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In sacrificing, we gain

wild flowers inside old work boots, we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of others

Sermon by Rev. Joel Crouse

Fifth Sunday in Lent

March 17, 2024

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Hebrews 5:5-10

John 12: 20-33

Not long into the pandemic – whose four-year anniversary we recognized this week – a journalist I know well wrote an article about how we might remember this time, and what might get us through it. Part of her story quoted a study that a professor named Karen Blair at St. FX university had been doing where she was collecting the diary entries of Canadians during that first year. One of things she asked them to do was to write messages they would have wanted to know seven days earlier. The journalist, who read the messages said they felt as if the country was having a collective anxiety attack.

Some people sent practical advice back in time: Stock up on masks. Fix the Internet. Others sent personal insights: This is real. I know nothing feels real, but it is. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. It is okay to cry. Life goes on.

They were also asked to write questions to themselves, that they would then answer seven days later. How stressed are you at work right now? Holy [cow], you have no idea. (I edited that for the pulpit.) Did you get to get to see Grandpa? No, he died before I got better.

People -- so many people -- were losing their lives. Others were losing their livelihoods. Our children and youth were losing their way of life, and their idea of how life was supposed to be.

And I remember, how in the middle of the pandemic, coming off a particularly rough, locked-down and lonely winter, when this gospel came around, with Jesus telling us how those of us who lose our lives will gain them, and those who keep their lives will lose them, and they were not the words we needed to hear -- not in the moment, when we were already in so much pain. We knew loss. Each and every one of us.

Now, three years later, toward the end of our Lenten journey, this gospel speaks to us again, and how do we hear it now?

How do we hear that call today from Jesus to hate our lives so that we might gain them? That caution that those who love their lives will lose them.

The gospel is a foreshadowing of the resurrection, and of the path that Jesus is on and the death to which he is heading. But while speaking about the future, Jesus reaches out to us with those searing words in the present. If you love your life too much, if you are too comfortable, you will lose it. If your life is hard and challenging, you will keep it.

We can ask what Jesus meant, but deep down we know. Ultimately, he is talking about what really matters for us, and for our collective hearts on earth. It is often not the things we love most easily or that distract so readily. It is not the time we might spend down the rabbit holes on social media. It is not even the time we devote to winning praise and adoration. It is, in fact, the life the gospel describes -- one built on relationships and purpose and generosity of spirit. In reaching out, and sharing, and sacrificing for others, we gain. Hold on to our lives too tightly, and we lose the lives we most desire.

This is what so many of us learned in that time of hating our lives, of losing the things in life we thought were most important, the ones that, whether or not we would call it love, took up so much of our time. Yet many of us learned – or were reminded - that what we missed most was not the work, but the people. Not the material things, but the connection with family. We learned, in those days, essential lessons. They appeared in many of the hopeful messages that people sent back to themselves: Appreciate what is important. You’ll get through this.

We also learned that our individual actions could have collective consequences. We learned that we had to trust one another. Many of us learned to make the most of the times when we were able to be present, and to be more creative with our love when we could not be together. What else is all of this, but the lesson of hating life to gain it? But have we forgotten?

Early on in the pandemic, back when we thought it would last a few weeks, and then maybe a few months, but never a few years, researchers talked about how, after the Spanish flu, people kind of just went on, as if nothing had happened. Not much was even recorded about it. They just wanted to forget. They didn’t want to think about how this terrible disease had killed their neighbors and altered their lives. How vulnerable their society had suddenly felt, how threatened their safety. They wanted to move on and so they did - the lucky ones, anyway. In forgetting, they gained their lives. That’s part of why humanity is so amazing: our incredible resilience as a species. Our failure to learn from mistakes is perhaps one of our greatest weaknesses. So yes, they gained their lives – they went back to the way things had been and acted as if nothing had changed – and they lost. Two decades later, the Depression arrived, and then another World War. That war ended not with a flu, but a bomb. Last Sunday, the movie about the man who built that bomb and regretted doing so his entire life, won the Oscar for Best Picture. But someone had to make that movie because we were already forgetting. We gained our lives, our earthly comfort and peace in one of the safest, richest countries in the world, and over time, we lost our awareness of our own mistakes; we lost the lesson that would have taught us how to avoid making more of them.

I have to admit, this week, while driving to a hospital visit, that I heard on the CBC it was the fourth anniversary of the pandemic, I thought, has it really been four years? It feels longer, on some days. And shorter on others. But already it is starting to feel like an experience from another time, a moment that we are no longer in. I am sure I am not the only one. We have gained our lives, and we are losing that memory.

I would encourage us to take a moment to pause in our Lenten journey to reflect on the words of Jesus. What lesson did I learn in the pandemic that I have set aside too quickly? Now that it is over, and life is easier, what have I forgotten? When I am too comfortable in life, too smug, too proud of who I am, what am I missing? When I have sacrificed or risked a share of my happy life, when I have intentionally made my life a little harder through effort on behalf of someone else, what did I gain that I may keep?

“Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life,” Jesus says. “Whoever serves me, must follow me.”

To follow the gospel, we must suffer an uncomfortable, seeking, questioning, challenging life. Yet we never do so alone. Because Jesus goes on: “For where I am, there will be my servant also.” And the same must also be true: Where my servant is, there will I be.


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