A sermon delivered July 10, 2022 by Fr. Justin Clemente to the People of New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD. Part four of a four-part series on Technology and the Christian.
This Is…Kind of a Problem
It was just last year that Archbishop Foley Beach, the Archbishop of our province, took time to address at length the problem of Christian conduct on social media. He said this:
One of the problems I see is that too many of our clergy are emoting rather than speaking with wisdom and thinking critically. We are supposed to be cultural thought-leaders, or at least attempting to be. I read so many angry tweets or responses to something in the news that were basically reflecting a non-critical repetition of what the media already said. Without doing any homework, research, or searching for the facts, people are emoting and reacting, many times in complete ignorance of the facts, through their tweets and comments on social platforms. …
To make matters worse, if you disagree with these emotional and uncritical comments, you are condemned and attacked. Then you are cancelled; that is, written off as not worthy of fellowship. In the Church of Jesus Christ this should never be the case unless we are following the biblical reasons for doing so. … Jesus and the Apostles constantly spoke of unity and oneness in the body, not of cancelling one another.
This raises another question we should ask ourselves as we pontificate to others: why do I think I am so important that I need to be publicly commenting anyway? Have you become so self-important and so self-aggrandizing that you think the world cannot live without your comments on every issue presented to us by the secular news media? …
Don’t hear me wrong. I am not trying to shut down social media. I am not trying to shut down discussion and dialogue. I am trying to address our witness for Jesus on social media, and frankly, it is appalling. How can we expect others to want to follow Jesus when his followers are not following him, but rather are following their own egos?”
Now here’s what I want to point out: he said that to and about clergy on social media. So the challenges of our loving our neighbor in and with the new technology must be pervasive and deep. We all here this morning know that and feel that on a daily basis.
One of Tony Reinke’s key insights in the area of social media interaction is how disembodied rage is easily conjured up and spread (I’d say it’s even celebrated!), while authentic joy is very hard to convey online. He writes, “Our bodies distinguish us from one another and mark of our existence in the world. In the digital realm, we lose this key reference point. We lose sight of one another, and when we do, anger boils more quickly. … Online anger is a consequence of the division in our lives – our attention is divided, our minds are divided, and our digital personas are separated from our flesh and blood.”[i]
On the other hand, joy – real, deep, authentic Christian joy cannot really be conveyed online. The Scriptures explicitly acknowledge this: “Though I have much to write to you,” says the Apostle John, “I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” (2 John 12)
We cannot truly sing together online, we cannot be baptized in pixels online, we cannot partake in the Lord’s Supper online. Even on Zoom, we perennially struggle to have true eye contact online. Joy is meant to be personal and embodied. Rage is easier than the hard joy of an in-person life. From Tony Reinke again: “It is almost impossible to miss the juxtaposed parody between our dusty selves and glistening pixels. We smudge technology because we are not machines. We are creatures made in the image of the supreme Creator, and we are made to share embodied joy together, in his name.”[ii]
- So, this kind of a problem, but’s it’s an old, well-worn parable that will give us the antidote. With that we turn to the parable of The Good Samaritan.
The Truly Good Neighbor
The Question(s) – verse 25
The setting for this parable is a question asked to Jesus by a religious expert – a lawyer. I’m sure I could insert some witty jokes here about lawyers, but suffice to say that when a religious expert asks a question of Jesus, unfortunately it’s most often a deceptive question. V. 25 is more than a clue – he stands and tests Jesus. And, he’s already asking the wrong question: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” How does one earn an inheritance? Especially that kind of inheritance!
The Standard – verses 26-29
The lawyer is directed back to the law. “What does the law say?” Jesus asks him. Jesus could have preached the gospel to him here, but he doesn’t. He isn’t yet in a place where he can hear the gospel. The lawyer answers correctly, but the problem is that he thinks he is already arrived!
He is like a basketball player who is really good at making three pointers. In the parable, and in response to his self-justifying second question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus is going to come along and move the basket – all the way to the moon. He’s going to show him, in stunning clarity, not only who is my neighbor, but also what it looks like for him to become a good neighbor.
The Parable – verses 30 to 32
The parable begins with a man, presumably Jewish (he’s coming from Jerusalem, after all), being beaten and left for dead by thieves. A priest, coming from his service at the temple in Jerusalem, happens upon the man. He appears to weigh what getting involved would cost him verses staying out of it. He has the means to care for the man – priests were known to be affluent in the first century. To get involved would be to risk ceremonial defilement and great personal inconvenience, but to stay away would be to leave a fellow image-bearer to die. The risks are too great, he tells himself, and he moves on. The man is forgotten and the priest’s convenience is kept.
