Sunday, April 17, 2016

Fourth Sunday in Easter

John 10
22 Then came the Festival of Dedication[a] at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. 24 The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
25 Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all[b]; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”

As time passes, fewer and fewer people will experience the sheer terror of three simple words: “Hi, it’s me.”

With call display, number display, and your cell phones ability to connect your contact list and the number dialing in, there are fewer times that you can be caught dumbfounded by the reckless use of the simple phrase “Hi, it’s me.”

When it happens, of course, your options are limited. “Who is this?” seems rude, since the person on the line is clearly someone who feels close enough the begin a conversation with “Hi, it’s me.”

You can fake it, with something like “Oh, are things?” This can only carry you so far. Suppose the next thing you hear is something like “about that thing you said the other day...” Busted. It seems that even the generous application of the word ‘thing’ can’t save you in such a situation.

Scientists, of course, have been busy studying voice recognition, and have made some surprizing discoveries. It seems that not only can babies recognize their mothers’ voice and the voices of those close to them, but they can also do it when they are sleeping.

They began with non-vocal sounds like running water and a squeaky toy and saw increased brain activity in the sleeping babies. They saw a spike when they played the mother’s voice, and an even more dramatic spike in brain activity when mom was obviously emotional.* In the same article, another group of scientists discovered that babies cry in regional accents, found by comparing babies from Birmingham and Newcastle. Why babies from Birmingham and Newcastle are crying was not discussed.

All of this highlights what we already know—that those closest to us know our voice. They can hear things in our voice, excitement or sadness, and they respond. It seems that even sleeping babies have this ability, and thank God for that. As we get older (and wake up) this ability allows us to care for others, prompted sometimes by the sound of someone’s voice.

None of this is new, of course, since the ancients assumed that the God who is ever near could also hear your voice. Listen to the voice of the psalmist:

Psalm 5:3 In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.

Psalm 18:6 In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears.

Psalm 55:17 Evening, morning and noon I cry out in distress, and he hears my voice.

Psalm 116:1 I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy.

Psalm 119:149 Hear my voice in accordance with your love; preserve my life, Lord, according to your laws.

The common thread here is crying out in distress, and seeking God’s mercy. And it assumes that God not only hears our prayers, but can hear everything that is being communicated through our voice. Thanksgiving joy is obvious to God, and our distress is obvious to God. Even in the process of asking, God can hear what we seek to share.

And this knowledge is central to the passage Jenny shared, part of a dialogue found in John 10. “Tell us plainly” some said, “if you are the messiah.”

25 And Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”

And this is the conclusion of a chapter long look at the relationship between sheep and shepherd. Just a few moments earlier, Jesus began with this:

14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.

John, of course, is all about Christian identity, more so than any of the other Gospels. He is writing last, and he writes in the context of the increasing tension between the synagogue and the emerging church. Matthew, Mark and Luke are less concerned about identity, since their view of an emerging church is largely limited to Jews who choose to follow Jesus.

By the time John is writing, the situation has changed dramatically. The temple has been destroyed, synagogues are established to safeguard the Jewish religion, and more and more gentiles are following the way of Jesus. So two paths have emerged, and with tension and increasing separation, it follows that John would focus on Christian identity.

The corresponding description of the good shepherd and one flock is about mutual recognition, the promise that we will know and we will be known. A distinct community is forming, and the strength of this community will be mutual recognition and support, and the ability to define what it means to be a follower of the way.

Not surprizingly, we in the more liberal wing of the church have tended to ignore or downplay this exclusive view of the emerging church, and ignored John’s Gospel along with it. We have been much more comfortable with the moral instructions of Jesus found in Matthew, Mark and Luke than the “I am” identity statements found in John.

The reasons for this are varied. First, some decades ago we began to accept the validity of other religions as legitimate paths to God. With this belief came increasing discomfort with the Gospel that labeled Jesus as ‘the way, the truth and the life.’ It was easier to point to the Sermon on the Mount and find universal moral guidance than deal with the exclusive claims of Jesus found in John.

Then something curious happened. When we began to talk to people in other faiths they expressed some frustration with us. While we were busy trying to find universal moral guidance in other world religions—to find Jesus in all religions—we were rightly accused of doing what we always did, namely try to impose ourselves on others.

Instead, we were told, focus on your own tradition, believe the things you believe, and grant us the same respect. Don’t try to suggest that we’re all a little Christian anyway, but be good Christians while you allow us to be good Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and so on.

And this takes us back to John. Rather than be embarrassed by John’s Jesus, we need to embrace him as truth for us. If we are going to follow the urging of our co-religionists, we need to embrace the Gospel that is focused on Christian identity and be strengthened by it. We need to embrace our truth and live it out while to respect other religions’ ability to do likewise.

And it’s not easy. We imagine truth as binary—you have it or your don’t—rather than something that is subjective and personal. But like any matter of faith, the world will be a better place if we can respect others to hold their truth close while we do the same, even if they seem to contradict each other.

In other words, the world will say “you can’t all be right and therefore none of you is right” and we must say “my truth can be my truth and your truth can be your truth and it’s better to live in peace than insist I’m right.”

In the end, we listen carefully and this is what we hear: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” The path we choose to follow leads to the heart of the God, led by the Good Shepherd of the sheep. He speaks, and we hear his voice. We speak—and some times we cry out—and he hears our voice. We are bound together, shepherd and sheep, and in this way we can be a blessing to all people. Amen.


Sunday, April 10, 2016

Third Sunday of Easter

Acts 9
Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

I dropped first-year psychology.

