Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Something worse than death

Ben Dueholm, a Lutheran pastor, and a friend, recently attended a conference for Christian writers. One of those he heard speak was a television writer and producer who works in Hollywood. From Ben's sermon: "For the Sheep":
.... And the moderator of this panel asked her, “what’s it like to be Catholic in the entertainment industry?” My friend answered with something that I thought was very obvious and yet kind of profound. She said “I’m the only one in the writers’ room who thinks that dying is not the worst thing that can happen to a person.” She went on to talk about how, in movies and television shows, if a character is faced with the possibility of dying, writers and audiences will accept that the character can do anything to avoid it. That dying is the worst fate, and nothing you do to avoid it is immoral or unjustified.

My friend talked about growing up with stories of saints who were martyred rather than giving up their faith, and that left her with the idea that some things really are worse than death. You can lose your life, but it’s worse to lose your soul. ....

...It’s not that we, as modern Americans, are so in love with our own lives—that we are so overflowing with joy and satisfaction that we lash out at the slightest hint of possible danger. It’s that we do not believe in or value our eternal souls. As if so many of us believe we are not prepared to bring our sins before God. Or maybe worse, as if we think there is no such thing, and there will be no accounting of our actions.

In today’s Gospel we hear something entirely different. Today Jesus calls himself the good shepherd. What makes him good? He lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hands run when they see the wolf coming. They leave the sheep on their own. But Jesus, the good shepherd, does not run. He does not seek first to preserve his own life. He lays it down for the sheep. ....

He laid down his life for us, so we lay down our lives for each other. The resurrection of Jesus breaks the chains of death and hell, first in himself, and then in his church. He speaks of a life that is greater than death because he is the Life that is greater than death. When he gives us this life, through words and sacrament and preaching and faith, we share in his life beyond death too.

So a good rule of thumb: if a voice in the world is telling you to be more afraid—if a voice is cultivating your fear, using your fear, enjoying your fear—that is not the voice of the Good Shepherd. That is at best the voice of a hired hand. None of us can save our own lives, in the end, and no one can do it for us, either. Instead, we are told to listen for the voice of Jesus, and to hold to it even when we may be fearful.

That is what John’s letter calls “our victory over the world”: our faith. We worship one who points us beyond fear of death into love of life. Not the brief experience of life that we try so hard to keep from slipping through our fingers, but the life that stretches out before and after everything we can see. We worship one who teaches us with his words, and then shows us with his resurrection, that death has not won. Amen.