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The Language of Sacrifice

The Language of Sacrifice

    I propose a moratorium on the use of the language of sacrifice.

    In public discourse, if not Lenten sermons, but especially in church when one is tempted to get very worked up, say, over the latest stewardship campaign and champion "sacrificial giving."  The widow and her mite: that's sacrificial giving, though, I daresay, she didn't in her gratitude and devotion think of it that way.  There should be disciplined giving; there should be generous giving; but please, fellow Americans and others similarly prospering, please cool it when appealing for pledges to church budgets or a mission enterprise. Who among us has ever had to miss a meal or go without shoes because of "sacrificial giving"? To liken what is put in the offering plate to the deed on Calvary is, well, blasphemous.

   The same goes for other calls to discipleship, borrowing the red letter words about losing one's life and giving everything we have to the poor. On this latter score, giving away everything we have, Peter Sellers years ago had the lead in a deliciously satirical movie on this theme, "Heavens Above." He played the parson advocating sacrificial giving.  In the last scene Sellers is transported via a spaceship to heaven, on the premise, I assume, that he is too good for this world.

   Face it, friends, simple prudence is always a factor, and a necessary one at that, in our devotion to God.  Nor would God have it any other way... or I read the red letter words errantly.  Karl Barth is said to have observed, with tongue only slightly in cheek, that St. Francis was a better Christian than Jesus. 

   Oh, I am mindful of Matthew 16:24, about following Jesus and taking up our own crosses.  Nor will I ever forget the observation of one of my long-distance mentors, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, in The Cost of Discipleship, writes that when Christ bids a soul to follow him, he bids him come and die.  For Bonhoeffer it was literally the case, a noose that became his cross, for his participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler.  That's sacrifice.

    I think of a song we sang when I was in junior high school, as World War II wound down, about a soldier named Roger Young, "who lived and died for the men he marched among."  He grasped to his bosom a hand grenade pitched into his company's bunker, giving his life for his comrades.  That's sacrifice.

    Or a mother like mine (and yours too, I have no doubt), who during the Depression made our home into a boarding house, to pay the bills and to enable the dream she had for her only son, that he, the offspring of an illegal immigrant (Mom), might go to college and be a preacher.  I often disappointed her, but, I hope, not finally.  To this day I can see in my mind's eye the red line of infection going from her knuckles up her arm, the consequence of rubbing too many of my socks too energetically.  Talk about sacrifice!

    There are noble, faithful, humbling, and inspiring uses to the language of sacrifice.  But, please, let us apply it sparingly. Only for those moments and those deeds that are truly extraordinary, far beyond the stretch of most human behavior.    

   Better, accentuate the positive.  I note that those whom we perceive as doing the sacrifice don't usually see it that way.  Bonhoeffer believed he was fighting evil and opening the way to a better day for the German people and the world.  Roger Young, self-effacing soul that he was, would tell you he was only doing his duty.  My mother thought bruised knuckles were the least she could do for her little boy. 

    And Jesus, in those red-letter words referred to earlier, about taking up a cross and following him, is insisting with his disciples, who usually get it all wrong with their dreams of glory and palaces, that his summons to a greater life than they could ever imagine will take from them in return everything they have to give.

    That's the point: sacrifice is not intrinsically worthwhile.  Sacrifice is a means to a greater end. Jesus never won disciples by promising them they would finish this earthly course with nails and thorns.  He told them they would be fishers of men.  He told them they would inherit the earth.  He told them they would have seats of honor at the Great Banquet Feast of Heaven.  He promised them, in so many words, that sacrifice would lead to a better day, a greater life, and an everlasting kingdom of love and light.  

    So, please friends, especially those who are "churchy," put a moratorium on the hyperbolic references to sacrifice in the conduct of daily and ecclesiastical affairs.  It cheapens the cross and, quite frankly, makes the speaker sound dolorously ridiculous.


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