Digital Theology

Matthew 5:21-37

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times…

The lectionary reading for this week is a painful one.  The lectionary itself is the cycle of scriptures used throughout churches around the country and world.  Often, at Kenilworth Union Church, we use the lectionary because in the course of three years, we will have read together most of the Gospels and a large chunk of other texts in worship.  I personally like preaching from the lectionary because it challenges us to hear a wide breadth of the Word of God, and it challenges me to preach on texts I might not choose on my own.

This week’s passage is the middle of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew.  I find it painful because it talks about murder and anger, adultery and lust, divorce and telling the truth.  All of these topics, in one way or another are part of our lives, whether personally, or communally or globally.

On the one hand, I know that Jesus is preaching in a particular context when he gives his sermon on the mount.  For example, on the topic of divorce, Jesus is preaching at a time when a particular Rabbi, Rabbi Hillel “the Great,” granted divorces for frivolous reasons, up to and including divorcing your wife because you did not like the way she seasoned your meat for supper.[i]  Jesus’ plea for husbands to stay married to their wives was wrapped up in a hope for reconciliation and right relationship, and for the safety of women who, without marriage, would be without a social safety net.

On the other hand, I know that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is not just contextual, and still has much to say to us today.  He wades through the messiness of life with us.  Whether or not murder or anger, adultery or lust, divorce or truth telling are embedded in the messiness of your life, I know that these things remain woven into the fabric of our society, two thousand years after Jesus preached on them.   He admits that relationships get bent and broken, and he calls us to live differently.  We continue to fall short of the glory of God, and we continue to need God’s grace, day after day.

I welcome you into our scripture passage with this introduction because I have struggled with how to read it aloud in the context of worship.  I invite you to hear the words of this text, and also its format.  You will hear again and again Jesus saying, “you have heard it said… but I say to you.”  I will come back to that form as a way to consider how God is present with us today.  So, with God’s grace at the forefront of our hearts, let us listen for God to speak into us in the midst of this reading from scripture.

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” (For the rest of the passage, read Matthew 5:21-37.)

I am going to set the scripture passage aside for a moment and will return to it later as we consider how it might speak to us in our lives today.  I want to turn us, now, to the context of our own lives today.

A woman told a story of her experience during Hurricane Sandy.  She was in New York City and was living in a seventh floor apartment with her little dog, Maui. Half the city was dark because of a power outage, and she was living on the dark side of the city.  The dog, of course, was terrified of the dark, so she had to carry him up and down the stairs for walks.  She was also hauling gallons of bottled water up to the seventh floor every day.  And through all of this, she held her flashlight between her teeth to light the way.  The stores nearby were out of flashlights and batteries and bread.  For a shower, she would walk 40 blocks to a branch of her gym.

But these were not the major preoccupations of her day.  It was just as critical, she said, for her to be the first person in the café nearby with extension cords and chargers to juice up her multiple devices.  And she wasn’t the only one.  Even in the rain, people stood between Madison and 5th Avenue under their umbrellas charging their cell phones from the outlets on the street.

Nature had just reminded us that it was stronger than all our technology, yet we continued to be obsessed about being wired.  “There’s nothing like a crisis,” she said, “to tell you what’s really important and what’s not, and Hurricane Sandy made me realize that our devices and our connectivity matter to us right up there with food and shelter.”  In reflecting on her experience, she said, “The self as we once knew it no longer exists, and the digital universe has become a part of our identity.”[ii]

The digital universe has become a part of our identity.” I resonate with that statement.

The digital universe has shifted the way I leave the house in the morning.  If I am going somewhere new, I don’t need specific directions on how to get there until I’m already out the door because I have constant access to a map that will route me to my destination.

The digital universe has shifted my relationship with my family.  If I am living across the country from my brother, I don’t need to schedule time to ask him how his day went because I can text him this afternoon when I’m free, and he can respond when he gets off work at midnight when he’s free.

