Three years ago, a mysterious virus began sweeping the globe, indiscriminately snuffing out lives. The solid ground beneath our feet shifted and revealed to us both the fragility of life and the instability of our planet. Another lethal virus could emerge to become a grim reaper.
We now know more than ever that another pandemic is not the only monster facing us. Our planet is warming, the oceans are rising, and violent storms are intensifying.
Gun violence erupts in formerly super safe spaces – schools, banks, movie theatres, shopping malls, restaurants, hospitals, churches, you name it. Yesterday’s shooting in Texas was the 199th mass shooting in 2023 and we are not even halfway through the year.
Russia has invaded our partner nation, Ukraine. It’s far away in another part of the world, so we can delude ourselves into thinking there is no danger to us. Except for the inconvenient fact that Russia possesses thousands of nuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
And as if those are not more than enough to keep us on edge, a new threat is emerging – Artificial Intelligence. Artificial Intelligence has the potential to revolutionize our world in positive ways, but it also presents some significant dangers. Here are some of the major dangers of AI:
Everything I have just said about AI, I did not write. It was generated by Artificial Intelligence – known specifically as ChatGPT3. The remainder of the sermon is all me – for better or for worse!
Of course, the list of troubles we face is far longer than the four I have mentioned – there’s also racism, hunger, homelessness, religious persecution, attacks on the LGBTQ community, and personal grief, to name a few.
The question for us today is: How does our faith help us when we face existential threats? Today’s gospel lectionary reading is not a bad place to look. The disciples were on the wrong side of the powers that be and feared for their lives. Their world was rupturing and their future was shrouded in darkness.
Note the context of today’s passage. Jesus is delivering his farewell speech. He has gathered in a room with his 12 disciples to share what will be their final meal together. He jolts them upright when he announces that the sand in his hourglass has almost emptied.
Can you imagine the anxious atmosphere that permeated that room? The disciples protest: “What do you mean you are leaving us? We’re not ready. We still have so much more to learn. No, Jesus. We need you.”
Nevertheless, the one who had turned their world upside down in a beautiful way – opening the door to a deeper connection with God and showing them a more authentic purpose for living – was on the verge of departing.
Jesus had become an integral part of their lives during their intense three years together. He had taught them, been patient with them, scolded them, and forgiven them. He had healed them, guided them, and infused them with a hope they had never known.
But sensing that his days were numbered, Jesus worried that after he was gone, the disciples might panic. The gravity of the moment demanded memorable words.
Knowing that their anxiety was through the roof, Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” I don’t believe his words came with an exclamation point as if he was reprimanding them for their lack of trust. Jesus understood that this was a tender and daunting moment for the disciples. They were beginning to feel an oncoming abandonment. Jesus knew they needed to be prepared for the approaching storms. Their worst fears were about to come to pass. Soon they would face greater challenges than they had ever known.
Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled…In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Standing on the brink of death, Jesus was determined to reassure his followers that there is life beyond our time on earth. He reassured them that he was making the journey before them, but he would see them again in God’s heavenly kingdom.
Speaking what was surely stirring in the minds of each of the disciples, Thomas blurted out, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus replied, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”
A colleague points out that the early Christians used the Greek word “hodos,” which means “the way” to describe both a literal path and a figurative one. Those who followed Jesus embraced his way of living – simplicity, courage, and caring. In fact, before the first followers of Jesus were called Christians, they were called people of “the way.” Further, when Jesus said “I am the way” that was very different than him saying, “I am the answer.” I am the “answer” suggests a packaged arrangement – a relationship involving little risk. I am the “way” suggests an adventure that will include all of the ambiguities and doubts that are part of a journey.1
Will ours be a journey of grappling with reality or a make-believe path where we comfort ourselves with naiveté?
I think that we must be honest and confess that the Way is not all we hope it would be. It does not lift us out of the world of good and evil to some risk-free zone. As it was with the disciples of Jesus, the Way is not a yellow brick road to wonderland. There are still bad actors and times of trial. However, the Way is the most reliable path to traverse through days of danger.
When times are threatening, it is tempting to surrender to fear. But fear can bring out the worst in us. Fear can prompt irrational thoughts and behaviors. Fear can divide us into competing tribes. Fear can give rise to placing blame rather than finding solutions. And, worst of all, fear can extinguish hope. Without hope, evil, darkness, and death win the day.
Following the Way of Jesus generates hope. Not cheery optimism or a childish fantasy that God will set everything right, but a resilient belief that God is with us and can guide us to a much better day. That’s not to say we succumb to vacuous bromides – trite sayings that God will clean up all of our messes – rather it is a call to action. We are called to tackle the problems on our doorstep with a faith that is dynamic and tenacious.
The early followers of Jesus were nearly impotent in the face of the mighty Roman Empire. They possessed no concrete evidence that the way of Jesus would remain for centuries while the empire would one day vanish. But their indomitable determination inspired others and the Way of Jesus found a foothold.
In times of trouble, we are tempted to pull the covers over our heads and passively absorb the blows. However, times of crisis can also draw out the best in us.
Do you remember when Captain Sully safely landed his passenger jet in the Hudson River? Rick Elias was on that plane and he said that as the plane quietly fell from the sky, he was filled with thoughts about what he had done and what he had not done. Facing imminent threat, he realized that his priorities had become skewed. Business had become much more important than people. After the plane landed safely, he said he was given not one miracle, but two. The first was survival. The second was the gift to see into the future and to come back to live differently.2
Perhaps the existential threats we are facing today will prompt us to live according to the Way, which is to work for a better world by loving others, by resisting evil, by seeking justice for all, by caring for God’s creation, and by working for peace.
When we commit ourselves to following the one who is the way, the truth, and the life, we refuse to allow despair to win the day. We cling to hope and we get to work.
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