen.