Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
June 25, 2023
Out of the Frying Pan
This past week, many in the world watched, transfixed, as the US Coast Guard led a search for a missing submersible called the Titan: a small, deep diving craft that had taken five people on a tour of the wreckage of the Titanic. Three of the men had each paid ¼ million dollars for the adventure, despite safety concerns about the vessel – the others were the captain and the 19-year-old young man who was accompanying his father, a Pakistani businessman, on the venture. The submersible lost contact with the surface a few hours after it began its descent into the ocean – the first indication that something had gone wrong. The search was carried out over five days, covering an area about twice the size of Connecticut. Boats, airplanes, helicopters, and drones were deployed to seek to find and save the lost explorers.
It was hard to miss coverage of this tragedy: profiles of the five men were published in newspapers; news channels showed photos and interviewed family members. A collective gasp could be heard around the world when the Coast Guard announced that debris had been found on the ocean floor, some 1600 yards off the bow of the Titanic. Experts surmised that the vessel had experienced a catastrophic implosion, killing everyone on board.
The week before last, some 4,000 miles away in the Mediterranean Sea, a fishing boat named the Adriana stalled in the ocean. The boat was making its way from the coast of Libya to the European mainland, and it was perilously overcrowded, with more than 750 Pakistanis, Egyptians, Afghans, and Syrians on board. The Greek coast guard saw the boat and were monitoring it, but they did not offer assistance – not even when the boat’s engine stalled, and, seven hours later, when it started to sink. A plane from Frontex, the EU’s border agency, also saw the boat, and offered assistance to Greek authorities, but their offer was ignored. Eventually, the boat capsized, and officials believe around 700 people drowned.
Now, I have seen no profiles of the people who went down with that boat. No personal stories of the desperation, poverty, violence, and war that drove them to leave their homes, and to pay their life’s savings to cram onto a boat with no life jackets, risking their lives in search of freedom and safety, a chance to thrive. There was no breathless, round-the-clock coverage of this disaster, no collective gasp when the boat sank, and 700 people drowned. Some reports believe that there were as many as one hundred children stuck in the hold of that boat.
Our campfire story this morning is the tale of Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednego – three men who risk their lives to maintain faithfulness to God. When they refuse to bow down to a statue built by the Babylonian king, he orders them to be thrown into a fiery furnace. If you grew up going to church, do you remember this story from your childhood Sunday school class? It’s a story that captured the imagination of many and lodged in our memories …though for the life of me I’m not sure why. It’s not an uplifting tale, not really. It’s the story of a self-centered tyrant, foolish and brash, bent on forcing his subjects to worship him. Maybe we find the names melodic and unusual, that’s why we remember them, re-tell this story. Somebody renamed the guys Shack, Rack, and Bennie and made it into a Veggie Tale cartoon. Whatever the reason, I remember this story being told as a cautionary tale, the message being: be faithful to God or risk being burned in a fiery furnace! And even worse: the message – If you fail to be faithful, God will not protect you.
Reading this now, as an adult, I don’t think that’s my take-away anymore. I’ve seen the damage that fear-based theology to placate a vindictive, jealous God has done to my friends, many of whom have left the church altogether. Instead, reading this today, I hear the question: What do we worship? To whom do we give our allegiance, and why does that matter – to us, and to God?
On the surface, that’s an easy question to answer here in our sanctuary. We worship God, who has created and is creating, who came to us in Jesus, who works in us and others by the Spirit. But we are here an hour and a half a week. What do we worship the rest of the time? Where do we put our energy, in what do we invest our most precious resource – our time, and attention?
The news stories this week – the story of the OceanGate submersible that captured the attention of the world and the Adriana fishing boat that slipped beneath the surface of the Mediterranean and was but a blip on our national radar – tell us a bit about what society worships. The men in the submersible were newsworthy because they were wealthy. Thrill seekers painted as heroic explorers. An adventure kayaker interviewed by the New York Times put it clearly: “…the Titan’s passengers: … ‘Their lives are worth saving.’” Their deaths are tragic, absolutely, as any person’s is. But the contrast between the attention paid by the news media to the two stories, and the vast difference between the resources expended to seek to find and rescue the Titan and its five passengers and the blind eye the Greek authorities turned to the crisis off its coast is inexcusable.
I read a story by a journalist who sought to explain that the contrast between the responses is more nuanced than just society’s disregard for poor people. Our imaginations are captured by stories of unlikely rescues, we are better able to grasp smaller numbers instead of larger ones. James Cameron surely is already writing the script for the movie about the search for the Titan. But the truth is that we do value some lives more than others, and as a society we worship wealth.
So how do we resist bowing down to golden idols? As a refugee advocate said to Amy Goodman of Democracy Now: “Everyone who’s at risk at sea, no matter where they come from, no matter which language they speak, their income, the societies they come from, we have to mobilize all our resources to help them, with no reservations, no “but” or “if”s, and put human life on the very, very top of our priorities, not only words but also with actions. We need solidarity. We need search and rescue. We need safe and legal routes for everyone. And everyone has to be able to look in the eyes of the survivors and see we did what we could do, and this is not going to happen again.”
We must advocate for safe and legal channels for people to escape war and poverty and violence, around the world and at our own borders. Yes.
Here at home, when we leave here each week, we can pay attention to how we spend our time and energy. When do we speak up, and for what? What kind of community are we building for ourselves, for our neighbors, for our children? As a congregation, we’ve named our core values as compassion and justice, hope and perseverance, creativity and generosity, curiosity and doubt, and diversity, equity, and belonging. And I hope if you haven’t found a place to connect, to be part of one of our teams and committees discerning how we live these out together, that you’ll find a way to engage, because this is how we live our faith.
The other takeaway is a promise. Like it or not, each of us will find ourselves in the furnace at some point. The fire will be hot, and it will threaten to consume us. I don’t know if your fire will be grief, or addiction, or illness, or loneliness, or depression. I cannot see our future, I do not know what it will be. But I do know that you will not be alone. When you walk through the fire, I will be with you – God promised the people of Israel through this story of Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednego. And through the voice of the prophet Isaiah. And that promise is true for us, too. Let us not be afraid. Thanks be to God.
 Kosmopoulos, Georgios, to Amy goodman on Democracy Now, “As Media Spotlights Titanic Sub, Hundreds of Migrants Who Died in Greek Shipwreck Get Scant Coverage,” 6/23/23, https://www.democracynow.org/2023/6/23/greece_migrant_shipwreck_media_coverage