Taking a Sabbath from Technology [sermon]

macbookairThe following sermon was preached on July 21st 2013 at my local church. Here’s the audio (scripture introduction/scripture/sermon starts at 34:30, just fast-forward until you hear the nasal voice) and the text of the sermon is below.

Scripture: Luke 6:6-11


This past week I was on a technology sabbath–a time of avoiding as much technology as possible. I was assigned to be the Camp Preacher for a middle school camp at Camp Magruder. About the second day, I decided I wanted to register a complaint about our Senior Minister. My complaint is that it is really mean to assign the topic “Take a break from Technology” to a tech-savvy clergyperson in his 30s who lives by his iPhone at every waking hour of the day. Incredibly mean. Now in reality I might have volunteered for this topic, but halfway through last week I was convinced Donna tricked me into doing this technology fast in the land of no wireless internet and only intermittent cellular coverage. I may have an iPhone addiction, but thankfully, there’s an app for that.

It was a great week. I got to spend time with Charlie Zach and Felicity Rizzo, and got to know one of our young adults Stephanie Myers (Cheryl’s daughter) who was a counselor there. It was a great week for the youth. I won’t say I had a 100% technology Sabbath because I was in charge of worship and that involves lights, audio, and projection software. I still called and talked to Chelsea a few times on my cell phone. Chelsea might have tempted me by sending me videos of Anjali saying Dada…to the cat. Finally I checked what time it was on my phone because I haven’t owned a watch since I first got a cell phone 11 years ago.

But in many ways I practiced a technology Sabbath. I preached two sermons a day with just paper and pen outlining my thoughts. As a typed manuscript preacher, it’s a hard discipline. I read the bible from an actual bible rather than an iPhone app. I came up with illustrations and examples from searching my memory or using examples of campers’ situations rather than searching my past sermons or my personal archives of “that’ll preach someday” files. I had more down time to spend with the campers and get to know them. A camper and I spent 20 minutes fixing a ping-pong table with string and a pen like Maguyver (the camper had no idea who that was, by the way, because she was born in the year 2000).

The lesson that I took from this week is that my own difficulty in having a technology Sabbath makes me wonder if it is getting harder and harder for folks to be able to do this Sabbath thing for technology as well. How do we navigate our increased reliance on technology and still have the focus necessary to live a disciplined life?

We have many definitions of Technology. Some might say a SmartPhone is technology whereas a phone with a cord and the rotary dial isn’t. But at one time, the rotary phone was technology and you hated people with Zeros in their phone number as it took forever for that dial to rotate all the way around. Pastor Shane Hipps in his book Flickering Pixels defines Technology as anything that stretches, extends, or amplifies some human capacity. So phones are technology but so is clothing as it allows us to work in harsher environments. Pews are technology as they allow us to sit and tolerate the next 30 minutes of this sermon. And if you’ve ever worked with children, you appreciate a vacuum cleaner after any lesson involving glitter. So technology is anything that stretches, extends, or amplifies some human capacity. (source)

The little-known fact is that faithful and religious people have informed and advanced much of our technological history. We know of many technology advances because of folks who were driven by their theologies as much as their technologies. (source)

Many significant scientists believed their efforts would spur on the apocalypse, the end of the world. The 18th century scientist Joseph Priestly discovered oxygen as well as wrote commentaries on Daniel and Revelation, two apocalyptic texts. Jean de Roock-Tah-Jaad, French speakers are screaming in their heads right now, the founder of modern chemistry spent half his life in a church prison for preaching about the apocalypse. The Puritans and their investments in technology for westward expansion to the New World did so because they believed conquest of the natural world was a pre-requisite for Jesus to return. Robert Oppenheimer of the Manhatten Project that created the Atomic Bomb, though he was Jewish, he called the test site “Trinity” after a 17thcentury hymn that includes the line “destruction and resurrection meet in thee.”

Many scientists believed technology would help them recover the imago dei, the image of God, in them. Para-celcus, founder of pharmacology, believed that medical technology and advancement would help humanity re-achieve perfection. Scientists who study Artificial Intelligence extend this to immortality pursuits, such as MIT grad Daniel Crevier, who wrote that robots could allow human’s souls to survive after death in a more durable, metal medium.

Many technological advancements were explicitly for the purpose of Christian evangelism. The printing press by Gutenberg saw its first best-seller in the Bible, which helped the Protestant Reformation a great deal. Samuel F.B. Morse invented the telegraph (for those under 20, a telegraph is kinda like twitter, short messages). He invented it as a means of spreading the Christian message, starting with its first telegraph message of “what hath God Wrought?” a quote from the book of Numbers.  Werner von Braun, the former Nazi turned American rocket engineer, saw spaceflight as the dawn of a new millennium for humanity where salvation under Jesus Christ could be spread across the cosmos.

Even today our technology is influenced by theology. Jean-Louis Gassée, former Apple executive, wrote about the rainbow apple logo: “One of the deep mysteries to me is our logo, the symbol of lust and knowledge, bitten into, all crossed with the colors of the rainbow in the wrong order. You couldn’t dream a more appropriate logo: lust, knowledge, hope and anarchy.” All inspired by one chapter in Genesis. So in many ways our faith has begat technology and the practical pursuits of humankind have melded often with our spiritual goals.

