Proclaim a Fast: Turn Off Your Cellphones

Part 2 of a Three Part Sermon Series for Lent
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
February 28, 2010
Exodus 33:7-11; John 15:12-17

Exodus 33:7-11 · Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp; he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the LORD would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp. Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise and stand, each of them, at the entrance of their tents and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the LORD would speak with Moses. When all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise and bow down, all of them, at the entrance of their tent. Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then he would return to the camp; but his young assistant, Joshua son of Nun, would not leave the tent.

John 15:12-17 · “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

I. BEGINNING

I love my iPhone. I got this one in the summer of 2008 and it’s been pretty much at my side since then. When I think of the things I can do with this phone, I sometimes feel like I am living in the future.

With it I can look up information on practically anything. I can take pictures and e-mail them to friends. I can send instant messages and texts. I can check on my bank accounts and transfer money to pay bills. I can look up directions and get a GPS readout of where I am (and where I’m trying to get to). I can map bike rides using that same GPS and upload the routes to the web. I can check the weather. I can publish to a blog, check my MySpace, LinkedIn, and Facebook pages. I can track shipments via the Postal Service and UPS. Shop at Target, Amazon, or order pizza from Pizza Hut. I can be alerted to any traffic cameras on my route. I can check the status of the Metro system. Translate things into different languages. Remote control the iTunes on my desktop at home to play music through my stereo. I can have it tell me the name of a song playing on the radio. Find a restaurant or attraction nearby. Order a DVD on Netflix. Watch highlights from the Red Sox game. Play solitaire, scrabble, checkers, Pac Man, Tetris, tank…. I can even use this iPhone to call people. Imagine that.

As one who as a kid grew up watching Star Trek reruns on TV, in many ways this phone is the fulfillment of my childhood wish to have a communicator and a tricorder of my very own. For never have I been as connected to as many people and as much information in my whole life. It is probably the most remarkable piece of technology I have ever owned.

And I’m going to turn it off right now. Because having this thing on all the time isn’t good for me.

II. CONNECTIVITY

But what’s so wrong with connectivity? Isn’t this a good thing? Is this not the world becoming smaller, a sign of our interconnectedness and our coming together as a world? Have we not longed for the ability to communicate with people of diverse languages and nations and races, to bind us all together with the cords of one human family? How can this be a bad thing?

It was long believed that if only people could talk together, if only they could communicate, then all the obstacles to peace would go away and peoples and nations could come together in friendship. The telephone was generally seen as a way to foster world peace. It would allow us to come together. Many held high hopes for the telephone. [1] Others, threw their hopes into world languages like Interlingua or Esperanto–yet more means by which we might all talk to each other better.

So let me ask you: how did those things work out for us? Tens of millions of people have died in wars since the invention of the telephone. Radio and television haven’t done anything to improve that. The internet does not seem to have put the brakes on the long history of carnage and destruction, either. But why?

Why should it be that the more we have the ability to talk to one another the more it seems we are disconnected? Why hasn’t technology brought about the unity among the human race that we might have expected?

In fact, just the opposite seems to have happened. I am sure that I am not the only one that has experienced the following phenomenon: you’re in a meeting or you’re having a conversation with someone. You’re talking and suddenly you hear it: that little chime that says ‘you have a text message’. Or maybe it’s that humming sound of a phone on vibrate letting you know perhaps there’s an e-mail waiting for you. And what do you do? You check your phone. And in so doing, you do not pay adequate attention to the meeting, or the conversation, you are having.

You can’t help it. It’s so exciting! Someone is texting you! Or you’ve just gotten a phone call from someone and they’ve left you a voicemail. It’s exciting–they’re able to reach you wherever you are!

I was just marveling the other day and trying to remember how it was that people made plans in the days before cell phones. It used to be that when you left your house, you left your phone with you. You went out into the world, and there was no way anyone could get a hold of you. Of course, there were tricks you could play. People could call your home phone and leave a message on your answering machine. You could call from a pay phone, retrieve the message and get any important information you needed. There is also that running gag from the old Woody Allen movie Annie Hall in which a character is constantly calling his office, leaving the phone numbers of the places he’ll be for the rest of the day.

But while we were having this conversation about the old days and making plans, it was Michelle who pointed out that the quality of the directions we gave was probably better. That is, instead of saying, “Meet me at the theater–call if you get lost” we would have said, “Meet me at the Uptown Theater, 3426 Connecticut Avenue at 7:30 p.m. I’ll meet you right in front of the newspaper kiosk by the post office.”

And perhaps that’s really the problem. Is that while the quantity of our communication has gone up, the quality of it has gone down. We find ourselves connected to the world at all times. And yet our connections to one another are not as good as they used to be. Either we are distracted by our connectivity–and those distractions interfere with the interactions we are having–or we rely too heavily on connectivity at the expense of actual communication.

Because the reality is, no one even has to text you to get you distracted. I was at the Board of Ordained Ministry exam retreat the other day and as soon as we took a break, immediately everyone pulled out their Blackberrys and iPhones and other smart phones and began to check voicemails and e-mail. Who called me while I was busy? What did I miss? Who’s trying to get a message to me? What am I missing while I am here with these… people ? Had it been a regular meeting, people would not have waited for a break to check their phones.

Somewhere along the line, our technology has convinced us of the importance of connectivity–at the expense of relationship.

III. RELATIONSHIP

In the passage we read earlier from Exodus, we read the story of Moses and the Tent of Meeting–the tabernacle into which Moses would go to speak to God. The text has a very interesting description of that:

Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.

It is fascinating that God is presented here as one who speaks to Moses as one speaks to a friend: face to face. For we understand that God is a God of relationship. God enters into relationship with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God initiates relationship with Moses. God enters into covenant relationship with the people of Israel. In the New Testament, we see Jesus entering into relationship with others. In the lesson from John we read earlier, we hear Jesus describing his disciples as his “friends”, a reflection of real relationship.

Indeed, we Christians maintain that God is a God of relationship in God’s innermost being. The Trinity itself is a reflection on God’s essence as one in relationship. God is known by the love shared between the Father, Son, and Spirit. Indeed, the terms “Father” and “Son” are not terms of biology, nor are they terms of masculinity. They are terms of relationship. God is a God of relationship.

And so it is telling that when God speaks to Moses as a friend, it is done “face to face.” It is done with intimacy and directness. It is done with presence.

IV. THE GOOD AND BAD

Can a genuine relationship start online? Of course. It happens all the time. Is not technology a great aid to allow us to remain connected to the important people in our lives? Certainly. How much easier is it to maintain friendships with people when we can reach them anywhere? When we can drop them a quick text to let them know we’re thinking of them? When we can post a message on their Facebook wall to say hello? Technology has allowed us to initiate and to maintain relationships much more easily than in years past.

The problem with our technology is not that it allows us to communicate far and wide. Not that it allows us to keep in touch with people scattered across the globe. Not that it allows us to maintain connection with friends we would have otherwise lost a long time ago. The danger of technology is that it can convince us that those contacts are enough. That letting people know what we’re up to through Twitter or Facebook status updates is keeping in touch.

We are social creatures. We were made for one another. Our relationships need to be more than bits of information sent through the electronic ether. Sometimes, we need to actually be present with one another. To share a meal. To hold a hand. To give a hug. To just sit quietly together and watch the waves crash on the beach, or all the strange people walk through Dupont Circle. To stroll through the park together. To enjoy a ballgame or a concert. To be present to one another “face to face”. We need those relationships. We were created for those relationships. We are created to be in relationship by a God who is relationship.

V. A LENTEN FAST

Here we are on the second Sunday of Lent. A time of prayer and preparation. A time of repentance and reconciliation. A time of fasting. As we discussed last week, we fast because in so doing we are reminded of what’s important. We fast from food because it reminds us of our need for sustenance and our dependence on God’s grace for our well-being. We can fast from activity, to remind us of our need for Sabbath and the importance of rest. And we can fast from connectivity, too.

It is so tempting to be in touch with the entire planet on a constant basis. But sometimes that connectivity prevents us from truly being connected to the people who are present with us right now.

And so we can proclaim a fast. We can turn off those phones and computers. For a little while, anyway. I know they’re not going away, nor should they. I’m not getting rid of my iPhone any time soon. They do provide for us important tools. But we also are called to nourish the very real relationships with the very real people present before us. As the song says, we can’t always be with the ones we love, but we can love the ones we’re with.

We can track down old friends from high school, and we can share a meaningful conversation with someone in the here and now. We can text all our friends about the latest episode of Lost, and we can share a meal with someone in the here and now. We can place calls all around the world using Skype or video chatting. And we can sit and share a quiet moment with a friend in the here and now.

As we proclaim a fast, we are reminded of what is truly important. We are reminded of the importance of human contact, the importance of human community. We are reminded of the importance of relationship. And we are reminded of the God whose love is known in relationship: the relationship among the persons of the Trinity and the relationship that God has initiated with us. We are reminded of a God who cares for those relationships so much, that God speaks to us “face to face.”

Notes
[1] See, e.g., Communication and World Peace at http://www.jstor.org/pss/984456

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