Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
August 21, 2016
“Jesus and Trolls on Social Media”
Psalm 49: 1-9, 16-20 – Common English Bible
Listen closely, all you citizens of the world--
2 people of every kind, rich and poor alike!
3 My mouth speaks wisdom;
my heart’s meditation is full of insight.
4 I will pay close attention to a proverb;
I will explain my riddle on the lyre.
5 Why should I be afraid in times of trouble,
when the wrongdoing of my bullies engulfs me--
6 those people who trust in their fortunes
and boast of their fantastic wealth?
7 Wealth? It can’t save a single person!
It can’t pay a life’s ransom-price to God.
8 The price to save someone’s life is too high--
wealth will never be enough--
9 no one can live forever without experiencing the pit.
Don’t be overly impressed when someone becomes rich,
their house swelling to fantastic proportions,
17 because when they die, they won’t take any of it with them.
Their fantastic things won’t accompany them down under.
18 Though they consider themselves blessed during their lives,
and even thank you when you deal well with them,[a]
19 they too will join the ancestors who’ve gone ahead;
they too will never see the light again.
20 Wealthy people? They just don’t understand;
they’re just like the animals that pass away.
Old Joe lived way out in the country on a farm all by himself. His closest neighbor was also his best friend of more than 40 years. Both of their wives had now passed on and all their children were grown and had moved away. All they had was each other.
But for the first time in their long friendship, they’d had a serious disagreement. It was a silly argument over a stray calf that neither of them really needed. Joe’s calf was found on his neighbor’s land who claimed that it was his own. Old Joe said, “No, no. It’s mine. Look. That calf has the same markings as one of my cows. It belongs to me!”
They were both stubborn men and neither would give in. But rather than let it come to fists and blows, they just stopped talking and stomped off to their respective farm houses and slammed the door. Two weeks went by without a single word spoken between them.
On the third Saturday morning, Old Joe heard a knock on his front door. He wasn’t expecting anyone so he thought it might be his neighbor finally skulking over to apologize. Rather, it was a young man carrying a wooden toolbox. He called himself a “travelling carpenter.”
“I’m looking for work,” he explained. “I’m good with my hands and if you have a project or two, I’d like to help you out.”
Old Joe looked him over, sizing up his character, silently expressing his doubts about someone who would just show up at his door. But the man had such kind eyes, and so he replied, “Why yes, as a matter of fact, I do have a job for you.”
“See that house over there? You see that creek running along our property line? That’s actually not a creek. My neighbor hired a backhoe to create drainage ditch from a pond up the way. He did it to spite me. Now there’s water running between us but I don’t want to have to look it. I’ve got some lumber in the barn – boards, posts, everything you need to build a fence. I want you to build a fence so tall that I won’t even have to look at that farm anymore.”
The carpenter smiled and said “I’ll get right to work!”
Old Joe had to go to town for some supplies so he left the man to work on his own. The young carpenter carried all the lumber from the barn and made quick work of it – measuring, sawing, pounding. All day with no break. As the sun was setting, he finished the project and began to put his tools back in the box.
Just then Old Joe drove up, dust blowing up from behind his pickup as he came to a stop. He looked at what the carpenter built and he couldn’t speak. It wasn’t fence. It was a bridge. A fine-looking footbridge with handrails and intricate carvings stretching from one side to the other. It was simply beautiful. Old Joe teared up.
As he stood there, his neighbor came rushing out of his house and over the bridge. He held his hand out, looking a little teary eyed too (although both would adamantly deny any such emotion).
He stammered, “I’m sorry. I don’t care whose calf it is. I just want us to be friends again.” Old Joe shook his head in agreement. But added, “You keep the calf.” But he also admitted, “This bridge wasn’t my idea. This young fellow over here was supposed to build a fence. But I couldn’t be happier. Nor could I be more ashamed. I should’ve had the idea.”
They both turned to the carpenter. He was hoisting the toolbox on his shoulder and preparing to depart. “Wait,” Joe said. “I’ve got lots more work you can do.” “Me too,” said the neighbor.
The carpenter smiled and said, “I’d like to stay, but I can’t. I’ve got a lot more bridges to build.” And with that, he started off down the road, whistling a tune as he went.
In many ways this sounds like a potential plot line for Grumpy Old Men Part 3, the movie with Jack Lemmon and Walter Mathieu. Their feud was over a fishing pole and a girl. But the point was the same. People so stubborn they’d rather break up a friendship than admit fault.
How many of you have lost a friend? Or for that matter, how many of you have been unfriended on Facebook? It hurts. You aren’t notified when it happens and so one day you wonder why you haven’t seen any posts by a certain individual. You go to their wall and discover they aren’t there anymore. They haven’t left Facebook. They’ve left you! We’re instantly flooded with disbelief and anguish. “How could they do that? What did I do?” And then indignation. “I didn’t want them as a friend anyway. Good riddance.” But not always…
Or maybe you’ve unfriended someone. Certainly not without thought. Probably not immediately. But finally thinking, I don’t need this in my life. Too many posts about crackpot Trump or crooked Hillary. Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter. Shocking posts about transgender people and bathrooms. Hardened positions on guns. Racist, sexist, homophobic language. Increasing polarization. Decreasing civility. And we’re left thinking: Thanksgiving dinner was hard enough when I just had to listen to my crazy uncle for one day. Is it really worth it to be confronted by his rants all year long?
