Scripture: Isaiah 58:9b-14
In a long-ago Saturday Night Live routine, comedians Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin played news commentators who disagreed about everything and clearly despised each other. In a memorable tag line that you will sometimes still hear today, Aykroyd, in a fit of pique, would begin his weekly rant by saying, “Jane, you ignorant slut.” It was a harsh line, and overtly sexist. But it was funny, too, largely because it expressed openly the spirit of the times. There it was, out in the open—the antipathy that so many people felt toward those around them.
Old as that line is, what’s sobering is that it still sounds fresh. No surprise to any of us, this is maybe the most often-noted quality of the times in which we live, and maybe of every time: wherever we turn, people don’t like each other, they don’t trust each other, they’re mean to each other. Can you hear it just under the surface: you ignorant slut?
You see it as much as I do. Neighbors who used to socialize together turning against each other. The “mean girls” attitude that pervades so many schools (and which has its “mean boys” flavor, as well). Adherents of various political parties and viewpoints who can’t stand their opposite numbers. Workplace jealousies and rivalries. And maybe worst of all: family dismemberment—fathers and sons turning against each other, mothers and daughters falling apart, disloyalties and rifts and betrayals enough to make your heart break: you ignorant slut.
Not only does this make our hearts break, of course, but it makes God’s heart break, as well. I sometimes imagine God surveying the creation and weeping over the fissures and fractures that so dot the planet. And into all this come those words we heard a few moments ago from the prophet Isaiah, that we are each to be a “repairer of the breach” (58:12).
In Isaiah’s world, the people of Israel have come home to Judah after having been in exile for some 70 years. And when they arrive home, nothing is as grand or as perfect as they had hoped it would be. So they’re disgruntled, frustrated that God’s promises of a grand future seem not to have come true. And Isaiah pointedly issues a stark reminder. ‘This dissolution, this lifelessness is on you,’ Isaiah seems to say. The one essential quality for the people of God, and the one thing that will allow God’s promises to flourish, is that they support and connect with and care for each other. It’s care that brings light. It’s support that lets healing waters flow. It’s compassion that makes “the gloom be like the noonday” (58:10). As they build the bridges of care and concern and support, they will be true to the ways of God. It’s all summed up in one phrase: each of you, be a “repairer of the breach.”
Isaiah speaks to our world as well as his. The breaches, the ruptures in relationships, are many and varied, of course, and so are the repairs we can make. There are a number of blatant ways in which the social fabric is ripped, of course—murder and theft, war and oppression, lies and betrayals, as well as rampant discrimination. Breaches are legion.
This morning, though, I want to explore something that may seem a little less obvious, and that is the role technology plays in the crevices between us. On the surface, email and social media seem an unalloyed gift. They let us communicate with each other at all hours; they give us the possibility to resolve some issues quickly and efficiently; they provide an opportunity for us to connect with people all over the world at the click of a mouse; they make it possible to answer myriad questions by just asking Siri or Google or Alexa. OK, Google, what’s Francisco Lindor’s batting average today? .297—great! What’s not to like!?
Social media, too, have enormous benefits. They can let us contact a long-lost friend or relative, they can let us share an image of astonishing beauty, they can foster connections of which an earlier age could only dream. And there are so many of us who take advantage of these capabilities.
There’s a downside to the way we use social media, too, though, isn’t there? Part of the problem is that, too often, we don’t encounter each other’s real selves there. On social media, I can present my best, most idealized self—my victories and accomplishments, my fabulous new kitchen, my incredible vacation—in such a way that you never have any real idea about my fears and failures, my self-doubt, the things that keep me up at night. Online, people can hide their family dysfunction, their marital discord, the frustrations they have in being a parent or a child.
This electronic problem may be most acute with teenagers. The incidence of youthful depression and anxiety related to electronic networks is dramatic—some of it because bullying is so much easier electronically, some of it because their own gritty, complex, rough-edged lives seldom seem as good as their schoolmates’ sometimes prettified social media images, some of it because they may never seem as popular as the images of the people they envy. It’s too easy, online, not to know each other as much as we know often carefully-curated images of each other.
The Harvard Graduate School of Education enumerates some of the stressors that go with our hyper-electronic world: teens see postings about events to which they haven’t been invited. They feel pressure to “post positive and attractive content” about themselves. They feel pressure to get comments and likes on their posts. And they not infrequently agonize when people post things about them that they can’t change or control (https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/17/12/social-media-and-teen-anxiety).
The answer isn’t to take their phones away, which may seem like the obvious answer—that can cause even more stress. The Harvard study, though, suggests managing phone use: turning it off after 9:00 p.m., for example; having phone-free dinners or rides to school; taking occasional longer breaks from the phone—a weekend, say, or a vacation or summer camp. And above all they advise talking to your teen about what it’s like for them. Just listening and helping them to find words for their anxiety won’t entirely take away the pain, of course, but it can help them navigate their own solutions. Repair the breach.
This isn’t just for teens, either. Electronic communication gets regularly misused by adults, as well. Too many of us, for example, have been in on email exchanges that should have been handled other ways. Something was phrased too aggressively, a nuance intended to be humorous went completely over the recipients’ heads, subtleties and intricacies fell by the wayside. And you just want to scream, “Stop the email!” Judy Bagley-Bonner, who just left us after serving on Federated’s staff this summer, used to say “Email is for information not communication.” In other words, set up a meeting or confirm a lunch date with email. But don’t go back and forth about difficult or complex or divisive subjects by email. Just don’t do it! Pick up the phone, or set up a time to meet, or wait ’til your regularly scheduled meeting. Easy as it may seem to jot down all your thoughts and click “Send,” it too often causes more harm than good. Don’t do it! Repair the breach.
