17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

by Rev. Corein Turbak

The language of sacrifice runs deep in our world. I think especially for those of us from America, that language is even more deeply ingrained in our psyche and way of being in the world.

As a country born from war, we grew up with an awareness that it was through the sacrifice of others that we live today and enjoy the privileges of our country. With many of us either serving in the military ourselves, or having siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, or grandparents who served, we have very personal ties to stories of sacrifice.

And beyond the military aspect of our history and culture, as Americans, we operate within statements like, “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps”. Politicians seem to always be emphasizing their working class roots and how either they or their parents sacrificed for the American Dream.

And then of course, our Christian narrative is ripe with stories, images, and language of sacrifice. Not only of Jesus, but we often interpret the story of Mary, the disciples, and the prophets as stories of sacrifice.

These stories tell us over and over again: To be a good American citizen, to be a good Christian means to sacrifice.

I believe in that statement wholeheartedly, but I also believe our readings today advise us to be discerning about that sacrifice. To pay attention to why we choose to sacrifice and what that sacrifice is doing to our hearts and our way of living in the world.

One reflection I read about our readings today focused on the older brother of the Prodigal son. He was the perfect example of sacrifice. While the Prodigal Son was off enjoying the luxuries of the world by spending his inheritance, which he had because of the sacrifices of his father, the older brother followed the path of sacrifice; he stayed with his family, he did his job, he sacrificed for his family’s honor. He did what was expected of him and what he should do.

But what we also know of this older brother was that this sacrifice instilled a bitterness in him. He was angry at his brother for his irresponsbility, so much so that he could not rejoice when the brother returned.

Sacrifice can easily bring bitterness, frustration, and anger if we are not grounded in why we are choosing to sacrifice.

I know this experience well in my own life, as I am sure you do too. One of the most acute examples is in my journey as a minister and a pastor. Eight years ago, I was invited to preach here one summer evening. In that moment, I fell deeply in love. I fell in love with the presence of God that I felt in this space, and the presence of God that I felt in myself as I preached God’s word for the first time in my life. Like the farmer in our Gospel, I stumbled upon a buried treasure. I wasn’t looking for it, I didn’t know it existed, and suddenly there it was – the most beautiful, luxurious, priceless treasure, right here.

But you see, that treasure upset my life. At that time, I was halfway through my masters degree at St. John’s University. I had big plans for my life – I imagined moving to D.C. after graduation – working for one of the Roman Catholic church’s strong social justice initiatives. I had worked hard, I had sacrificed a lot. I let go of relationships, I said yes to every opportunity, I pushed myself late into the night so that my GPA would remain the highest in my class.

But after graduating, my love, my treasure was here in this place. I was offered a job that would have put me on that track I imagined and I said no. I sacrificed because I wanted to stay here. I wanted to dig up this treasure and enjoy it. It was not a hard decision to make. I knew why I was making this sacrifice. I held the treasure of this community in my hand and heart.

But over the past eight years, things got hard on occasion. For a number of years I lived and worked both here in the cities and in St. Joseph. I piece-mealed work so that I could continue to work in the social justice arena outside of my Roman Catholic tradition. And moreover, I missed my family and the home I left in New Mexico.

At times, I failed to remember that I chose these sacrifices because of the treasure I had found. I felt bitterness inside me. I become frustrated that I could not work full-time as a pastor. I found myself jealous of other young leaders who are able to move through the structure of larger denominations. I felt fear rising in my throat and mind, I wondered – did I make the right choice? What if I never really reach my goals? And more than anything, like the older brother, I got mad at God. I told him, “Hey, I have put my dues in. I’ve done my work. I deserve something more, or at the very least, clarity in the call you have given me..

This my friends, is a very dangerous form of sacrifice and I am sure that I am not the only one that has felt it. I imagine, everyone here, to some degree, feels that in some aspect of their life the sacrifice did not pay out as they envisioned. Jobs were lost, dreams were stunted, relationships ended, doors were closed. And so, while we may keep sacrificing because we know that’s what we are supposed to do, we more often feel bitterness, anger, frustration, jealousness or hurt instead of joy, energy, love, passion, excitement, or hope.

How do we sacrifice without bitterness growing within us? How do we live as we saw Jesus live – to sacrifice even our very life and still be reaching out in love with our last breath? What is different about that kind of sacrifice that generates love instead of bitterness?

In our first reading today, Solomon asks that he might have a discerning heart. A heart that distinguishes good from evil. I think that is the type of heart we must have too, if we truly want to live this life of sacrifice.

The trouble, I think, is without this type of heart, we make deals. We think that if we sacrifice, we will finally get our due – the perfect job, the right partner, or finally, the approval and blessing of God.

The problem is, we have things in the wrong order. We think we sacrifice to get things. But, it is the opposite. It is because of what we have received, or stumbled upon, that we choose to sacrifice. Sacrifice is the response, it cannot come first. We must first find that treasure in the buried field, discover that pearl. And then we must hold onto it with all our might.

It is so, so easy to forget the treasure that we found; to let our egos, to let mistakes, to let difficulties, overshadow and bury that treasure again.

I think particularly, our Christian faith, lends to that happening. We hear about sacrificing for the kingdom of God and we think it is about something in the future. If we sacrifice, it will come about, or if we sacrifice, we will get into heaven.

That’s not it at all. The kingdom is here. The treasure is on this ground. The pearl is strung on our hearts already, today.

We don’t sacrifice to get the treasure. We sacrifice because we already have the treasure.

We sacrifice so that we can fully and completely live in that treasure – live in the joy, the love, the peace, the kindness of the Kingdom of God.

Finding the treasure, holding on to the treasure, retelling stories of the treasure, reliving the moment when we first found that treasure, is how we are able to sacrifice as Jesus did. It is with the treasure in hand that we are able to celebrate instead of turn inward with bitterness.

And what’s even more beautiful is that we won’t find that treasure, that rare pearl, just once in our life. It will surprise us over and over again, if we can keep ourselves attune to it.

Sometimes we will be like the farmer, or like me the first time I preached here. Just going about our business and we accidently unbury a treasure. Other times, we will be like the merchant. We will do our due diligence and seek the pearl out, through prayer, meditation, and other practices. We will work for it, but, just like the farmer, it will come to us as a surprise. It will overwhelm us with joy, with awe, with openness to others and the world around us.

Think back to the times when you have stumbled upon that treasure, when you grasped that pearl. Where were you? What did it make you feel – joy, excitement, hope, peace, love? We need to remind ourselves over and over again about the treasure we have found and tell one another about it.

I invite us this week to look for the kingdom of God. Where have you stumbled upon it in your life? When has it caught you by surprise?

It is only through our awareness, celebration, and holding on to this treasure, that we can take the next step of sacrifice. That we can go, and let go of all our expectations, plans, and egos. And it is then, in this order of treasure, then sacrifice, that love replaces bitterness, hope overcomes fear, and life transforms hate.

– by Rev. Corein

Photo Credit: Patryk, “Heart”.  Some rights reserved. Available at www.flickr.com.