Sermon, May 7

Who’s heard of Napoleon? The French general? What if I told you that Napoleon was actually… taller than average? This week I read a thought-provoking cartoon written by artist Matthew Inman, for his site The Oatmeal. Matthew uses goofy images to share some of what cognitive scientists have learned about how people respond to new information. It turns out that the response depends on the information – specifically, whether the information challenges an existing idea that’s important to us, that feels central to our worldview. He offers some examples like the one about Napoleon that are pretty easy to take on board. We just think, “Huh. Okay.”

And then he offers a few examples that he suspects some of his readers will find more challenging or unsettling. Like, Jesus Christ was not born on December 25th. The Pledge of Allegiance was written by a socialist. Neither of those gave me much pause, but your mileage may vary. Or take a piece I read recently that revealed that Margaret Atwood, the author of the famous feminist dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, once spoke up to support a fellow writer who’d been fired from his university job for harassing female students. There’s more friction, more discomfort, in taking in facts like these.

We are not equally open to new ideas. Some are just interesting new information that maybe changes our thinking or outlook a little, but is easy to integrate. Some new ideas stretch us, make us re-examine our assumptions. It might take some inner heavy lifting to take them on board. And some new ideas are so challenging that we shut down entirely. We lock up our minds. We build a wall. It doesn’t matter how persuasive the evidence is – whether that’s evidence in the form of data and facts, or the evidence of someone else’s life experience that casts a new light on our world and our thinking. In fact when something really challenges our deep-seated beliefs, more evidence may actually make us shut down even MORE, in a phenomenon called the backfire effect.

When we encounter a new idea that really shakes up our fundamental understandings, our brains respond the same way we would respond to a physical threat. Which is not by getting more flexible or thoughtful, but by flooding our systems with adrenaline, in preparation to FIGHT off the threat – or run away! In those moments, people get confused. Conflicted. Angry. Kind of like the Pharisees in the 9th and 10th chapters of the gospel of John.

Today’s Gospel is one of the times when we really need to know what came before it. If you start at chapter 10, verse 1, it’s easy to take this as just a theological speech, with no particular context or audience. But in fact the context and the audience are really important – and you know about them, if you were here on March 26. Because we had the 9th chapter of John, that Sunday, and we acted it out, just to make sure you’d remember it! There was a young man who was born blind – his eyes didn’t work. And then Jesus came along, and healed him! And that’s when the trouble began.

The leaders in his church, his synagogue, were confused and upset. This kind of healing is so unusual that it’s clearly a miracle. But does that mean that Jesus is using God’s power? Or is he using the Devil’s power instead, or dark magic? And if he is using God’s power – what does that mean? Because we have heard about this guy Jesus, and a lot of what he teaches is different from the way we understand the faith of our God and our ancestors! And if Jesus DOES have some uniquely close relationship with God, then what does that mean for the monotheism that is the non-negotiable heart of Judaism – there is only, always, ever, ONE God!…

The fact of Jesus’ healing of this young man is new information that is way at the fight or flight end of the spectrum for these Pharisees. Matthew Inman says, There’s no magic trick to get around these moment. All you can do is understand how it works, and when you notice it happening inside yourself, ride out that stress reaction and THEN give the new information a serious look and assess whether and how it should change your thinking. He concludes, “I’m not here to… tell you what to believe. I’m just here to tell you that it’s okay to stop. To listen. To change.” And that is exactly where today’s gospel starts: with Jesus trying to talk the Pharisees down a little bit. To get them to listen. Reflect. Wonder. Change.

We get this Gospel lesson today because at some point the Church named the fourth Sunday of Easter as Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year we have one of the passages where Jesus uses this image of himself as the Shepherd (or in this case, the Gate). And preachers usually preach on the image, the metaphor, and probably I will too, next time around. But once I realized that this is the end of that other story, I got more interested in the context and purpose of the conversation than its content.

