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To Reach Beyond

Rev. Karen McArthur
Sun, Jun 30

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Text: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Luke 9:51-62

I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.
— Nelson Mandela

I have to say that I feel a bit like John Oliver. If you watch the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, you know that Jon Stewart is away for the summer, and one of his staff correspondents -- John Oliver -- is filling in for him. Jon Stewart wrote John Oliver a very nice note, saying that he was sure that he’d do really well, and that he shouldn’t worry, because “nothing really happens in the summer” – and then the NSA story broke within hours of Jon’s departure.

Funny thing, Dan Smith said the exact same thing to me when he asked me to fill in for Terry, who is now on leave. Dan’s on vacation, Sarah is away, Peter is away. But not to worry, because nothing really happens in the summer. Right! This week, we had a US Senate election (that seems a long time ago!), a couple of Supreme Court decisions, the UCC’s General Synod, and the world’s love, care and attention on Nelson Mandela in South Africa, all leading up to the Fourth of July. So many things to contemplate. Good thing “nothing” happens in the summer!

It is definitely summer now. This morning, we had ten teenagers and their assorted duffel bags, backpacks and sleeping bags gathering on our front lawn before loading into cars and heading off for the UCC’s camp in the White Mountains. This is the sixth year for many of them. It’s a place they love and a community that is strengthened each summer on the mountain. It’s a chance to be away from home, away from school, away from their regular lives.

This year, it was interesting listening to them realize that without their cell phones, they’d have to pack a whole bunch of extra stuff. Unlike many of us, who use our phones to make calls, and not much else, for these kids, their phones are their all-in-one tool: music, clock, camera, photo album, flashlight, notepad, address book, and general source of googled information. It will be an interesting off-the-grid week for them!

In the past couple of weeks, I think we’ve come to realize just how much of our lives are lived *on* the grid. Not just the ways that we can connect to the internet, and through the internet connect to each other, but also how much the internet is connected to us, tracking our phone calls, our purchases, and our locations. For some, this seems unacceptably intrusive. For others, it’s just the way it is.

Either way, I can’t quite figure out why people are so surprised by the revelation that the government is analyzing the collected data. We have to know that the data exists – the phone company can produce an itemized bill of each call and each text message. Our credit card bills itemize the date and amount of each purchase. Our bank statements detail the flow of our money. It seemed pretty clear to me when the Patriot Act was passed that the government would collect certain data, and then use it if necessary to protect our country from terrorist attack. Whether or not we agreed with the efforts, I thought it was pretty clear that the government was doing this.

When there’s a crime committed, or a person missing, or a car accident, the police can obtain cell phone records to aid in piecing together what happened when. The cameras and security camera footage at the Boston Marathon finish line were able to produce images of the suspects very quickly. By posting the photos online, it was a matter of hours before they were able to connect names to the faces. And once they had the names, they could track the movement of the two men, by credit cards and a campus ID, following the trail as one of them entered his dorm, the gym, and various campus buildings. The public seemed pretty satisfied with the law enforcement response and its use of this data. So is this a case that we want the police to track other people, but not us?

Last week, my 12-year-old daughter was asked to be a part of a summer program at school. One night, I asked her if she had any more information, and she said that she had a letter about it. “What did it say?” I asked. She said it was addressed to her parents. I said, “You can open it.” She looked at me with those pre-teen eyes that relayed that surely her mother is clueless about middle school life. “With the security cameras in the hall, do you think I’m going to open a letter addressed to my parents?”

I appreciate her attention to such details. It was the security camera comment that took me by surprise. I wonder what it’s like for these kids, growing up under the assumption of security cameras? Security? Or invasion of privacy? Is it a cost saving measure so that one employee can monitor the whole building? Or is it big brother watching?

I was thinking about this on my way to church this morning. If I somehow disappeared, and the police were searching for me, they would trace the “pings” of my phone to South Dartmouth, since I left it on overnight because I am the staff member on call this week for the church. Then a search of my computer would show that I had checked my email, used the internet to check the news, and the weather, and a recipe. On my way here, I used my gas card when I stopped and got gas in Freetown. I used my cell phone to make a couple of phone calls, left a message on voicemail, and zipped through the EZ Pass fast lane at exit 20 on the Mass Pike. I wouldn’t be very hard to find.

I suppose it would be possible to live a life under the radar – no cell phone, no debit card, waiting in line to pay cash at the toll booth, or better yet, taking the side streets through Boston, paying cash for everything. But the conveniences are a trade-off for the visibility.

