by Daniel Harrell
Chalk it up to a diminishment in dexterity, or perhaps it’s just my age, but I haven’t quite been able to master the whole texting thing with my phone. Let’s just say I’m all thumbs. I recently marveled at my adolescent niece’s agility, as well as her obsession, with this cryptic form of communication. She and I have this running cribbage grudge match that stretches back several vacations; it can get pretty intense. Only this last time as we played, our game was being constantly interrupted by her vibrating phone. She was having a “conversation” with some boy out in Oklahoma, a digital dialogue that took precedence over the audible dialogue she was simultaneously having with her very present flesh and blood uncle right in front of her face. Figuring it must be terribly important stuff for her to be so rude, I got her to show me the exchange. With apologies to radio and podcast listeners, it went something like this. Allow me to translate:
WRUD What are you doing?
NMU Not much, you?
9TV Watching TV.
WRU9 What are you watching?
~(_8^(|) The Simpsons (You have to cock your head to the left to get this.)
G2gb Got to go bye
cul8r See you later, (by which they meant about 10 seconds later when the whole cycle would start over again).
Given the obvious lack of urgency to such banter, I wondered aloud why my niece couldn’t wait until we had finished our cribbage game to reply to her cowboy. She informed me that this is not how texting works. One of the Ten Commandments of Texting (according to a recent New Yorker article) reads:
u shall b prepard @ all times 2 tXt & 2 recv
You can be sloppy and you can be blunt, but you cannot be slow. To delay is to disrespect. In fact, delay is the only disrespect. Any other misunderstanding can be cleared up by a few more exchanges. Back when most computing was done on a desktop, people used to complain about all the pressure they felt to respond quickly to e-mail. At least, in those days, it was understood that you might have walked away from your desk. But now, there is no socially accepted excuse for being without your cell phone. “I didn’t have my phone!” just does not sound believable. Either you are lying or you are depressed or you have something to hide. “I’m sorry, I have a breathing human being in the room with me?” No, I’m afraid that doesn’t cut it either. What about “I’m in church?” Unfortunately, no. If you receive a text, you are obliged to reply to it instantaneously, if only to confirm that you are not one of those people who can be without a phone. The most common text message must be:
Which means “I have nothing to say, but heaven forbid that you should think that I am a loser.”
If you haven’t heard, e-mail is so 2006. Texting is quickly becoming the way to communicate. Somewhere in the area of three billion people own cell phones from which are sent more than a trillion text messages each year. Granted, a trillion messages on the vast sea of language is hardly a ripple. But such insignificance only displays texting’s power as all the more remarkable. This past week’s election of Barack Obama as president is attributable in part to texting. Cell phones greased the enormous network of volunteers and contributors that fueled Obama’s victory. One Republican strategist described Obama’s election campaign as an “army of grass-roots activists trying to change the world in 160 characters or less.” Having given up on getting people to turn off phones during services, churches are integrating texting into worship. One church invites folks to text questions during the sermon(!). Since it’s assumed you’re going to be texting someone anyway, why not the preacher? Another church texts reminders of upcoming events and prayer requests (though the actual prayers themselves should remain verbal). A youth pastor strategically texts the 350 kids in his youth group at opportune moments such as weekday mornings before school, during lunch hours and on those late Saturday nights when they’re most vulnerable to temptation.
“Most of the people I hang out with are glued to their cell phones,” the youth pastor says.
As this is the closing Sunday of our missions conference, are there suitable missions strategies for texting? In many developing countries it costs less than a penny to send a text. Most people don’t pay for a monthly plan but buy their time as they go. You can send a hundred texts for the price of one phone call. It could be a very quick and economical way to spread the gospel:
J+ 59 (Jesus Christ Loves You)
Though you would have to get everybody’s cell phone number first.
Since as far as we know, Jesus did not have a cell phone, we can’t know whether he would have advocated texting as a missions strategy. However, we do know from tonight’s parable that he did advocate using seemingly insignificant means toward world-changing ends. Since last Easter I’ve been working through the sayings of Jesus recorded in Mark’s gospel, the words printed in red in some of your Bibles. I decided to do this due to a popular book entitled Red-Letter Christians, by Tony Campolo, who argues that Jesus’ words carry political implications, appropriate for this election year. Jesus preached the Kingdom of God as a clear indictment against the oppressive kingdom of Caesar―but he didn’t use much by way of political rhetoric to preach it. Instead he used botanical rhetoric, no doubt disappointing those who would have preferred some scary fire and brimstone instead. For the third time in a row, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to little seeds, with tonight’s comparison to the smallest seeds in Jewish proverbial thought: mustard seeds. Had Jesus used a cell phone, he could have texted it like this:
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. So what? Jesus goes on to describe how mustard seeds grow into the largest of garden plants with branches big enough for birds to perch. But again, so what? Not much if all you hear is the botanically obvious. But hear it politically and you realize Jesus says much more. The image of a mighty tree in which birds perch traces back to the Old Testament book of Ezekiel where the prophet spins his own parable of God lopping off a “tender sprig” that would grow to rule the earth. If you’re familiar with Old Testament metaphors then you know “tender sprig” is code for Messiah. Ezekiel portends a potent Kingdom, albeit one with humble beginnings. Unfortunately, centuries of heightened Messianic expectation made it so that a twig would no longer do. Israel expected a mighty sequoia of a Messiah, not some mustard bush. Jesus’ corrective here was intended to readjust expectations—but only in regard to the Kingdom’s origins. As in Ezekiel, the kingdom’s outcome would still be a mighty tree in which birds would nest―birds being symbolic of all nations coming into God’s shade. The word Jesus uses for “smallest” in verse 31 is the same word he uses elsewhere when he talks about the least being the greatest. Here he applies it to himself.
