Sermon from July 12: Discern the Spirits

Discern the Spirits
Pentecost VI (O. T. 15); July 12, 2020
I Kings 3:5-9

In November 2008 a letter was being circulated, asking Christians to sign it and send it to Washington. It was attached to a message; the message claimed that Barack Obama was circulating a petition to get religious programming banned from television and radio. You may have heard about it; it was a reworking of a similar letter that James Dobson and others had promoted a few years earlier. Dobson’s email claimed that Madalyn Murry O’Hare, the famous atheist, was trying to get Christian programming banned from the airwaves and Christmas carols banned from public schools.

I remember that one of my church members was alarmed and shared the email with me. And at the time I remembered having seen exactly the same thing when I was a high school student and a coworker at the hardware store shared it with me. That was in 1975; it was fake then and it continued to be fake when it evolved from a letter circulated by mimeograph to one circulated by email thirty years later. But people believed it. People wanted to believe that there was a conspiracy to use the federal government to destroy Christianity and this letter fed their belief. This year there are those who claim that the restrictions on public worship are not a directed health measure but are part of “their” (whoever “they” are) plan to destroy Christianity. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

This week’s sermon responds to a request from one of you to preach about “discerning the spirits,” or the struggle to attend to the truth in a time when it is so easy to spread lies. If you have paid any attention, you know how rampant the falsehoods are. The simpler ones are the sort of thing I just described, when someone makes something up and other people believe it. Perhaps you know the wonderful satiric paper (now website) The Onion; sometimes one of their stories will get repeated as if it were real. For example, in 1998 they ran a story that the year’s homosexual recruitment drive was nearing its goal; Westboro Baptist Church used it as evidence that gay people were actively trying to make others gay. In 2010 The Onion said that a frustrated President Obama had sent the nation a rambling 75,000 word email and the website Fox Nation repeated it as a real news story.[1]

Well, it would be fun to go on, but I should probably make some sort of point. More sinister examples abound in the dark recesses of conspiracy theories, such as those that come from QAnon and Infowars. Do you remember when Alex Jones claimed that the Sandy Hook massacre had been staged by those who wanted to curtail Second Amendment rights? What sort of evil gets in the face of a man whose child has been shot to death and claims that the child never actually existed, and the grieving dad is playing us for fools? The sort of evil that is described in Psalm 12; we’ll get to that.

But the churchgoer who asked me to call this to your attention was particularly concerned with the vast amount of misinformation circulating around the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Just this week, another person talked to me about a list of “I heard thats;” and no, it was not one of our church members. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or other reputable health officials, try to tell us what we should know for the sake of everyone’s health and well-being, something in many of us wants to believe the shadowy figure who says, “Well, I heard that…;” words that contradict the official line.

The anti-vaccine activist Judy Mikovits has created quite a following by claiming that the coronavirus was created in a lab, that it’s injected into people via flu vaccinations, and that wearing a mask could trigger an infection. Now, Facebook, Vimeo, Twitter, and YouTube try to suppress the misinformation she spreads, but her fans repost it and spread it, claiming they want to share the truth that our masters don’t want us to know. Because what she says suits their political agenda, they don’t consider the possibility that she is lying and that spreading these lies actually harms people.[2]

Which brings us to today’s readings from Scripture. I had Brenda read Psalm 12 to you, a rather pessimistic psalm – or maybe realistic, especially in our age – that claims that there are liars all around us, using their power to exploit the needy and the oppressed (v. 5). The poet calls upon God to destroy the power of flatterers and liars, those who build their personal power through deception.

Pray for God to promote truth and fair dealing among us. And, like Solomon, pray for wisdom. A huge chunk of the Old Testament is wisdom literature, and we tend not to give it a fair hearing. Wisdom is extolled throughout the Old Testament as a treasure highly to be valued and the greatest of God’s creations. To be wise is to be able to discern the spirits, to be able to sift out truth from falsehood, to be able to apply knowledge through experience.

And so we have in I Kings the picture of the great King Solomon, heir to his father’s empire, praying to God for wisdom. This is a story I learned as a boy. When Solomon ascended to the throne, God said to Solomon, “Ask of me what you will.” Solomon clearly was already wise, because he made a wise request. He could have asked for riches or long life or the defeat of his enemies, but instead he asked God for wisdom to govern well. A sense of what really matters leads to the desire for wisdom. His reputation for wise leadership spread abroad and he continues to be the standard against which we measure the wisdom of our own leaders. In one of the books attributed to him are these words:

The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded
Than the shouting of a ruler among fools. (Ecclesiastes 9:17)

So my first encouragement to you is to pray for wisdom. Ask God to give you a discerning mind, one that is able to tell the difference between good advice and the nonsense shared on social media. Remember that social media is not the problem: the fake petition about religious programming goes back to 1975, before the Internet was invented. Social media only makes it easier for conspiracy theorists and Russian trolls and white nationalists (and so forth) to spread their lies and makes it all the more important for you and me to learn how to discern the spirits. Pray for wisdom.

And speak truth calmly and clearly when called for. This is hard. Usually when I hear racist trash talk or the ignorance of anti-vaxxers and others I remain silent and don’t challenge it. Goodness, if I were to try to respond to every instance of ignorance and misinformation in the newspaper’s “Public Pulse” I would be writing every day. But I’ll tell you of one recent instance, not to boast, but because I think it serves as an example of how to respond in such a situation.

I was riding in the funeral coach on the way to the cemetery and the funeral director was talking about the removal of statues of Confederate war heroes. He was saying how wrong it is to be destroying our history, that the statues are simple reminders of history and it does us no good to wipe out history. When he gave me a chance to respond, I calmly said that a statue is not merely a reminder of history: a statue is intended to honor someone for their actions. A paragraph or chapter in a history book is a reminder of history; a statue is an honor for deeds done. And the deeds of a Confederate war hero are treason against the United States in order to keep black persons in slavery. That is the deed for which they are honored; do we truly wish to continue to honor them for treason that was intended to keep black people enslaved?

He changed the subject.

Now, you may disagree with my conclusion, of course, but I affirm that I told the truth about the purpose of statues and the actions of those honored in those statues. Likewise, you may disagree with the need to wear a mask to the grocery store or to worship, but claiming that masks trigger infections is a lie and claiming that masks protect others from our exhalations is the truth. You do not need to shout at people, call them names, or question their motivations, but do speak the truth.

Follow Solomon’s example: pray for wisdom, discern the spirits, and calmly speak the truth.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska

[1] Material in the first three paragraphs from personal memory, Wikipedia (article on The Onion), and

[2] Information in this paragraph from Omaha World-Herald, Coronavirus conspiracy theory video shows challenges for big tech, June 14, 2020.