Friday, November 16, 2007

sacrifice (philippians 3)

Zell Kravinsky was one of those people who was given to extremes. He was so charitable that his wife threatened to leave him. A Jew, he moved beyond the biblical tithe, 10%, and even the later rabbinical advice that a generous person not give away more than 20% of their income, lest their family become destitute. He taught in an inner city school, moved into real estate in Philadelphia, found that he was gifted with numbers, all the while living modestly with his wife and their four children. In time he donated almost all of his money to worthy causes, most of them in the field of public health. A friend explained his actions: “He gave away the money because he had it and there were people who needed it. But then it began to change the way he looked at himself. “

Kravinsky read an article in the Wall Street Journal, and began to investigate the possibility of donating his kidney to someone on a waiting list. His reason: the math. A donor, he concluded, has a one in four thousand chance of dying as a result of donating a kidney. His own children, given their current ages, had, over their life time, only a one in 250,000 risk of needing a kidney, and besides, he had only ten more years when his kidney would be viable for donation. His children each had three siblings who were potential donors. Meanwhile, there were 60,000 people in the United States currently on the kidney transplant list with only about 15-20,000 potential donors each year due to deaths. Only half of those kidneys would make it to transplant as family members often refuse to honor even written commitments made to donate a kidney. Over his wife and his parent’s objections, Kravinsky made an undirected non-family donation of one of his kidneys. His kidney ended up going to a 29 year old African American woman who was studying for a degree in social work, and who had been undergoing dialysis for the last eight years. Kravinsky feels good about the donation of his kidney but his friends complain that he makes them feel guilty and his wife and parents worry that he has gone overboard.

Sacrifice is at the heart of our faith, and yet that is also oddly troubling to us. We think of sacrifice as a worthy activity, but we wonder about the limits of our sacrifices. We have seen sacrifices abused: some take advantage of the sacrifices of others. There is something about sacrifice that is life-denying. A relative had gone out to visit his niece, serving as a pastor of a small country church, hours from the nearest city, just a handful of people, she was his favorite niece. “She could have gone to law school or medical school”, he commented, “what a waste”. And, if we are honest, we think and worry about the young men and women in Iraq, and their very real sacrifices. The fact that flag draped caskets cannot be photographed upon their return means something. And the most troubling passage in the Bible is surely the command of God given to Abraham, to sacrifice his son, Isaac.

If we are honest, sacrifices trouble us. Yet we all make sacrifices. From the birth of a baby, parents give up sleep for the sake of the baby’s nurturing. As our children grow up, we make sacrifices. I have attended hours of dance recitals for the glory of two minutes when one of my daughters, maybe four or five years old at the time, would glide across the stage. I wish I could tell you that I had a broad cultural interest in the dance education of hundreds of young children, but I would not be telling the truth. And life goes on: we are grade parents, coaches, we stay up late into the night working on school projects---I remember one that had to do with a ball bearing that needed to trip a mechanism, causing a needle to pierce a balloon. We travel with our kids to as they pursue their (or our!) interests. And I think of parents with children who are different in same way, with a need that requires a great deal of attention and energy, and extra grace.

Our lives are shaped by sacrifices within families, and this is appropriate: the marriage vows, the baptismal promises on behalf of a child---this is sacrifice. But we are also called to sacrifice in other ways. One is in the society: for example, we are called to sacrifice not only for the education of our own children, but for the children of others. We pay taxes so that other children will have public schools, and we pay taxes so that our parents and grandparents will receive social security. Sacrifice is a part of life, in the smallest family or the largest nation, on behalf of the youngest or the oldest.

But sacrifice is primarily, for our purpose, a matter of faith. It is at the heart of the earliest Christian witness. In today’s scripture, Paul is writing to the Philippians, about sacrifice. According to Acts 16, the congregation at Philippi was the first church established by Paul and Timothy on their first missionary journey. The tone of the letter reflects a warm and intimate relationship between Paul and the Philippians. Paul was most likely writing from prison, where he would be held captive for two years. Philippians is really a “thank you” note---the Philippians had sent a gift to Paul by way of Epaphroditus (see Philippians 2. 25-30). It tells the story of a gift shared and a gift received. The next two Sundays we will reflect on this gift, what it meant for Paul and the earliest Christians, what it means for us. We will explore two themes: today, sacrifice, and next Sunday, gratitude. I contend that sacrifice and gratitude cannot be separated.

The apostle Paul is struggling to understand the meaning of Christ faith in terms of strength and weakness. “Have this mind in you that was in Christ Jesus…who though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself…”. It is fashionable to confess that we are weak before God, and that we receive strength and power through the Gospel. I remember as a teenager, listening to people share testimonies about their lives, and the plot would often go like this. My life was a mess, I was really in a low place, then I became a Christian, and now everything is really great! It was a journey from weakness to strength.