Jesus was no towering sequoia. He was a tender twig. An apparent nobody, a mustard seed of a man whose defeat and death, and death-defying resurrection, changed the world. “On the mountain heights I will plant him;” said the Lord in Ezekiel, “he will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in him; they will find shelter in the shade of his branches. All the trees of the field will know that I the LORD make the low tree grow tall and flourish. I the LORD have spoken, and I will do it.” In Matthew and Luke, Jesus has the mustard shrub turn into a tree to make the Ezekiel connection clear. This parable is a parable of hope. God’s power is manifest in weakness. The least becomes the greatest. As our guest preacher for next Sunday, Bishop NT Wright, puts it: “God will redeem the whole universe; Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of that new life, the fresh grass growing through the concrete of corruption and decay in the old world. That final redemption will be the moment when heaven and earth are joined together at last.”
We’ve looking forward to Bishop Wright’s visit next Sunday. He’s pretty famous as far as preachers go. Maybe you’ve read one of his gazillion books, seen him on the news or on the Colbert Report. He’s speaking at all four services, so it’s a great opportunity to invite a friend to church who may be interested in Christianity. Hopefully at the 6pm he’ll be taking questions after his talk in order to get a bit of a dialogue going. We were even thinking about letting people text their questions, you know, since asking them in public might be too intimidating. According to that same New Yorker article, one attraction of texting is that it avoids dreaded face-to-face, or even voice-to-voice exchanges like you have over the phone. Many people don’t like having to perform the amount of self-presentation that’s required for a personal encounter. They don’t want to deal with the facial expressions, the body language, the verbal cues or the obligation to be witty or interesting.
I know, “you’ve got to be kidding,” but it’s true. So true that we were thinking it might even make sense to have Bishop Wright just text over his talk from England. It would be more efficient, faster and cheaper too. So much so that it makes you wonder why we don’t just text sermons every Sunday; why we don’t adopt texting as a missions strategy, and why God didn’t use it as a strategy himself. Putting a cell phone in the hand of everyone in the entire ancient world might have been a bit much (since he’d have to create phone companies and build towers and calling plans too, even though there would have been no dead zones). Being God, surely he could have texted the gospel in the clouds or bore it directly into people’s brains.
God could have avoided dreaded face-to-face exchanges, the body language and the obligation to be witty or interesting. He wouldn’t have had to deal with Pharisees or any sinner for that matter. But instead, God so loved the world that he came in person. And not just as any person, but as a poor and humble person, one who as least of all was accessible to all. It wasn’t cheap. Jesus gave his own life in order to give us life. And it hasn’t been fast or efficient either. God brings on his kingdom patiently in ways that look small and insignificant―using mustard seeds like you and me―people who touch rather than text. Real people are the way the gospel gets spread. Just as Jesus came as God in the flesh, so we, the church, exist as Jesus in the flesh, the body of Christ on earth, living good news of God’s grace in all that we say and do everywhere we do it. The flags that surround you represent all the places Park Street Church does this―as real people, church planters, doctors, translators, teachers, prison workers and businesspeople—in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Yemen, Thailand, China, India, South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya, Cameroon, Sudan, the Czech Republic, as well as here in the United States where we support those who share the gospel on college campuses as well as those who work among the poor on the streets.
It’s not cheap. Last year it cost upwards of 1.8 million dollars, all of it given in mustard seed fashion by week to week. We pull it off because we all pull together to do it, just like churches are supposed to. However it is a challenge. I read a recent sociological study about how twenty percent of committed Christians in America, the ones who go to church weekly and say they live like Jesus daily, 20 percent of committed Christians give nothing, no money to the work of God on earth. Zero.
Zip. According to the same study, the rest of us who do give only give something like 3%.
Even though Jesus warned us not to store up our treasures on earth and to be generous toward the things of God, we mostly spend all of our money on ourselves.
Do you know what we could do if committed Christians in America simply obeyed the Bible and gave a measly mustard seed of their money (which by the way is all God asks)? If just the committed Christians tithed
there would be an extra 46 billion dollars a year available to fund, for example, 150,000 new indigenous missionaries; 50,000 additional theological students in the developing world; 5 million more micro loans to poor entrepreneurs; enough food, clothing and shelter for all 6,500,000 current refugees in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East; all the money for a global campaign to prevent and treat malaria; resources to sponsor 20 million needy children worldwide.
If simple texting can change the government of the United States, simple tithing can do even more. As the study concludes, “Reasonably generous financial giving of ordinary American Christians would generate staggering amounts of money that could literally change the world.”
I want to give you a chance to be reasonable tonight. Each year we ask our members and regular attendees to pledge money to missions so that we can do what God calls us to do as his church on earth. Our primary calling has never been to serve ourselves but to serve the world, starting here in Boston and stretching to the ends of the earth. Make a pledge to missions.