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Bible readings:


Lent V Year C (March 13, 2016)                                      St James', Peace River

Well, today is the day when we get to think about one of the scariest words in the Christian vocabulary: sacrifice. It's an idea that has been on the table since the beginning of Lent (at least),  because we started the season with a recognition that it wasn't meant to be a time of self-improvement, of giving up things that were bad for us or that are bad in us. The time to give up those things is any time! But Lent stretches us in another direction, to set aside things that are good, even delightful, in order to get our focus back on the one who gives us those things, on the person of God whom we want and need far more than the good things God gives us.

Even in Lent, though, it takes a while for that focus to come through as clearly as we need it to. First we needed to wade through a lot of the stuff that comes with the acknowledgement that we're just not very good at doing any of this ourselves: the reality of temptation, the challenge of persistence, the need for single-mindedness, the frightening possibility of forgiveness. But Sunday by Sunday, week by week, we've marched on, facing one after another of those hard truths, stripping away layer after layer of whatever spiritual makeup we like to apply in order to hide what's really there. And now we've almost exposed the core of who we are before God, and we may be able to see it with some clarity and honesty.

But if what we see isn't just a self-portrait, but rather a picture of who we are in relationship to God, then it is not just a matter of honestly owning up to our weaknesses and strengths, and the areas where we need to grow. Instead our weaknesses are the things that teach us our reliance on God and God's way of providing for us; our growth vectors are where we learn God's continuing involvement in our lives and God's desire for us to experience life even more fully. And our strengths? Ah, there's the challenge. Of course we learn to say that they are God's gifts within us, but in practice we have a one-sided understanding of how that works. The aspects of our character, of our selves, which we are most confident in are what we build our identity on and we thank God for that; but we are less likely to think of that identity as the very thing we can give to God, the very thing we can sacrifice.

That's what St Paul tackles in the passage from Philippians which we just heard, and which was also the basis for the well-known hymn, “When I survey the wondrous cross”. Paul knows his weaknesses perfectly well, and the ways God is still working on him. But he also knows his blessings. He grew up with faith, made it his own, learned all he needed to learn, and served God the best way he knew how. The paradox of his life is that he needed to let go of all of that in order to really know God's love for him in Jesus. Accepting Jesus as the Son of God meant up-ending everything Paul had believed to that point. And it wasn't just one instant of surrender either – through the rest of his life, he kept sharing that exact experience of giving up the convictions to which he was so attached, in order to help others see what it meant for them to let Jesus into their life too. The very things Paul most valued as gifts from God, turned out to be the things he had to give away in order to honour God and God's call on his life.

There's another story of sacrifice in the gospel, which has a different feel to it. This time it's Jesus' friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus, hosting a dinner as they often did, but this time with an extra layer of meaning as it brings back to them the man who brought their brother back from death. Mary takes what may well be the most valuable possession she has, a pound of perfumed ointment imported from the Himalayas – an amazing luxury when you consider the time! Rather than doling it out little by little to make the evening one special event among many, she pours it out all at once, and adds the further extravagance of wiping Jesus' anointed feet with her hair. I'm sure Judas wasn't the only one baffled by the waste and the transgression of the boundaries of good sense. But for Mary, it wasn't a waste, and it was the only gift that could make any sense at all. A true sacrifice.

This idea of giving away what we most value, as a way of giving ourselves, isn't one that it's easy to handle with logic or reason. But it's nevertheless familiar and attractive to us from story and art. I can think of two literary examples which some of you may know. The story Babette's Feast  by the Danish author Karen Blixen (who featured in the movie Out of Africa) is one of them. Babette, a famous chef fleeing the revolution in France, becomes the cook and housekeeper for two Puritan sisters in Denmark, who live a very frugal and austere life. Out of the blue one day Babette wins a lottery prize, 10000 francs, and decides to spend the entire amount on the sisters and their friends, serving them a dinner like nothing they have ever had before.

The dinner is a sacrifice of the kind we're talking about. It embodies Babette's greatest talents, preparing food which is not just nourishment but which lifts people beyond themselves and brings them together to celebrate. It also costs her everything – she could have taken her winnings and gone back to Paris in safety, but she chooses to give it all away. At the end, one of the sisters is distraught about that and says, “Now you will be poor for the rest of your life,” but Babette answers, “An artist is never poor.” What she has done with her gift is permanent, it cannot be taken away.

The other story which comes to mind is perhaps better known, The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry. It's a Christmas story about a couple living on the edge of destitution, who still want to give each other gifts worthy of the one they love. Jim knows Della's pride is her hair, it's the way she holds on to her dignity and the thing that always reminds him how beautiful she is. So he sells his pocket watch to buy the jewelled combs she's been longing for. Della knows Jim's treasure is the gold watch inherited from his father, it's a statement about the kind of man he is and the potential for what he can become. So she sells her hair, getting it cut off by a hairdresser, in order to buy Jim a gold chain for the pocket watch. When they give each other the gifts, they realize what they've done. It seems like a complete waste. But the sacrificial nature of the gifts mean that there is a substance to them that can't be undone by the irony. Even with no hair, and no watch, they value each other's gifts beyond telling.

Now we need to bring the sense of sacrifice from those stories back into the way we think about God. First of all, let's make no mistake, God does not command or order us to sacrifice, so as to take away from us the things we care about most. There were patterns of sacrifice commanded in the law of Israel – if you asked me, I think I would say they were there to teach people how to give from the heart. But as is so often the way when we're taught by rules, people found ways to observe the letter of the law without its spirit. And a lot more of what the Old Testament says about sacrifice is exactly that – God saying, I don't want your offerings if they aren't from the heart. I want what you want to give me.

So the question is, what do we want to give God? Sometimes when we're giving, we just give from the edges of what we have – the box of macaroni we bought too much of, when the food bank is collecting; the spare box of chocolates we haven't eaten yet, when we suddenly need a hostess gift; the change from the bottom of your pocket when the hat gets passed. When we're giving deliberately, and to someone that matters, we dig a little deeper – the planned gift to a meaningful charity; the unique birthday present you put real effort into finding for a friend. But how do you think about what you give to the One who made you and gave you everything you have, who never gives up on you, who came to find you when you were lost, even at the cost of his life?

There are no shoulds or oughts here. No one told Paul to dedicate his life to Jesus. No one gave Mary the nudge or the meaningful look that said, “It's time to get that nard out and use it.” Quite the opposite, they made their own choices, and their response to God was far more than anyone else would have thought made sense. But I think that's a good thing. I think both of them found a freedom in “going all in”, once the old life was gone, once the money was spent, once there was nothing left but the person they gave it all for. I don't think either of them was disappointed. I don't think you or I will be either. Let's try it, and see.