With John DiLeo
John DiLeo © 28 July 2019
Before I begin my talk, I want to give you a brief rundown of my history, with regard to religion and church.
Although my parents were both active in their respective churches as children and teens, they remained largely unchurched after they married, and never did much to encourage my siblings or me in that regard. I would occasionally go to church with various relatives, but really didn’t have any sort of a religious upbringing.
I started attending a local Episcopal church, where one of my older sisters had become active, when I was 10. I jumped in with both feet – I became an active Acolyte, was confirmed at 13, served on a parish Vestry, and even briefly considered pursuing ordination. All this – and my first marriage – came to an abrupt end in 1994, when my wife took her role as our Choir Mistress a bit too literally, and left me for the Organist.
For the next 14 years, I wasn’t really the church-going sort. I briefly attended a UU congregation in Clemson, South Carolina, while we were living there, but it didn’t really “take” at that time.
I met Tess in 1997, and we married in 1999. Tess was born in Utah, and had been a life-long member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – “the Mormons.” I decided to join that church in 2008, and remained active for several years. Not long after joining that church, I was called as a Ward Mission Leader, and I spent over a year teaching the RE class for prospective and new members.
And, now, I’m here.
The title of my talk this morning is inspired by another passage from the Christian bible: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
I don’t really have a “Sermon” to deliver – and I certainly don’t feel like I have any great wisdom to impart. Instead, I want to tell you about a few things I’ve read, heard, watched, and pondered over the years. After I do, I’m interested to hear your thoughts, so I’ll open the floor for some discussion as time permits.
One of Clay’s recent sermons, where he talked about Easter and Lent, got me thinking about the prominence of sacrifice in the Easter story, and many of the traditional Christian observances during Lent.
Sacrifice is depicted throughout Judeo-Christian scripture as a redemptive act. In the Old Testament, a penitent man seeking redemption was required to perform a ceremonial blood sacrifice – the burnt offering. The animals sacrificed had to be very dear – firstlings of the flock, young males without blemish – and it had to be completely used up in the process. In other words, there had to be a real cost.
In the Easter story, we hear of Jesus – the Christ, God made flesh – accepting ridicule, torture, and an agonizing death on the Calvary cross. This sacrifice is his entire raison d’etre; it’s what his Father has deemed necessary and sufficient for mankind to gain resurrection and eternal life.
After I joined the LDS church, I was intrigued to learn their focus at Easter is not on the cross, or even all that much on the resurrection. The most important moment, in LDS doctrine, is when Jesus is praying in the Garden at Gethsemane, just before his arrest, and decides to go through with the sacrifice.
Aside from the Passion and Easter story, Judeo-Christian scripture contains numerous stories of great sacrifice, perhaps most notably the story of Abraham and Isaac I quoted earlier.
Many of the customs surrounding Lent, to which Clay also alluded in his earlier sermon, require the faithful to perform smaller acts of sacrifice, through self-denial. Traditions may call on us to fast on certain days, abstain from eating meat or consuming rich foods, or to give up something we particularly enjoy.
I chose to read The Giving Tree during our Time for All Ages, because of its depiction of selfless sacrifice, even unto one’s destruction. When asked what the “moral” of that story is, people can respond very differently. Some focus on the “unconditional love” shown by the tree, representing that of parents for their children. In that context, the boy is seen to represent the world’s ungrateful children, who take their parents’ sacrifices, and resulting suffering, for granted.
Hearkening back to the scripture referenced in my title, in many mainstream churches – perhaps not coincidentally in those that enjoy the status of “state religion” in some parts of the world – there are recurring doctrinal calls to sacrifice earthly pleasures or comforts, or more correctly to forego seeking them or complaining about their absence, in the hope of obtaining some future reward – either in this life or the next.
In the secular world, especially in times of crisis, “the people” are called on to make sacrifices for the greater good. These calls, however, are frequently made by wealthy political leaders, who never seem to feel the pain quite so acutely.
Lately, we’ve seen a resurgence of populist and patriotic rhetoric in political discourse. We have many politicians around the world – including, of course, Donald Trump – calling on the people of their nations to make sacrifices to further various agendas.
And that’s where my thinking on this subject takes a dark turn, giving rise to a great deal of cynicism and worry. Does the central role played by sacrifice in many religions serve to condition their followers to blithely accept calls for more of the same, in the name of patriotism? Was that the purpose from the beginning? If that’s the case, how do we counter that conditioning, without descending into religious warfare?
And it’s at this point, where we’ve followed my thoughts into a mass of worrying questions, that I want to open things up to discussion.