It is interesting that Paul’s testimony is just the opposite. In terms of religious heritage and pedigree, Paul had it all: he was circumcised on the 8th day (not a late convert to all of this); born of the people Israel (the right ethnic group); of the tribe of Benjamin (the last and favored son of Jacob and Rachel); a Hebrew born of Hebrews (they spoke the biblical language, not the foreign languages all around them); a Pharisee (fully obedient to the law), a persecutor of the church (steadfast against the enemy), blameless under the law (he had kept his nose clean). This is Paul’s heritage, his life. It is pretty impressive. Yet, Paul says, I have given up all of this. For what? I am willing to lose all of this in order that I may gain something else: to know Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his suffering.

Paul’s words in Philippians 3 can be helpful to us as we wrestle with the meaning of sacrifice. If we are growing in the faith, growing in family relationships, growing in friendships, the offering of our time, our talents and our possessions will take on a sacrificial character. A church accomplishes its mission in the world through the sacrifices of individuals: those who teach, pray, sing, visit, give money, invite friends, take prophetic stances, lead worship, reach beyond their comfort zones, chaperone youth and children’s gatherings, offer hospitality…the mission of Jesus Christ is always the result of sacrifice. If something is meaningful to us, important to us, we will make sacrifices. This is true in our families. This is true in our workplaces. And it is true with God.

We also understand that a sacrificial life flows from an experience of grace. We are willing to sacrifice time, money and energy because of the grace that we receive from one another and from God. Saint Francis prayed it well: It is in giving that we receive. A vital church is always an adventure of sacrifice and grace, a journey into sacrifice, into weakness, that is also a pilgrimage into the grace of God, who strengthens us and calls us forward. As Paul confessed, “this one thing I do; forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (3. 13-14).

A faithful way of living is a sacrificial life. Eugene Peterson, commenting on Abraham’s call to sacrifice Isaac, comments: “A sacrificial life is the means, and the only means, by which a life of faith matures. By increments a sacrificial life—an altar here, an altar there---comes to permeate every detail of life: parenthood, marriage, friendship, work, gardening, reading a book, climbing a mountain, receiving strangers…”.

I will let you in on a little insider secret. In most of the materials related to church growth and demographics, preachers are discouraged from talking about sacrifice. It will scare people we are told. Focus on meeting their felt-needs. People are into self-fulfillment, not self-denial. Sacrifice is a downer. When Zell Kravinsky comes into the room, we avoid him.

My disagreement with that is two-fold. From scripture, it strikes me as odd. Nothing in the Bible makes any sense apart from sacrifice: from exodus to exile, from birth to death to resurrection of Jesus, from the expansion of the gospel into all the world, And from life experience, it does not ring true. If you made a list of the five most important people in your life, and the five most powerful experiences of your life, I would imagine that sacrifice is very much at the heart of those relationships and experiences.

What we do need to rediscover about sacrifice is that it is not a stoic, “this is my cross” to bear kind of existence. True sacrifice is less about giving up something of a certain value for something else, as elevating, lifting up our lives, our relationships, our resources to God. True sacrifices rise to God, like incense. As we make sacrifices we are most like God, the Trinitarian God whose son is led by the Spirit to be sacrificed for us.

This is Paul’s point I think---I want to know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship, the koinonia of his suffering, becoming like him in his death. Frederick Buechner noted that “to sacrifice is to make something holy by giving it away in love”. Maybe our lives are, to the world, a waste: the cross, giving a tithe, ten percent of our income to God, the broken bread, the poured cup, the humble spirit, forgiveness, the joy of being in the presence of weakness. But it is the path to Christian maturity, and, we will see next week, it is the deeply connected to gratitude. And so we build a little altar here, a little altar there, and our lives begin to change. Paul, writing in Romans 12. 1-2: I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God… Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Sacrifices trouble us, because they force us to answer the great questions of our lives: Why are we here? Why do families and churches exist? When we are no longer here, what will remain? What will remain? The little altars we have built, here and there. Those sacrifices will remain, thousands of years later. “Do this”, Jesus said, “in remembrance of me”.

Many of our stories are a lot like Paul’s: we have had access to resources, family tradition, vocational opportunities, educational institutions, religious teaching. We have been blessed. What sacrifices are we making? What sacrifices are we willing to make?

Sources: The story of Zell Kravinsky is found in “Personal Sacrifice” by Melanie Aron,; Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way; Fred Craddock, Philippians.


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