Pentecost 16 C: Life-giving Sacrifice

Luke 14:25-33

Dear Partner in Preaching,

There are sacrifices and then there are sacrifices. At least that’s what struck me when I read Jesus’ familiar words about taking up the cross.

We tend to associate Jesus’ talk of the cross with sacrifice. And understandably so, considering that he is on the way to Jerusalem to make the ultimate sacrifice of his life on the cross to demonstrate God’s love for us (to demonstrate God’s love, not to make God loving!). And we assume – accurately, I’d argue – that his talk of “taking up the cross” implies sacrifices on the part of those who identify as his disciples, whether of selling one’s possessions or bearing the burdens of others or giving up prior allegiances and even relationships, or more.

But here’s the things: I think we’ve been so led by our culture to think of sacrifice as a bad thing that it’s difficult for us to hear this passage aright. Actually, it’s a bit more complex than that. We’ve been trained to admire those who make sacrifices – Olympic athletes, fire fighters, our women and men serving in the military, etc. – but have also been induced to think that there’s no reason we should ourselves have to sacrifice in an instant-access and immediate-gratification kind of world.

And yet we all make sacrifices. Parents to give their children a good life. Innumerable persons seeking to finish their schooling or to accomplish something in their career. Life choices and freedom to get married or start a family. All kinds of “discretionary” purchases to save for a down payment on a home. And not only do we make these sacrifices, but often we do so with a sense of joy.

Why? Because there are sacrifices and then there are sacrifices. Some that lead to greater life, and some that don’t. Which, just to be clear, doesn’t mean that life-giving sacrifices are easy or fun or comfortable. Just that they lead to a greater sense of purpose, life, and joy, whereas other sacrifices lead to less life, and sometimes to death.

Which helps me hear this passage a little differently. Jesus isn’t inviting meaningless sacrifice. He isn’t inviting door-mat discipleship or a whiney Christianity (“that’s just my cross to bear”). Rather, he’s inviting us to a full-bodied Christian faith that stands over and against all those things that are often presented to us as life by the culture. Jesus invites us, that is, to the kind of abundant life that is discovered only as you give yourself away. The kingdom of God Jesus proclaims is about life and love. And just as love is one thing that only grows when it’s given away, so also is genuine and abundant life.

Again, not that such sacrifices are easy. Some around us may very well not understand why we spend less on ourselves in order to give more to others or why we’d invest our time and resources on a person or effort the culture considers a lost cause. The choices we make, the relationships we decide to pursue, the way we spend this life we’ve been given, may cause not just puzzlement but dissatisfaction, even upset, among those we care about. But the question before us, as put so fiercely by Moses in the first reading, is whether we will choose life or death.

The challenge, of course, is that such a choice is not always as clear as we’d like. Sometimes we get just plain confused about what is the right choice, the life-giving choice. And sometimes we may hear the Jesus’ voice calling us to sacrifice for the sake of life but it gets all but drowned out by the cultural voices holding out success and accumulation and security as life. And sometimes the choices in front of us are just incredibly ambiguous.

Which is why Jesus makes his own sacrifice, of course. To assure us of God’s love and forgiveness, so that whether we are confused, overwhelmed, unclear, or just choose badly, yet the promise of life is always in front of us. This promise of God’s unconditional love frees us to choose life, which is the way the Gospel always works, creating the very thing it asks for.

We are often leery, I think, of asking our people to sacrifice – to sacrifice time to come to church, to sacrifice money for the sake of mission, to sacrifice some of what they have so that others may have enough. And I understand that. Shepherding a congregation at a time when the culture no longer supports congregational life, but rather offers multiple alternatives, can feel like an uphill battle already, so why make it more difficult with talk of sacrifice. But maybe we’re not calling for the right sacrifice, the sacrifice of giving ourselves to others that we might receive so much more, the sacrifice that leads to life. There are sacrifices, after all, and then there are sacrifices.

That’s not an easy call to issue, Dear Partner, but it is essential. And our people will be better for it. For it is God at work through your work and your words, God who raised Jesus from the dead to let us know that no sacrifice made for life and love is not caught up in God’s work to redeem this world God loves so much. Thank you for your courage and faithfulness.

Yours in Christ,