Sunday August 21, 2016
Sermon: Shark Encounters
Scripture Lessons: Matthew 5:43-48 and Romans 12:14-21
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Who can forget the pulsing rhythm indicating the presence of the shark in the movie “Jaws”? I haven’t even seen the movie in full and yet I know that cadence. It starkly portrays the presence of danger, threat, and impending doom. In the movie, a shark inflicts two fatalities upon a beachside community during the busy summer tourist season. The mayor, concerned about the economy and the income from the tourists, resists closing the beaches. Finally, the decision is made to go after the shark and eliminate it. The shark is harpooned once, and then again. It is still on the loose. So a plan is hatched to eliminate the shark through lethal injection. This scheme does not succeed either. Finally, the police chief jams a pressurized scuba tank into the jaws of the shark, then climbs the mast of the boat and shoots the tank finally killing the shark. The danger, threat, violence, and evil are vanquished. But our fear of sharks remains.
Of course the spotting of a fin in the water at the beach leads to a chaotic, scrambling out to the dry sand. Yes, the presence of a shark leads us to panic and flee.
When faced with fear, danger, and threat, often our first instinct will be fight or flight. We either attack, confront and eliminate the perceived source of hostility and danger. Or, we get out of harm’s way. We extricate ourselves from a dangerous situation. Flee. Turn tail and run for the hills.
In the presence of a great white shark, doubtless our response is to flee, rather than fight. We know we are no match for the 300 serrated razor sharp teeth and the muscular strength of the two ton fifteen foot body which can swim 15 miles per hour. Fight? That sounds like suicide. Better to flee from this most fearsome predator of the sea.
It turns out, that when confronted with an actual shark, neither fight nor flight is the best option for self- preservation. As thinking people, creatures with rationality and intelligence as well as instinct, it is in our best interests to take a different approach when encountering a shark though it can be very hard to override our instinctual programming.
Neil Hammerschlag is a marine ecologist and director of the Shark Research & Conservation Program at the University of Miami. In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, he gives this advice for how to respond when encountering a shark:
. . . if you do find yourself in a situation where you don’t feel comfortable with the shark, the best thing to do is not to run away or swim away. That’s what their food does; their food runs away from them. The best thing to do is actually just approach them, maintain eye contact, and I wouldn’t try to touch them or push them unless they came so close that that’s what they’re going to do to you. If they came to open their mouth, that might be a situation where it would probably be good to push them away. But probably the most important thing is just to maintain very strong eye contact with them and kind of follow them around. Usually they’re going to find that uncomfortable. [A Marine Ecologist On Swimming With Sharks And What ‘Jaws’ Got Wrong July 14, 20162:36 PM ET, http://www.npr.org/2016/07/14/486012072/a-marine-ecologist-on-swimming-with-sharks-and-what-jaws-got-wrong]
So, you come face to face with a shark, you maintain eye contact, approach the shark, follow it around. It will lose interest and swim away. Sounds good in theory. And, apparently, Hammerschlag has found that it works in practice. It certainly makes sense that swimming away in a flurry is prey behavior which could provoke prey attack. So, rather than fight or flight, the best tactic for self- preservation is strategic engagement.
In other situations in life, we know well our instinctually programmed fight and flight reactions. If someone is mean to us, we are mean back. Fight. If someone hurts us, we stay away from them. Flight. If we have a bad experience at a business, we go elsewhere in the future. Flight. If someone does us wrong in some way, we sue. Fight. We choose these options all the time. A coworker refuses to help us with something. When the colleague needs help do we pitch in? Not on your life. Fight. We don’t like what goes on at a relative’s house for a holiday and the next year, we make other plans. Flight.
While these may not be the most helpful responses, they are certainly commonly used – in interpersonal relationships, in work settings, in business, and in international relations. Fight or flight. Defend or retreat. Attack or withdraw. In the teachings of Jesus, we see that Jesus is not limited to these options. He opens the field of options in ways that are imaginative and creative. Jesus shows alternatives and additional strategies for use in human interactions and relationships. And what he teaches us is that this range of options is actually to our benefit. When we engage with each other in unexpected ways, we may get new outcomes which are better for the community as well as for us as individuals.
We listened to two examples of this kind of teaching this morning. From the Sermon on the Mount we heard one of the most notorious teachings of Christianity – “Love your enemy.” And then, “Pray for those who persecute you.” Jesus encourages us to honor our humanity and the humanity of others by recognizing the image of God in everyone. God does not differentiate between friends and enemies. God’s love encompasses all of humanity. When we focus our intent on loving our enemies, those who wrong us, those who harm us, those we perceive as a threat, we cultivate the image of God within us. We fulfill our own nature. We express the intelligence and consciousness that makes us unique in creation. We have the capacity to transcend instinct – fight or flight. We have been endowed with the capacity to love. Everyone. To seek the highest good for those we like least and perceive as enemy. In this way, we come to transcend our fears and live fully.