The digital universe has shifted the way I do my work. If I’m wondering how colleagues might solve a particular problem, I don’t have to wait until our upcoming conference to hear their wisdom; I can post a message on Facebook to get their response almost immediately.

I share these stories today because they are at the heart of the matter.  In my first weeks at Kenilworth Union Church, we began to talk about communication, and I learned that at some point this winter, we might take some time to consider what it means to be Christian in a digital age, and what it means to grow up as a digital native.  I was excited about this because I am convinced that our digital ecology is impacting our spiritual lives, and I wonder how we might be more thoughtful about the connection between our digital and spiritual lives.

Digital native is a term used to refer to someone who has without question grown up in the digital era.  If you grew up in a world where text messages were a common form of communication, you might be a digital native.  If your high school education, in part, is conducted on an iPad, you might be a digital native. If some of your peers had cell phones before their 10th birthday, you might be a digital native.  If your parents were using Facebook before you were born, you might be a digital native.

If, on the other hand, your granddaughter taught you how to use Facebook, you are probably not a digital native.  If you grew up able to watch Saturday morning cartoons, but could only really watch Saturday morning cartoons on Saturday, but couldn’t stream those cartoons at any time, on any day, you are probably not a digital native.  If you made mixed tapes for your friends by tape recording songs off the radio, you are probably not a digital native.  If you had a party line growing up, or even if your parents had a party line growing up, you are probably not a digital native.

In early February, the Allison Tobey Smart Memorial Fund invited a speaker, Devorah Heitner, to talk with our youth and parents about her research on kids and media.  Dr. Heitner led our fifth and sixth graders through activities that got them thinking about their digital world.  She acknowledged that they are likely the very first generation of fifth and sixth graders to encounter the world through technology.

She asked them questions that pushed them towards empathy.  She asked, “have you ever had a text message misunderstood?” Almost all of them responded saying, “yes.”  She asked, “How might you repair a relationship that was damaged by a digital misunderstanding?” “Maybe by sending some text message to clarify, or maybe by calling the person to explain, or maybe by talking to them in person” some of our fifth and sixth graders replied.  In that conversation, she showed me that these young people have the capacity to use their technology wisely, be thoughtful about how to be a good friend, and react with compassion when a relationship has been bent or broken.

Dr. Heitner then led our seventh and eighth graders through conversations about how they interact with friends, and how they manage their blossoming digital independence in light of their parents’ desperate hope to set healthy digital boundaries. Among the seventh and eighth graders’ hopes for their relationship with their parents, they said (to my surprise) that they do want their parents to help them set boundaries, and that they want their parents to live by those boundaries too, especially when it comes to texting and driving.  Parents, if you wonder what your kids are saying about parenting in the digital era, here is a genuine and beautiful response: your kids want you to be safe, they don’t want you to text and drive.

And then, last Thursday Dr. Heitner talked to parents about the world in which their kids live – social media and gaming, screen time and face time, the ways that we are connected online and the ways that we can become increasingly isolated when we forget to look up from our screens.

Think of the speed at which society has changed.  Facetime was introduced in 2010, Twitter in 2006, and Facebook in 2004.  To some of you these may still seem like foreign terms in a quick-paced digital landscape, but to others of us, they have become fully integrated into the way we communicate.

The internet isn’t that much older than Facebook in the grand scheme of things, becoming a public tool in the ‘80s and ‘90s.  The television was an ubiquitous part of our lives for only a few decades before that, and changed the way we experienced the world.  Think of how much the Beatles performance on the Ed Sullivan show impacted an entire generation of Americans. The telephone is hardly 100 years old, and if you watch “Downton Abbey”, you probably remember the scene where Mr. Carson, the family butler, practices how he might answer the telephone, if someone were to call.

