St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for Septuagesima, January 24, 2021
"And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible.”
YOU SET SOME OLD OBJECT on the street and tape a scrap of paper to it that reads in large letters: FREE! Go inside and occupy yourself for a few minutes, then go back out and you’ll see: the object, even the FREE sign, have vanished. FREE is the bait, and the hook is that old useless object you needed to get rid of. It works. People can hardly resist getting something for nothing. But it’s not nothing. Now they have to haul off, and find a place for, the thing.
Some people will treasure the things they get on the cheap. “Look what I got for a dollar at the thrift store!” If you value something another person had little use for, that can be the saving of something that would have been otherwise trashed. So often, however, what we spend little for, we value little. Thomas Paine said it: “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”
Jesus helps us imagine a person like ourselves. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Matthew 13:45 Our hero doesn’t dig up the treasure secretly and steal it. He sells everything else he owns and buys the field and with it that box of jewels.
What this means is sacrifice. You can own something worthy, but only legitimately own it by paying for it, full price. Otherwise, you’ve stolen it, or gotten it gifted to you and, getting it for nothing, value it low. In a Wi-Fi world where information and entertainment come over the airwaves just for the grabbing, we are in great jeopardy of forgetting the value of wisdom, lost under the maze of data. One man said, “Real happiness is cheap enough, yet how dearly we pay for its counterfeit.” Hosea Ballou An even wiser man said, “Freedom has cost too much blood and agony to be relinquished at the cheap price of rhetoric.” Thomas Sowell
St. Paul directs our mind’s eye to a track and field event. The 1,000-meter race is about to be run. Ten very fit young women are taking their stance in lanes, eager for the test. They all run, but only one receives first prize. But they run. And they didn’t get into this race just by showing up in shorts and running shoes.
A very real mistake rises from a Reformation doctrine that puts every bit of heavy lifting on God, and none on ourselves. Sola Gracie, grace alone, often comes to mean that we do nothing at all, and yet we are saved by God’s mercy and His choosing. The luck of the draw, the good fortune of the elect. I can do nothing for my salvation (which is true enough), so to do anything for its spiritual benefit is mere pride and empty religion (which is false and destructive). Grace is free, that is, you can’t buy God’s love or work hard enough to be saved by your own efforts. Fair enough. But if that’s far enough, most of what St. Paul and even Jesus said was heresy.
What, in fact, was Jesus talking about in saying: “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.” Then, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.” Luke 9:22-24 We put it all on Jesus, and He takes that seriously, it’s a sacrifice of the highest order that He makes without charge to us, in order to save us from our sins. Then He sets the trail for us to become truly holy. We have to track Him, find the trail, deny our lower wants and needs, accept sacrificial living, receive unjust suffering with no complaints, feel judged, suffer loss, match Christ wound for wound, without dying. Be living sacrifices, as Paul describes it, giving ourselves up to His reign and rule, because it’s better that way.
Perhaps nobody here is going to cheer you in that effort. They didn’t cheer the Savior at Golgotha. Justice Clarence Thomas says it: “You have a number of choices. You could continue to always fight against people who are really distractions. They're people in the cheap seats of life. Or you can do what you went there to do.” Do what you went there to do. No applause. No respect. Thomas has had little of either. Yet he does the job, makes the sacrifice.
So run, that ye may obtain, writes Paul. Put in the work, make the sacrifice. But I thought Jesus did it all, all to Him I owe. Certainly, He did it. He paid the impossible price. But in doing that, He taught us how sacrifice works.
The race analogy only goes so far. Hours of sweat, sprints, cross-country jogs, weight training, stretches and all of that may only get you through the tape ahead of the field. Yay for you. But in life, you’re wearing a team jersey. If you take blows, it’s for your side. If you spend years training, it’s for the glory of something bigger than yourself. When they cheer you on, it’s their victory as much as yours. As you stand on the topmost winner’s stand, they play the Star Spangled Banner and your medal is a glory to your homeland. Only for that do we cry.
