Sermon for 4.17.16

Scriptures for today are here.

Long ago when Tom and I were first married at age 21, we lived in a tiny apartment in Houston. Our apartment was on the second floor and we had a lovely view out our bedroom window: we looked out on the parking lot, down below, and beyond the parking lot, a very busy, noisy freeway. One day there was a knock on our door (back in the days when people used to answer their doors and their phones, you might remember those days), and so we answered the door.

It was a person working for the campaign of a candidate for mayor. This was a candidate we had heard of, and generally felt positive about, though we paid very little attention to Houston politics. But since we liked the candidate, when the campaign worker asked if we would put a small sign supporting her in the window of our apartment so that people driving by on the freeway would see it, we said sure, why not. And we put the little sign there. And somehow the fact that we had a sign supporting this mayoral candidate made us stronger supporters. I remember voting for her, and following her career, and supporting her in her re-election campaign, and being disappointed when she retired.

Studies say this happens frequently – that if a person puts a sign in their yard supporting a particular candidate, having the sign strengthens their support. It’s an example of how our behavior influences our beliefs. We usually think that if you believe something, you will act accordingly. But studies show that often it’s the opposite – if you act like you believe something, you are much more likely to come to believe it. So, for instance, studies show that if you are wearing formal business attire, you think with higher-order abstract thinking than if you are dressed casually. Or, if you put on a doctor’s lab coat, you tend to be more attentive and analytical than if you are wearing a painter’s smock. Certainly our beliefs influence our behavior, but in a very subtle but important way, our behavior also affects our beliefs. In fact, our behavior and our beliefs reinforce each other.

Bernhard_Plockhorst_-_Good_ShephardThis came to mind for me as I was reading today’s gospel story. John Chapter 10 is known as the Good Shepherd Discourse because in it, Jesus says I am the Good Shepherd, and offers an extended meditation on what that means. We tend to think of this as a kindly, pastoral, comforting set of images. Jesus as the Good Shepherd goes in our minds with Psalm 23, a wonderful psalm of comfort and assurance that God will be with us throughout our lives, restoring our souls, leading us beside still waters, comforting us in the valley of shadow of death, promising us that we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. And certainly this is part of what Jesus wants us to understand, when he calls himself the Good Shepherd – we can trust and depend on him. He will never lose a single one of his sheep. He will care for us and give us eternal, abundant life.

But John our gospel writer wants us to understand more than this, too. Because this gospel is set in context, it is part of an ongoing story. And the story we are joining mid-stream when we read this passage is that Jesus is in conflict with the leaders of the Temple. He has healed a blind man, and they are upset about it. They call in the blind man and quiz him sternly about what happened, who did it, whether he’s faking it and wasn’t really blind to begin with, and so on. And when he sticks to his story that Jesus healed him, they throw him out of the Temple. Jesus’ power threatens their power.

So when Jesus says I am the Good Shepherd, he is saying they are not good shepherds for God’s people. Which is a saying with lots of resonance in Jewish tradition, because the kings and leaders of Israel were supposed to be shepherds of the people, like King David, the original shepherd-king. And the prophet Ezekiel had railed against false and wicked shepherds, and predicted that God himself would gather and shepherd the people of Israel.

When Jesus says he is the Good Shepherd, he is equating himself with God. And he is also saying that they are not good shepherds. They have failed.

(A parenthetical note: please don’t read this as anti-Jewish. This is not a Jewish thing, it’s a human thing. Humans fail. And Jesus says the leaders of the Temple, like many humans, have failed, because they have made a priority of hanging onto their own power and have neglected to listen for the voice of God – so they can’t hear it when God is speaking.)

When they question Jesus, he responds: “you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.”

In other words, they don’t believe in Jesus because they haven’t followed him. They haven’t behaved like they believe in him, so they don’t believe in him.

Many theologians have spent a lot of time and effort trying to unravel what this might mean for us. How do we come to follow Jesus and be his sheep? Don’t we believe first, then decide to follow him?

Maybe not – elsewhere in John’s gospel, Jesus says, “You did not choose me but I chose you.” And indeed all the gospels show Jesus choosing people, seemingly at random, certainly not based on any particular gifts or talents, uneducated simple people, to come and follow him. Which is lovely – we don’t get chosen because we deserve it or because we are special – we get chosen because Jesus loves us. So far, so good.

But why do some people apparently get chosen to come and follow Jesus, to have our hearts and our behavior shaped by him, and others don’t? Why aren’t the Temple leaders his sheep? This is where theologians get tangled up.

