Science, Church Signs, and the Hope We See

Proper 14, Year A

Matthew 14:22-33

I have long been a fan of the church marquee.  I don’t generally pay attention to the service times or the pastor’s name written large; what I look for is a good word, a funny saying, some pithy call to the Christian life.  I am, of course, often disappointed.  Some jokes fall flat, some scriptures are ripped from their contexts, and often the theology is an abuse of all that is good and beautiful about our faith.  But often enough the signs are just right.

I recently saw a few online that gave me laugh or at least a humored groan: “Honk if you love Jesus, text if you want to meet him.”  Or “Adam and Eve, the first people to not read the Apple terms and conditions.” Or “This too shall pass, it might pass like a kidney stone, but it will pass.”

As I drove past a church in my city, I recently saw a LED marquee with the message: “We are praying for scientists that they may find a vaccine.”  There was something in that message that didn’t sit well with me, a problem that I couldn’t quite articulate.  It wasn’t that I am against scientific inquiry or that I think praying for scientists or even a vaccine is a bad idea.  Much of my own life has been formed by scientific modes of understanding, I once even imagined that science would be my career.  I often read books written by scientists and I own a microscope, telescope, and dissecting kit with which I engage in my own explorations of the world, often with my children, whom I encourage to pursue knowledge through scientific means. But still, I had some sense that there was another message the church should have been offering.

It wasn’t until I began to read the scriptures for this Sunday that I started to have a sense of what the problem was.  It is a question of fear and how we find our way out of it; of faith instead of false hope.

In our Gospel we find the disciples at night on a boat.  They are traveling across the waters, a place that was certainly familiar to them, but also alien.  Far from the shore is never a safe place for humans to be.  We are, at the end of the day, land animals, and whenever we are high in the air or out in the water we are vulnerable and deeply dependent upon the technologies that have brought us there.

It is night, the waves are stirred by the wind, and the fragile boat creaks with their force.  We are not told if it is a cloudy night, but it seems that there is a storm, and so we can imagine that it is dark with no starlight, no moon. But the main action of our story comes when that dark is just beginning to fade, when the dawn light is breaking over the horizon.  The refractions that form color may not be apparent just yet, but shapes can be made out, the water, the distant shore, and then something out upon the waves.

What it is it?  The water can be disorienting.  It is no wonder that sailors are known to offer tall tales.  Our eyes can play tricks on us when we are out on a boat and the water is full of strange wonders whose shapes defy our land-born imaginations.  Whatever it is on the water, the disciples need an explanation.  They need the world to make sense and so they say, “it is a ghost.”  It’s a judgement that helps them understand but it is not the kind of knowledge that offers comfort.  They are afraid.

And we are like them.  Our lives have been unmoored.  We are out on a dark sea and we are uncertain what shore we will land on or even if we will make it there.  And on the water there are apparitions, unknowns moving across the surface.  And so we interpret the dark shapes of our future, making its possibilities into ghosts that embody our fears.  Those fears are different and so the ghosts take many forms in our imaginations.  Like the Boggarts in the Harry Potter novels, they appear to each person as whatever the observer is most afraid.  We read the news, listen to the commentators, try to work out just what is going to happen.  And we know the answers will be inadequate for the unknowns, but still we keep hoping that their explanations will help us through the dark.

Then Jesus comes close and calls out, breaking the reality we thought possible.  The disciples in the boat never imagined it would be him, but here he is, and he is telling them not to be afraid.  It’s not a general command; it’s a command that includes a condition.  They can stop being afraid because it is Jesus who is there on the water.  Peter gets it.  He asks to come out and experience the freedom from fear that Jesus provides.  He knows that if he can walk on water then it must be Jesus who is in front of him.  But once he is there on the unsteady waves, the old uncertainties return.  The wind whispers its “what ifs” and so Peter is distracted.  Instead of looking at Jesus his mind flits among the headlines, scrolls through the alternating flashes of hope and fear and numbing trivia.  He begins to sink, but Jesus saves him from his fear by calling him again to faith—the steady looking at the face of Jesus.

Ours is a windy world.  There is the pandemic and its uncertain end, our politics in uproar, our climate in chaos.  We want something to guide us through and so we look to something like science.  We hope that somehow science can save us from our vulnerability to viruses, the fragile reality of our mortal lives.  We hope that somehow technology will save us from the death not only of ourselves but our world.  We hope that our national life can be solved like a puzzle by the right politics.  But when we place our hopes in such things as science or the next election or an economic policy we will go out onto the waters and find ourselves quickly sinking in the chaos.

So yes, lets pray for scientists, they need God’s grace as much as anyone.  If scientists come up with a vaccine for COVID19, I’ll be thankful.  Just as I am thankful for the insights that scientific inquiry has offered us, even if I am mournful of the violence against creation that its technological applications have often unleashed.  My hope though, does not lie in science or technology, just as it does not lie in politics or policy.  I’m a fragile creature, one day a virus or bacterium or a speeding car or one of a million myriad other possibilities will kill me.  Until then and after then what will sustain my life is God’s love and reign, and if I really want to live into the fullness of what life has for me now my hope has a home, my attention a direction—the face of Jesus who says” “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.”  That’s the word the church must proclaim to our world; it’s a message worth putting on a marquee.

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