Sermons That Work

In the Works of…, Lent 5 (B) – 1997

March 16, 1997

In the works of the best selling novelist Tom Clancy, there are a number of characters who appear in almost every story. For anyone who has read Clancy’s books, certain main characters come to mind: the mysterious CIA agent John Clark, White House Chief of Staff Arnie van Damm, FBI Director Bill Shaw, and, of course, Jack Ryan, who seems to have a new job in every novel. There are also hosts of other, less prominent characters who have walk-on bit parts throughout the Clancy opus. One of these is Helen D’Agustino, a Secret Service Agent on the Presidential detail. ‘Daga,’ as she is affectionately known by her fellow agents, is an attractive, intelligent and capable woman in her thirties. Very early in her career, Daga demonstrated her courage and her talent as a law enforcement officer. For this reason, she was selected for an elite position as a personal bodyguard to the leader of the free world.

At first glance, this looks like a particularly high honor — that is, until you think about what such an appointment really means. A Presidential bodyguard exists for one thing, and for only one thing: to ‘catch a bullet,’ to give his or her life in exchange for someone else’s. In a way, a Secret Service agent must be willing to put their life on the line not just for the President of the United States, but for every person who would be affected if the President was assassinated. In other words, conceivably they must be willing to lay down their lives for many, many others.

If Clancy did a good job in developing the character of Helen D’Agustino, we learn that an agent always has this purpose in mind: that on any working day, the very real possibility exists that she may have to ‘catch the bullet.’ It doesn’t mean they dwell on it, it doesn’t mean they have a death wish and it doesn’t mean they don’t love the good things and people in this life. It does mean that they have to keep focused on the task at hand, remember what their job is, keep as free as possible from distractions, and do whatever has to be done to protect and serve their President, their country, and possibly the world as well.

It is hard to imagine that any sane person would willingly accept this kind of assignment. It is hard to think that someone could leave spouses and children and friends each day and risk not coming home to those loved ones at the end of the work shift. On the surface, it would seem to be a very selfish thing to do. But, if you look a little closer, it is possible that the work a Secret Service agent does is motivated by a very profound love of the good material and spiritual things in this life, and a desire to protect the rights of family, friends and strangers to continue to enjoy those good things in abundance. This is not a personal, chummy, affectionate love, but a real reflection of the biblical meaning of love: the willingness to act for the good of others, even at great personal cost to oneself.

A fictional character like Helen D’Agustino, or a “real life” Secret Service agent, lives their life to fulfill a purpose which is born out of love for others, a love which values those others even more than their own life. And, each working day, they are ready to face danger, injury, and even death because the great love they have for their fellow human beings.

A purpose born out of love for others we have never met, for the memory of those who went before us and for the hope of those who will come after us: this is what today’s Gospel is about. Jesus tells us that he has come “for this hour,” and despite his soul being troubled at leaving his friends and all the blessings of human life on earth, he will do what his Father sent him to do. He will fulfill his purpose.

Early in John’s Gospel, we are told what God’s purpose was in sending Jesus: because he loved the world. Shortly before today’s passage, Jesus tells us that he came so that we could have life, and have it abundantly. And in a passage a little further on, Jesus tells us how he will show us God’s love. He will lay down his life for his friends — for all those who have gone before, and all those who are yet to come. The whole of John’s Gospel is about God’s loving purpose: why he sent his Son to dwell among us, what we can expect because of that love, and how that love will be shown. Today’s words tell us that Jesus’ love for his Father means that he loves us so much that he will fulfill this purpose even at great personal cost: the cost of leaving behind his friends and family, the cost of pain and death. Jesus, the Son of God, stand between us and anything dangerous we have to face. It doesn’t mean that we will never suffer or face physical death. Christians are realists, and we know from experience that we probably will. But our loving Lord doesn’t let us suffer and die alone. He is there, with us, ‘catching the bullet’ before it can get to us. If the real death we have to fear is separation from God, that will never happen to us. The Son of God gave his life for us — suffered that separation from his Father — so that we may always have life in God’s presence, and have it abundantly.

Lent is winding down; next week is Palm Sunday, and then there is Holy Week and Easter. For many of us, the focus of Lent is on sin. Sin is real, and it is what separates us from God. It is something of which we need to be aware. It is part of the reason why we recite Psalm 51 on Ash Wednesday and again today: to remind us that sin is a reality in our life, and that separation from God is a real possibility for us. But sin is only one side of the story of Lent. Repentance is another, and repentance means more than feeling sorry for our specific individual and communal sins, or even for the general category of sin. Repentance means turning to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and trusting in his grace and love. It means joining him in his purpose of showing God’s love in the world, bringing abundant life to those whose lives we touch, and being willing to lay down our lives for others.

Most of us will not be called upon to literally “catch the bullet” for anyone. But, each day, we have opportunities to look at the good things of this life, and be willing to set them aside so that someone else may live more fully. We can use the disciplines of Lent to do this. For example, if we have abstained from restaurant meals or some other pleasure, we can donate the money we would have spent to a food bank: that is one way of laying aside the good things of this life so that others may live life abundantly. If we are to be his followers, we must at least look for some small way to give of our lives to do the same. Lent is not about making life miserable for ourselves, but about making life better for all of the human family. More than anything, though, Lent is about the loving purpose of God. Lent is about God loving us so much that he would send his Son to be with us, to live and die as one of us.

A few weeks ago, we sat in church on Ash Wednesday, and confessed that we had been negligent in prayer and worship, and in serving God and one another as Christ served us. We confessed that we had stored up the good things of this life for ourselves, and disregarded the needs of others. We were called to make a “right beginning of repentance” — called, in other words, to be more attentive to the loving purposes of God, and to find ways to show forth those purposes in our own lives. We were invited to a holy Lent, and that Lent is almost over. Has it made a difference?

Yes, Lent is almost over. In our worship, we have put aside many of the good things of life for a time — we have set aside the flowers, many parishes are now using sackcloth vestments and hangings, or simple pottery communion vessels. We haven’t done this because the lovely silver and silks and flowers of the rest of the year are bad: indeed, they are signs of the goodness of earthly life, which is a gift of God. But we need to be reminded that there are things that are more important. Symbolically, during Lent, we have “caught the bullet” — we have put good things aside, and turned our attention to the needs and lives of others. Christians have said that they are Easter people, and this is true. We live in the hope and promise of Resurrection. But, today’s Gospel tells us we are also the people of Lent: if our Lord will not turn from his purpose of showing God’s love in the world, no matter the cost, we must do so too.

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Christopher Sikkema


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