St Paul’s, Carlinville—Mark 12:38-44, I Kings 17:8-16, Hebrews 9:24-28
It’s been barely more than a week since the World Series ended, so, for some of us, baseball is still on the brain. If you’re familiar with the game of baseball, you know about the play called a “sacrifice.” This is when the batter, either intentionally or unintentionally, hits into an out. He doesn’t become a base runner, and heads back to the dugout. But, as a result of either being thrown out at first base or retired because an outfielder catches a fly ball, that batter’s team enjoys a benefit—either in the form of a run scored, or someone already on base advancing to the next base. The batter sacrifices his own chance to get on base and score a run, he sacrifices his opportunity for personal glory, in order to benefit his team. Of course, in a much more serious vein, we talk about the sacrifices made by members of the military, who follow orders and put themselves in harm’s way, offering their limbs and lives as a potential sacrifice for what we all hope, at least, is a greater good.
So we admire those who engage in sacrifice because they overcome the instinctive impulses we all have to preserve our own personal best interests. These instinctive impulses usually make themselves known as tremendous fear, and overcoming a deep fear is one of the most difficult actions a human being can undertake. We are all, in various ways, the beneficiaries of such courageous, fear-defying actions. For many in the world, the source of fear relates to immediate personal safety. The hordes of people streaming out of Syria, for example, are just trying to get themselves to a place where they don’t have to worry every second about a bomb exploding in their face. In other places, the issue is food insecurity; this would include much of Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. For middle class North Americans and Europeans, fear is grounded in whatever we perceive threatens our financial status—job loss, unexpected bills, stock market fluctuations, recession, inflation … and sometimes church stewardship campaigns.
For the record, clergy, including bishops, are not immune to this fear. As retirement becomes less and less of an abstraction for me, and more and more a concrete prospect with a definite time frame, I find myself paying ever closer attention to anything that might affect the Church Pension Fund. It’s been my observation, over nearly three decades of pastoral ministry, that various processes of conversion happen at various rates. The most essential conversion, of course, is conversion to Christ, coming to serious terms with who Jesus is and what that means for my life, and I’ve seen that conversion happen, several times, quite suddenly, almost overnight. There’s also conversion to discipleship—learning the habits of following Jesus faithfully. This usually takes some time, but I’ve seen it happen relatively quickly. But the one process of conversion that is usually the last one to come to maturity and produce fruit is the “conversion” of our finances. Our wallets and checkbooks and investment statements are invariably among the last things that we surrender to Jesus when he asks us to follow him.
So the Old Testament reading and the gospel today are slap-in-the-face challenging. If they don’t make us squirm, we’re probably not paying attention. In the narrative from I Kings, Chapter 17, the land of Israel, 800 or 900 years before the time of Christ, is suffering from a famine that is the result of a prolonged drought. It hasn’t rained in a very, very long time. The word of the Lord comes to the prophet Elijah. Go to Zarephath, in the region of Sidon, Elijah is told, which is actually out of the country, in Gentile territory that would now be part of Lebanon. Following the instruction that he has received, Elijah approaches a widow in Zarephath, and directs her to give him something to eat. She responds, in effect, “Wouldn’t I love to. But, look here: I’ve got this paltry amount of flour, and this paltry amount of oil, and this paltry pile of sticks to make a fire with. So I’m going to make a couple of pancakes for my son and me, and that’s going to be our last meal, and then we’re going to just lie down and die. So, sorry, I can’t give you anything to eat.” Elijah just says, “No worries. Trust me on this. Just make the pancakes and give them to me. There will be enough left for you and your son.” Somehow, Elijah persuades this woman to believe him. She makes him the pancakes, and when she goes back to her containers of flour and oil, there is, inexplicably, enough for her to make more pancakes to feed herself and her son. In fact, as it turned out, there was always enough oil and enough flour, until the rains eventually came, and crops could be harvested again. But before she could experience that abundant provision, this woman had to offer a sacrifice; she had to allow herself to be led through and beyond her deepest fear—that of not being able to feed her child.