On comes the second man – a Levite. Now Levites were assistants to the priests in the temple. The Levite may well have been following the priest down the road. What is he going to do? Is he going to show up the priest by helping the man? Surely not. He figures, the priest moved on, so I should, too.
Now at this point in the parable, what everyone in the original audience expects to hear is for a regular old Jewish guy to come along and help out – a lay person. They expect that he will be the hero of the parable. But that’s not what happens. As Canon Theologian Ken Bailey says, the parable proceeds to explode in the face of those who hear it.[iii] You can almost hear a collective groan from the crowd at verse 33!
The Samaritan…and Jesus?! – verses 33 to 37
Samaritans, we remember, had no dealing with Jews, as John 4 tells us. Samaritans were seen as religious and ethnic “half-breeds” and there was great animosity between them and the Jewish people. In fact, about 20 years before Jesus’ ministry, it got so bad that a group of Samaritans desecrated the temple in Jerusalem by scattering human bones in the courtyard of the Temple during Passover.[iv] To say that these two groups of people did not like each other would be an understatement! In fact, when Jesus asks the lawyer which one proved to be a neighbor to the man, he cannot even bring himself to fully acknowledge him. He says, “I guess it was that guy – the one who showed him mercy.” (v. 37)
The Good Samaritan bursts into the parable, in a place and a world he doesn’t belong, comes near to the suffering and dying man, uses all his resources to help, at great cost and at peril to himself. Ken Bailey is very insightful here by pointing out that by bringing the man to Jericho, a Jewish town, he essentially inviting death upon himself. So not only does he help the man, he takes the man’s plight onto himself.
- Jesus ends the parable by effectively blowing the lawyer’s mind. He has a lot to think about, doesn’t he? In the end, he’s as in need of mercy as was the beaten and dying man. And you know, simmering just under the surface of the parable is Jesus and his cross. Though he had no need to, he came at great cost himself – incarnate – to bind and heal our wounds, taking our sin upon himself, even switching places with us, demonstrating God’s mercy toward us. Jesus became the true and faithful neighbor. Jesus: God the Good Samaritan – who can think of a more startling picture? But it is the one he gave us.
Reflecting digitally on the call love our neighbor, what does this parable have to teach us? It teaches us that in our online interactions, it easy to remain aloof and at a distance, it is hard to be in person, incarnate and compassionate. Jesus did that for us and gives that to us as our model to follow. We are to “have this mind” among us – the very mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5).
Here are the two points I’m driving at:
1) The way we interact with others online ought to reflect the standard of neighborliness given by Jesus. On social media, we’re not interacting with machines or smartphones, but people – all of them in great need! In all our interactions, can we speak our mind in the same way we would to a friend over dinner? Moreover, can our words online begin to bring healing? Are we there to bring heat or light? Do our words contain the healing wine and oil of the Gospel? The inserted takeaway for today will help you to do just that.
2) Easy online, distanced, thin “friendships” and “fellowship” are never a replacement for difficult in-person neighborliness. You can’t really become a good neighbor from a distance and you can’t have a good neighbor from a distance. As we saw, the Samaritan’s actions were costly – to say the least, they interrupted his schedule. And, I’m sure there were awkward moments in the Inn, as the Jewish man realized he had been saved…by a Samaritan!?
Let me ask you a question: why is it that our interactions on Sunday morning often feel more awkward than our online interactions? Simply this: here, you can’t split your personhood up. You just have to be you. You can’t post the best picture you have of yourself from five years ago or a filtered, air brushed photo. You can’t send a quick text. You have to be totally and fully you – however you are this morning!
For some of us this morning, it occurs to me that perhaps we need to spend more time thinking about the character in the story we tend to gloss over: the dying man. In social media “relationships,” everything is supposed to be great. Pictures are perfect. Marriage is great. The job is great. The kids are great. For some of us, perhaps the takeaway is that we need to let Jesus and his people get close enough to us to bind our wounds and begin to be whole. You cannot do that online, but you can do it in the Body of Christ.
So as we end, may all your use of technology bring glory to our Good Neighbor, the one and only Savior, and may it speak of and bring to others his healing balm. Amen.
[i] 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke, pgs. 58-59
[ii] 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke, pg. 63
[iii] Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey, pg. 294
[iv] Rodney Whitacre, IVP Commentary John, p.102