Category Archives: Sermons

The Facebook Effect & The Court Prophets of Old (Testament)

I don’t usually post sermon manuscripts/transcripts, but since our audio recording isn’t currently working I prepped this one and thus share it here for anyone with the grace to read the whole thing!
Prior to this sermon, we watched the following BBC video on Vimeo: “The Social Media Echo Chamber”

1 – The Facebook Effect: Social Media “Echo Chambers”

Let me begin with a caveat: as a later part of Generation X, I am a digital migrant, not a digital native. I remember thinking, when I came to NAU in the Fall of 1993 and was assigned an email address, “no one is going to use email!” (You could argue I was right, as now no one does use it but texts everything!) Similarly, I was slow to join Facebook or Social Media. In fact, it was my Worship Design Team that first goaded me on to the platform. They routinely shared that “the Bishop is on Facebook;” they finally got me to join when they declared, “you wife is on Facebook!”

Anyway, I turn to Facebook and social media as modern technologices that have accelerated a tendency of human behavior has existed for some time. In fact, it may be a natural tendancy for us, hard wired into our human condition. I’m referring to our choice to self-select
• groups we belong to,
• people we discuss things with, and
• the type of media we consume.
And, more specifically, we generally self-select such to correspond with our existing perspectives.

While this emerged last year in more and more discussions, it is not a new thing. In some minimal research this week, I discovered articles from the 1990s about such “echo chambers” related to media consumption, at that time focusing on talk radio shows. But the advent and explosive growth of social media have perhaps made these tendencies more observable and relevant.

According to tech blog Ars Technica, the PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States) recently undertook a study of the Facebook activity of 376 million(!) English-speaking users:

The authors found that Facebook users typically interact with a small number of news outlets. Users tend to confine their activity to a limited set of pages. These behaviors allow news consumption on Facebook to be dominated by selective exposure, meaning that people are most often exposed to news sources that reinforce their existing opinions. Though social media critics have been making this claim for a while, the authors’ quantification of this behavior adds strong empirical evidence to the argument.
“The Social Media ‘Echo Chamber’ is Real”; via Ars Technica

A Wikipedia article about echo chambers points out that “people trust evidence supplied by their own social group, more than they do the news media,” and goes on to share that,

“Another emerging term for this echoing and homogenizing effect on the Internet within social communities is cultural tribalism.”

I found that term, tribalism, intriguing because of conversations I’ve had with Brooke Isingoma. Some of you know Brooke; she was formerly a member here at Trinity Heights and after completing PHD studies in Africa she is now pasturing in Paige while she finishes her dissertation on African Christianity.

Brooke and I have talked some about tribalism. A key negative characteristic she identifies about tribalism, one that is radically different from our cultural experience, is the expectation and pressure toward conformity. Whether it be chosen freely or forced on members of the tribe, they are expected to conform to social behaviors, expectations, and norms. The way Brooke describes this emphasis, it is a radically different experience from our American norm of individualism, where we tend to emphasize the importance of the individual over that of the community.

Social Media Echo Chambers, and our tendency to self-select groups or media that reinforce our perspectives, present a problem to us. They limit our worldview and perspective. They may even prevent us from being challenged to hear the divine voice speaking to us!

I believe part of the solution to these echo chambers occurs somewhere between the over-emphasis on individualism of our culture and the conformity expected within others. But before I get to a potential solution, I want to share a few Biblical examples of the echo chamber. Then I’ll share some Biblical insight we can turn to in choosing how to respond.

2 – The Court Prophets of Old (Testament)

1 Kings 12 tells a story about King Rehoboam, son of Solomon and grandson of David. As Rehoboam is coming to power, the people send for exiled Jeroboam to be a spokesperson to him. They share with Rehoboam:

“Your father made our workload very hard for us…”

Let me pause for a moment of context. When Samuel, considered the last of the judges and first of the prophets, is approached by the people demanding a king, he prophesizes to them all of the bad things the king may do, including their oppression. Still, the people insist they want a king, so that they can “be like the other nations around us.” It is in King Solomon’s reign that Samuel’s prophecy comes to fruition; as Solomon does all of the things Samuel had warned the people about. As a result, they felt oppressed by their own king, and were frustrated. Back to the story of the people coming to Rehoboam:

“Your father made our workload very hard for us.” If you will lessen the demands your father made of us and lighten the heavy workload he demanded from us, then we will serve you.” He answered them, “Come back in three days.” So the people left.

King Rehoboam consulted the elders who had served his father Solomon when he was alive. “What do you advise?” Rehoboam asked. “How should I respond to these people?”