Then there’s the gospel story, which is a bookend to the narrative from I Kings. Jesus is teaching his disciples one day in the Temple in Jerusalem, right in the area of the box where it was customary for people to come by and make their pledge payments. People are stepping up and dropping sacks of coins, some large and some small, into the box. But then an elderly widow comes up and puts in two virtually worthless coins—an amount worth even less than if you or I dropped two pennies into the offering plate. It certainly wasn’t going to have any discernible impact on the annual budget of the Temple. But Jesus commends this woman, and says that her offering is worth more than all the others. Why? Because it was a sacrifice. It was all she had. It was everything. And don’t think the detail about it being two coins is just incidental, because, you know, she could have put in just one of them and kept the other for herself. But she didn’t. She put both coins in the offering box; all she had.
The animals in the barnyard were talking one morning. The farmer’s birthday was coming up, and they wanted to do something special for him. One of them suggested, “Let’s make him breakfast!” “Great,” said the hen. “I can donate some fresh eggs.” And the cow chimed in, “And we can use some of my milk to cook up something yummy from the oven.” Then everyone looked at the pig, who was strangely sober. “Hey, for all of you, making breakfast for the farmer is at worst an inconvenience. For me, it’s a sacrifice!”
But here’s where the experience of a disciple differs from the fate contemplated by the pig: Our offering of our lives to God, our sacrifice of our lives to God, becomes God’s offering of his life to us.
Let me unpack that. How do we offer our lives to God? Our lives are first offered to God when we are baptized. I put that in the passive voice, because, for most among us, that’s an event we don’t remember, something that was done to us, not something we freely chose for ourselves. But most of us have been confirmed, or renewed our baptismal vows on the occasion of somebody else’s confirmation. So we have, in one way or another, promised to follow and obey Jesus as our Savior and Lord. Or, to put it in the language I use to explain baptism to young children, we have all said, “Jesus is the boss of me.”
We have also offered our lives to Jesus, sacrificed our lives to Jesus—to some extent, at any rate—whenever we have placed money or a check in a church offering plate, or sent a pledge payment in the mail, or online. Stewardship is an offering of our lives to God. It is a recognition that, not only do we not own the money and material resources that we think of as belonging to us, we don’t even own ourselves—our souls and bodies. In baptism, we sign over everything to God, to be put at God’s disposal for the extension of God’s kingdom.
And this movement of self-offering, this movement of sacrifice, is repeated and renewed every time we come together to celebrate the Eucharist. When we place bread and wine on the altar, and when our checks and cash are presented at the altar, these things represent our lives, they represent us. When you see them on the altar, think of yourself as being on the altar. And an altar is a place of … what? Of sacrifice. Part of the action of the Eucharist is that we offer ourselves in sacrifice—in union, of course, with the only perfect sacrifice, the sacrifice of Jesus, God offering God to God as an atonement for our sin.
In the Eucharist, we give our lives to God, and, in the Eucharist, God gives his life to us. How does God give his life to us? In three ways that parallel the three ways by which we give our lives to God.
First, God gives his life to us in Holy Communion. When we receive Holy Communion, we receive God’s own life, God’s own self. We receive the Body and Blood of Jesus, who, even in that same moment, as today’s epistle reading from Hebrews reminds us, is pleading our case before the Father as both our Great High Priest, and as the victim who is himself the sacrificial offering.
Second, God gives us his own life by blessing us for the sacrifice we offer of our tithes and offerings. I hope I’m not telling you anything new when I say that the standard of financial giving for a baptized disciples of Jesus is 10% of the material and financial resources that God entrusts to us. That’s what a tithe is. And the wonderful thing is this: To my knowledge, I have never met an ex-tither. When we are obedient to God, God has a way of blessing that obedience, and meeting our needs. Not our desires, necessarily, but our needs. But I will say this, that tithers are invariably the most joyful Christians I encounter. God is faithful to us, and when we are faithful in return, that original faithfulness is only compounded.
Finally, God shares his life with us by calling us to vocations that reveal and express our truest selves. God doesn’t just want us to be financially faithful; he wants us to be vocationally faithful, to answer when he calls, to follow where he leads. We may be tempted by fear that to offer God our lives means that we will be deprived of all sorts of good or fun things that we had planned for ourselves. But, again, just as I have never met an ex-tither, I have never met anyone who has regretted making that “reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice” that St Paul commends to us. God is invested in our happiness, and has a way giving us back what we surrender to him, only enhanced, better, with a bonus of some sort.
So there’s a great deal going on in this liturgy today, perhaps more than we realized. Even as I speak to you as your Chief Pastor, I stand with you as one more baptized disciple, in need of grace to overcome fear and offer all that I have in sacrifice, in the hope that it will be returned to me as more than I can imagine.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.