Sunday, May 03, 2020

Easter IV

John 10
“Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.[a] They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

Few slogans sum up a people like “keep calm and carry on.”

If you didn’t know that the slogan originated in Britain as a wartime motivational poster, you would likely guess that it did. Ironically, of the millions of posters first printed, most were never used. And it was only in 2000 that a bookshop owner found a copy and made it public. The rest, as they say, is history.

The advice, to keep calm and carry on, is part of the genesis of what is now called “emergency risk communication.” It pairs what we know about effective communication and twins it with human psychology, all in an effort to reduce risk to the general population. It is the social science behind the message, and it all feels rather familiar.

The first thing to note about the psychology of a crisis is our inability to process complex information. We have trouble hearing, understanding, and remembering. So messages have to be simple and to the point. “Stay at home” and “wash your hands” are good examples of this approach. Next, we tend to hold on to current beliefs. Early misinformation comparing the virus to a seasonal flu meant that some had a harder time adapting to the crisis.

Going a bit deeper, we tend to seek second and third opinions in a crisis, partly because we can’t take it in, and partly because we are looking for an opinion that fits our existing beliefs. The key here is listening to experts and avoiding Fox News. The final point in emergency risk management ties all these threads together: we tend to believe the first message we receive. In other words, we need to hear an accurate message from multiple sources in a timely manner.* And it needs to be memorable too, so keep calm and carry on.

It is no accident that we turn to the psalms in a time of crisis. They constitute the spiritual side of emergency risk communication, the simple and direct messages we need when we are being tested in some way. Walter Brueggemann tells us that the psalms fed the “liturgical imagination” of Israel, allowing the people to order their lives under the “the rule, guidance, and protection of Yahweh.” So whether recited in worship, or prayed at home, the psalms voice our need for God in the midst of whatever life sends our way.**

And the twenty-third psalm, perhaps most of all, captures the mood of this moment. The Divine Shepherd will lead us to a better place, a peaceful and refreshing place. The Divine Shepherd will restore us there, and keep us in the right path. Even at the height of crisis, the Divine Shepherd will protect us and comfort us. We will be anointed and fed, and even our adversaries will see. Goodness and mercy will follow us all our days, and we will dwell in God's house forever.

Again, if we are looking for the rule, guidance, and protection of God, the Divine Shepherd is the model we need. The message is simple and consistent, the path is clear, and the protection never ends. The gift of liturgical imagination is then personified, and we meet the Good Shepherd, the Word made flesh. Jesus expands the scope of the psalm, becoming shepherd and gate, the means and the destination in one.

Part of the context of John 10 is the ongoing risk posed by false-prophets. Jesus compares them to thieves and robbers, those who do not care for the sheep but only themselves. Notice the link back to messaging: “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

Not so with the stranger. The stranger speaks with an alternate voice, urging us to reject the shepherd, to make our own way in the wilderness, and to neglect the needs of the rest of the flock in favour of our own needs. But Jesus calls out the stranger, exposing their lies, and points instead to the abundance that comes within the sheepfold, where our cup overflows.

As I noted in the blast on Thursday, this feels like the end of the beginning of this crisis. We are moving into the next phase, with changes coming as early as tomorrow. As expected, these changes will have little bearing on the churches, with our mature demographic and our common life based largely on gathering together. And so we wait, but we do not lose hope.

We give thanks that our church continues to be a venue for love in action, feeding the hungry in a time of need. We give thanks that God has given us the means to worship remotely, and hear the voice of the Spirit through a number of voices. And we give thanks that we can reach out to each other, and speak words of comfort.

May we shelter with the Shepherd of the Sheep, and find pasture in his presence, now and always, Amen.



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