June 18, 2023 Reflection and Worship Link

Summer Worship

“Called to Life”

Scripture Reading: Matthew 9: 9-13, 18-26      

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If you’ve been paying any attention to the news the last several months, you will be aware of the many alarm bells being rung over recent developments in artificial intelligence and the speed at which they are beginning to impact our world. I noticed yesterday that even the comic on the editorial page of the Globe and Mail reflected this reality. The speech bubble over the image of a little girl wrapping up a tie and a little boy holding a card that said “Happy Father’s Day 2023” read “Perfect! An AI-Designed necktie and a chat-GPT written card expressing our gratitude and affection.”

Last week, 60 Minutes, the American news magazine TV show did almost an entire episode on Google’s version of the artificially intelligent chat-bot called “Bard.” Journalist Scott Pelly began by asking Bard to summarize the New Testament in one sentence. The results, rendered in 5 seconds, were pretty impressive “The New Testament is the story of God’s love for humanity, which was revealed through Jesus Christ.” Not bad for a machine.

But then things got really interesting. Pelly asked Bard to finish writing Ernest Hemingway’s six-word short story “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.” Again, in 5 seconds, Bard came back with “The shoes were a gift from my wife, but we never had a baby.”

Then, Pelly asked Bard to rewrite that story in verse. Once again, within seconds, the chat-bot wrote a story in which a mother bought the shoes after a miscarriage because she thought it would help her grieve. The chat-bot concluded its story by saying “She knew her baby’s soul would always be alive.”

The concern about artificial intelligence, of course, is that if a computer program can write that kind of a seemingly human response at superhuman speeds, what else might it be able to do, especially if utilized against us? If a computer can appear to be sentient, how will we know if we are interacting with a person and not an appliance?

These concerns are definitely real but I want to reflect for a moment on the part of this technology that I find encouraging. The way an artificial intelligent chat-bot learns to sound human is by observing and teaching itself human speech patterns. So when Google’s Bard writes a deeply human story and it with words like “she knew her baby’s soul would always be alive” what’s implied is that a large portion of humanity believes there is a part of us that is eternal. It’s also indicates that human beings long for connection with their kin and for reminders of those connections even after they are no longer living. It’s an indicator that humanity loves life.

For as much as our world is full broken relationships, it seems we were actually made for connecting, relating, supporting and loving one another. It’s in our very nature. We are perhaps never more alive than when we feel accepted for who we are, known, loved and valued and when we are expressing that for others.

In what seems like almost rapid fire succession, this morning’s scripture reading gives us three examples of Jesus expressing love for others, restoring people to right relationship in one way or another. On the surface these three seem quite different: a male tax collector, the daughter of a religious leader and a woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years. What they all have in common is that they were people whose society labeled as inconsequential.

Matthew, the tax collector is someone who would have been important in his own right. But because he enforced the tax laws of a foreign power, namely the Roman Empire, his own people would have considered him a traitor. They would have shunned him. When Jesus called this outcast to follow him it’s no wonder he responds so quickly. When you are desperate for someone to see you and help you out of a dead end existence, you don’t hesitate to say yes. When called, Matthew followed.

A daughter in the first century, even the daughter of the leader of the synagogue was not considered very valuable. Boys were the sought after children. Girls could be bartered as brides but otherwise were a liability in ancient families. Women were considered property. A dead daughter would be of no consequence to anyone. And yet in our scripture reading this morning, she is of consequence to her father. So much so, he begged Jesus to heal her and bring her back to life.

His devotion to his child, even a female child, is worth mentioning on this day of celebrating fathers. It makes me wonder if this story in which Jesus heals the little girl and restores her from what her father believes to be a state of death, isn’t meant to point towards the way that the kind of love that values a person regardless of their gender is the kind of love that is more powerful than all our death-wielding ways. And it makes me think about the children who take their own lives because the message they have received from our society is that they don’t matter.

The third character in our trilogy of inconsequential people is the woman with a hemorrhage who reaches out to touch the fringes of Jesus cloak. It’s been said that in order to get that close to Jesus it’s clear she was someone who no one noticed. She is someone whose medical condition likely robbed her of marrying and having children. She certainly would have been rendered continuously ritually unclean. For me, the blood flowing out of her is symbolic of the way life gets drained out of any of us who find ourselves on the outside looking in, feeling isolated or diminished. Perhaps when she reaches out for Jesus what she is really reaching out for is the restoration of her dignity. Perhaps she is someone who knows deep inside that she is worthy of love and perhaps that is why Jesus says to her “your faith has made you well.”

Three “inconsequential” characters who Jesus sees, loves and restores to right relationship. There’s actually more of these types of characters in the passages surrounding these ones in our bibles. I can’t help but wonder if the reason they are there is because if the world hasn’t labelled us inconsequential, that can often be how we feel about ourselves, as if we don’t matter. When we feel like we don’t matter it’s usually not long before we are treating others as if they don’t matter.

Pride celebrations for the LGBTQIA2S+ community and National Indigenous Peoples Day are times we set aside to recognize and honour people who for years have been treated as inconsequential, many of whom have come to believe they don’t matter.

All this might sound contrary to my theory that humanity loves life and we were made to be in relationship with one another, not just our families of origin but our entire human family and all creation itself. I’m not so naïve to think that if Scott Pelly would have asked the chat-bot Bard to finish a story that started with Russia invading Ukraine, the story might not have been so touching as the one it wrote about the baby’s shoes. And yet I choose to believe that the story could end in peace, in the same way I choose to believe that some day there will be reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in this land and I choose to believe that we will find a way through to love and acceptance of all expressions of humanity. I think that’s what makes me human and I think it’s what makes us call ourselves followers of Jesus, followers of the way of love.

Biblical scholars point towards the idea that Jesus was not just about restoring individuals to right relationship, he was about the restoration of Israel itself, an entire nation. The verses in between the ones we heard this morning illustrate this notion with Jesus referring to pouring new wine into new wineskins.

We know, of course, that Jesus’ attempts at that restoration were met with hostility but we wouldn’t be here if the hope towards which he pointed wasn’t still alive for us today.

Those of us who have been reading Parker Palmer’s “On the Brink of Everything” in our Book Study group the last couple months have been introduced through our reading to the American civil rights activist Valarie Kaur. She is a Sikh who has created a Revolutionary Love Project which I think is a beautiful expression of the kind of love Jesus is calling all of us to through the stories we have heard today.

She says that for our love to be revolutionary it must be poured in three directions: toward others, toward our opponents, and toward ourselves. It sounds simple but practicing this kind of love is not easy because it calls us to truly treat ourselves, our families, friends and strangers and especially those we consider to be against us, with the same kind of self-giving love that Jesus showed. It’s a love that says we all matter, we are all of consequence. May we continue to be a community of faith that practices this kind of love.