Fear of Loss (Fourth Sunday of Easter)

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Last week, I was reading something in the paper about the issues of health care reform in the United States.  Like many people, my eyes have begun to glaze over whenever I read about health care reform, so I’m not really sure what caught my attention to make me read it.

But I remembered this article, because of one statistic that I hadn’t ever seen before.  The author began by pointing out that most Americans think the US health care system is a mess and needs to be changed.  People on different ends of the political spectrum disagree on how and what needs to be changed, but almost everyone thinks things need to get fixed.

That wasn’t a new revelation to me.  What was new was that the author cited a recent survey in which almost 70% of Americans said that THEIR health care coverage is actually OK.  They can see the doctor they want. What they need is covered.  And even if it’s expensive and there’s too much paperwork, they feel that they’ll get the care they need if it becomes necessary.

And that statistic, in the opinion of the author, is why health care reform is so hard.  Even though people are worried that others don’t have health care, and concerned about the future of theirs, most think what they have is OK.  And they don’t want to lose it.

And the fear of losing what you have is often the thing that makes you resistant to change.  That is, fear of loss can be a powerful motivator.  It reminds me of a quote from Ron Heifetz, a well-known author in the field of adaptive leadership in the church.  Heifetz says that we sometimes think we have trouble with change because people fear change.  But Heifetz says that’s not really true.  “People don’t fear change –they fear loss”…

And I think Heifetz is right about that.  Nobody really fears change in and of itself.  If I think something is going to change and make my life incredibly better, I’m all for it!  But I don’t like losing what I have.  Fear of loss can be a powerful motivator and a powerful debilitator. 

The fear of loss is so powerful, because loss is such a universal human experience.  We’ve all suffered loss – the loss of someone we love to death; the loss of a relationship; the loss of a job; the loss of money or position; and maybe the loss of health care.

And we know that many losses aren’t things we simply brush off and go on as if nothing happened.  Many losses require deep and adaptive changes in our lives, and many leave lasting scars.

And so most of us don’t like to dwell on losses we’ve experienced in the past, or contemplate the losses we might face in the future.  And we try to do everything we possibly can right now in order to minimize the possibility of losing anything else.

So why I am I telling you all of this on “Good Shepherd Sunday”, when we traditionally talk about fluffy sheep and caring shepherds?  Well, Jesus talks about sheep and shepherds for all of chapter 10 in John’s Gospel, but it isn’t until we get to verse 22 (the first verse of today’s Gospel reading) that John tells us the context in which Jesus is saying these things:  It’s during Hannukah and Jesus is in the Temple.

And if you remember the Hannukah story, Hannukah is the celebration of how Judas Maccabeus and his followers reclaimed and rededicated the Temple after it had been snatched away from the Jews and desecrated with pagan symbols.  They had lost the Temple, but now it was back!

And it would have been impossible (especially in the context of Roman occupation) to forget that they had once lost the Temple to foreign pagans.  It’s clear that they were determined that this loss should NEVER happen again (in fact, this is one of the motivating factors of the Temple authorities to have Jesus killed…)

And it’s also important to remember that by the time these words were written down by John, the unthinkable had actually happened. About 35 years after this scene, the Romans had not only snatched the Temple away, they had completely demolished it.  It was gone.  And the first readers of John’s Gospel experienced this loss as the loss of an entire way of life, and the loss of a significant symbol of God’s presence in the world… (and really, more than just a symbol…)

The fear of loss was clearly an undercurrent on the day that Jesus spoke the words of today’s Gospel reading.  And it was even worse for the first readers, who wondered what else might be lost?  And could they themselves be lost from God?

So it’s in the context of this fear of loss that Jesus makes this promise that no one can snatch us away from God.  “What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.”

That is, Jesus confronts loss – and the fear of loss – by promising us that:

  • We can never be lost from God – not even death can snatch us out of God’s hands; that would have been a wild and unbelievable claim, except for Jesus’ Resurrection showing us that it’s actually true.  And while Jesus’ promise doesn’t insulate us from the pain of loss, what he was saying to his followers then and now was that
  • Loss is not the most significant reality in our lives, even though it surely seemed that way when people lost the Temple, and in our own lives when we’ve experienced a particularly deep and significant loss.  But part of dealing with the fear of loss is remembering that God’s gift of new life is actually more powerful than the events which snatch things from us; and
  • Therefore, Jesus is saying these things about sheep and shepherds not to give us cute, fuzzy sheep and shepherd pictures, but to give us courage to live forward in spite of the losses we face and the losses we fear …

That day in the Temple, Jesus stood with people in the midst of the remembrance of a great loss, and the fear of a future loss.  He didn’t tell them that they had nothing to worry about, or that loss would never happen to them again.

But what he did do, for those ancient people and for us, was to promise his active and living presence in the midst of our losses and our fears.  He showed them, and he shows us, that God’s power to give and restore life is actually greater than any of our fears and our losses.  And he promised them, and he promises us, that no matter what happens, absolutely none of us will ever be lost from God.