“If you will be a servant to this people by answering them and speaking good words today,” they replied, “then they will be your servants forever.”

But Rehoboam ignored the advice the elders gave him and instead sought the counsel of the young advisors who had grown up with him and now served him. “What do you advise?” he asked them. “How should we respond to these people who have said to me, ‘Lighten the workload your father demanded of us’?”

The young people who had grown up with him said to him, “This people said to you, ‘Your father made our workload heavy; lighten it for us!’ Now this is what you should say to them: ‘My baby finger is thicker than my father’s entire waist! So if my father made your workload heavy, I’ll make it even heavier! If my father disciplined you with whips, I’ll do it with scorpions!’”

Jeroboam and all the people returned to Rehoboam on the third day, just as the king had specified when he said, “Come back to me in three days.” The king then answered the people harshly. He ignored the elders’ advice and instead followed the young people’s advice. He said, “My father made your workload heavy, but I’ll make it even heavier! My father disciplined you with whips, but I’ll do it with scorpions!”
(1 Kings 12, selections, CEB)

I want to point out that “the young people who had grown up with him” and offer him advice offer it from a perspective similar to his own. They have only known the reign of King Solomon; they do not remember the kingdom as it existed during David’s tenure. They probably even know similar experiences as children of the elite. And so they fan Rehoboam’s ego, encourage his natural inclination to being “better” than his predecessor. And, as a result, the kingdom of Israel, united in no small part because of David’s efforts, splits into two kingdoms; neither of which are to have a great history from that point forward.

There is a similar story in 1 Kings 22, where Israel’s King Ahab has surrounded himself with 400 court prophets who seem to share his perspective.  Judah’s King Jehosaphat comes to visit, and they discuss a region (Ramoth-gilea) that had been within Israel’s borders but had been taken over by another country:

So Israel’s king gathered about four hundred prophets, and he asked them, “Should I go to war with Ramoth-gilead or not?” “Attack!” the prophets answered. “The Lord will hand it over to the king.”

But Jehoshaphat said, “Isn’t there any other prophet of the Lord whom we could ask?” “There is one other man who could ask the Lord for us,” Israel’s king told Jehoshaphat, “but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, only bad. His name is Micaiah, Imlah’s son.”

Note that King Ahab already critiques Micaiah because he isn’t a “yes man” like the other court prophets. Jehosphat convinces Ahab to send for Micaiah:

Meanwhile, the messenger who had gone to summon Micaiah said to him, “Listen, the prophets all agree that the king will succeed. You should say the same thing they say and prophesy success.”

But Micaiah answered, “As surely as the Lord lives, I will say only what the Lord tells me to say.”

When Micaiah arrived, the king asked him, “Micaiah, should we go to war with Ramoth-gilead or not?”

“Attack and win!” Micaiah answered. “The Lord will hand it over to the king!”

But the king said, “How many times must I demand that you tell me the truth when you speak in the name of the Lord?”

Then Micaiah replied, “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd! And then the Lord said: They have no master. Let them return safely to their own homes.”

Then Israel’s king said to Jehoshaphat, “Didn’t I tell you? He never prophesies anything good about me, only bad.”
(1 Kings 22, selections, CEB)

Guess who Ahab listens to? Yes, the 400 court prophets, instead of Micaiah. As a result, Ahab goes in to battle at Ramoth-Gilead, but he takes a precaution to dress not as a king but as a common soldier. Even so, while the enemy seems to focus its energies on Jehosaphat, dressed as king, a stray arrow strikes and kills Ahab, leaving the people of Israel without a leader.

Jeremiah 28 gives another example, where the Jeremiah squares off with the court prophet Hananaiah, who is sharing with the king and officials they should not fear the Babylonian exile because it will only last for a few years.
There’s a well-known verse elsewhere in Jeremiah that touches on these echo chambers, where kings and officials only listened to the prophets that spoke positively. In Jeremiah 8, he shares God’s critique of such:

…prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit.
They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.
“Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace.
(Jeremiah 8:20b-11, NIV)

3 – Responding to Modern Echo Chambers

I find some biblical guidance in how to respond from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. I have portions of this letter at the start of my journal precisely beause of the wsdom here shown.

First, we are invited to “live worthy of the calling”

Therefore, as a prisoner for the Lord, I encourage you to live as people worthy of the call you received from God.
(Eph. 4:1, CEB)

There are a variety of aspects to our calling in Christ. But the one that first came to mind has to do with how we will be identified, and called, as God’s people. In Matthew 5, during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus shares:

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called children of God.
(Matthew 5:9, NIV)

As followers of the Prince of Peace, we are called to be peacemakers. We are told we will be called and known as children of God when we seek to build and live in peace.

