Those who want to save their life will lose it, Jesus said. Still, we followers of Jesus spend most of our time, energy and money trying to do just that. Last year, health care accounted for over 17% of the GDP, increasing amounts of that going for "extraordinary measures" to prolong life for a bit longer. Of course, who's to say what an "extraordinary measure" is and what a "reasonable attempt" at better health is?
Still, in working so desperately to hold on to life, to be safe in an uncertain future, to grab all the material things that pass for life, we lose real life. We lose the genuine joy that is possible when we truly love and care for and look after and want the best for each other. It may sound trite, but life is not a treasure to be held on to; it is a gift to be shared. We all know that somewhere down deep.
We're reminded that we can't hold on to life every time we read an obituary or go to a funeral. As the Alabama theologian Hank Williams put it, "No matter how you struggle and strive, you'll never get out of this world alive."
The fear of death turns quickly into the fear of life, a refusal to risk living in the hope of saving life. The deep secret of Jesus' hard words is that the way to have abundant life is not to save it but to spend it, to give it away, to risk it.
The gospel is that we don't have to save our own lives. On the cross of Jesus, God has taken care of that. We are therefore free in Jesus to live, to do whatever we are called to do, to take whatever risks are warranted for Jesus' sake.
Now, what is true for individual followers of Jesus is true for the church of Jesus as well. It is true for our congregations. The late Herb Edwards, former professor of black church studies at Duke, said that the problem with the church today is that it is afraid to die, and it is afraid to die because it doesn't really believe in resurrection!
Let me suggest that, all our fretting about decline and numbers notwithstanding, Jesus has not called any congregation in the ELCA Southeastern Synod to do whatever it can to survive. Instead, Jesus has called us to follow him, to give ourselves away in his name, to trust God for a future.
The people in the four states of this synod need all of us to do the work of the gospel without fear, to focus on being the body and presence of Christ in our communities whatever the cost. Wouldn't it be something if all our churchly decisions and actions were not calculated at staying alive, but at giving ourselves away in Jesus' name for the sake of the world God loves?
What would it be like if all of our congregations in this synod were known, not for playing it safe, not for balanced budgets and orderly buildings, but for risking everything for Jesus' sake? What would it be like if we didn't just talk about Jesus, but followed him, wherever he leads, whatever the cost, whatever the risk?
We can do that. We are resurrection people. Death, our final enemy, has been defeated. We don't have to worry about survival or anything else. Our end is life, whatever happens.
So, people and congregations of the Southeastern Synod, don't play it safe. Don't hold back! Take a risk. Don't hold onto life. Give your life away. Follow Jesus. Trust God for the future.