When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, the Episcopal Church used the 1928 prayer book which, as it turns out, we also are using here today at Saint Nicholas. One of the words in the Holy Communion service is the word ‘propitiation’. For years I wondered what it meant – and perhaps you have wondered as well. So as a young guy growing up I decided to see if propitiation was actually a word, and sure enough, it is in the dictionary right next to propitiator and to propitiate. Propitiation means sacrifice but more accurately it means ‘atonement’. In the Holy Communion service, Christ is stated to be the propitiation (sacrifice or atonement) for our sins. Sacrifice and atonement are the flavor of today’s readings.
In our Bible the prophet Isaiah describes a Messiah destined to be abused and stricken with grief so that his followers might not have to endure a deserved punishment. In this way the Messiah would step in as an atonement, or sacrifice and die a death that was meant for us. The New Testament reading from Hebrews is an exhortation to keep ones faith by practicing a sacrificial life through obedience and overt moral intentions of the heart. It is also a warning that we will, in the end, be judged by the word of God, and that all will be required to render an account to a judge who knows us better than we know ourselves. And finally, the Gospel today relates the story of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, disciples of Jesus, who through, it seems to me, pure arrogance or stupidity, ask to be seated on the right and left hand of the King of Kings. Their lack of tact and humility were recorded for all time by Mark. I wonder what we can learn from them about sacrifice and obedience?
There were three items that were in the news that fit very well with today’s scripture readings.
Perhaps you will recall that last week marked the twenty-eighth anniversary of the rescue of the little girl known as Baby Jessica. Some of you may remember this story when back in 1987 an infant fell down an eight inch pipe and how rescuers worked fourteen hours digging through solid rock in order to free the little baby girl. I can still picture the day that Baby Jessica was brought out of that hole in the ground, and seeing it over again on the news this week brought back the same shivers I felt when I saw it the first time. Here was an act of kindness, of sacrifice and of courage against what seemed like impossible odds; and yet the rescuers succeeded and the baby survived. Somehow, through television, all of us became a part of that drama that unfolded hour after hour. We all prayed, we all cried, we all hoped and we all feared for that little girl in Midland, Texas. Her story became somehow intertwined with our own story. Her life became somehow important to our life. And when she was rescued we all felt somehow a part of it all.
What was demonstrated in this story was a supreme act of love and sacrifice for one of our own. We as a people were unified and strengthened in that one act of kindness to a point that many of us still remember it vividly, many years later. What struck me most about the story was that no one weighed the cost against the odds. No one dared give up, nor could they have lived with themselves if they had. Through the news media, if the rescuers needed something, it was almost instantly provided through a few of the millions of us watching the drama unfold on television.
This week also was the anniversary of the million man march in Washington D.C. Our black neighbors were once given a challenge by Louis Farrakan to take off on a Thursday as a Day of Atonement, a day of reflection. I want you to know that I don’t agree with nearly everything that Louis Farrakan stands for. But the idea of a Day of Reflection or a Day of Atonement, at least to me, sounds like something all people ought to do at least once a year, if not more. Louis Farrakan may come across to us as objectionable, but sometimes listening to him, I get the feeling he has the best of intentions for his people at heart. And we can’t fault him for that. Yes, he is manipulative and hateful, but if even one person came any closer to God, then we are all somehow better off today. Sacrifice and prayerful reflection is always acceptable in the eyes of God regardless of who suggests it.
Finally, this week marked the anniversay of the death of a prolific writer, a favorite of mine, named James Michner. In an interview I once heard, Mr. Michner was asked to comment on, as he looked back on his life, how pleased he must have been with all his success. His answer was curious. He said that as he looked back on his life what stood out for him most were his failures and his shortcomings. He pondered his failure wondering why he had failed and how he might have lived a better life had it not been where he fell short of the mark. He was visibly remorseful and not at all what I would have expected of a “success” in life.
Success in life has little to do with how the world defines it . It is said that money and fame cannot buy happiness, but why do we all long to be rich, famous, (though perhaps unhappy), people? The Bible says that Jesus is the key to our success as Christians. His life demonstrated for us that a life of self sacrifice and humility is deemed of far greater importance in the Kingdom of God than earthly goods and treasure. And though it is a very good thing to be rich or famous, it is a far better thing to be happy and loved and accepted for who you are.
God loves us for who we are, he is the one person able to look past our faults and value who we are as a people. He values our courage in the face of insurmountable obstacles. He values our unity in the face of adversity and how we will sacrifice everything, even our lives to save another. He values our candor and our humor and our uncontrollable urge to spiritually prosecute ourselves for our mistakes and failures. He loves our creativity and our skill and our ability to love.
Our God is a sacrificial God and creation has inherited His sacrificial nature. His need is for us to take on this sacrificial nature full time. To live a sacrificial life worthy of his calling. To rejoice when things are right with our lives and to be reflective and change our course when things go awry. To be willing and able to lend a hand when one is needed. To give of our talents and our time to causes worthy of his call to us. To do our work and to live our lives as if everything depended on it. In this way we will live in the shelter of the Most High.
You may suggest that what God asks of us is too hard, that it just isn’t natural to be sacrificial. Was it natural for those rescuers to work day and night digging through rock? Is it natural that a people, on their own, to take a day off without pay to reflect on where they’ve been and where they’re going? Is it natural for a successful person to ponder his failures at the expense of his success. No, it isn’t natural. In every case there is the Holy Spirit, the Source of all life, providing the impetus, giving us the courage and will to continue.
At my son’s school there was once a poster that read:
Theater is Life
Film is Art
Television is Furniture
What we all need to do, is to spiritually turn off the television and go out and do something. Get into the world and do something about it rather than sitting at home and watching it happen without us. The Holy Spirit can give us the strength and courage to do just that. We need only ask for help and he will come.
Jesus came into the world to save us because he loved us. Through his sacrifice we have been saved just like the baby Jessica in the well. Through thoughtful prayer and reflection, our lives can change from where they are to where we would like them to be. And through our failures we can learn and grow into a better people. A successful life has little to do with money or power. If you have loved God and have loved others as yourself, then you are success in the Kingdom of God. And in the end, that’s all that really matters. Amen.