Paul continues this same thought, when he encourages us to “live in unity”

Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all. (Eph. 4:2-6, CEB)

Paul emphasizes that we are called to live in unity, not uniformity. I think this is the healthy middle ground between individualism and conformity. In seeking unity, we recognize and value our individuality while also emphasizing and valuing community, and our part within it. Remember, Paul routinely refers to our connections in community in terms of a “body,” where all parts are connected and important.
Further, I read in Paul an encouragement to us to “speak, and listen, in love”

In Christ, called to grow up, to speak the truth to one another, in love: we aren’t supposed to be infants any longer who can be tossed and blown around by every wind that comes from teaching with deceitful scheming and the tricks people play to deliberately mislead others. Instead, by speaking the truth with love, let’s grow in every way into Christ, who is the head. The whole body grows from him, as it is joined and held together by all the supporting ligaments. The body makes itself grow in that it builds itself up with love as each one does its part. (Eph. 4:14-16, CEB)
Therefore, after you have gotten rid of lying, Each of you must tell the truth to your neighbor because we are parts of each other in the same body. (Eph. 4:25, CEB)

Not only are we encouraged, as we seek to grow up in Christ, to speak the truth in love, but Paul goes on to share how we do so:

Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say. Don’t make the Holy Spirit of God unhappy—you were sealed by him for the day of redemption. Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil. Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ. (Eph, 4:29-32)

Rule 3 of our family’s six rules is related to this, “use kind words in a kind voice.” We are reminded that our language is powerful, and Paul encourages us to speak truthfully, but also to avoid foul words; to avoid speaking evil and only that which helps build others up. To put aside negative things like bitterness, anger, slander, and choose to be kind, compassionate, and forgiving.

I believe that this applies not only to speaking but also to listening (in love). Not only is this a relevant application of both Ephesians and other Scripture, but it is also a strategy recommended by others who are studying and writing about filter bubbles. A solution to overcome filter bubbles is to listen to others, particularly those with different perspectives than our own.

The book of James addresses this well, too, in 1:19:

Know this, my dear brothers and sisters:
everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.
(James 1:19, CEB)

Quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. Those are wise words, but it seems to me that in too much of modern discourse we flip that on its head and choose to pursue the opposite: quick to anger, quick to speak, slow to listen… If we could choose to follow James’ exhortation, perhaps we’d have more civil dialogue and be able to expand our perspectives.

I want to share a recent experience that illustrates both the good and ugly of speaking and listening.

A couple summers ago, I attended a special summer course at Asbury Theological School in Kentucky. Going to Asbury was a step outside of my usual comfort zone; I’m generally centrist, and going to an enclave known for evangelical conservatism was a bit of an uncomfortable shift for me. But I went because I knew one of the two professors leading the course on Wesleyan theology (something that interests me).

I feel blessed to claim Dr. Phil Meadows as a colleague and friend (I won’t speak as to whether he might claim me as such). I’ve known Phil since he was my professor of Wesleyan Studies at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary. Phil and I do not agree on all things – in fact, if we were to take a tally of theological, ideological, and social perspectives, we probably hold varied perspectives on many.

But we both do agree on the foundational importance of Scripture, and take the Bible very seriously. We both believe in the high value of our Wesleyan heritage and theology, and believe there is insight in our heritage to lead us in our contemporary settings. Yet we may come to different conclusions from these common starting points.

That said, Phil remains to me an inspiration in relation to evangelism and ministry. Today he splits his time between the INSPIRE Movement in England and Asbury. So I went to this class knowing that though we might have some disagreements, overall there was much that I find in common with Phil and how he seeks to follow Jesus Christ in the company of John Wesley. And Phil didn’t disappoint me; his lectures and classes were well thought and well presented.

However, that wasn’t my experience with his colleague. The other professor also had good content and ideas, some of which I am still intrigued by and exploring; but his approach was salted with negatives. Whether from anger or self-righteousness, his speech was peppered that week with derogatory, denigrating comments for those with other opinions, including leaders, liberals, and any Methodist in the Western Jurisdiction. Even if this professor had good content, it was colored, to me, because of the way in which he presented it.

We’re called and exhorted, as followers of Christ, to speak and listen in love. To be quick to listen, slow to speak, and (dare I say) slow-er to anger. I believe that if we can find ways to listen, to invite others to share their perspective in similar loving ways, we can broaden our understanding of one another, of our world, and even of God. (We all seem but in a mirror, dimly, after all.)