Why is it that “spies” are okay if they’re our spies who are spying on other people, but are a problem if they might be spying on us? The Bible talks about spies – remember the 12 spies of Israel who were sent ahead of the 12 tribes of Israel to scout the land of Canaan for 40 days? Moses was looking for information about the agriculture and the lay of the land. He sent the twelve ahead with instructions. The book of Numbers tells us that ten of the spies returned and told lies about the land, with stories about fortified cities and giants. Two (Joshua and Caleb) came back with a much more optimistic assessment, but the Israelites believed the ten and turned back, and ended up wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. To this day, the sin of the spies is remembered annually on Tisha B’Av, an annual July day that is called “the saddest day in Jewish history,” alongside the destruction of the 1st and 2nd temples, the fall of Jerusalem, and the failure of a 2nd century revolt against the Romans. With these biblical spies, as well as our own contemporary spies, it’s not whether or not there is data collected, but what is done with it.

Our lectionary text for today is the story of the transfer of leadership from Elijah to Elisha. Elijah was an outspoken prophet who warned King Ahab that there would be catastrophic drought and famine because of his policies that were in conflict with Moses’ law as expressed in Deuteronomy. After Elisha is chosen to follow Elijah, he follows him for six or eight years before today’s memorable scene of the handoff of Elijah’s powerful mantle. The idea that such divine power can be handed off from one prophet to the next is, in itself, a powerful idea.

Fast forward 900 years to Jesus (now that’s a metaphor from our modern age!). Jesus is all about handing off his power to his disciples, or as we’re sometimes called, his “followers.” As Jesus journeyed from town to town, teaching in the temple, on the hillsides, by the lake, or anywhere people gathered, he repeatedly asked people to follow him. People wanted to go with him to wherever he was going. Jesus pointed out that it wasn’t about the destination – about where he was going. He didn’t have a place to lay his head. It was the journey that mattered. Not where you go, but how you get there.

People still clamored to follow him. But Jesus pointed out that sometimes that commitment was more than people were able to give. In some ways, Jesus seems to be saying that you should abandon your family commitments, or your responsibilities to your job in order to follow him. Today, I think Jesus would tell us to put away our cell phones and follow him! Could we do that? What would that mean for us? Would it be more about going off the grid and loosening our dependence on instant communication and information? Or would it be about becoming less visible to the big data giant in the sky?

This week, in the midst of all of our political news, we have been keeping the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. We’re so like Elisha and the people of Israel, anxious about the prospect of a world without Mandela’s wise counsel and courageous strength. I love his words about taking a celebratory moment to enjoy the view, but realizing that there are more mountains to climb. That is so exactly where we find ourselves today, whether the week’s Supreme Court decisions excited or dismayed us.

Many of us have hoped for many years for this day when the government would recognize our marriages. It hasn’t really been that many years since people would have been absolutely terrified at the thought of putting themselves on a publicly available government list of people in gay and lesbian relationships. We’re only 44 years post-Stonewall, and ten years after Lawrence v. Texas. Marriage equality has come very far – but there is still a ways to go. How we live our lives in those marriages is what will make the difference, as we continue to work to bring that same freedom and recognition to those who live in 37 remaining states. Marriage is not a destination, but a journey that leads us to reach beyond ourselves.

Or consider the Voting Rights Act, a portion of which was struck down this week. The next time you go to vote, observe who arrives with their ID. One of my friends did that, and noticed that it was the people of color who had their IDs out and ready. In our election this week, I did not take my ID in with me, being glad to vote in a country that operates on a system of trust and neighborhood polls. But is that an example of white privilege?
Perhaps we’re ready for a constitutional amendment that guarantees the right to vote, although we already have two: the 15th amendment from 1870 prohibits the federal and state governments from denying a US citizen the right to vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude. A hundred years later, we added the 26th amendment, which does the same for those aged 18 or over. Do we need another?

Some days, I feel like there are more and more mountains to climb – too many to count, way too many for us. But that is why we have each other. God calls us to find our passion. For some it’s voting, for some marriage. For some it’s climate change or economic issues or gun control. You know what echoes in your heart and soul. Find your passion and follow it. Jesus calls us to follow – not to a destination, but on a journey, to reach beyond our comfort zones, and to strive for the truth.

We live in a new world of data and information. What we do with it will matter for generations. Will we use it for accountability or surveillance? For power and control, or for building a community of safety and trust? Will we use the data to solidify economic power? Or to distribute wealth? Whatever we decide, we’re all in this together. Amen!

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