Now, as we say, we don’t want to overstate this. The world is fractured by blatant cruelty and intolerance which we, as followers of Jesus, are called to resist and undo. But social fabric is also frayed in some of these less obvious ways. We are fundamentally social creatures, and we communicate not just with words, but with our bodies, as well—eyes, gestures, expressions. And we each need to pick up on all these cues if our interactions are to be full and healing. Electronic communication can sometimes stifle that sensitivity.
An Episcopal parish priest named Ragan Sutterfield has given up all social media. He knows he misses out on some casual news of his parishioners. But he also talks about the gains he has noticed. He quotes an opinion piece written for the New York Times by the novelist KJ Dell’Antonia: “‘The more I reserve both good news and personal challenges for sharing directly with friends, the more I see that the digital world never offered the same satisfaction or support,’ she writes. ‘Instead, I lost out on moments of seeing friends’ faces light up at joyful news, and frequently found myself wishing that not everyone within my network had been privy to a rant or disappointment.’
“While Dell’Antonia is speaking of sharing information,” says Sutterfield, “I think something of the same can be said of hearing it as well. When a friend shares good news or bad online, it is hard to be with that person in either the joy or the sorrow through a comment, [a] like, or, worse yet, an emoji. There is a real loss of empathy and human connection in this mediated form of relationship. It is a loss that I think we have not even begun to understand but has a great deal to do with the fact that we are not merely minds but bodies, bodies that communicate in vast and complex ways that include touch, smell, and a plethora of signals that no screen or virtual interaction can replace” (The Christian Century, August 14, 2019, p. 21). Use social media and email for the great gifts they can be. But also, and especially, be together in person. Repair the breach.
There’s more to connecting with each other than just how we handle electronics and social media, though, isn’t there? Eleven years ago, the novelist J.K. Rowling spoke at a Harvard University commencement. She urged the graduates not to be afraid of failure, which was wonderful. But she also made a point of reminding them of the importance of the imagination. Rowling appreciates the imagination partly because it lets us dream of exciting new worlds that are yet to be. But mostly she values the imagination for another reason: we human beings are the only creatures who can summon up some sense of what it might be like to be someone else.
We can imagine ourselves into someone else’s life, can’t we? It’s essentially what we do when we read or watch a movie. Like many of you, I read Tara Westover’s memoir Educated this summer. She comes from an eccentric, violent, misogynistic family that doesn’t believe in music or literature or education or so much else that I find good and beautiful. And it’s her writing that lets me imagine what it might be like to be her. I can’t ever know what it’s like to be Tara, of course, but I can, in some small measure, be transported into her world.
J.K. Rowling urges us to imagine each other’s lives, because it’s that that can let us connect and appreciate each other and be less judgmental and find common ground. One of Rowling’s first real jobs was with Amnesty International, where she heard the stories of refugees and political prisoners and people who were oppressed and victimized simply because of where they lived and what they stood for. And she got a sense there for a wider world. She connected, in a physical way, with people who were very different from her, people who had been through ungodly suffering, people whose circumstances opened up entire new worlds to her. She came to understand and value their fears and agonies and hopes and dreams. The world grew closer together.
It’s just this sort of conjuring up each other’s lives to which God begs us. It’s this sort of imagination that lets us put ourselves in the place of refugees fleeing oppressive homelands to seek freedom and dignity. It’s this imagination that lets us identify with women whose hopes and dreams have been quashed by patriarchy and who seek nothing more than equal opportunity. It’s this imagination that lets us step into the shoes of African Americans whose opportunities have been crushed and suffocated and whose dreams and hopes and lives matter. Imagine what other people’s lives are like. Stand in their shoes. Repair the breach.
And all this is possible, this imagining and repairing, because this is essentially what God has done with us. God, in Christ, has entered our lives. God has “shared our common lot” (UCC Statement of Faith) and met us where we are. Grand and magnificent as God most certainly is, the Holy One is also right here beside us, embracing us, holding us close, and whispering into our hearts the truth above all truths. It’s the truth of which the psalm reminds us: “God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8). God sees us and knows us, and in every way repairs the breach.
One of Mary’s and my tasks this summer was to work with her brother Marc to clean out the house of their brother Mike, who died in January. While much had to be thrown out, we also were able to take a large amount of Mike’s stuff to Goodwill, so that others could make use of it. One day I took a carload to Goodwill. A young staff member there helped me unload the car, and in his very first armful, he dropped a glass item, which shattered on the driveway. He hung his head and looked distraught. And then suddenly he snapped out of it. He stood up straight, looked at me, and asked what brought me in. When I told him my brother-in-law had died, he looked straight into my eyes and said, “Oh, I’m so sorry. How are you doing?” And then he asked, “How’s your wife doing?” His care for me was palpable and genuine. And it brought tears to my eyes. And it made me feel embraced. Ethan was his name. And he had shown God’s “steadfast love” for me. And by his presence and his attention he had repaired a breach. May we go forth and do likewise.