In closing, I believe an early portion of Max Ehrmann’s poem Desiderata speaks well both to living in unity and to listening and speaking in love:

As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

(And thank you for listening to me.)

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Mark, Matthew, and Luke walk into this coffee shop…

Now that we’ve used it twice, I doubt we’ll be returning to this script any time in the near future, so I thought I’d share the Easter Sunday worship script I wrote with the youth of Trinity Heights U.M.C. We first wrote and presented this in 2015, and again this year…

Enjoy!

A Script For Easter

“The Silver Bracelet” – Advent sermons/stories from 2008

Just posting here on the main page, as well, that I am sharing my Advent narrative from 2008 – “The Silver Bracelet” – which is based on Year B lectionary passages.

No doubt the astute among you will find that in addition to trying to craft a narrative about one woman’s life and experience of God, I also tried to integrate two theological teachings:

  1. our Triune God (parts 2, 3, and 4 each try to emphasize one “person” of the Trinity)
  2. three stages of grace (again, parts 2, 3, and 4 each try to illustrate “preventing” [or “prevenient”], justifying, and santcifying grace)

I hope you enjoy. And thank you for reading! Feel free to post comments here or on the main/starting page.

Blessings to you.

Ashes on the Forehead… Smudges on the Soul

Ashes on the Forehead… Smudges on the Soul
A reflection for Ash Wednesday, 2011

In a few minutes, I’ll invite you all to come forward and receive ashes on your forehead or hand, as a ritual act to mark the beginning of this season of Lent: little smudges on the body in the shape of the cross, to serve as a reminder of the sacrifice of our Lord.

The thing is, as I enter this season of Lent, I’m less concerned with the ashes on my forehead than I am the smudges on my soul.

A United Methodist colleague and gifted preacher, Safiyah Fosua, who works for the Board of Disciples, wrote the following a few years ago:

I would rather wear the smudge on my forehead than to admit its residence upon my soul. I prefer a crude cross above my eyes to questions about runny mascara and smudged liner. In a place where self-confidence is rewarded and any sign of weakness or emotional predisposition is held suspect, it is difficult to consider actually following the advice of the prophet to return to the Lord with fasting, with weeping and with mourning. It is, however, acceptable — maybe even fashionable to appear in public with a dirty forehead as a sign that I have religion. It is amazing how the symbols of piety, sackcloth and ashes, have been transformed into mask that hides me from myself and circumvents the intent of Ash Wednesday.

The intent of Ash Wednesday is not to declare to the outside world that “I have religion,” but to open up to God. In the language of the Bible and the church, it’s to recognize and admit that I “have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” In modern language – as another writer got me to thinking this week – it is to admit that I’m dirty. The ashes on my forehead are just a reflection of the smudges on my soul.

A friend’s Facebook status pointed me toward the blog of Ryan Peter, a Christian living in Johannesburg. I want to share with you a longer selection from his blog, where he wrote the following last July:

I came to the realization many years ago that I would sooner follow a dirty pastor than a clean one. Let me explain what I mean. A clean pastor is the guy where everything is so wonderful and perfect, his teeth shine whiter than Obama’s, and he always has the perfect thing to say. His theology is clean cut; his preaching is clean cut; his family are perfect; and of course his hair is so clean cut it’s unbelievable.

A dirty pastor is the guy who makes mistakes and is real about it. He’s open about his mistakes. His theology is jumbled; he doesn’t always have the answers; he is just a fellow traveller on this narrow, dirty, rocky road that is finding his way and finding Jesus. The only difference is that God has called him to lead others on the road. That’s not an easy thing to do.

When I picture Jesus I picture a dirty guy with mud on his clothes and having maybe forgotten to brush his teeth that morning. He’s not worried about his image — after all, if you clean others you’re going to get the dirt on you. Jesus walks with us through the muck and crap of our lives and so he is bound to get dirty.

Give me dirty Jesus, who isn’t afraid to get mud on his clothes and sand in his hair. Give me dirty Jesus where sin isn’t some sort of kryptonite that makes him run away. Holiness isn’t idealism. Holiness isn’t clean teeth and ironed clothes. Holiness is wild, free, and prepared to get dirty.

A dirty Jesus equals a dirty Christian, who, like Jesus, isn’t afraid to waddle through the muck and help those who are stuck in the muck.

