Monday, February 06, 2017

Salt, Light and Fake News: Sermon, February 5, 2017

Shout loudly; don’t hold back;
raise your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their crime,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
They seek me day after day,
desiring knowledge of my ways
like a nation that acted righteously,
that didn’t abandon their God.
They ask me for righteous judgments,
wanting to be close to God.
“Why do we fast and you don’t see;
Why do we afflict ourselves
and you don’t notice?”
Yet on your fast day
you do whatever you want,
and oppress all your workers.
You quarrel and brawl, and then you fast;
You hit each other violently
with your fists.
You shouldn’t fast as you are doing today
if you want to make
your voice heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I choose,
a day of self-affliction,
Of bending one’s head like a reed
and of lying down in mourning clothing and ashes?
Is this what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

Isn’t this the fast I choose:
Releasing wicked restraints,
Untying the ropes of a yoke,
Setting free the mistreated,
And breaking every yoke?
Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry
and bringing the homeless poor
into your house,
Covering the naked when you see them,
And not hiding from your own family?
Then your light will break out like the dawn,
and you will be healed quickly.
Your own righteousness
will walk before you,
and the Lord’s glory
will be your rear guard.
Then you will call,
and the Lord will answer;
You will cry for help,
and God will say, "I'm here."
Isaiah 58:1-9a, Common English Bible

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.

“Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them. I say to you very seriously that as long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality. Therefore, whoever ignores one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called the lowest in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever keeps these commands and teaches people to keep them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. I say to you that unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Matthew 5:13-20, Common English Bible

I was reading in the Seaway News that the Cornwall Standard Freeholder now has only five reporters. At one time, not so long ago, there were 20 journalists working in the newsroom. It tells you something about the newspaper industry these days. I was at a meeting in Montreal, and one minister said he really needed a paper, and wondered where he could find one. I joked that, rather than search for a newspaper box these days, it might be easier to invent time travel and go back to 1955 and find a newsboy selling the Montreal Star on the corner. We don’t get the paper. I read the stories online. When I visit people who do get the paper, they usually tell me they only take it for the obituaries.

So how we get the news has changed. And our trust in the news has changed. If you’re on social media, on Facebook or Twitter, people are always posting their own version of the news. We aren’t confident anymore that the news is really the news, that is, that it’s accurately reporting what happened. There has always been bias and mistakes in reporting, but people didn’t used to dismiss the entire output of news outlets as “fake news.” There really is fake news, though. There have been mistaken rumours as long as humans have been able to talk about what’s happening. A few years ago, even now, you would get an email from a friend of yours, usually with a whole list of email addresses because it had been forwarded many times, about what we used to call an urban legend. It would tell a story that was supposed to have really happened, usually to someone’s brother in law’s barber’s second cousin, like a woman driving and hearing a report on the radio about an escaped convict with a hook for a hand, and she stops for gas and finds the hook dangling from the car door handle. Urban legends were like the scary stories the counsellors would tell us when we went to summer camp, and later we would repeat the same stories to frighten the new kids. Anyway, if you got an email about an urban legend, you could check it with a website like that collected all these chain emails and fact checked them and would tell you if they had any basis in fact.

But now people on the Internet can invent fake news in minutes. On Sunday night we got the terrible news of the attack on the mosque in Quebec City. Later that night the names and pictures of two suspects, said to be Syrian refugees, began circulating on social media – but it was all fake. And people leaped to conclusions based on the names and pictures, and then when the identity of the real suspect came out, other people leaped to conclusions based on his name and photo. And the fake story was still out there.

One great thing about our digital age is that anyone can create content online. You don’t have to own a newspaper or a TV station. And sometimes a bad thing about our digital age is that anyone can create content online. Because they can just make up their own facts for their own purposes. Maybe at one time journalism was about “just the facts, ma’am,” as they used to say on Dragnet, but now all sides on an issue are twisting stories to fit their agenda and just plain lying.

And today there is so much news content that we often filter it by only paying attention to news networks that cater to our preconceived notions. It’s like an echo chamber where we only hear voices like our own, that reinforce the views we already have.

This fast-moving news cycle, and how easy it is for us to get only the news that fits what we already think, and how quickly we can post our opinions about it, just feeds constant anger and outrage. Online it’s as if we are like the mob in Western movies, surrounding the jail where the sheriff is keeping the bad guy, carrying our torches and a noose. You used to have call talk radio and give your opinion to a host, but now you can express your fury to hundreds or thousands of people online. And because on the computer screen we may be talking – well, typing - with strangers who live far away and we will never meet them face to face, it’s easier than ever to insult and call names and harass and say shocking things. And the more outrageous you are, the more attention you get.

There have always been rumours, and name calling. There have always been labels and stereotypes that allows us to dismiss people with views opposing ours. But now we’re no longer out to debate those with different positions – we’re out to destroy them.

And, you know, all this has consequences. There was a fake story about a child abuse ring being run out of a pizza parlour in Washington DC. It was completely false. It was invented to try to discredit an election candidate. But a guy read it, and showed up at the pizza place with a gun to protect these children, and he fired shots. If we promote fake news, it has consequences. If we are incessantly spreading stories about Islam being dangerous and raising fears of Sharia law and terrorism and criminal refugees, then it has consequences.

All this divides us. All this cements the barriers we put in place to separate humanity into different groups. All this helps us to identify only with our own group, and resent everyone else. All this traps us in a bubble where we are only exposed to people and opinions like our own. All this warps reality so that we can’t tell anymore what is true and what is false.

Do we think this is what Jesus wants for us, as his followers? To perpetuate division? The Letter of James says to Christians, “Think about this: a small flame can set a whole forest on fire. The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us. With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth.” Today James might write about fingers typing on computer keyboards, as well as the tongue, but you see the point.

Jesus teaches in his Sermon on the Mount that we are to live as salt of the earth, light for the world. Jesus says, “Let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.” What do people see when we report fake news, spew insults, degrade opponents, label and stereotype? Are they seeing good things that will cause them to give God glory? The way so many Christians act, online and in the real world, is not exactly flavouring the world and letting Christ’s light shine through them. Their behaviour doesn’t reflect Jesus. Sure, Jesus could argue, he could use his words to take the powerful down a peg, he could get angry at injustice – but he was out to love, not condemn, his enemies.

We stopped our Isaiah reading at verse 9. The next part of that verse says, “remove the finger-pointing, the wicked speech.” That is one way to be salt and light in the world, as Jesus told us to do – to let blessings, instead of curses, come from our mouths and our typing fingers. In the Letter to the Galatians, the fruits of the Spirit, the qualities of a Christian life, are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – and these should shape the way we behave in the online and the real worlds, So next time we are in a heated argument on Facebook, or in person, with someone who disagrees with us, Jesus wants us to see that person not an adversary to be destroyed, but as a child of God, made in God’s image, someone who can see the good things we do and come to praise God.