In the letter to the Romans the writer follows up on this mandate. Don’t repay evil for evil. In fact, we are advised to reach out in generosity and compassion for those we fear, hate, or perceive as a threat. Do good to those who hate you. This is a way of transforming the relationship. How long can someone hate you when you are good to them? When you help them? When you convey compassion for them? But even if you continue to be hated or threatened, you have maintained your dignity and humanity. You have not demeaned yourself to base self-interest and self-protection. How do we counter evil, hatred, violence? It is not through more evil, hatred and violence. It is goodness and love which conquer evil. That is the core of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The ultimate example of Jesus employing an alternative strategy based on love and compassion is his response to the threat from the authorities upon his own life. The authorities made it known that they want to kill Jesus. They expect Jesus to flee. Literally head for the hills. Get out of Dodge. Fade into the woodwork of the wilderness and stop causing problems for them. He didn’t do that. Instead, with awareness of the growing threat against his life, Jesus does the opposite. He heads for Jerusalem. The center of power. The locus of authority. The very place where the decisions are being made to pursue him and eliminate him. No flight for Jesus.
The authorities may have expected Jesus to fight. Take up arms. Use violence and attack those who wanted to do him in. Then the authorities could kill Jesus with justification. Eliminate this perceived enemy. There were those among Jesus’ followers who wanted an armed insurrection. They wanted to take out the authorities, Jewish and Roman. Set up a new shop. In the story we have of Jesus’ arrest, one of the disciples takes out a sword and Jesus reprimands him. In the story of the trial of Jesus, there is no defense. No case made to justify his actions. No fighting back in this antagonistic situation.
Fight or flight. Either way, the authorities would put an end to Jesus and his movement. But Jesus does not give them the satisfaction of fight or flight. He does not behave as they expected him to. Jesus choses another way. A way that does not lead to his people becoming the next regime of oppressors. A way that does not undermine the power of all that he has done. A way that is true to his teaching of anti-violence and forgiveness. By engaging, in a way that leads to martyrdom, Jesus gives the ultimate affirmation of the way of non-violence and thus spawns a movement that is strong, life-giving, and still inspiring the imagination in creative ways for the transformation of human community thousands of years later. Our presence this morning attests to that. The authorities did not succeed at getting rid of Jesus. In fact, the result was just the opposite because of Jesus’ commitment to love.
Yes, when confronted with a threat, with pain, with perceived danger, when feeling that we have been wronged, treated unfairly, taken advantage of, yes, our first impulse may very well be fight back – fire with fire. Or it may be flight. Get out of the situation. The relationship. But our faith compels us to explore further. Putting the teachings of Jesus to practical application, it was Abraham Lincoln who said, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” And he had plenty of enemies! The gospel frees us from being bound by instinct and spurs us to consider alternatives that are constructive, life-giving, and transformative. Do good to those who hurt you. Help those who hate you. Love your enemy. This completely undermines hatred, violence, and evil.
When our son, Sterling, lived in New York, he was circled by a group of middle schoolers in the daytime in a park. He thought, “They look like my little brother and his friends.” One of the boys drew a knife. Sterling told the kid to put the knife away. He was not armed. He wouldn’t attack them; he would cooperate. What did they want? They wanted his money. He got out his wallet and handed them all of his cash. $8.00. They grabbed the money and let him go on his way. Then they proceeded to argue about what to do with the money. He talked them down and de-escalated the situation. He didn’t choose fight or flight, but constructive, creative non-violent engagement.
We’ve heard about people who find burglars in their home and welcome them, make coffee, and get to know them and they leave. No robbery. No violence.
And there is that beautiful scene in “Les Miserables” when Jean Valjean is arrested for stealing the candlesticks from the church and the priest counters, no, the candlesticks were a gift. They were given to Jean Valjean. He did not steal them.
These inspiring responses show creative imagination fueled by compassion and love, not fear, anger, or hatred.
The gospel invites us to see that our options are not just fight or flight. When that coworker drives you nuts, think of something nice you can do for him or her. That neighbor that annoys you? How can you help them? That relative who grates on you? Invite them for dinner and cook their favorite dish. Is there someone you really don’t like? Get to know them better. Angry about those who free load off society on welfare? Volunteer at a soup kitchen or a shelter. This is the way Jesus went about things. It is not only about changing others, it is about changing us. We can choose to draw forth our better nature, our compassion, the image of God within us.
So, again, it is a shark encounter that reminds us of the creative alternatives presented to us in the gospel of Jesus Christ. This past week, a man was fishing in shallow water in Ocean City, Maryland. He caught a shark. After reeling the shark in, he removed the hook and let it go. The shark was so tired from resisting the line that it didn’t have the energy to swim out from the shore. The fishermen took hold of the shark in his arms and then transported it to deeper water and set it free. No fight. No flight. Freedom!
In the face of peril, hardship, hurt, and pain, when we are accused, oppressed, ridiculed, or bullied, our only options are not fight or flight. The gospel invites us to live from love and compassion, even for our enemy, and so to save ourselves. May we embrace the way of Jesus which truly sets us free. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.