And like that, any sacrifice expands and includes more than ourselves. We may not start with that knowledge. We have an obstacle. It’s in us. We’re fat, lazy, weak, and not so good looking. Time to get in shape. Push, ache, sweat, pain, and you get infinitesimally better by degrees. Do it regularly. Athletes do it for the prize, the corruptible crown, a laurel wreath that goes from green to grey in a month. Tin cups. Old glory. But we Christians do it for incorruptible crowns, and not for ourselves only. In our small way, like Jesus, it’s for others.
We don’t get to see all the permutations, but once in a while we get a glimpse. That video I sent out last week about the English-born German Jewish man, turned Christian, who just before WWII, arranged the repatriation of Jewish children out of Czechoslovakia to England. For 50 years his deed was a secret. He never boasted of it. His wife discovered the files, and let the BBC know. Sir Nicholas Winton was thanked in person by the survivors of the holocaust he had transported to safety, away from almost certain death in the Nazi camps. He saved 669 human lives and almost no one knew of it. Heaven smiles on sacrifice. I’m sure at the time he felt it was all he could do, and it made him feel good. The grace released by that work made heaven a lot closer to 669 people, and their spouses, and their children, from a fellow Jew who had found his Savior, and in turn had saved them.
Jesus tells a story for laborers. It has an unexpected end and we might draw wrong conclusions from it. Watch this.
A man has a vineyard and the grapes are ripe, today. It has to all be brought in. A huge labor force is needed and only for this harvest. That’s farming. Days, weeks and months of waiting, tending, watching, and then boom! It all has to come in, and clouds are gathering. It has to be now. The vintner goes to the marketplace looking for laborers at dawn, searching for the most eager. He hires everyone there. They begin, and he goes back to town for more. Hiring them too, he grows the workforce. Again and again, he does his tasks, including more hiring, offering the first ones a penny, which is to say, a day-laborer’s standard day’s wage. The rest will find out how much less they get at sundown. Finally, at 5 o’clock he goes out to get stragglers. Their story is that no one hired them yet today. We all know they didn’t get out of bed ‘til it was too late to work, but he hires these as well.
The grapes are picked, the men line up for payment, and he pays the last ones first, giving them each that day’s wage, a penny. The guys who worked 11 hours finally come to the pay table and they are given the same, a penny: call it $80. And they find reason to gripe. Those new guys worked no more than an hour and got $80, and I did ten times that much for no more money. How is that fair?
It’s the wrong economy, wrong goal. I want to get my pay, and I worked for it. Good. You’re paid. It was agreed and that was the amount bargained for. What have you to do with someone else’s story? You can see it as unfairness, money spent on worthless objects, unworthy souls. Or you can make the sacrifice. Offer yourself a living sacrifice. You got your daily bread. The conditions were acceptable this morning, and you were treated with respect. Even now, the master calls you friend, and gives a reasonable answer to your question. Why can’t he be free with his money? You miss the point. The harvest is in. You had a bigger part of that than most. You almost became a peer of the landlord. Now you want to act like a slave and challenge the economics. You can do all that and lose the lesson, the wedge that your work made in the wall that limits you. Press your advantage. See the light break through. Find out why you worked all day, and put your back into it.
Grace is released when we join sacrificially with our Lord, and many others are blessed by our efforts.
Heaven is free, if you’re talking of money, but it’s not cheap. The path to God’s realm is paid for with a great price, in blood. Abel knew it, and offered God his precious lamb. His sacrifice was accepted. His older brother wanted the same blessing, but cheap. How about carrots? No? Why not? I’m just as good as he is! When we fail to recognize our need to give to God and to others, through sacrifice, we inevitably fall to sin, it’s crouching at our door. Do what we came to do and don’t sell it short. God has a lot invested in your life. Find out what He means you to do with it, and then show up, give your all, and hear heaven’s approval.