Sermon for Sunday, August 28, 2016 || Proper 17C || Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
I hope it hasn’t escaped your notice that the gardens here at St. Mark’s look fantastic right now. Over the course of the summer, a group of dedicated parishioners came together to restore every one of the gardens here at the church — and there are about a dozen. Now that the weeds are plucked and the mulch is poured, the hard work of maintaining the gardens has begun. I don’t know much about gardening myself, but I watched the gardeners work and I listened to them strategize. And I learned a horticultural word unknown to me: deadheading; that is, the process of removing dead flower heads to encourage further growth and blossoming.
Deadheading flowers is high up the priority list to keep the gardens here at church in their current state of beauty. What a wonderful metaphor for the spiritual life: clipping away the dead stuff so new blooming is possible. This image of deadheading came to my mind this week when I read today’s lesson from the Letter to the Hebrews. The writer says, “Through [Jesus Christ], then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”
I’ll get back to why this verse reminded me of deadheading flowers in a few minutes. But first, a few words about the sacrificial practices of ancient Israel. (And I mean just a few words.) There are huge sections of the some of the early books of the Bible dedicated to what type of animal to sacrifice using which type of preparation for this or that sin. Such ritualistic animal sacrifice was incredibly important to that society, hence its place of primacy in the holy books. Later in the history of Israel, sacrifice takes on another meaning to go along with the ritual slaughter of animals. “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,” says Psalm 50. “The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit,” says Psalm 51. Both of these psalms take to task people who sacrificed just to keep up appearances, but did not allow the ritual to change their hearts or lives.
The Letter to the Hebrews uses the language of sacrifice in both a phyiscal and metaphorical way. The theology of the letter sees Jesus himself as the perfect physical, embodied sacrifice, made only once because, through the selfless act, ritual sacrifice was no longer necessary. People were reconciled to God once and for all, thus rendering ritual sacrifice superfluous. Yet the writer of Hebrews also echoes the psalms in the use of the metaphor of sacrifice. “Let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God…Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”
The ancient ritual sacrifices included the giving up of something, usually a prized specimen of farm animal. Indeed, the rules of sacrifice always speak of “unblemished” creatures. So my question is this: if Hebrews entreats us to the sacrifices of praising and do-gooding and sharing, what are we giving up?
Pondering this question reveals the importance of such sacrifice for our spiritual lives. Let’s look at each of the three things the letter calls sacrifices. First, the sacrifice of praise; that is, the worship of God. When we worship, we reorient ourselves towards God. In Greek, the word “worship” means a literal bending towards, as your beloved would do when leaning in for a kiss. In this bending of worship, this inclination, we notice how skewed our hearts have become. We notice they have become inclined in other directions. We notice these other directions all point inward to ourselves. We notice that we have grabbed onto our own lives so tightly because we are afraid of losing control.
But control is an illusion. All we have in this transitory life is the tiniest modicum of control. As one of my favorite seminary professors once put it, we are like toddlers pushing plastic lawn mowers alongside God who is really cutting the grass. Thus, the sacrifice of praise in the act of worship is really the giving up of the illusion of control. That’s what we sacrifice. The illusion of control is the deadhead that God prunes from us when we offer our praise.
Second, the writer of Hebrews entreats us towards the sacrifice of doing good. At first glance, this seems like a sacrifice because if you are so concerned with doing good, then those without that concern will easily outflank you. It’s a cutthroat world out there, we lament, and then we consign ourselves to an “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” mentality. But there’s more here. There’s more here because doing good is not a means to an end, but an end in itself. If we live our lives always striving to do good, then we may never top the rat race, but we also won’t be rats.
So if doing good is an end in itself, where’s the sacrifice? I think what God calls us to give up when we do good is our apathy, our hard-heartedness, our desire to turn away from things that unsettle us. The apathetic blinders on our eyes are the deadheads that God prunes from us when we do good.
Third, the writer of Hebrews implores us to share what we have. The sacrifice here is easy to envision: we give up our material goods to others. But that’s only part of it because we can share so much more than just our stuff. The dollar amount on the check is important, but so is the love and solidarity that the check symbolizes. When we share of ourselves, when we share not only our stuff but our gifts and talents and loves and fears and successes and failures and hopes and joys, we realize what the sacrifice is. Our isolation. Our greed. Our foolhardy desire to go it alone is the deadhead that God prunes from us when we share of ourselves.
In place of these deadheads, new blossoms grow. When we sacrifice the illusion of control, we find new life in companionship with each other and with God who directs us to life-giving paths. When we sacrifice our apathy and hard-heartedness, we find new life in doing good for no other reason than goodness itself. When we sacrifice our isolation and greed, we find new life in community and generosity growing in their place.
When you think of sacrifice, don’t think of it in terms of “fun things you have to give up.” Think of sacrifice as an opportunity to allow God to prune from you all that is keeping you from living a full and authentic life. Sacrificing is not easy and God knows none of us is good at it. We can be stalks with dried up petals crinkling in the sun. Or we can allow the sacrifices of praise, doing good, and sharing to work as God’s shears. And we can be flowers in full bloom.