This feels like one of those ‘full disclosure’ things since some of what I do here has a vaguely psychological element too it. You will be happy to know that I passed all my pastoral care classes.

And I think they wanted me to drop the class. There were 900 of us, which should have been the first clue. And they began with lots of biology, which hardly seemed like the exciting class I signed up for. And then there were all the early experiments described—obviously conducted before the invention of ethics—which caused some of my classmates to lean in while others looked for the door.

Lately, however, I’ve been reading a little more in the area, and I stumbled on a book called “Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By” by Timothy Wilson. Wilson, of course, cannot resist the tried and true, and begins by describing an early experiment in psychology, this one involving food.

It seems that wartime planners discovered that they had a surplus of the least popular meats, kidneys and such, and they needed a way to promote them. They began in the standard way, lecturing people in the utility of these cuts, underlining why it was important to eat your liver. It didn’t work.

Then they tried another approach: having a conversation. They invited woman to discuss what it was like to serve these meats and some of the ways they might overcome the objections of family members. Just having the conversation increased the likelihood that the meat would be served. And a new psychological approach was born.

This approach, now called “story editing” begins with the assumption that we tend to live within a narrative framework, literally the stories we live by. Small edits to the story, or even retelling the story in a new way, can lead to lasting changes in how we see ourselves and others.

The process is also being used in the face of trauma—say being thrown to the ground in a flash of light—and has demonstrated greater success than the rival approach, called Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD).

So let’s imagine a group of counselors are standing by on the road to Damascus, ready to apply the now discredited Critical Incident Stress Debriefing technique on poor Paul. Now, he’s not Paul yet, that will come later. At this moment, he is still Saul.

First the team will ask Saul to give a detailed description of falling to the ground, and what it was like from his perspective. He might say “I fell to the ground,” or maybe side with Caravaggio and say “I fell from my horse.” Then the team would ask him to describe his feelings and I expect he might say ‘embarrassed’ or ‘confused.’ And finally ask about a range of psychological symptoms he is experiencing. I’m not sure Saul would be one to open up on these matters.

Back to today, Wilson and others have demonstrated that this approach, having people relive a trauma immediately after the event, actually gets in the way of healing, and may serve to reinforce the trauma rather than relieve it. Good thing then that the road to Damascus team didn’t exist, but there were people standing by. Here’s what happened:

The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.

The passage said ‘they heard the sound’ which we can take to mean they heard the exchange between Saul and Jesus, but they didn’t see anyone and very likely didn’t understand. Nevertheless, they continue on the journey leaving Saul with his thoughts.

Meanwhile, the Spirit speaks to a man named Ananias and simply instructs him to seek out Saul when he arrives in Damascus. It will fall to him to lay hands on Saul and restore his sight. Ananias, of course, has heard about Saul and his hatred for the church, and objects. But the Spirit insists that he undertake this mission, calling Saul (soon to be Paul) “my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.”

But we’re jumping ahead. Back on the road to Damascus, without a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing team standing by, Jesus takes a narrative approach, and begins the process of having Saul-Paul rewrite his story. Notice first how Jesus frames a question rather than giving a command. What was the question?

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

And notice too that Saul doesn’t attempt and answer, even though he knows very well why he has been persecuting the first followers of Jesus. Instead he reacts out of shock: “Who are you, Lord?”

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

Like the best teachers (or as the best teacher) Jesus asks an open-ended question, a why question, and clearly didn’t expect an immediate response. He gave him what we might call a ‘question for reflection,’ and he gave him three days to ponder it. And like Wilson’s ‘story editing’ technique, the very act of pondering is what sparks the transformation.

Perhaps he pondered the emerging story of the crucified one, who forgave his executioners from the cross.
Perhaps he pondered the rumour that the body was missing, that when the stone was rolled away, he wasn’t there.
Perhaps he reflected on the speech of Stephen, his summary of the story of Israel that concludes at the cross.
Perhaps he pondered Stephen’s penultimate word: “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” or his final word: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Whatever he pondered, and however he reframed his story, we know he was left with his thoughts and the urging of the Spirit. We know that by the time Ananias blessed him and the scales fell from his eyes he was transformed. The simple description for this story is the ‘conversion’ of Paul, but was really a complete transformation.

And this, of course, brings us to today. We don’t talk about conversion much, at least not in the United Church. When I was picking hymns for today I went first to the topical index in the back of the book and looked for the suggestions related to conversion. There were none, because the topic is not listed. John Wesley would not be amused, although he might be made to understand.

Recalling that he was a failed missionary to America before he has his own conversion experience, he might be the first to say you can’t bring people to this place, you have to let them arrive there on their own, at the Spirit’s bidding. So even he would understand the harm that occurred when we tried converting people, and maybe understand why the theme of conversion is absent from the index.

But he would be the first to agree with the idea of ‘story editing,’ changing the story we live by. The moment his heart was ‘strangely warmed’ he didn’t receive any new information, he simply thought about this situation in a new way. God revealed to him that he was trying to earn something that couldn’t be earned—the gift of salvation—and the rest is history. He already knew Paul’s letter to the Romans, but he needed to apply it to his story to make it true.

Throughout our life together we give each other prompts—cues and questions to rethink our story and imagine ourselves differently. Whenever we say “you are forgiven” or “you are a child of God” or “in Christ you are a new creation” we are amending the story we have in our heads, converting one narrative into another.

This then, is our conversion: changing the stories we live by to line them up with grace-filled stories of the Kingdom. To meet Jesus on the road and ponder whatever “why question” he poses to us. And to live with him and walk in his way. Amen.