Not surprisingly, unfriending has been on the increase. I’ve been asking people this week whether they’ve ever been unfriended or unfriended someone else. One person said “I just block them so they don’t know.” But I sparked panic in another who said with a worried look, “I don’t know!”
Unfriending builds fences. What can we do to build bridges?
The implication in the story of Old Joe and the Carpenter is that the young carpenter is Jesus. So I was curious what we might learn from Jesus about internet protocol. I even found an article – online, of course! – entitled “15 Questions to Help Christians Follow Jesus on Social Media.”
It begins by asking “Does social media lead you into sin?” I thought, “Oh brother! What kind of ridiculousness is this going to be about?” Each of the questions also comes with a quote from scripture. The quote for this question was from the Book of Matthew. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For isn’t it better to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell?”
For sending a tweet? Pinning a pin (on Pinterest)? Posting a picture on Instagram? Sending a snap on SnapChat? Questions of life and death, heaven and hell, for having a Tumblr account…? I hadn’t realized the magnitude of all this. I created a Facebook account for my mother so she could follow all the activities of her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Have I put her eternal soul at risk?
Another question asks “Do you use social media for unprofitable arguments?” It’s an oddly worded question but quotes from Proverbs, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” Well, that may actually be a pretty good question to consider. Are we only speaking to be heard without listening to understand?
So I did a little tweaking to the language of some of the other questions and realized there are some pretty important things to consider:
Some of the scripture texts attached to the questions were a stretch, to say the least. I mean really: talk about your body and hell and dismemberment…? So I thought, what other scriptures might be instructive?
I’m officiating at a wedding this coming weekend for Melaine Bertotti. Some of you may remember her. She even went with us on our first trip to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation where she impressed our teens with her football skills. She and her fiancé chose to have 1st Corinthians 13 read at the ceremony. She said, “I know it’s a cliché, but it’s perfect.” I agreed. But it also made me think it might be perfect for this sermon. “Love is not arrogant, boastful, or rude.” What might that say about our social media relationships – friending and unfriending, following and unfollowing, and everything else in between?
“Whether I post in the tongues of human beings of or angels, if I don’t have love, I am nothing. If I know all things (and can prove it to you with this link to The New York Times) but do not have love, I am nothing. Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t arrogant, boastful, or rude. It doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints. Love puts up with all things, trusts all things, hopes for all things, endures all things.”
But does that have to include my uncle’s links to stories on Drudge, Breitbart, and the Blaze? Or course, he’d ask the same thing to me about Mother Jones, the Huffington Post, or even the Washington Post. Where do we meet in the middle? Bridges instead of fences. Can we even do that anymore? Or want to? Perhaps the best advice of all comes from the First Lady: “When they go low… we go high.”
The cover of Time Magazine this week tells a dark story: “How Trolls Are Ruining the Internet” – turning the web into a cesspool of aggression and violence. Trolls are those internet bullies who write vile things in comments sections or send nasty tweets. However, not just bullying or hate speech but threats of rape and violence and worse. Female journalists are prime targets. But so are teenagers, ridiculed for acne and weight issues, encouraged to commit suicide. A Pew Research Study found that 70% of 18-24 year olds who use the internet have experienced harassment. The internet, with its lofty ideals of the free-flow of information, is sinking under the weight of sociopaths free to act out. Even the UCC had to eliminate the comments section under news articles published on ucc.org. The worst violator of decency – a retired UCC minister. What’s worse, as standards of behavior fall, it affects all of us. We’re tempted to follow along. I was truly tempted to repost a Melania Trump meme that was really at heart about slut-shaming.
In the interest of equal time, since I googled How to Follow Jesus on Social Media, I googled How to be Troll on the Internet. Sadly, not surprisingly, I found a long list of very detailed articles, enthusiastically explaining exactly how.
“When they go low… we go high.” But sometimes we can find ourselves on the low road. How would we know? Just ask: Does our speech lift up or tear down? Could anyone recognize Christ through us? We don’t need the internet to spread negative attitudes, complaints, gossip, and blame. This isn’t all about someone else. There’s a little Jesus and a little troll in all of us.
I may laugh when someone says the internet is the tool of the devil or the invention of Satan. Some of these trolls are like the living expression of the devil’s minions…and proud of it. And in response, more people are not just unfriending but dumping Facebook and Twitter and the rest altogether, consigning it to the dung heap of hell. Claiming a piece of sanity and civility in a rapidly devolving world.
But wait. Social media is also a beautiful tool for relationships. I know more about the births and deaths, struggles and high moments of people’s lives from Facebook than I would ever know any other way. It can be shallow. It can bring out the worse in people. But so can any other human activity known to man – including churches. Unfriending builds fences.
Elisa Davy Permain is the editor of the book of wisdom stories we have been using all summer. She said of the story of Old Joe and the Carpenter, “Most people see this as a Christian story and Jesus as the carpenter. But remember, we are all the carpenters of our lives.” Is it not time to work on our bridge building skills? Although, I have to say, sometimes “love your neighbor as yourself” means the appropriate consideration of a fence to preserve our mental health.
The message we can take from Old Joe and the Carpenter is not to let the work of bridge building be for someone else to do. It is for we ourselves as an expression of Christian discipleship – for they shall know us by our love. No matter where we are – in person, online, at home, or as we go back to school – there is always an opportunity to choose: when they go low, we go high!
 “Old Joe and the Carpenter” in Doorways to the Soul: 52 Wisdom Tales from Around the World, edited by Elisa Davy Pearmain, Pilgrim Press, 1998.