Some, like John Calvin, have expressed God’s choice in terms of predestination – God knew before he created us which ones of us would be chosen for eternal life and which ones would be damned. This is the hideous, to me, idea, that God created some people on purpose to send them to hell and everlasting damnation.

Others, like Jacob Arminius, believed that each believer makes the choice to follow Jesus and enter into everlasting salvation. But this idea seems to ignore this idea that Jesus has chosen us, we haven’t chosen him, and it is by following him that we come to believe; by being in his presence, our hearts and minds are shaped by him.

Other theologians have abandoned the idea of choice altogether and have simply said that God chooses everyone. But what about free will and the option we have to ignore Jesus’ call? What about people whose actions are pure evil?

Here, for me, is where the idea that our behavior shapes our hearts, helps explain things. I believe that if we cultivate behaviors that ignore Jesus’ command to love, that we will develop habits of the heart that make it impossible for us to hear his voice when he asks us to come and follow him. Our behavior closes our hearts.

Brain research seems to support this idea – in infancy and childhood, and to a lesser extent throughout life, the neurons in our brains learn to connect with other neurons in increasingly complex patters as we learn to think. The pathways that we are most accustomed to thinking along are the ones that will develop they strongest connections – our thoughts truly shape our reality. This is why if we spend all our time thinking negative thoughts, denigrating others, assuming the worst about people, our brains will more and more tend to shape themselves along these habitual lines of thought. And our behavior will reflect it.

Even more, researchers find that the emotions of one person in a room can influence the emotions of all the others – so if we think in negative, critical, unappreciative ways, everyone around us will tend to feel the same way. Our negative thoughts and behaviors become like a virus that infects our world.

So perhaps the truth is that those who hear Jesus’ voice and are able to follow him, be his sheep, accept the promise of eternal and abundant life, are those who have shaped their thoughts and their reality in ways that allow them to hear the voice of love. They behave and speak with love, they cultivate the presence of God, and therefore when God speaks, they are able to listen and follow. And that in turn is how they come to believe in Jesus and have life in his name. Jesus calls us all – only some of us are able to hear.

So my question is, how do we cultivate behaviors and habits of the heart that allow us to be Jesus’ sheep, to hear his voice, to follow him? I think there are four in particular.

First, cultivate habits of kindness and generosity. The habits of behavior we cultivate shape our minds and our hearts. And a mind and a heart shaped by love, kindness, and generosity allows Jesus to speak words we can hear and follow. Long ago, in my business career, I faced a conflict with a co-worker that was affecting every part of how I felt about my job. Truth be told, it was probably as much my fault as it was my co-workers, but I didn’t see it that way. I was angry and frustrated all the time. Until one day I adopted the radical strategy of praying for her every day. Which is not an easy thing to do, with someone you don’t like very much. You can’t pray with words of hate – you have to find words that are acceptable both to you AND to God! You have to find a way to pray with love. Somehow I did – and within two days, our relationship had completely turned around.

You can’t pray for someone without loving them, whether you like htem or not. And love for others changes your life. And I believe it shapes your brain and heart, and makes way for you to hear Jesus’ voice.

Which leads to the second thing: Daily prayer. Praying 20 minutes a day makes a measurable difference in people’s lives – they are healthier, happier, calmer. Sometimes people think prayer doesn’t “work” – they didn’t feel God’s presence. But opening your mind and heart to speaking to God and listening for God’s voice in return means that you are in daily conversation to know God’s will. That’s how we learn to listen & follow J. If you don’t know how to pray, or need some additional resources, see our website – we have a great section on prayer.

The third thing is the practice of the Examen. It’s an ancient Christian practice that originated with St. Ignatius Loyola, of reviewing each day at the end of day: Where was God in my day? What am I grateful for? Where did I act in accordance with God’s will? What could I have done better? And praying about it – praying for blessing of the things done right, praying for forgiveness of things that can be done better, so that you end the day with a clean heart, and start the next day anew. Living the Examen means you are in conversation with God every day about the state of your heart and the actions you are choosing to take.

And the fourth thing: Regular Worship. Worship is when we gather as a community, but more than anything else it is our chance to glorify God. And in a liturgical church like ours, worship is where God does the work of caring for us. We do have sermons and so forth that interpret the word, but the majority of our worship time is spent letting God nourish us through Word and Sacrament. As we hear the word, as we pray about our world, as we let God feed us with bread and wine, we are allowing God to form us from the inside out, to restore our bodies and souls at the cellular level.

And as we are transformed by God, we learn to hear that voice: You are my sheep, I am your shepherd. Come and follow me.

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