Sunday, August 11, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Click "Like" if You Love Jesus!"

Philemon 10-21

10 Appeal to you for my child Onesimus. I became his father in the faith during my time in prison. 11 He was useless to you before, but now he is useful to both of us. 12 I’m sending him back to you, which is like sending you my own heart. 13 I considered keeping him with me so that he might serve me in your place during my time in prison because of the gospel. 14 However, I didn’t want to do anything without your consent so that your act of kindness would occur willingly and not under pressure. 15 Maybe this is the reason that Onesimus was separated from you for a while so that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave—that is, as a dearly loved brother. He is especially a dearly loved brother to me. How much more can he become a brother to you, personally and spiritually in the Lord! 17 So, if you really consider me a partner, welcome Onesimus as if you were welcoming me. 18 If he has harmed you in any way or owes you money, charge it to my account. 19 I, Paul, will pay it back to you (I’m writing this with my own hand). Of course, I won’t mention that you owe me your life. 20 Yes, brother, I want this favor from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 I’m writing to you, confident of your obedience and knowing that you will do more than what I ask. (CEB)

“The Gospel Gone Viral: If the Bible had been Written Online,” Week Three

I have seen them on my news feed in part because sometimes one of y’all will share it—a PSA or APB for a child or a family that has suddenly gone missing under unknown or suspicious circumstances.  As big a deal as the Amber Alert system was when the government created it, we now have our own ad hoc Amber Alert system through the tools of the internet and social media.  But does that network ever work?  Well…here, I’ll let the real journalists from NBC News tell it:

A San Bernardino mother whose children were kidnapped 15 years ago was able to finally track them down using Facebook.  San Bernardino’s Deputy District Attorney says it’s the first time his office has handled a case like this one.  But in this digital age, it may not be the last.

(A father) of two toddlers, a boy and a girl, vanished with them in 1995.  Their mother reported them missing and 15 years passed.  At the time they were 2 and 3 years old.  So they’re now 17 and 16…but in those years, the Internet exploded and social networking sites revolutionized the process of tracking people down.

The mother got onto Facebook and typed in one of the children’s names and hit a Facebook page.  It was her daughter, and they started corresponding.  The mother even sent the teenager a family photo, dating back to before the split.  But the relationship stalled.  The teenager said, “Not interested in a relationship.  We just have a happy life.  Leave us alone.”

The teen’s Facebook page disappeared.  The mother, who still lives in San Bernardino, contacted (law enforcement).  They tracked the Facebook profile and the girl to Orlando Florida.  (The father) was then arrested and is now charged with two counts of kidnapping and two counts of violating child custody orders.  As for the mother and her children, they will have to build a new relationship…

This is a new sermon series designed to take us through the month of August, and it is a slightly different one from many of the sermon series we have had here in the past, which often revolve around a theme, a chapter of Scripture, or a book by a contemporary author.  This sermon series isn’t about a substance so much as it is about a style: the style of communication that has taken the world by storm within the past 15-20 years via the internet.  And I adamantly believe that online communication and social media represent a tremendous opportunity for us to offer the Good News of Jesus Christ to a lot of people.  Which is exactly the same way, I think, that the writers of the New Testament viewed their Gospels and Epistles.  With that supposition, we will be spending these five Sundays tackling how we might write the message today, with our modern-day tools, and we began with perhaps the most basic: email and text messaging, before graduating last week to Twitter, but now we return to a platform that I know is familiar to many of you because I am friends with you on it—Facebook, which my International Affairs professor in college kept referring to as “Bookface,” as in, “What is this ‘Bookface thing’ you kids do?” 

And simultaneously, we finally stumble upon the real reason for Paul’s writing to Philemon.

Philemon has—er, had—a slave, named Onesimus (funny story: “Onesimus” is Greek for “useful.”  Paul is deliberately playing on words by inferring that they once saw Onesimus as “useless”).  Onesimus at some point ran away, under unknown (to us) circumstances, and found his way to Paul, presumably prior to Paul’s imprisonment, because Paul writes poignantly about how Onesimus has, in fact, lived up to his namesake and been useful in Paul’s life and work.

But the law interferes with this new setup.  As New Testament scholar Daniel Harrington puts it:

Slavery was an accepted social institution in the Roman Empire.  A slave who ran away from a master’s household had several options: turn to banditry, disappear into the subculture of a large city, flee far away, seek other menial work, or seek asylum at a shrine or temple.  It was customary to pursue runaway slaves and to reward those who captured them or aided in their capture.  By law, Paul had an obligation to send the runaway slave Onesimus to his master.

In other words, when you think of the laws governing slavery in Biblical Israel, think of the Fugitive Slave Act from the pre-Civil War America that we all learned about in 10th grade social studies: no matter your stance on slavery, you were bound by law to return any runaway slaves to whence they came.  It wasn’t so much an Amber Alert system so much as a means of keeping an enslaved people enslaved.  It is shameful now, and I believe that for Paul it was shameful then.

