In the Name...
And Jesus said, "Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes." I had thought of wearing a short one today. But, perhaps the proverb should be, beware of the priest who talks about the word "sacrifice" on the day when we're distributing pledge cards.
What comes to mind when we hear the word "sacrifice"? Maybe some movie images of half-naked savages dancing around an altar with a belching volcano in the background. Or, we could think of the season of Lent and the big sacrifice of giving up chocolates. Or, sports, and a sacrifice fly in baseball. In any event, when the word "sacrifice" is mentioned, most people do not exactly leap for joy.
And yet, it's a good word. It derives from two Latin words 'facio' which means 'to make' and 'sacris' which means 'holy'. "Sacrifice" means to make someone or something holy and that should be an exciting thing, a positive thing. And we have some Scriptures today to show us how that can be.
First, we heard the story of Elijah. This passage is part of the larger story about the on-going conflict between him and King Ahab. Ahab was king of Israel and, as such, sworn to uphold the Law and worship of Yahweh, the God of Israel. But, Ahab also practiced the pagan Canaanite religion of his wife, Queen Jezebel, who worshipped Baal the god of fertility and crops.
Well, Yahweh didn't like this very much and so he used a three-year drought to prove the point that Baal wasn't a very good agriculture god, in fact, he was a false, a man-made, god. And it's at the height of this drought that God sends Elijah to Jezebel's home country of Sidon where he asks, not only a Canaanite, but, a widow, for, of all things, water.
Now Elijah was a well-known public figure, well known for his opposition to Jezebel and Baal, and yet this widow, someone who had very little resources at the best of times, responded to his request. One thing this tells us is that public confidence in Baal was eroding in the very heart of Baalism. But, more than that, this episode shows us an act of sacrifice, of someone or something being made holy.
By giving Elijah the water he requests, this widow is making a powerful statement. She is renouncing her allegiance to Baal and the whole way of life connected with his worship. She is accepting Elijah and the God he represents as true and holy. And in making this change in her life and value system, she is making herself, and, by extension, everything she owns, holy, as well.
And that's what sacrifice is all about. It's not about losing things, it's about gaining God and the things of God.
The same thing applies in the Gospel story. Jesus is watching the people make their offerings in the temple and what strikes him is how detached the people behave. They're bringing their money, but, nobody is thinking about what they're doing. They don't see that they're doing something religious. They're just paying their bills. None of them is thinking about their giving as something that brings them closer to God. None of them is making a sacrifice.
They were being generous, but, not sacrificial. Or, to put it another way, if it's not a sacrifice, it's merely generous. Merely generous. Not a phrase we hear often, is it?
But, for example, if somebody gave me a million dollars, I honestly don't know what I'd do with it. I'd probably give away half, maybe three-quarters. And, I think that's probably true about most of us to greater or lesser degrees. And, that would be considered generous.
But, what if somebody gave me a thousand dollars, or a hundred dollars. Would I give away half, or even ten dollars? Maybe I'd better take the Fifth, here. The point is, it's easy to give out of abundance. It's easy to be generous without having the right spirit.
Ahab was a rich king. He was very generous. So generous, in fact, that he figured he could afford to give to two gods. Never mind that those gods stood for two totally opposite value systems. He wasn't thinking. And that's how a lot of people live - generously unthinking.
And that's were these two widows come in. The Old Testament widow in Sidon and the New Testament widow at the temple. These were people who couldn't afford not to think. And I'll say that again, too. They couldn't afford not to think. Their very day-to-day survival depended on careful decisions. And, apparently, they were thinking about spiritual survival just as carefully as they thought about their material survival. They wanted to be close to God, the Holy One. And so they led lives based on being made holy, they led lives based on sacrifice.
You see, it's not about how much or how little we have. There's no virtue in either wealth or poverty. The only virtue, or lack thereof, is within ourselves. It doesn't matter if I have a 60" plasma HDTV or a 7” b/w TV. It's about what do I watch on the TV? How do I use it?
In the letter to the Hebrews we are shown the ultimate in a sacrificial life. Christ didn't have to give anything or do anything to get closer to God - he was God. But, what he did was give to us so that we could be closer to God. He gave us his relationship with the Father, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the means of grace and the hope of glory. No small things. In his Psalms, King David asked, "what reward can I give unto the Lord for all the benefits he has done unto me?" He answers, "I will call upon the Name of the Lord who is worthy to be praised." In other words, I will live as close to God as I can.
This is the real meaning of sacrifice. Living as close to God as we can. That means we can't be as generous as Ahab. We can't support two gods. We have to make a lifestyle choice. Just like the widows. They each had to make a decision. Not about a cup of water or two copper coins. The water and the coins were merely the symbols, the externals, the results. The real sacrifice was their hearts. Their hearts were made holy. Once that's done, everything else follows naturally.
Sacrifice. It's something we can't afford not to think about.
In the Name...
Let us now declare which god we choose to support, in the words of the Creed.