210905 – Church Online – Life Is But A Meme

Yr B ~  Pentecost 15 ~ Proverbs 1:20-33 (NLT)

We’re in the final week of a 3-week sermon series thinking about what it means to be church these days – especially in terms of online church, and hybrid worship, and building authentic community through social media. Last week I made what I hope was a provocative insight: What if the things we do, and say, and believe, and follow aren’t the problem? What if the problem is how we communicate them?

So this week let’s talk about how we communicate. Our tradition is built on prose. We love words. Words, words, words. Our primary means of communicating and teaching is long-form, text-based sermons/essays/articles. When we way we’re people of the ‘word’ we really mean it!

How does the online world communicate? Primarily, in images. It’s all bits and bites, short-form, easily accessible, digestible, and sharable. In other words (!), almost the polar opposite to how we usually communicate. So, we’ve got some learnin’ to do! Let’s start today with one of the primary forms of communication online – the meme.

What is a meme? Nowadays a meme refers to phenomena that begins as an image with a witty, or satirical, or insulting caption that gets rapidly shared on the internet (goes viral – spreads exponentially like a virus – something we know all too well because of Covid). Memes require a shared cultural reference point for their meaning. Often it’s pop culture, or politics, but sometimes it’s just that an image meme went so viral that it became its own reference point.

Here are a few examples. The first is from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ movies. Boromir originally said, “One does not simply walk into Mordor.” The internet turned it into a meme. You can say, “One does not simply…” and add your own ending to make your joke or your point.

Or Morpheus from ‘The Matrix’ movies who became immortalized for saying, “What if I told you…” As you can see it really lends itself to all kinds of creative messaging. But it has to be super short – to fit on the image.

The ‘distracted boyfriend’ meme took the world by storm a few years ago. It’s because it tells a big story in a brief image. A guy’s head is turned by a pretty girl and his girlfriend reacts. Interestingly, it was actually a recreation of an image in The Matrix movie (the red dress scene, if you’re a fan). This image often gets used in political or more intellectual memes. It offers more fertile ground than a one-liner. Notice the one I found shows ‘text-based’ as the girl left behind while ‘image-based video’ draws the attention.

And one of my favourites, from Star Trek we get the good old ‘Picard facepalm.’ Here displayed in the rare ‘double facepalm’ variety.

Finally, you may remember at the start of this year at President Biden’s inauguration ceremony, Senator Bernie Sanders was photographed sitting alone wearing a mask and his now famous mittens. Within hours poor Bernie was photo-shopped into all sorts of situations – including, thanks to a savvy congregant, into the Faith United worship service. The meme had already fully gone viral by the time Sunday came, and of course I jokingly mentioned it during worship. Well, by the time worship ended that image was waiting for me in my email. That’s how fast memes travel!

An image, with a witty caption, that gets rapidly shared on the internet, passed on from person to person through imitation and replication.

Did you know that that’s not the original definition of a meme though? Originally, a meme was a scientific/sociological term that referred to a trend, belief, fashion or phrase that is passed from generation to generation through imitation and behavioural replication. You can see the similarities.

Ironically, the word meme is said to be coined by Richard Dawkins who is a famous (or is it infamous) atheist. I say ironically because essentially what Dawkins calls a meme – a trend, belief, or phrase, passed on through generations through imitation and behaviour – has existed for millennia – in the bible! It’s called wisdom.

Wisdom writing is a special genre in the Hebrew Scriptures (what we’d often call the Old Testament). It’s literally a form of writing that is designed to pass on deep knowledge, often from one generation to the next. Many cultures have this idea. For example, Indigenous people share the wisdom or teachings of the ‘grandfathers’ and ‘grandmothers’. In the bible you’ll find wisdom teaching in the book of Ecclesiastes, in Job, in the Song of Songs, in the Psalms, and especially in the book of Proverbs which we’re looking at today.

Usually the teaching in the book of Proverbs comes in bite-sized portions – kind of like memes! Teachings like:

Proverbs 3:5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.
Proverbs 22:6 Train up a child in the way they should go: and when they are old, they will not depart from it.
Proverbs 27:17 As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.

Specifically, it’s a book of wisdom teaching meant to be shared from parent to child so the child can grow up into a good and faithful adult. Wisdom was venerated. Life lessons, hard learned, passed down through generations. Sharing wisdom is an act of love! Memes can be that too – but they can also be quite adversarial. Bits of insight or knowledge, sometimes insightful, oftentimes inane, shared disposably. Sharing a meme is often an act of pique, not love.

And this is one of the great challenges of the online world. While it offers the possibility of amazing depth, and knowledge, and insight, and connection it far too often never gets beyond the shallows of life. One-liners can be life changing if they’re full of wisdom – and they can be devastating or utterly innocuous if they’re full of shallowness. It’s not the medium that’s the problem – it’s how people use it. And for us it’s not our content that’s the problem – it’s how we share it.

