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Bethany Evangelical
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Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 08/31/2014

I majored in psychology in college; it’s one of those majors that is not overly practical because it doesn’t really provide you with the skills to do anything in terms of being gainfully employed. So…in my case, knowing that my parents probably didn’t want me sponging off of them forever, that meant enrolling in a Masters degree program that led to being certified as a teacher so that I could do something. Every once in awhile though, both in my career as a teacher and as a pastor, knowing something about psychology has provided helpful insights; I’ve found over the years that it wasn’t a totally useless major after all.

Today an insight from the world of psychology comes from what is called cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance occurs when one of our beliefs conflicts with a previously held belief thus raising questions and creating discomfort, dissonance. When that happens our mind doesn’t like it; it wants to smooth it out, it wants to somehow resolve the dissonance and get things back in sync.

It happens more often than you realize and there are many examples but one that we’ve probably all experienced in some fashion involves celebrities we might admire, athletes, movie or TV stars, musicians, politicians, although there aren’t many of those we admire these days but there have been such people. But maybe, for instance, there’s someone you think is the greatest basketball player you’ve ever seen, you love to watch him play, he can do it all, you believe that he’s the best. Then, you find out that as good as he is, he’s a jerk. He’s a lousy teammate, off the court he’s a lousy husband and father and really only cares about himself and his own celebrity. Not very likable, and so dissonance is created.

There are a number of ways you might try to resolve it. You could resolve it by saying I don’t care about all that other stuff, I just care about how he plays and he’s still a great player; so you minimize the part you don’t like. If however, being a good husband and father is something you value very highly, you might have to resolve the dissonance by deciding maybe he’s not as good as I thought; you change your previous assessment. There are other possibilities too, but you get the idea. Somehow, your mind will try to resolve it.

In today’s gospel, Peter was experiencing cognitive dissonance. Jesus was someone he admired, but for Peter, something had been thrown into the mix that didn’t fit. In last week’s gospel he identified Jesus as the Messiah, the son of the living God. Jesus then said to him, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.” Peter thought he had it right; Jesus’ affirmation of his response indicated that he was right. But then, Jesus started talking about how he must undergo great suffering and be killed... and that didn’t fit with Peter’s understanding of Jesus as the Messiah. Cognitive dissonance was created and Peter immediately tried to resolve it by saying “No way; this can’t happen to you,” only to be rebuked by Jesus with the harshest words he ever used on anyone, “Get behind me Satan!” No quick resolution of the dissonance.

At this point in the gospel, dissonance is introduced as part of what it means to follow Jesus. There had been hints of this before, but in this story it’s right out there, front and center. The disciples, Peter in particular, had their ideas and hopes about who Jesus was and they weren’t all wrong; but here Jesus introduced something that just didn’t fit and it still doesn’t fit. For us it especially doesn’t fit when following his rebuke of Peter, Jesus goes on to say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” All of that brings dissonance into our faith.

We like the kind, comforting, “Jesus loves the little children” Jesus. We’re OK with most of his teachings even when they challenge the accepted norms. We don’t mind when he rocks the boat a little bit with the religious leaders, but this “take up your cross” thing is difficult. It creates cognitive dissonance because it suggests suffering and suffering isn’t very appealing. It’s a statement that’s hard to resolve and I think the way most of us tend to resolve it is to more or less ignore it and just focus on the Jesus we find more likable and easier to understand. That resolves the dissonance but it resolves it by cheapening what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, a follower of Jesus because it ignores too much, so it isn’t the best resolution of the dissonance.

To find an alternative resolution another example of dissonance might be helpful. Actually this whole cognitive dissonance idea occurred to me when I went to the Pine Mountain Music string quartet concert back at the beginning of August and experienced some musical dissonance in one of the pieces that was played. In music, dissonance occurs when you get a combination of notes that sound harsh or unpleasant to most people. What most of us like in music is consonance, those notes that create nice melodies and harmonies that are easy to listen to. But sometimes composers intentionally create a little dissonance.

It happens occasionally in the choir anthems we sing and always gets our attention as we practice, because it sounds like we must be singing it wrong, but Bob and Linda say, “No, that is how it’s written.” Maybe when you hear it you think the same thing, “The choir’s a little off today,” but it’s dissonance, it’s supposed to be there even though doesn’t seem to fit.

I don’t know enough about music to know exactly why composers introduce dissonance, but one of the things that happens to me when I hear it, is it makes me listen differently. Some music I can have on in the background and it just sounds pleasant, but with dissonant music I can’t do that because it’s distracting. It’s distracting but it makes me pay attention more closely; it’s not good background music.

Paying attention more closely is a better way to approach the dissonance introduced in today’s gospel. Jesus’ words about his need to suffer and our need to take up our cross can serve to make us pay closer attention and paying closer attention can cause us to change and that is another way that dissonance is resolved.

We might prefer a Christianity that doesn’t ask very much of us, but that’s not what Jesus offers; he offers a Christianity that asks everything of us and so dissonance is created. By paying attention to the dissonance though, by making Jesus words more than background music, what we find is that Jesus reveals a God who enters into the reality of our lives, all of it, including the bad stuff. Jesus did suffer as he said he would and that tells us that he reveals a God who isn’t just there for the good times, but is present in our suffering as well. Jesus doesn’t call us to seek out suffering but he promises to be with us when it happens as it inevitably does.

Knowing that, the dissonance we feel can effect change. It can transform casual, feel good Christianity into a faith that sees need and isn’t afraid to step into that need just as Jesus did, even if it involves challenges that we might find uncomfortable, challenges that might include suffering and sacrifice on our part. Our perspective on things is changed, it becomes more Christ-like and that is another way to resolve the dissonance.

It’s more likely though, that in any life of faith some dissonance will remain unresolved because we deal with a complex God who is gracious and merciful but who also makes uncompromising demands on us. That represents dissonance or tension and it is at the heart of what it is to follow Jesus. A life of faith is a constant negotiation of that tension. We live with the dissonance and can’t fully resolve it on our own. But living in faith, we know that in and through the cross and resurrection of Jesus a future is revealed to us where all the suffering, all the tension and all the dissonance has been fully resolved. We’re not there yet, but that’s where we’re headed.

Knowing that, we can take up our cross and follow.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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