Love Me, Tinder

Sunday, November 12, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Will Green at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington D.C. on Sunday, November 12, 2017. 

 

Text: Ruth 1:7-18

 

Today we begin a new sermon series as part of our "Faith: Remastered" annual theme, pivoting from John Wesley's historic Rules for Singing and thinking together about how our individual voices and ministries harmonize and enliven Foundry's mission and vision, to a decidedly more modern musical concept. Mashups.

          Truly a product of the 20th century, musical mashups fuse the harmonies, lyrics, and melodies of two separate musical pieces into a third, new composition. While retaining individual elements unique to each, a mashup in its truest form has an altogether different identity, oftentimes having rhythms or sounds which serve as the glue that holds sometimes very different songs or genres in vital tension with one another.

          Done well, mashups bring new life to otherwise tired melodies and create space for us to hear things we've heard before in a new way. Done poorly, mashups are a gibberish of lyrics and sounds which fail to maintain the integrity of the original pieces involved and result in a confused and...if their like me, consternated, audience (think Will trying to watch "Glee").

          There’s perhaps no other musical styling which best fits a focus on the relationships we share with one another and with God. Like a musical mashup, the spaces that exist between us are rife with creative potential, holding in them the opportunity to change and transform us whether in a passing smile on the street or a life-long partnership with one we love. Every relationship is an opportunity to honor the beauty of our individual identities while together becoming  something unique and beautiful unto itself.

          Likewise, our relationships are equally prone to being problematic, as rife with the potential for chaos and consternation as creativity. Like a bad mashup, relationships turn toxic when we fail to honor another's individuality, slip into patterns which sees each other, in the words of philosopher Immanuel Kant, “as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves,” or fail to remember the importance of every voice in God's song of grace and of life.

          And so, over these next few weeks as we consider the biblical mashups between Ruth and Naomi, Cain and Abel, and Samuel and Eli I invite you to bring your whole self to the conversation, honoring the beauty with which you've been created and called Beloved of God, and keeping your eyes open for new opportunities to blend your song, our song, and God's song into a new proclamation of God's love for the world. Let us pray:

 

          The irony of asking a single, gay, 30-something to preach the inaugural sermon in a series about relationships isn't lost on me, especially given the monumental shifts occurring in the ways we date and build relationships with each passing year. Apps like Bumble, Tinder, Hinge, Chappy, OkCupid, and Her, not to mention websites like eHarmony, PlentyOfFish, Match, Compatible Partners, and apps of an even more…dubious…intent like Grindr or Scruff, are used—in theory—to help the overbooked user more easily sort through potential matches than the “old fashioned” way of meeting folk in person.

Take Tinder, for instance. Users create a profile which other users view images  they’ve shared and POSSIBLY read a biography, swiping right for if they hope for a match or left on if they hope for a…well, an absence of that person in their dating pool. It seems, these days, that the most pressing theological question we need to ask is what Jesus would have in his Tinder profile. Given that our sanctuary comes pre-set with a profile picture (of dubious accuracy, mind you), I took a stab at writing one on his behalf:

 

30-something who loves wild, wine-fueled wedding parties with Mom. Enjoys hiking, camping, and fishing with my 12 guy friends...everywhere...all the time. We’re actually kind of a package deal. Takes  long walks ON the sea. Adores feet...washing. Feet washing. Just a mostly normal guy who wants to save the world...well, kind of already did, so let's just talk about you![1]

 

          Now, before we dismiss this theological rabbit hole as inconsequential or irreverent, hang with me for just a second. Because in a world where, according to a recent Pew Research Study use of online dating apps and sites has tripled in the last 5 years among populations 18-24 and 55-65, and in which 41% of Americans know someone who actively uses online dating to meet potential partners (and you all do because you're looking at one), there might be something here for us to learn.

          Followed to its natural conclusion, I believe it's safe to say that Jesus would have been a profound failure at online dating, not because his credentials would fail him or his stories wouldn't make any first date fascinating, but because it the potential to so quickly reduce the value of human life and wonder of our individual complexity to easily consumed sound bytes and images, allowing those who do use it too often to peruse the concept of another—participating in relationship insofar as it fits our needs, expectations, or desires—without ever actually knowing who the person on the other side of the screen is.