And yet we also know of technology’s ability to enslave. Technology has a way of ruling our lives rather than humans ruling it.

Technology slowly diminishes our ability to trust. When any photo could be photoshopped into something different, when any video could have been edited to say or mean anything, when we pass on a chain letter or a Facebook photo and the young folks show us that the picture or story isn’t true, we slowly lose our ability to trust what we see or hear.

Technology distracts us from the moment. Several restaurants have banned cell phone cameras as patrons spend more time taking pictures of their food than eating them and turning over the tables quickly. Researchers report on “phantom limb syndrome” with teenagers who stop what they are doing and swear they can hear their cell phone going off, even when it is miles away. One of my friends is a campus minister in Florida and he saw a couple sitting on a beach with their hands interlocked, fingers interlaced, leaning on a shoulder, except one of them was using a single finger to scroll on their phone. At what point does the other partner figure out that they aren’t the most important person in that relationship?

Technology cannot really replace real face-to-face time. It used to be that one could point to the air conditioner as the destroyer of communities as people spent more time behind closed doors than sitting on their porch waving themselves cool along with the neighbors. But increasingly people seek community online rather than in person, which is not a bad thing so long as it is paired with real-life community. My partner Chelsea is part of some parent groups on Facebook. They are terrific as she can post a question and get responses from parents all over the world in hours or minutes. And yet one parent in that group in another state keeps posting daily that she is exhausted and losing her sense of self and unable to keep up with the baby. At some point she needs someone to come to her house and be a real community presence and help her face-to-face. Technology can supplement community but it cannot supplant it except for rare circumstances and personalities. My own mother will tell you that Skype and video-chats are great, but no substitute for taking her granddaughter out to the park.

So what is the right balance for a life shared with technology? What guidance does Scripture give us from a world 2000 years ago whose highest technological advance was warfare and roads and scrolls, what Guidance does a mere carpenter have on matters of technology?

The conviction I want to share is that the scripture passage today asks us the same question of technology that Jesus asked the Pharisees about him healing on the Sabbath.

Jesus is in the temple teaching and a man shows up with a withered crippled hand. Jesus then has to choose whether to heal him on the Sabbath. Breaking the Sabbath law is serious business. There’s a contemporary story of an observant Jewish woman in another country who was accused of a minor violation and the trial proceedings were not respectful of her religion and she was forced to appear on the Sabbath. The trial judge was obviously not persuaded by the prosecution and all the woman had to do was respond to a simple question on the stand. However, because she was observant, she did not want to speak as that would cause the court reporter to type. Causing someone to work for you is a violation of the Sabbath. She refused to speak, and the trial judge had no other option than to declare her guilty and to pay a fine. The Sabbath laws are serious business, even to today.

When Jesus violates the Sabbath law to heal the man with the withered hand, he asks a single question: “Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” Jesus frames his action in terms of opposing statements: does one do good or evil? Does one save life or destroy it? The tension shows that the Sabbath is not about what one shouldn’t do, but about what they must do. If a house is burning down, does not the faithful follower of God do everything to save people in the house? Even the Pharisees would agree to that. But in this case, the man with the withered hand is a chronic case, not a catastrophic case. How does one act when the line between good and evil is much less clear?

Jesus’ question helps us see that while things could be morally neutral, what we do with things are always moving in one direction or another. Jesus, by his healing power, showed there was something that could be done to better someone’s life on the Sabbath. It was something new, a new power that the Pharisees hadn’t seen previously. Our job is faithful classification, measuring each situation against the metric of the Sabbath: what most honors the time God gives to us?

There are practical ways for us that ensure sacred time is not watered down by technology. For families, have a phone basket that the kids and parents put their phones in during family dinners. Move the phone chargers away from the dinner table or TV. For couples, it is easy to get so annoyed at the other partner for checking their phones that you do the same thing; but don’t give in. For parents trying to reach their adult children, set regular video-chat times to make distance communication a routine. Send them email or text updates so they know what is going on with you…slowly the young adult will get the idea that they should reciprocate.

In short, a sabbath from technology may not be as radical as a week away. But it can be about setting sacred time and space where everything is fine the way it is, no interference. If for your life that’s the dinner table or communicating regularly with loved ones, use that as the measure as to how technology will help or hinder those sacred moments.

Jesus’ wisdom in this passage is made more clear when we reframe the question about healing the man with the withered hand. Can the love of God be separated from love of neighbor, which is itself an expression of God’s love? Can one honor God if one neglects human need? Jesus challenges us not to define piety negatively (what one does not do) but rather to demonstrate our faith through good works.

My hope for you is a reflective week at every moment, considering how you are using technology to better the lives of those around you or how technology is keeping you from being fully present to your loved ones. My hope is not marital or friend conflict over technology in your household or situation, but rather an affirmation of the definition of technology: anything that stretches, extends, or amplifies your love for God and neighbor. May this next week be one of sabbath, of reclaiming holy time and space, of living a life more fully examined, as that is truly the Methodist way. Glory be to God. Amen.

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