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Antisocial networks

A sermon preached by Dr Robert Titley, Canon Treasurer. Fourth Sunday before Advent

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Antisocial networks

Posted By : Robert Titley Sunday 4th November 2018

A sermon preached by Dr Robert Titley, Canon Treasurer.

Fourth Sunday before Advent

Readings Hebrews 9: 11–14; Mark 12: 28–34


Today we are urged to make a day of prayer for people who work in the media. So pray for Kirsty Wark, Kay Burley and those who support them, pray for the newest kid on the block formally known as Fleet Street, Geordie Greig, recently arrived as editor of the top-selling Daily Mail. Pray for everyone at BBC Wiltshire, Salisbury Journal, Spire FM and That’s TV Salisbury. Pray for Marie Thomas and our media team in these interesting times. Commend to God’s love the media martyr Jamal Khashoggi, and give thanks for his courage. 


Let’s pray also for each other, because now anyone with a smartphone can be a reporter, a reviewer, a news photographer. Our guides end their tours by inviting comments on TripAdvisor. When the man with the large hammer and as yet obscure motives attacked Magna Carta ten days ago, our first thought was for people (none hurt), our second for the document (no damage), and our third was – what images might people put on Facebook? So let’s pray also for the people who are the architects of these systems that circulate our words and images round the planet at the speed of light, for they bear great responsibilities.


If ever you doubt the doctrine of original sin, spend ten minutes on Twitter. Here is Tim Berners Lee, the kindly inventor of the world wide web, who in an interview last week likened that particular network to a petri dish:

If you put a drop of love into Twitter it seems to decay but if you put in a drop of hatred you feel it actually propagates much more strongly. And you wonder: ‘Well is that because of the way that Twitter as a medium has been built?’


The builders of Twitter and the like may be the ones that need our prayers most if you think about how they shape our public conversations.


But it’s not all bad. I saw a story the other day about something called SQLite, a ‘self-contained, high-reliability, embedded, full-featured, public-domain, database engine’. I don’t really know what that means, but its users include Google, Apple and Microsoft and it has a pivotal role in what is served up on our computer and phone screens.


The code of ethics of those who have developed SQLite includes a section of the Rule of St Benedict. This is remarkable. In 1215, the year Magna Carta was signed off, Benedict’s Rule was already as old as this cathedral is now. So why have these very 21st century people bothered with the musings of a 5th century monk? Because this founding charter for countless monasteries and convents has, as they put it, ‘proven its mettle in thousands of diverse communities’.


The Rule begins with Jesus’ summary of the ten commandments in today’s gospel: Love God with heart, soul and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. Jesus gives that as a reply to a legal expert who asks what is the greatest of the ten commandments. He asks for one, but Jesus gives two, because you can’t do the loving God stuff properly without doing the loving neighbour stuff too.


Now in Luke’s gospel this conversation is a point-scoring encounter – ‘Yes, but who is my neighbour?’ is the lawyer’s supplementary, and Jesus gives the story of the good Samaritan as his answer. In Mark, the lawyer asks the question as someone (as Winnie the Pooh says of Christopher Robin) who Really Wants To Know. He sees what Jesus is getting at – and develops it: if you can love God with your whole self and love your neighbour as yourself, then that’s the main thing, and the religious kit (like the apparatus of the temple, just around the corner from where this scene takes place) matters less. Jesus is impressed. You aren’t far from the Kingdom of God, he says.


Just so. If enough of us could do that for a single day how our world would change. But the problem is that loving God and neighbour is on its own a bit airy, rather broad-brush – I am quite good at loving my neighbour in general terms, just as I am rather good at being a theoretical vegetarian – so perhaps Luke’s point-scoring lawyer has a point when he asks Jesus to be specific: if we are truly to love God and neighbour we must do it as we work on the nuts and bolts of everyday life where money and time and tempers are sometimes short.


In the media world, for instance, the nuts and bolts are choices (often made under pressure) about which words, which figures go on the page or come out of the speakers, which picture goes on the screen, and before nuts and bolts were invented Benedict knew that if his communities were to get within a country mile of the kingdom of God they would need some help living out those two great commandments in their everyday choices. So let’s see briefly how Benedict can help if, like Mark’s lawyer, we Really Want to Know how to love God and neighbour.


The SQLite people pledge to order their business lives by Benedict’s ‘instruments of good works’ from Chapter Four of the Rule. These are a set of seventy-two instructions. They begin with Jesus’ top two commandments and go on to cover things as varied as diet – ‘Be not a great eater’ – and getting to bed on time – ‘Be not drowsy’ – and they have plenty to say about how our world might communicate with itself for better not for worse:


  • Do not nurse a grudge
  • Do not entertain deceit in your heart
  • Be not a grumbler or a detractor
  • Do not love quarrelling
  • Shun arrogance
  • Respect your seniors, love your juniors
  • Make peace with your adversary before the sun sets
  • Do not return evil for evil (the SQLite people say, ‘This is a one-way promise…We will treat you this way regardless of how you treat us.’)


Last week, Canon Tom mentioned some thinking that Dean Nick is developing with us about how this place can be genuinely ‘common ground’, somewhere where people can speak and listen as if they genuinely have something to learn from the person they disagree with.


Look at the UK, the EU, the US (with really important elections in forty-eight hours), Brazil (and we could go on) – our political world is fragile. And with 60% of the world’s animal population wiped out since 1970 and British heatwaves doubling in length over fifty years, our natural world is no less so (we have twelve years to sort this). So there are things to discuss.


How do I love God? By seeing all of this, including my neighbour, as a gift of God’s love for us. And who is my neighbour? The person with whom I share common ground. What about when I fail? Benedict knew about original sin – that tendency we have to go the way we don’t want to go – so he offered his brothers and sisters this as the last of his instruments of good works:


Never despair of God's mercy