          Indeed, the ways in which users feel forced to curate ourselves--picking the perfect picture or even being one of those 53%[2] of users who admit to lying about their weight, height, age, or work on their profile--polishing our self in the hopes of being selected in the great online dating game, denies the beauty of our created being and reduces us to items served up for consumption by a hungry…thirsty, depending on who you're talking to…world. Let alone the fact that multiple studies have revealed an overwhelming increase in judgmental behavior among users both on and off the apps as we constantly engage in the "swiping or scrolling game," shopping while emotionally hungry for some relational fix with a smorgasbord of options and willing to reject at a moment's notice someone who's hair doesn't fall in the right way or who's stats appear to be off-putting.

          Now, believe it or not, this is not a sermon against online dating, app culture, or social media. Far from it, these simply provide an easily accessible example of a much more sinister system operative within the human psyche. The temptation, as it were, to reduce ourselves or one another to easily consumed objects who's primary purpose is to satisfy MY desire, fulfill MY need, support MY sense of self, insulate MY perspective, present in almost every facet of our society. This, what I like to call consumptive relational economy, reduces our relationships to transactions which make of our being—physical, emotional, spiritual—commodities to be traded at the expense of authenticity and the Imago Dei, the image of God, we believe each of us bears.

          And it's nothing new. Just take our reading today. Sometime after Naomi and her family, who were Isaraelites, had moved to and settled in the land of Moab, all of Naomi's male relatives, including her sons who'd married Moabite women, died. This is critical knowledge for the reader, both because Moabites had been expressly written out of the covenant of Israel for 10 generations following their opposition to the entry of the Israelites into the Promised Land. This is important, both because it meant that Naomi was--due to the death of her husband and sons--left alone in a foreign land which was hostile toward her people and in which her daughters-in-law had very little obligation or reason to care for her, and because the social constructs of the day meant that women were completely dependent upon men in their lives to care and provide for them.

          Our pericope pics up with their confrontation of this predicament. On the one hand, Naomi can return to her homeland, abandoning relationship with her daughters in law, and potentially finding protection with her family's husband while Ruth and her sisters in law return to their families and leave behind the family they'd come to know, or they could choose to remain in relationship and run the risk of economic hardship, hunger, homelessness, and rejection from their mutual spiritual and religious communities.

          It's no wonder that Naomi so arduously encourages her daughter's in law to return to their mother's homes, and it makes all the more shocking Ruth's steadfast refusal to do so.

 

“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go… your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

 

          I don't know how you cannot hear this as a clear rejection of the consumptive relational economy of her day and an assertion that together the creative and generative potential in their relationship was of far greater value than what they could have apart. Insisting on a new way, she refused to allow herself to fall victim to a world which would reduce her worth the kind of man she was married to, overturned the norms that insisted women were second class players in society, and forged with Naomi a new life which valued equally her worth, their worth, and the opportunities available to them together.

          In taking a risk on relationship and rejecting the temptation to treat Naomi as a means to an end or abandon their relationship when the end seemed no longer worth the means, Ruth offers us a new relational economy which honors our individuality the image of God in, and insists the foundation of our human connections must always be the divine potential present in the spaces between us.

Her decision had world-altering implications. The story ends, not with her eventual marriage to Boaz, but with genealogy which links her to King David and, through him, to Jesus Christ. All this, despite the convention that Moabites were supposed to have been rejected from the covenant community with God. Something only possible because she chose the potential of relationship over the transactional engagement the world expected of her.

          Like Ruth and Naomi, we are routinely presented with opportunities to participate in consumptive relational economies. From Tinder and the ways we are formed to date and build life-long relationship, to the ways our political, social, and oftentimes religious institutions function, the pressure to perform, to consume, to commodify ourselves and one another is ever present.

          It's the way we justify the little white lies and social media performances to attract just one more like or elicit just one more response. How we justify remaining in relationships which are long past a point of health, pretending we're ok out of a fear of what might happen if we weren't. It's the social pressure to forget who we are, what we value, and where we want to be in favor of being seen as part of the in crowd, simultaneously in all of these instances losing ourselves, ignoring our own worth, and using the others around us to create a sense of self just as readily as they are using us.