Our band has an Audio Adrenaline song they sometimes do, “Dirty.” Like Ryan’s image of Jesus, it takes the term to refer to how we end up dirty when we serve others…

Tired of being clean, sick of being proper
I wanna live among the beggars
and dig out in the dirt…
Don’t be afraid to get some mud on your face…
Come on, come on and serve someone

let’s get dirty, let’s get used
No matter where you come from,
if you’re beaten up or bruised
let’s get foolish, let’s get free
Free to be the one thing you were meant to be
Let’s get dirty

Lent could be said to be about getting dirty in this way: our call to renewed vigor in our works of mercy, as we seek to serve others.

But in a broader sense, this entire season of Lent is about being real – being real with God, real with ourselves, perhaps even – if we dare! – real with one another.

To admit we don’t have it all together,
that we even feel guilty that we don’t have it together,
that we struggle with doing the very thing we don’t want to do…

but also to admit that we have the desire to do the right thing…
to live the good, kind, holy life we believe is possible in Christ…
the kind of life some of us imagine our neighbors in church have.

It was about a year ago that I shared in our contemporary service my struggle in disciplining Will – how my first response is often that which was bred into me by my family of origin: anger, yelling, even occasionally swatting. And I’ll be honest, I’m still struggling with this.

Indeed, for this season of Lent I’m not concerned with trivial asceticism like giving up chocolate or coffee or television or Facebook; but I am concerned with the more difficult discipline of consciously and intentionally directing my attention and energy into recommitting myself to being the kind of parent I want and hope to be: more patient, kind, gentle, and slow to anger. More the reflection of the loving father from Luke 15 than the angry and relationally dysfunctional role models I was given.

This is the holiness I’m feeling called to at this time. It’s not an easy thing, and it’s not the only “dirt” in my life. But it is the smudge on my soul that most concerns me. It is the darkness within that I most lament, and where I most want the light of Christ to shine in to and help dissipate. Lord, have mercy.

I could conceal it, I suppose. Make it seem as though I were a better parent than I am. Or I could claim that I’m generally a good and patient person, but for when the stress of life (or vocation or family or whatever) leaves me feeling on edge.

But the reality is, the truth will out some day, in some way. And if I hide or excuse it, from others – and most especially from myself – than there is less likelihood that Christ can help heal it. I may be dirty, but I hope to be real about it. Because I do believe in the power of God, in the transformative healing that can occur through faith.

The Apostle Paul was “dirty” in this sense of being real; he was honest with those he wrote to. As we approach the finish of our reading through the New Testament these first 90 days of 2011, we read again this past week, in 2 Corinthians, passages I shared in worship earlier this month; passages where Paul shares his bruises and weaknesses. He writes in 2 Corinthians 6, that he has “spoken openly to you,” not holding back but sharing how the grace and power of God is strong even in his weakness.

Paul is real about himself as well as the situations in the churches, and among the Christians, he writes to. And he also gives us encouragement to find it within ourselves to be real with and open to God. To open ourselves to the transforming reality of personal holiness, as a side-effect of Christ’s death for us. Paul writes, in his letter to the Romans:

…count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.   (Romans 6:11-14)

This is the invitation of Lent, to seek to more fervently offer ourselves to God. To seek to die to sin and live in righteousness. This invitation is echoed again in Romans when Paul exhorts us with the following words:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:1-2, 21)

That’s my hope. Not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome it with good. God help me, I hope in this season to discipline myself a bit more in that direction. And, as can happen, perhaps the increased commitment and discipline now will make it a bit easier in the future.

But this journey, this commitment to holiness, has to start somewhere. Somehow.

Which brings me back to today, Ash Wednesday, the beginning of this season. A day we are marked with ashes that we might recognize and confess our dirt. Let me share from UM preacher Safiyah Fosua again, who wrote:

Rend your hearts and not your garments, the prophet [Joel] said.. The gift of this day is personal reflection, a season of confession, and change. Start the arduous journey from shadow to substance, from ritual to reality, from façade to faith. Today, choose the harder course. It is easier to buy new clothing than to mend a soul.

Outward expressions of faith are easy to do, and easy to change. Lent calls us to a harder path: a path of self-examination, confession, and true repentance. A path that embraces the possibility of real, deep, and perhaps even painful change as God seeks to remold us. A journey that not only recognizes but claims the “dirt” in our personal life, and asks not only for God’s forgiveness, but that God’s strength will work in the context of our weakness; in cooperation with our personal discipline, to transform us… which is never an easy process.

May the Lord work in your most inner being during this Lenten season, that you may know both the brokenness, and the restoration, of life in our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.