There Is No Such Thing as iChurch
“I can’t get no satisfaction,” to quote Mick Jagger.
That is exactly what our scriptures are about today.
We have a passage from the Book of Exodus where the Israelites are so unhappy and ungrateful that they actually wish out loud that God had allowed them to die as slaves in Israel.
And we have the story from the Gospel of Matthew where the laborers who worked all day are angry that the workers who only showed up at 5 p.m. get paid the same amount as themselves, who have worked all day in the hot sun.
To be fair and honest, they all have a case.
The Israelites are lost in the desert, and have no reason to expect that food and water will magically appear to save them. And it really doesn’t seem fair that nobody is rewarded according to how much he or she worked in the parable in Matthew.
Despite these instinctive misgivings, we like to believe we would somehow be far-seeing and obedient to God if we were in the same situation.
We’d like to believe that if we were with the Israelites, we would be brave and have faith that God would take care of us.
And we’re sure that if we were with the disciples hearing Jesus’ parable, we’d immediately understand that God’s grace is given freely to everyone regardless of how much effort they are able to put in.
Well, I’m calling bogus, and I’d actually like to propose that we are even less likely either have faith in or be satisfied with God’s grace than the people in these two stories.
I’m basing this conclusion on, well, on an article I read on the internet on a comedy website.
I know it sounds sketchy, but hear me out.
The website is called Cracked.com, and the columnist is David Wong. His article is titled: “7 Reasons the 21st Century is Making You Miserable,” and I think he’s really on to something that relates to our scriptures.
Because what our scriptures are revealing to us is that we just aren’t satisfied, and while our scriptures have been telling people that for thousands of years, this article helps us look at it in a way that hones in on our own time and place.
The first reason David puts forward that we of the 21st century are miserable is: “We don’t have enough annoying strangers in our lives…We’ve built an awesome, sprawling web of technology meant purely to let us avoid annoying people.”
Think about it. You can do your shopping online and don’t have to put up with irritating cashiers and customers.
You can rent your movie and don’t have to put up with loud teenagers in the theater.
You can get your movie from Netflix and not even have to deal with a dopey clerk at the video store who knows nothing about and refuses to stock the great movies you love, Wong goes on to say.
The flip side of that idea is that “we don’t have enough annoying friends, either.”
Our grandparents were friends with their next door neighbors and the people in their town because that was who they had access to, whether they had anything in common or not.
Today? Don’t like your neighbors? You never have to talk to them.
Don’t like your town? Move to another one.
Don’t like the Midwest? Move to the East Coast.
If you don’t like actual people at all, you don’t have to deal with them.
You can escape into an online world or even just watch TV catered specifically to your political tastes and entertainment interests. “Say goodbye to the tedious, awkward, painful process of dealing with somebody who’s truly different.”
But as David Wong says, “The problem is that peacefully dealing with incompatible people is crucial to living in a society. In fact, if you think about it, peacefully dealing with people you can’t stand is society. Just people with opposite tastes and conflicting personalities sharing space and cooperating, often through gritted teeth. Yet, [statistically speaking], people [generations ago] were apparently happier in their jobs and more satisfied with their lives. And get this: They had more friends. That’s right. Even though they had almost no ability to filter their peers according to common interests…they still came up with more close friends than we have now–people they could trust. It turns out, apparently, that after you get over that first irritation, after you shed your shell of ‘they listen to different music because they wouldn’t understand mine’ superiority, there’s a sort of comfort in needing other people and being needed on a level beyond common interests. It turns out humans are social animals after all. And that ability to suffer fools, to tolerate annoyance, that’s literally the one single thing that allows you to function in a world populated by other people who aren’t you.”
So in our modern world of technology, from those who spend all day online to those who simply watch a few hours of TV a week, we impose a great deal of isolation on ourselves.
And that weakens our skills in dealing with irritating people and making it through that phase of not being able to stand each other and surprising ourselves by becoming friends.
And David Wong says that the worst part about our not having these true and deep relationships with multiple people is that we never receive true criticism.
And don’t confuse insults with criticism. In our loud, rude world, both online and off, there are any number of people more than happy to call you an ugly name.
“An insult is just someone who hates you making a noise to indicate their hatred. A barking dog. Criticism is someone trying to help you, by telling you something about yourself that you were a little too comfortable not knowing.”