This passage, Jesus’ extended metaphor of himself as the Good Shepherd, is the moment in the story of the healing of the blind man when Jesus and the Pharisees finally talk to each other. Before that, there was a lot of talking ABOUT Jesus, who he was and what to do about him. Some of them were saying, This man is not from God, for he performed this act of healing on the Sabbath, when God’s people are commanded to rest. Others were saying, How can a sinner perform such miracles? The Pharisees, this group of local religious leaders and scholars, were divided among themselves – and likely conflicted within themselves. And as the story moves along, their anxiety ratchets up, until they become pretty shrill and angry and panicky. (I have been in that mental space, 100%. Anybody else?) They cast out the Man Born Blind – and Jesus comes back around to affirm that young man in his stubborn faith in the One who gave him sight. And he offers one of his paradoxical pronouncements: “I came into this world to bring sight to those who do not see, and blindness to those who do see.” Some of the Pharisees are hanging around – and they say, “Wait. We’re not blind…?” They’re curious about Jesus, interested enough that they care what he thinks and what he has to say, even though he also upsets and challenges them.

Jesus says, “If you were really blind” – remember, folks, we’re talking about *figuratively* blind – “If you were really blind, nobody could blame you for your failures. But since you think you can see, you are culpable.” And then he starts talking about sheep. And gates. And bandits. And stuff. Reading this passage in light of chapter 9, and noticing the cues about the interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees, has really changed how I imagine the tone of this speech. A lot of sources assume that the “thieves and bandits” are an allusion to the Pharisees themselves, and that Jesus is attacking their leadership here, slamming them. But I think he’s actually trying to reassure them.

Here’s what I think he’s saying: “You have been fierce and valiant defenders of our faith. There have been thieves and bandits, over the centuries, who have tried to change or distort or destroy the faith of our God and our ancestors. There have been false prophets and false messiahs – so many. But I’m not one of them. I am the real thing. And you can know that by the evidence of your own eyes: because you saw how I tended one of my sheep, that young man whose eyes didn’t work, and how he responded to me, following my voice like a sheep who knows its shepherd. Those false prophets did what they did for their own gain, or to sow destruction and death. But God the Gatekeeper sent me here to give life to the sheep – abundant life.”

I think Jesus is trying to win them over, or at least to help them understand. And they don’t react like people who feel attacked. They react like people who are still trying to make sense of a big, hard, challenging new idea. That verse isn’t in today’s lesson but here’s how the scene ends: “Again they were divided because of these words. Many were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind!’ But others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon….’”

Divided. Conflicted. Challenged, but fascinated. Struggling to make sense of an unfamiliar truth. I feel for them. I have absolutely been there. It’s a difficult space, that space between the old and the new ways of thinking. A hard space – but also a holy one. This is why Turning is one of the practices of discipleship that we name and affirm here at St. Dunstan’s: We follow the teaching of Jesus Christ by being open to repentance, transformation, and call. This is why “Seek opportunities to learn, turn, and amend” is on the personal Rule of Life I read to myself every morning. Because one of the most important things that makes the Church not just an especially peculiar and anachronistic social club is our conviction that God isn’t done with us yet. That we don’t have it all figured out on our own. That in the words of one of our hymns, the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his Word. That there is deeper and farther to go into the mysteries of God and of our fellow human beings. Knowing that Turning is part of the life of faith is our way of telling ourselves and each other that it’s okay to stop. To listen. To change. Sometimes a new idea or perspective or truth will confuse us and unsettle us, even make us angry; but bit by bit, if we are faithful to the work, listening and wondering and attending to what God is showing us, will transform us into the image of Christ, in whom there is no falsity, and no fear.

In a moment we’ll perform the sacrament of baptism, one of our holiest rites, one of my greatest privileges. In this sacrament we are baptized into certainty: into belonging to a faithful God, marked as Christ’s own forever; into having a loving family of faith that will always welcome and support, no questions asked. But friends, we are also baptized into uncertainty. Into curiosity. Into growth, into change. Into seeking, wondering, repenting, turning. Baptized into life in God who is not done with us yet.

Matthew Inman’s comic may be read here. Language warning!