          It's the way well-intentioned white people will proudly proclaim "Black Lives Matter," consuming the struggle and suffering of black and brown peoples in a way that makes us feel good without ever doing the work to deconstruct the white supremacists structures in which we participate and implicitly support. It's the men on my Facebook page who'll post in support of #metoo and then go right back to embodying toxic masculinity which insulates them from being implicated because "they're just not that kind of guy," happy to make themselves feel better in a moment by supporting a 'movement' but unwilling do what it takes to make the change the movement is calling us to make.

          And y'all, I don't want to step on any toes here or anything--but y'all know I'm about to--when I say we fall into that same trap playing the game of identity politics, using those on the opposite side of the aisle as a foil to sharpen our wit and insulate us from perspectives other than our own. Reducing individuals into a singular identity which simultaneously serves as justification for our personal political leanings and justifying our own recalcitrance in engage those with whom we might disagree.

          Here's the thing: this consumptive relational economy, friends, is tempting. It eliminates the need for vulnerability. It minimizes the risk we take. It allows us control. It makes us feel more secure. It makes the world, and all its peoples and beauty and brokenness much more navigable. And it is entirely counterintuitive to the way we know God to work in the world.

          Ruth's refusal of a commodifying, consumptive relationship with Naomi and embrace of the potential that existed between them is simply an example of God's relationship with creation that as Christians we believe culminates in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In Jesus, what we find is a revelation of divine relationship which rejects the way that world would have us reduce and shape ourselves to fit the needs of others, that celebrates the unique and beautiful way in which we EACH and ALL play a role in the kingdom of God, and in which insists, insists, that all are worthy as they are, where they are, of God's grace, love, and mercy.

          Refusing to participate in the transactional, consumptive relational norms, expecting them to curate an identity which was socially acceptable, Jesus met people where they were, as they were. Rather than reducing those around him to their social strata or religious standing, he remained open--even to those who opposed him--to meeting each to what God might do in that encounter. In other words, Jesus was so busy swiping right there was no time to swipe left. Jesus was too busy talking to people to get lost in the endless chatter of messages sent across telephone screens. Jesus was too concerned with creating relationship to get caught up in consuming it.

          Jesus' ministry, if it teaches us nothing else about the way we build and sustain relationships, teaches us that we are created for more than the consumptive, constricting, transactional relationships this world attempts to lure us into. Do you know that? You have been created for more. You who are God's beloved, each beautifully made and uniquely known by God. You are worth more. Worth more than a world which would reduce you to a profile picture and 300-word bio, that would constrict you according to your stats or consume you based upon your worth at that next networking event. You are not your title...or the lack thereof. You are not your network or your net worth. You are are a beautiful, beloved child of God, adopted by grace despite all social convention and accepted norm, and capable of world-changing things. And there is no thing in this world, no matter how many swipes left, no matter what boxes the world might tell you check, no matter how often you might feel coerced into curating yourself for the sake someone else's consumption, that will change the fact that you are sufficient, special, and absolutely loved by the One who's lovesong holds the world together.

          Rooted in God’s love for us, and ready to insist, as Ruth, on relationships which are more than transactional, we are called to relentlessly reshape our own relationships to do the same. Like Ruth we must allow our very lives to proclaim with clarity and conviction that we who are loved by God will not allow ourselves, or those people whom we meet, to any longer be abused by the consumptive relational economies of this world. This means that we will commit ourselves, as people of faith, to always and in every encounter see one another not as a means to an end, but an end in and of each self. It means we must commit to the kinds of self-examination and personal emotional interrogation that carefully consider why we are engaged in the relationships we have, why we seek to form new ones, and how it is we encounter each other as someone of equally sacred worth to ourselves. Most of all it means that in our swiping and in our scrolling, in our politicking and networking, in our advocacy and in our works of mercy insisting on, investing in, and striving for a life which affirms and reaffirms the Imago Dei in every person we meet.

 

[1] Many thanks to the help of Rev. Melissa Meyer, MJ Jean, and Breanna Dahl for helping to workshop this idea.

[2] accessed Nov 9, 2017: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-mating-game/201609/the-ugly-truth-about-online-dating