Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A Cheerful Sacrifice

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

What does it mean to know so deeply that you are loved and cared for by God that you would willingly and eagerly sacrifice everything in God's service?

Today we remember St. Laurence, one of seven deacons who were martyred along with Pope Sixtus II during the persecution under Emperor Valerian in 258. As the story goes, the eight Christians were hiding in the catacombs when they were discovered by the Roman authorities. The first seven were martyred together, but Laurence was left for additional questioning. He was responsible for distributing the resources of the church to the poor, the widows, and the elderly, and the Romans, who had been seizing all property and treasure owned by the church, wanted to know where the stash was hidden. Reportedly, Laurence assembled a group of those the church had been helping and said, "Here is the treasure of the church." So angry was his interrogator, that Laurence was brutally executed, roasted alive on a gridiron. Legend has it that, after burning for a while, Laurence cried out to his executioners, "I'm well done on this side. Turn me over!" (see Wikipedia). Because of that, he's the patron saint of cooks and chefs.

I'm not looking for the opportunity to be roasted alive for the sake of the gospel, but I do search for that peace and confidence of faith that would enable me to cheerfully give myself completely, totally, and unreservedly to God. For me, the draw is less to the sacrifice and more to the cheerful spirit with which that sacrifice would be offered because, as best I can tell, that spirit of joy is the product of a rich and deep faith that all of us are called to pursue.

As St. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 9, God loves a cheerful giver. But why? Sure, I prefer it when my children do their chores, and I like it even more when they do them without complaining. Although it's nice to have some support in the house, we mainly ask them to help because that teaches them lessons of responsibility, mutual dependence, and a healthy sense of accomplishment in one's work. Because of that, I care far less whether my four-year-old son's sheets are tucked in all the way around his bed and far more whether he understands that making up one's bed is what we do to contribute to our shared life. God doesn't need our gifts. God doesn't need our money. God doesn't need our sacrifice. But God invites them because they are linked to our relationship with him both as the product of a lively faith and as the method through which our faith grows. God loves a cheerful giver not because he's tired of all the whining and complaining but because the cheerful giver knows what it means to have the confidence of faith in God's provision and what it means to pursue that faith even more deeply.

This section of 2 Corinthians is Paul's appeal to the Corinthian church for their continued financial support of the poor Christians in Jerusalem. They had pledged their support, but Paul had heard that they were wavering. He wanted to encourage them and remind them why it is they are being asked to give in the first place--not only to "supply God's people with what they need" (v. 12) but also to "bring honor and praise to God" by showing that they "believed the message about Christ" (v. 13). Paul knew that the act of giving reflects faith and engenders faith. He wrote, "The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully," and "God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work." It works both ways.

And so I'm still in my pursuit. I want to know even more that "God is able to provide [me] with every blessing in abundance" so that I might be freed to participate even more fully in God's work. I want to give more and more until I can see that a complete and total yielding is how, as Jesus put it in John 12, the grain of my life will die and then bear much fruit. I want to be like Laurence--not roasting on an open fire, but cheerfully surrendering my whole life to God. Why? Because I want to know in every stress, in every setback, in every challenge, in every obstacle, that God is already taking care of me--that his love means I am secure. I want to know that and depend on that even more, and so I keep on giving.

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