Today’s scripture passage from Proverbs 1 is atypical of the book, because it’s a speech from Lady Wisdom herself warning us about the danger of spending all our time in the shallows of life. In the bible Wisdom is personified, and it is personified in female imagery, probably as a distinct balance to the dominant male imagery for God. Oh, and by the way, Lady Wisdom has an attitude! And I can’t help but hear her scolding our current culture, and our online shallowness.

Proverbs 1:20-33 (NLT – New Living Translation)
20 Wisdom shouts in the streets. She cries out in the public square.
21 She calls to the crowds along the main street, to those gathered in front of the city gate: (anybody watch the news lately?)
22 “How long, you simpletons, will you insist on being simpleminded? How long will you mockers relish your mocking? How long will you fools hate knowledge?
23 Come and listen to my counsel. I’ll share my heart with you and make you wise.
24 “I called you so often, but you wouldn’t come. I reached out to you, but you paid no attention.
25 You ignored my advice and rejected the correction I offered.
26 So I will laugh when you are in trouble! I will mock you when disaster overtakes you—
27 when calamity overtakes you like a storm, when disaster engulfs you like a cyclone, and anguish and distress overwhelm you.
28 “When they cry for help, I will not answer. Though they anxiously search for me, they will not find me.
29 For they hated knowledge and chose not to fear the Lord.
30 They rejected my advice and paid no attention when I corrected them.
31 Therefore, they must eat the bitter fruit of living their own way, choking on their own schemes.
32 For simpletons turn away from me—to death. Fools are destroyed by their own complacency.
33 But all who listen to me will live in peace, untroubled by fear of harm.”

(Honest, that was written millennia ago – not during Covid!)

Let’s be clear. This isn’t God speaking. It’s Wisdom. But remember, wisdom is not actually a real person, so when ‘she’ says “I’ll ignore you” ‘she’ is speaking in the abstract – simply meaning that when you act with folly; wisdom eludes you. That’s just truth. If you insist on relying on foolishness, and misinformation, then don’t be surprised when trouble hits and you start flailing around for wisdom and can’t find it.

Anyway, this sets the stage for the rest of the book which is all about passing on wisdom from one generation to the next – and most times it’s kind of in meme form! So while the interwebs may think it’s invented a new kind of communication, it’s really just repackaging something very ancient in a new way. Hey, isn’t that kind of the point of this whole sermon series?!

What if I told you that we are already experts in this, we just don’t realize it?

If you think about it, Jesus kind of taught in memes too. Short little stories called parables that took ordinary daily life and showed how it was full of God and extraordinary. Jesus was a master communicator – and with the exception of the Gospel of John (which, incidentally, came much later than the other gospels and reads a lot like a bunch of theologians got their hands on it and made it into long speeches) – except for John, in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Jesus preaches and teaches in short-form, not long-form. (Says Larry the preacher as he rambles into his 15th minute or so!)

Jesus found a way to speak depth to a shallow world, and he didn’t need encyclopedic volumes to do so. Jesus was, in fact, a wisdom teacher. He was the king of one-liners – very, very deep one-liners, but pithy nonetheless. Jesus was a meme-machine! Just put the words, “What if I told you…” before your favourite scripture verse!

Mark 8:36 (What if I told you…) “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”
Matthew 19:30 (What if I told you…) “Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”
Matthew 7:3 (What if I told you…) “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”
Matthew 5:5 (What if I told you…) “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
Matthew 7:6 (What if I told you…) “Do not throw your pearls to pigs.”
Mark 10:25 (What if I told you…) “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Matthew 7:1 (What if I told you…) “Do not judge or you too will be judged.”
Matthew 7:12 (What if I told you…) “Do to others what you would have them do to you.”
Luke 6:27 (What if I told you…) “Love your enemies.”

However, one does not simply throw scripture onto an image and poof it goes viral and captures the attention of the world.

And besides, most of us are not real big on flinging scripture at people – even in a meme. But really, that’s not the point. The point is to adapt to sharing our message, Jesus’ Way, in ways that communicate with people who may not know about it. Oh they’ve heard of Jesus alight – but the loudest version of a muscular, westernized, individualistic, hypocritical Jesus has turned them right off.

But the Jesus we find in scripture – the wisdom teacher who invites us and accompanies us into an abundant life full of love – the one whose Way we’ve followed for so long – the one we hold in our hearts – this is someone worth sharing, and sharing, and sharing – until he goes viral!

And that’s what we’re called to do as the church – to journey with one another, loving one another, strengthening one another, supporting one another, growing ever deeper in faith together – for our own sakes – and so that…we can share that transformative love with others.

The mission has never changed. The context and the tools are ever-changing. So we worship online, together. We build community online and through social media, together. And we share the timeless teaching of Jesus, the wisdom of the ages, which is just as relevant, and pithy, and convicting now as it has always been.

I know it feels like with all this online stuff that the world has changed. Yes, it has, and it hasn’t. And we must change, and yet not. One does not simply hear a sermon series and instantly adapt. Yet, what if I told you we are already travelling this road together?
My friends, life is but a meme. My meme would simply be captioned, “Love, love, love!”
If only that would go viral!