“Tragically, there are now a whole lot of people who never have those conversations. The interventions, the brutal honesty, the, “you know, everybody’s [mad] because of what you said [yesterday], but nobody wants to say anything because they’re afraid of you,” sort of conversations. Those horrible, awkward, wrenchingly uncomfortable sessions that you can only have with someone who sees right to the center of you.”
“[Our modern isolation and electronic communication] are awesome tools for avoiding that level of honesty. With [email or texting or even voicemail], you can respond when you feel like it. You can measure your words. You can pick and choose which questions to answer. The person on the other end can’t see your face, can’t see you get nervous, can’t detect when you’re lying. You have almost total control and as a result that other person never sees past your armor, never sees you at your worst, never knows the embarrassing little things about yourself that you can’t control. Gone are the common quirks, humiliations and vulnerabilities that real friendships are built on.”
The point David is trying to make is that between the safe, isolated bubbles we have made for ourselves and the complex personas that we have constructed to show the world, “You never get to really be yourself, and that’s a very lonely feeling.”
And this is what I wonder about my generation and the ones who come after me.
Our great-grandparents’ lives were a struggle because they literally had to find a way to hunt or grow enough food to put on the table.
People’s lives today, and here I mean well-off Americans, mind you, are a struggle because they have lost the ability to deal with adversity and build real relationships that get them through thick and thin.
They’re not staving off starvation, they’re starving themselves on purpose to meet a beauty ideal.
They’re not living in fear of the next epidemic of cholera or typhoid, they’re wondering whether they’ve finally crossed the line into alcoholism or if the quality of the high you can supposedly get from meth would be worth the potential consequences to not feel so sad for awhile.
Now lest this sermon degenerate into a “kids these days” rant, let’s take a step back and remember that in comparison to many members of this church, I am kids these days.
But I do find David Wong’s article enlightening, because it articulates for today’s Americans why the stories of the scriptures today are so true to human nature.
And I don’t want to be a downer, but here’s the thing the terrifies me: if our 21st century world is driving us to be ever more isolated and less able to build real human relationships, how can we expect to have a real relationship with God?
Remember the catchphrase of the Evangelical churches? Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?
It’s a valid question, now more than ever.
I know for myself that in the same way that it’s both tempting and easy to construct a façade of myself that never gets pierced by reality because I can hold everyone at bay through technology, it’s equally tempting to think I can pull the same b.s. with God.
It’s easy to assume if we’re not careful that the shiny happy person we present to the world, we can present to God.
And in the same way that we just cancel out of our lives people we find annoying, we can do the same to God when we find God annoying.
And boy is that easy to want to do in our scriptures today.
I’m frankly miffed that the people in Jesus’ parable who showed up at 5 p.m. get a full day’s wages.
But the answer is not to wall myself off and ignore God, which isn’t really possible anyway.
The answer lies back with the Israelites, the original cranky complainers.
“Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, `Draw near to the LORD, for he has heard your complaining.'”
Draw near to the Lord when you don’t like what the Lord is doing, don’t run away.
What is true for our human relationships is true for our relationship with the Divine: running away and hiding never got anyone anywhere.
Get up close to God and hash out your problems.
Spend some time in prayer and present a detailed list of what you’re unhappy with and why.
You don’t have to fear honesty with God any more than honesty with your friends and family.
We’re the only ones who can break the cycle of false, engineered reality and engage in true relationships.
Our modern conveniences will never force us to do the hard work of love.
But we have an incredible blessing to counter the seductive isolation and self-centeredness that threaten our ability to live honestly: we have the church.
Church is one of the very last things in modern life that we can’t customize.
There is no such thing as iChurch.
You cannot pull up a “settings” menu on the Body of Christ and choose how and when you want to interact with it, to silence it, to put it on vibrate mode or sport mode or “no painfully transformative experiences” mode.
Life in Christian community is as raw and as real as it gets, and at times may be our last link to the raw reality of our true selves and our true God.
Our scripture continues: “And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud. The LORD spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, `At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.'”
Because that is what is at the heart of our dissatisfaction: fear.
We isolate ourselves and present a false front to the world because we think that no one, especially no one as perfect as God, could love us as we truly are.
But God gives us the ultimate reassurance in this story today.
The Israelites have just shown themselves to be ungrateful, cranky, and severely lacking in faith.
But God provides for their needs and answers the question they are too afraid to speak aloud: can you love us?
God’s answer is, “Yes. I can, I do, and I will, no matter what.”
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