Before that, the telegraph turned our worlds upside-down with one writer noting that “prior to the telegraph, information could really only travel at around 35 miles per hour – around the speed of a train.  But when information was translated into an electric pulse, it was freed to travel at the speed of light.” [iii]   That same writer noted that, “every technology has embedded spiritual consequences.  The mechanical clock, for example, was created by Benedictine monks in the 13th century to create a more regular prayer interval to enhance devotion to God.  At the same time, the mechanical clock also gave birth to the Industrial Revolution because it created measurable units to break up your day.”[iv]

So the question at hand is this.  How do we, as parents and grandparents, as digital natives and digital adaptors, think theologically about this world in which we live?  Today’s sermon is not going to completely answer that question, but I hope to open us up to it.  We live on the threshold between established and innovative ways of communicating, from print to digital, from phone trees to text messages, from snail mail to email.

As the church, we are often slow and thoughtful about change.  We stand in the doorway, navigating technological changes while simultaneously displaying solidarity with those who cannot or will not adapt to the digital era. We solicit some volunteers with clipboard in hand, and others with online sign up tools.  You can follow the KUC Youth group on Instagram, and you can look at today’s bulletin online.

We stand in the doorway of change.  As a pastor, and as a pastor to and with young people in particular, the new technological tools at our fingertips in this digital age become a vehicle for us to communicate the love and radical welcome of Jesus Christ, both locally and globally.

Just as the Gutenberg Press revolutionized our access to the gospel in the 15th century, social media gives us a renewed capacity to bring Christ’s light to our neighbors and the world.  Ultimately what matters is God’s good news, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the chance to build up this community, welcoming God’s spirit among us.

What might Jesus say to us today?  How might he meet us where we are?  In light of our digital lives, I side with theologian Michael Novak who suggests that our uniquely 21st century vices are spiritual ones: “preoccupation, hyperactivity, a failure to heed the natural rhythms and senses, distractedness.”[v]

Instead of taking the commandments “thou shalt not murder” and “thou shalt not covet” maybe Jesus would preach to us saying, “You have heard it said, ‘remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy,’ but I say to you, unplug from your devices when they separate you from your neighbor, your family and your God.  I say unto you, get plugged in when you need community, when you need to hear the gospel from others, when you need to connect across the globe to those who love God like you do.”  Maybe Jesus would ask us to unplug every once in a while so we can reconnect with our body mind and spirit, and plug back in when doing so is part of our expression of God’s love in the world.

As we move towards the end of this service, I will point towards our final hymn, “How Great Thou Art.” It connects us again to God’s greatness and God’s love in the world, by paying attention to our physical context.  We will sing together this line: “I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, God’s power throughout the universe displayed.”  In the digital age, we might see the stars through an HD photo posted on someone’s blog.  In the digital age, we might hear the rolling thunder from thousands of miles away, when talking via Skype to a friend who is serving in Nicaragua as a Peace Corps volunteer.  In the digital age, we might marvel at the beauty of the Grand Canyon without having ever been there.   In the digital age, we might see God’s power displayed when we sit at a microscope studying micro-organisms at work in the world.

We might be living in the digital age, but our sense of awe is the same.  How might we take a moment of awe in our daily lives?  How might we allow our digital communication to be a way for us to experience the grandeur of God, the beauty of creation?  How might we give thanks for the ways that God works in us, creating webs strong enough to call a daughter across the ocean, or maybe even, text your daughter who is upstairs in her bedroom that it’s time for dinner (I know some of you do that!).

Technology does not have to disconnect us from God.  It can.  It does.  But it does not have to.  Day after day, we have the chance to lean in, to wonder at the ways that God works through us and how God works through all the ways that we communicate with one another.  In wondering at God, we lean in towards God, we open our heart, and we hear God speak among us.  In wondering, we can allow our soul to sing.  Let us sing our song to God.  Amen.



[i]Barclift, Philip L. Confessions of a Divorced (and Remarried) Theologian. Encounter: A Journal of Theological Scholarship. December 1, 2012. page 35.

[ii] Dawesar, Abha. Life in the “digital now.” TEDTalks, June 2013.

[iii] Shane Hipps, Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith. 2009.

[iv] Shane Hipps, Christianity Today, May 1, 2009

[v] Novak, Michael. God, Man, and Money. Catholic Dossier. May/June 1999.