Proverbs 17.1-12

Matthew 13, selected verses

What Would Jesus Tweet?

“Summertime On Demand” - I

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

2009 was the 500th anniversary of the birth of French pastor and theologian John Calvin, and as some you know, I spent a sabbatical one summer chasing Calvin around France and Switzerland.  For his 500th, Princeton Seminary organized a group reading of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, a 4 volume excursus on Bible, church and faith.  It was an international project, all done collaboratively online, and it was fun to have the opportunity to re-read the Institutes literally with colleagues all over the world.

When Debbie and I first moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula shortly after we were married, we didn’t have much; among the things we didn’t have were a television or a morning newspaper, so to start the day before work we’d listen to NPR, not a bad habit to acquire, and I had to get creative with my morning reading.  So one of the things I pulled out was Helmut Theilicke’s systematic theology titled The Evangelical Faith, a three-volume consideration of the same things Calvin focused on, Bible, church and faith.  It kept me company many a cold UP winter morning, where the sun didn’t bother to rise until some time after 8:30.  And about eight years ago I was finally able to purchase something I had wanted ever since I graduated from seminary, 20th century theologian Karl Barth’s 14 volume Church Dogmatics.  And before you ask, No, I have not read the whole thing.

Think about this:  the Bible itself is a collection of 66 books. 1,189 chapters, 783,137 words and 3,116,480 characters.  Approximately – and depending on which version you read. And still Calvin needed four volumes to do it justice, Theilicke three and Barth fourteen.  So when Claudia Epright proposed this morning’s sermon to me, “What Would Jesus Tweet?”, I wondered how in the world we could reduce twenty centuries of theological commentary and discourse to the 140 characters of a Twitter Tweet.

For a number of years I carried on a friendly running debate with one of the Massachusetts Conference’s Area Ministers, The Rev. Wendy Vander Hart, about the church’s use of social media.  It is Wendy’s conviction that the church should be able to get its message across in a single tweet – that is, to proclaim what is essential in one hundred and forty alpha-numeric characters.  If you can’t boil it down to that, Wendy insists, then it probably is not worth saying. I would guess it’s the twenty-first century equivalent of the elevator speech. But my response to Wendy is to question why the church should agree to let the gospel be boiled down to an arbitrary number of characters defined by Twitter’s limited ability to transmit a message?  Is it really necessary, or even desirable, to dumb down, or, to be fair, to distil our message in order to tailor it to fit one specific social media platform? In fact I derived no small degree of satisfaction pointing out to Wendy that the Mass Conference’s own Mission Statement – “Rooted in the grace of God, the mission of the Massachusetts Conference is to nurture local church vitality and the covenant among our churches, to make God’s love and justice real” – is 151 characters long.  In other words, it won’t tweet.

But then I turn to the building blocks on top of which all systematic theology is built – lo, these many volumes, built upon the words and works of Jesus.  And even though they do not persuade me to agree with Wendy – completely anyway – Jesus’ way with words suggests that Wendy does have a point. This morning’s selected readings from Matthew 13 are just a small sample of the way that Jesus taught, but it is a representative sample. More often than not, Jesus employed brief, memorable epigrammatic lessons couched in short phrases that were easily remembered and thus easily repeated by his followers.  To give an example, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened,” is exactly one hundred characters long, (87 in Greek). So does it tweet? Yes, it does. Do we understand Jesus’ point? Of course we do – it is simple and elegant. Here’s another: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”  125 characters: another tweet. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” 126 characters. “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” 131 characters. Maybe Wendy Vander Hart is on to something.

Jesus’ way of speaking in brief, memorable lessons is reminiscent of the Proverbs.  I asked Charlene to read from Proverbs 17 today because while many chapters in Proverbs are organized thematically, Proverbs 17 is a series of random, mostly unrelated individual maxims that are nonetheless as memorable as they are succinct.  “Better is a dry morsel with quiet, than a house full of feasting with strife.” You and I know what this means without having to wrestle very long with it, and I’d guess that most of us would agree. Here’s another: “Fine speech is not becoming to a fool; still less is false speech to a ruler.”  Still less is false speech to a ruler.  Do I really need to say anything more about that one?  And here is a proverb that, once heard, we won’t soon forget:  “Better to meet a she-bear robbed of its cubs than to confront a fool immersed in folly.”  You can say that again! Brief epigrams, each one vivid, all of them potent – a wonderful and time-tested teaching tool.  And every one of them well within Twitter’s 140 character maximum.

Jesus knew as well as anyone how to teach an effective and enduring lesson with a minimum of words.  In fact, in so many instances he used words simply as a means to draw pictures that would stay fixed in our minds.  For example, when I say the prodigal son, or the Good Samaritan, or the sheep & the goats, these are brief phrases that conjure up an entire story considerably longer than 140 characters, and not just the details of the stories themselves, but also the deeper meaning behind them.  We probably each have our own mental image of the father spying the returning prodigal in the distance, and running out to meet him; and of the Samaritan going out of his way to help his enemy the Jew who had essentially just been mugged; and of those faithful people who feed the hungry and visit the sick and advocate for the prisoner, welcomed into God’s waiting and loving arms.

And so powerful are these phrases and stories that many of them have escaped the bonds of scripture alone and are ingrained in the vernacular.  Charles Dickens’ tale of Great Expectations, of Pip, and Estelle and Miss Havisham, is essentially the story of the prodigal son transported to Victorian England.  The act of a good Samaritan is what turns Jean Valjean’s heart from venal to valorous in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  And the parable of the last judgment, of ministering to strangers even to one’s own detriment is a theme that Albert Camus employs not only in The Stranger, but in The Plague as well.  And the reasons these themes continue to resonate, not just among people of faith, but among humanity at large, is in part because Jesus’ stories are easily remembered by virtue of their brevity, which I think contributes to their universality.

So what would Jesus tweet?  Quite a lot, it would appear.  But at the end of the day, I’m still not convinced it is in the church’s best interest to try to confine our message to the length of a tweet.  And I think there are two completely opposite reasons for this. One is that Jesus’ words, as brief as they are, constitute the building blocks for who you and I are as people of faith.  Every lesson, every proverb, every easily recalled one-liner, becomes layered upon the previous one in order to create a portrait of what it looks like to serve God and God’s children in our world.  We don’t require a fourteen volume systematic theology in order to live lives of faith and service, but consciously or not you and I continue to bear witness to the multiple stories and experiences, not only of people in biblical times, but of also of all those who have come before us.  Yet the exact opposite is also true, that it is possible to bear witness to the love and generosity of God with no words at all. As St Francis may or may not actually have said, “Preach the gospel at all times – and when necessary, use words.” When a single act of kindness or compassion or simple humanity is witnessed, it often speaks more eloquently than the most articulate sermon – and that’s a good thing.  And it is also something no tweet can ever do: reveal the love of God in Jesus Christ – with no characters at all. Except, of course, ourselves.

A few years into my friendly running Twitter debate with Wendy, the Mass Conference revised its mission statement to read, Following Jesus and rooted in the Grace of God, our mission is to nurture local church vitality and the covenant among our churches to make God’s love and justice real.  138 characters.  Well done, Massachusetts Conference.  Connecticut Conference, our mission statement is 349 characters long.  Is it time to go on a Twitter diet? We’ll have to ask Kent Siladi when he joins us for worship this fall.

Let us pray.

 

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