The Life Preserver

SJF • Proper 17a • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus said, Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

Years ago there was a scene in a disaster movie that sticks in my mind. I can’t remember if it was The Towering Inferno or Earthquake — but it took place in a skyscraper during a disaster. Everyone is rushing to the elevator to try to escape the building. One man is the last to arrive, and when he finds he can’t squeeze in, he grabs a woman from inside, drags her out, and then takes her place — and the doors close. Well, you can guess what happens — the elevator cable breaks and the car plummets to the depths, killing all the passengers. The message is clear — that selfish man, in an effort to save his life, lost it.

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I don’t think that’s the kind of saving and losing that Jesus is talking about in our gospel today; though he is speaking of matters of life and death — eternal life and eternal death, in fact. It is in how each and every one of us takes up our own cross day by day to follow him that we will lose and find our lives. What this means, in part, is losing control over our lives, and control over the lives of others. Our call is not to think about ourselves, but to get to work doing the work God intends us to do.

This is a consistent message in the teaching of Jesus. Remember the parable of the servants entrusted with various amounts of money? The master expects them not simply to save it by burying it in the ground, to return just what he gave, no more, no less. Only the servants who take the risk are rewarded, and the one who saves the money instead of risking losing it, receives no reward for his lack of effort — and loses even what he has. No, Jesus is clear that whatever is entrusted to our care in this life is to be put to use — not saved for a rainy day.

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Our reading from Romans shows this process at work as Paul tells of the gifts each member receives. These gifts are meant to be put to work for the good of the whole body.

Prophets are to prophesy, in proportion to their faith. That is, the one with much faith will be able to proclaim it more eloquently to encourage others, helping their faith grow.

Ministers — that is, those called to serve — are expected to serve, to get to work, and not treat the ministry like some kind of honorary title. It is always a ministry to the needs of others, placing them ahead of ones own needs — like the mother who prepares dinner for her family but doesn’t sit to eat until all have been served.

Teachers are to teach — and anyone who teaches knows that the more you teach the more you learn: the more knowledge you give away the more comes back to you.

The exhorter is not to take it easy and assume that everyone else will do as they ought without any exhortation. If you watched any of the Olympics, you will remember those anxious, watchful exhorters standing on the sidelines — the coaches, without whose help those athletes would never have made it so far. The hard work comes back to them, too. Who is the first to greet the athletes when they step off the platform, if not the coach — whether to comfort those who didn’t do as well as they hoped, or to rejoice with the winners!

The giver is to give — generously and not under compulsion; and by giving, giving up control over what is given — giving freely for the spread of the kingdom, the upbuilding of the church. Those who give this way are like those in the proverb: “Cast your bread upon the waters and it will return to you.”

This is about so much more than money, my friends. As easy as it would be to turn this into a stewardship sermon, this is not just about the offering of treasure, or even of time and talent. It is about self-dedication. The giver is to give with that same sense of sacrifice as did Jesus himself — who gave himself for us, not counting the cost.

We all give, and we all receive — not just of our time, talent, and treasure; but of our selves, our souls and bodies, as a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice to God. This builds up Christ’s kingdom and makes it strong and resilient .For just as the relay race depends on every member of the team, so too the church depends on all of its members doing their part.

And what goes for the members goes for the leader. The leader is to lead with diligence — again that means with care and concern, not for him or herself, but for the good of those being led. The leader is to lead, confident in knowing that the leader too is led by the ones who have gone before, and who it is the leader follows even in taking up the cross of leadership day by day.

And finally, the compassionate are to be cheerful. Now, you might not think that compassion is either a gift or a ministry, but believe me it is: for to be compassionate means to be able to feel with others — to share their griefs and help them carry them. In this way the compassionate help others to bear their own crosses, their own struggles and burdens.

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You will notice in all of this how none of these gifts are solo ventures — they all involve others, they are all woven together into the fabric of the church, the body of Christ. In this the church lives — lives the life of the one who died for it, who died for us, the members of his body.

And it is with that in mind that I want to return to the literal life and death matter of which Christ speaks. For in all to which Saint Paul calls the church, all of those things with which we have been gifted, Christ was there first, and to the ultimate degree.

For the prophecy with which he prophesied was that of his own death and resurrection, in accordance with the Scriptures, and the faith he had was his faith in God that he would be delivered through death, and bring us with him. The ministry of service he undertook was as the servant who suffered for our sake. The teaching he taught was the eloquent testimony in his own flesh and blood, his body given for us unto eternal life; and the exhortation he gave is the same one we repeat week by week in our solemn worship: as he exhorts us to Take and Eat, to Take and Drink, of his body and his blood — the most generous gifts of the most generous giver.

Finally, his leadership was exemplary — given to us who profess to follow him whatever the cost, in the way of his compassionate offering of himself, for the sins of the whole world.

So it is, you see, a matter of life and death. Few of us will ever be called actually to lay down our lives in this way, to give our lives to save another. But you never know. In January 1982, Air Florida flight 90 crashed on the runway at the edge of the Potomac River. There were six survivors in the icy water, clinging to the plane’s tail with frozen hands. The rescue helicopter could only save one at a time, as it lowered a life preserver on a cable. Every time it lowered the line to save another person, a middle-aged man in the water passed the life-preserver to someone else. On helicopter’s sixth return, the one that would have saved him from the water, Arland Williams was gone — exhausted and freezing, he had slipped beneath the water.

I cannot help but think that Arland was lifted up by an even more everlasting life preserver than the one he passed to five other people on that cold January day. He was preserved unto eternal life in doing what Jesus would call the greatest act of love, mirroring Christ’s own act in giving himself to save others.

We may not be called — I hope we never will be — to suffer such a fate even if it brings such a hope of glory. Rather may we spend each day in those smaller acts of giving — giving ourselves for the good of others, losing our lives for their sake in little ways, in all those ministries which we share together in this wonderful church.

And if by chance we are graced to do more — actually to find ourselves in a situation where our life is asked of us quite literally, may we have the courage to lose it in the knowledge that God will give it back to us, and we will find a greater reward than we can either ask or imagine. As Jim Elliot, a missionary who was murdered in South America, said so eloquently, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” We cannot keep our lives, preserve our lives or save our lives; come what may, they will some day come to an end. But we can give our lives, in a daily process of parting with each moment in service to others — to gain the greatest gift, the everlasting gift, the thing we cannot lose: everlasting life in Jesus Christ our Lord.+