Because Paul makes the case that Onesimus not simply some merchandise being returned to its rightful owner.  Paul says that Onesimus is exactly the person whom we would put out an Amber Alert for, that we would ask law enforcement to move heaven and earth to find, whose picture we would upload to Facebook and ask our friends to share far and wide.  Paul says that Onesimus is no longer Philemon’s slave, but his brother.  And what many interpreters have generally held this final verse to mean—verse 21, where Paul says he knows that Philemon “will do more than I ask”—that Paul expects Philemon to grant Onesimus his freedom.

And I can only imagine, based on this letter alone, what Paul might be able to do if he had Facebook today, because as much and as horribly as the Internet has been used for human trafficking—enabling prostitution via innocuous sites like Craigslist, or posting fake wanted ads to lure young women into being kidnapped—the Internet has also completely changed how we can find those same people—those enslaved children of God forgotten by all but their enslavers.

And believe it or not, that really does begin with what we choose to share or not share on a social media platform like Facebook.  Facebook is, for lack of a better term, an extremely detailed rolodex (you remember those, right?).  You can make available all the information that would be on your business or rolodex card (and you can set it so that the public at large cannot access that information), but you can also write updates on your profile to let people know what is going on in your life.  Whereas my parents, when I was a newborn, typed out and hand-mailed letters to friends and family updating them on my baby noises, shenanigans, and colic, now my friends who are parents can do all of that through Facebook.  Whether you get a new job, or get engaged, or have a kid, or just have a really fan-freaking-tastic cup of coffee that morning, you can write about it on Facebook and then watch afterwards to see how many of your friends will “like” or “share” your latest update.  It’s like a highly-addictive, obsessive-compulsive narcissism!

And that can, I will say, quickly turn into manipulation.  Seriously—those of us who have Facebook, how many of you see your feeds cluttered with things like this: “CLICK LIKE IF YOU LOVE YOUR LEFT-HANDEDED DYSLEXIC PET KOALA BEAR, IGNORING THE FACT THAT KOALA BEARS CAN’T ACTUALLY READ THIS OR ANYTHING AT ALL?”

It drives me nuts, and there actually is a word for it: it’s called “slacktivism,” a portmanteau of “slacker” and “activism.”  It refers to whenever someone takes a public stand for something in an effortless or trivial way—like clicking the “like” button Facebook on behalf of your left-handed, dyslexic pet koala bear, because, hey, owners of left-handed dyslexic koala bears gotta represent.

But it really is a profoundly meaningless way to go about communicating what you value.  If you value your pets, great.  Show me that by how well you treat them.  Do you value a person’s freedom?  Fantastic.  Show me that by how you might do as Paul does, by taking the time to advocate on behalf of someone who most likely wants nothing more than their freedom.

Paul does this in a remarkable way through this letter.  Remember earlier in the series, when I said that there’s a reason Paul also addresses this letter not just to Philemon, but to his entire household?  Well, this is it.  Paul knows that if he cc’s Philemon’s family on this one, they might be able to make this a family decision rather than Philemon’s yes-or-no to Onesimus’s freedom.  Paul shares, in a manner, the need for this man’s liberty with Philemon’s other Facebook friends.

This is what the Gospel gone viral could really be used for, you know.  Facebook has a “share” function, which does exactly what it sounds like: it allows you to share something that popped up on your newsfeed so that it will then appear on the newsfeeds of your friends and family.  And I think this sort of thing makes sense to my generation because we are still taught the same lesson that every generation before us has been taught: sharing is good.  We are supposed to share the things we like, the things we value, because it shows we value the person we are sharing with.
The way us whippersnappers live out that maxim—at least in part—is on the Internet, and we do that by sharing our things online.  Only instead of blocks or legos, it’s a news article or a picture.

And we can use this great means of sharing for unbelievable ends—the Internet, social media, Facebook, the whole nine yards, it isn’t just about banality and frivolity.  Families are found.  Parents and children are reunited.  Just as Onesimus will be reunited with his former household no longer under the yoke of slavery but under the guise of brotherhood, so too can we offer the Word of God to free others from the yoke of pain and hurt and evil, and offer them the love of Christian fellowship.  And believe me—that is a heck of a difference from simply passing along another “Click “Like” if you love Jesus!” status update.  Because I can guess how that conversation goes next: “Oh, you clicked a button because you love the Lord and Savior of humankind who, you know, freaking DIED ON A CROSS?  But you’ll click a button for Him?” 

No.  But will you do as Paul did, appeal to each other out of love, across God’s good creation?  Will you do more than click a button for your faith?  Will you live it out?  May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 11, 2013

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