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Sermon: The Nature of Sacrifice

There are many places in the world where it is very difficult to live one’s Catholic faith. Yet, many Catholics live their faith in Christ and His Church with heroic dedication. In China, for many years, Catholics who refuse to take part in the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association – a replacement for the apostolic communion of the Catholic Church by which the Communist Party monitors and carefully controls clergy and laity – have faced intense government scrutiny and even persecution.

I once heard a story about such a Catholic man. After he was discovered helping the priests of the underground Church, he was detained in prison and tortured for months. Despite the cruelty of his communist torturers, he never gave up the names of the underground clergy nor denounced his faith in the Catholic Church and loyalty to the Holy Father. Eventually, he escaped, and even made his way to the United States, along with his wife and children.

Once in the United States, he rejoiced to be able to practice his faith freely. He also began building the American dream, a “better life” than he would have been able to provide for his family in China. However, something strange soon began to happen. As he took on more and more hours at his job, he began to miss Mass on Sundays because of work. Before long, without the nourishment of the Eucharist, he stopped praying daily – making time for conversation with God. Barely five years after arriving in the United States – escaping the brutal religious persecution of the Chinese communists precisely in order to practice the Catholic faith with freedom – his Catholic faith had ceased to be an important part of his life at all.

Incredibly, what the communists’ persecutions over an entire lifetime and even months of tortures could not bring him to denounce, our decadent materialism induced him to abandon. Despite the unbelievable wells of courage that he was able to muster when faced with physical persecution, he could not stand up to the allures of the great, almighty American dollar.

This is why Christ tells us in the Gospel today, “No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon.” For the past few weeks, as we have read from the Gospel of St. Luke, we have heard about the danger of love of money. Two Sundays ago we were even told that, in order to be the Lord’s disciples, we must renounce all of our possessions.

That Sunday, I spoke about how this injunction from our Lord can be applied in different ways according to the different circumstances of each person. Some people are called to apply the Lord’s words literally as they pursue evangelical perfection according to the vow of poverty in the religious life (sisters, brothers, monks, and nuns). Most of us, though, have a vocation to live in the world, in which we must of necessity continue to make use of and even own material things. So how do we go about living in the world and still fulfill the Lord’s call to serve Him rather than money?

The key is in the Gospel today in the figure of the steward. A steward is a person who administers the property of another. He is entrusted with a great latitude of authority on the part of his master to make loans, collect debts, engage and dismiss workers, collect rents, and manage all the different aspects of his master’s financial affairs. A good steward was absolutely invaluable – a bad steward was disastrous and could mean the loss of even great wealth.

We too are stewards, because everything that we have is not really ours but God’s. It is because of God’s generosity that we have any good thing that we possess. He is the one who made everything around us. We would not be able to enjoy any part of His material creation if He did not give us the gift of life and continue to sustain us in being.

Throughout all of history, men and women have demonstrated an instinctual knowledge that they are not the source of the earth’s goodness. Through the practice of sacrifice, they sought to return a portion of the bounty that they enjoyed to the Divine. For the ancients, both Jews and pagans, this meant the destruction of part of the produce of the earth. The first grain to be harvested from the fields would be burnt in front of the altars of the gods. The Jews were instructed to slaughter the first born male of every animal and burn its flesh upon the altar. No part of it could be eaten except certain portions that were given to the priests (because they themselves had no land from which to draw their livelihood).

It is hard for us to understand the serious sacrifice that these ancient customs represent. For almost all of history, the vast majority of people went hungry on a regular basis. The lack of food and the possibility of starvation were real threats. Malnourishment was for many more of the norm than the exception. Meat was a luxury that was enjoyed by very few, and even then rarely in the quantities that we have come to regard as a normal part of every meal. To slaughter and burn a cow for absolutely no human purpose would be the height of reckless wastefulness.

True sacrifice is useless. It brings absolutely no material benefit to the one who makes it. It is does not make him feel better about himself, and it is not about procuring the best possible result for the highest amount of people. Nowadays, we want to see that our sacrifices make a difference. When we give generously to the Church or any other organization, we want to see that our money is put to good use. This desire is good. It holds charitable organizations accountable and pushes them to be the best that they can. But is my generosity truly a sacrifice when I demand that it produce the results that I want? True sacrifice, sacrifice that gives a portion of what I have received back to God, only manages to be such when it does absolutely nothing for me.

These sacrifices of grain and animals in the Jewish covenant were replaced by the one sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. Christ’s sacrifice is not just a past event, though. It is able to replace all other sacrifices because it is made present to us through the centuries and because we are called to participate in that sacrifice. We participate in that sacrifice when – washed in the blood of the Lamb by the forgiveness of our sins in Baptism and Confession – we approach the altar to receive the fruits of Christ’s sacrifice in His Body and Blood. We participate in His sacrifice when we unite our hearts and minds to the action of the priest at the altar as he stands in the place of Christ as mediator between God and man. We participate in Christ’s sacrifice when we prolong its effects through a daily pattern of prayer and seeking after a holy life.

Just like Christ, who was God and man, we are both body and spirit. We participate in Christ’s sacrifice not only through our spiritual lives, but through the rest of our lives as well. We become good stewards of God’s generosity to us, and the rest of our life in the world is sanctified, when we share the riches of His bounty with His Body, the Church, who perpetuates Christ’s sacrifice and mission in the world. The Church’s most important task is to perpetuate Christ’s sacrifice in holiness and in truth and to proclaim His good news to the nations.

In our parish and Diocese, one of the most important ways that we do this is in our Annual Bishop’s Appeal, which begins around this time every year. I would like to invite you to begin to think about today about how you can support this critical appeal that supports so much of the work of the Church in our Diocese. In the coming weeks, you will learn more about all of the important work that the Appeal supports. This year, our parish goal is $91,524. That seems like an immense sum, but if each and every parishioner does their part, this goal is more than attainable.

In order to meet our goal, it will be absolutely critical to increase the rate of participation in our parish. To do that, we need your help! We need volunteers to help with following up with other parishioners and encouraging them to participate. Would you consider giving a little bit of your time to help? You can call or email the parish office to sign up. Thanks to our parish census last summer, we have an accurate count of who is regularly participating at St. John’s. We’re not going to send people door-to-door, and you won’t be asked to reach out to anyone who isn’t actually engaged at our parish.

In the Gospel today, Christ asks us, “If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours?” Last week, in the Gospel of the Prodigal Son, we saw that we too have an inheritance – an inheritance to be cultivated and preserved rather than squandered. This inheritance of grace is what is most truly ours – our inheritance of eternal life that the Lord wants to share with us. Our material possessions are not really ours – they are from God and are entrusted to us as His stewards to be administered well in this life. What is most truly ours is the promise of everlasting life in the world to come.

In order to attain that great destiny, we must acknowledge the things of this world as the transient goods that they are in order to serve not mammon, but its maker. When we sacrifice a portion of God’s gifts – giving back to Him in seemingly reckless generosity – we will cling more easily to that inheritance of grace promised to us. When we are faithful to the Lord in the relatively little things of this life, He will entrust us with great matters in the life to come.

Rev. Royce V. Gregerson

Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen

XXV Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXIX

Image: Francisco de Zuburán (1598-1664). Agnus Dei. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

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