August 3, 2014
The Rev. Philip Tierney
The Blessing of Sacrifice
“Give it up.” “Give it up, ladies and gentlemen.” What does that mean to you? That phrase has become a euphemism for cheering someone. It doesn’t demand much, and it certainly doesn’t involve any loss.
There’s a word in the Bible that means “give it up.” It’s sacrifice. Sacrifice is the act of voluntarily giving up what’s important to you or valuable, and expecting that you’ll never get it back again. It isn’t the same thing as trading, exchanging, or gambling, which is when a person takes the risk to give up something they value with the prospect of getting something in return. That’s a self-interested bet. Sacrifice is giving up what’s precious without expecting anything in return. And that involves dedication. It involves faith that it’s the best thing to do. And it may involve a certain measure of love, if you do it for the sake of others.
Today’s readings feature people who felt called upon to give it up—to sacrifice—for the sake of others, without the expectation of personal benefit.
Jacob gave it up. He sent his family, his wives, children, servants, and his livestock over to the far side of a river. He stayed on the near side, alone. Why did he do it? Did he simply want some down-time, some peace and quiet? No. He did it to protect them from the potential disaster that he fully expected would befall him.
You see, Jacob had run away from his father-in-law, Laban. He took Laban’s daughters,
grandchildren, and some livestock with him. That flight took him into the territories of Esau, his brother, whom Jacob had so badly treated twenty years earlier. Jacob was anxious, and so he sent messengers, most obsequiously, to notify Esau that he was in the area. The messengers returned to tell Jacob that Esau was on his way with 400 armed men, no less. Understandably, Jacob’s anxiety turned into panic. And one of the measures Jacob took to deal with his anticipation that Esau would make good on his decades-old threat to kill him was to send his family to a safer location. He put himself in harm’s way to protect his loved-ones.
That night, Jacob was restless, so restless, in fact, that he believed that he was wrestling with someone, possibly God or an angel. Jacob’s sacrifice, his fear, and his restlessness had two results. He was left physically impaired for the rest of his life; and he was blessed by God too. Sacrifice without intention for personal gain can be the source of loss and yet also personal spiritual blessing and growth of character. At least that’s what happened to Jacob. He became a better, less selfish, and godlier person in the process of sacrifice and physical pain.
Next, in what may be one of the most moving verses in the Bible, St. Paul describes his
willingness to sacrifice. Just listen again to what he wrote to the Christians in Rome: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people.” Wow, that’s willingness to sacrifice! He felt willing to give up his own eternal salvation in exchange for the eternal salvation of the Jewish people. His emotional calculations, of course, were irrelevant to the economics of God’s grace, but it speaks extremely well for the quality of his compassion for his people. His sacrificial compassion for other people’s spiritual life was an unparalleled source of blessing to others, even though it caused him ongoing pain, which he also saw as part of the sacrifice that he was called upon to give.
Then, there’s the familiar story of the feeding of the 5,000. Trying to avoid the constant
demands of the crowds, Jesus had his disciples hop into a boat and sail to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, only to be confronted by more crowds. Jesus’ impulse was to feel compassion for them. And so he gave up his limited time and energy to heal those in need. It went on and on and on, and night began to fall. Ever practical, his disciples advised Jesus to send everyone away to get some food, and sleep. I’m sure that they were reflecting their own desires as well. It’s not infrequent for people to mask their own, personally-driven, motives as concern for others. And so, ever discerning, Jesus took their expressed concern at face value and turned it into a test. He said, “No. You give them something to eat.” We can deceive others and even ourselves about our motives, but God knows us better than we know ourselves and might just challenge our motives—to spur our growth.
“Feed them ourselves? But we only have five loaves of bread and two fish.” That was barely enough for them to eat! Jesus responded, in essence, saying, “Then give it up.” They did give Jesus what little they had. He blessed it, and the effectiveness of their sacrifice was multiplied beyond their wildest imagination. Sincere sacrifice—giving up what little we have—can be blessed so as to be used by God for the benefit of others more than we can imagine.
Jacob was willing to sacrifice for the sake of love, though he may have also wanted to preserve his lineage. And he was personally, spiritually, blessed. His selfish character changed. St. Paul was willing to sacrifice his eternal spiritual life for other people’s spiritual lives, and he was a greater source of spiritual blessing to others than most of his fellow apostles. The disciples were called upon to sacrifice what they had and it was blessed beyond expectation in its effectiveness for others.
Sometimes it’s inspired by love, sometimes by compassion, sometimes by faith in God or dedication to others, but whatever inspires it, sacrifice can be a source of tangible blessing to others and personal, spiritual, and character-building growth for ourselves. Sincere sacrifice—giving it up altruistically and not for personal benefit—is a source of blessing. It builds our capacity to trust God. It builds character. It stimulates compassion. It increases spiritual strength, not just feel-good spirituality.
The problem is that our culture has developed an aversion for sacrifice. People simply don’t like it anymore, and react against it. They might use other, more philosophically acceptable reasons, for it, but self-sacrifice for others, let alone for God, is deeply resisted in our present culture. Some react against it because of the distaste of earlier religious training, which emphasized random sacrifices, like chocolate during lent. Others react against it because it seems ethereal or idealistic or too bleeding-hearted, and impractical or counter-productive.
There’s a real, concrete, and relatively recent example of the benefits of sacrifice, though.
Along with Bill Moyer, as I see it, our greatest era as a nation was from about 1935 to 1960 or so. The U.S. was engulfed in the Great Depression, desperately trying to discover a way out of it. Europe and Asia became embroiled in another world war. Things looked bleak and there was every reason for self-interest and self-protection. But the people of the U.S. stepped forward and gave it up. We sacrificed national credit to create public works programs during the Depression. In a position of national debt we launched into a two-front war—in the Pacific and in Europe. When the war ended, we resisted the path of revenge that the Treaty of Versailles enshrined, and instead, spent our energies and money rebuilding Japan and Germany. We sacrificed what little we had for others. Though our debt was higher than it had ever been—over 110% of our GDP, we launched the GI Bill, which sent veterans to college to improve their skills and employment potential, and, simultaneously, we pursued a domestic program for building a new system of highways and bridges—an entirely new national infrastructure.
That was sacrificial. It took faith. It took compassion. It took dedication. It wasn’t always
altruistic, but it was forward-looking and it took courage. Whether we explicitly trusted God in the midst of it or not is up to opinion, but we did act in good faith. And what were the results? Those sacrificial actions were blessed. We came together as a nation. We pulled together in shared sacrifice. We were unified. We accomplished great feats. And we were a source of blessing to others. A new, more broad-based, middle class came into being. We enabled Europe and Asia to rebuild themselves. We developed a modern transportation system. Our economy grew and we paid down our national debt. Shared self-sacrifice involved personal pain, but resulted in blessing beyond imagination.
I think this example demonstrates that sacrifice, while painful, has very practical and
very positive consequences. It builds character. It builds faith and vision. It counteracts
selfishness. It builds compassion for others. It puts us outside our comfort zones, and
makes us stronger. It’s the antidote to individual self-interest, which only divides us,
weakens us, inures us to empathy and compassion for those in need, and encourages us to trust in our own capabilities rather than in God.
Sacrifice is beneficial and is a source of blessing when it is purposeful, focused, and
sincere—done with faith in God and dedication to God’s ways or to compassion for the
good of others. Sacrifice is beneficial and a source of blessing—to individuals and
nations. Let’s not shrink from giving it up for others and for God.