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Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – November 11, 2018
This past week witnessed two important historical anniversaries. One is what we celebrate today: the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, whose military and civilian dead and wounded totaled nearly 40 million. From 1918 until 1954, November 11 was known as Armistice Day and it marked the end of major hostilities in World War I. In 1954, November 11 became a day to honor all veterans of our armed forces.
The second major anniversary of the last week was the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, which occurred on November 9 and 10 of 1938. Kristallnacht was a pogrom against Jews throughout Nazi Germany carried out by paramilitary forces and German civilians. The name Kristallnacht (Crystal Night) comes from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after the windows of Jewish-owned stores, hospitals, buildings, and synagogues were ransacked and smashed with sledgehammers. The rioters destroyed 267 synagogues throughout Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland, and over 7,000 Jewish businesses were either destroyed or damaged. Additionally, 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps. It was the pogrom that was, in many ways, the beginning of the Holocaust.
Friends, I believe that these milestones serve as an invitation for us to make the important distinction that Jesus makes in our reading this morning from Mark, the distinction between attaching ourselves to symbols and committing ourselves to all the ideals those symbols represent.
In this morning’s text, Jesus has recently entered Jerusalem to be crucified, which means in the chronology of things, Palm Sunday has happened and Jesus is waiting for Good Friday. He is teaching in the Temple, and Mark tells us this in Chapter 12, verses 38-44. Let us listen together for the word of God.
As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
On Tuesday, my daughters were out of school, so I took the daytime hours off from work to spend time with them. We went for a drive to look at the autumn leaves, had lunch together, and returned home. As we arrived in our neighborhood, we saw a man pushing a stroller, which seemed strange to us, as it was raining rather hard. As we arrived at our driveway, we could see him arranging a blanket, trying to keep a baby dry. He then hunched over and adjusted the hood of his jacket, trying to keep himself dry. It was then that we saw the woman with him, out in the heavy rain, going from door to door to door. It was then that we realized what was happening: the three of them were out canvassing, encouraging my neighbors and I to make sure to get out and vote.
This morning’s text is a popular text to use to preach on stewardship Sundays, where it is used to discuss how God can utilize gifts big or small, or we use it to discuss how we should give generously to the church, as the widow did. The problem with doing this is that it assumes that stewardship is just the cleaned-up, sanitized, thinly-veiled church word for “money,” and it assumes that money is the only thing on Jesus’ mind here.
We should be so lucky.
In today’s text, Jesus discusses the form and function of faith, playing faith versus living faith, the symbols of faith versus a life that engages what those symbols stand for. First, he criticizes the scribes for their keeping up the mere symbolism of religion in their “long robes” and their “respect in the marketplaces, and “having the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets,” yet who “devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”
Then, against the backdrop of the behavior of the scribes, Jesus praises this widow for her extravagant generosity, as Jesus tells us “she put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” In other words, she acts in such a way that she not only demonstrates her faith, but she must live her faith as well, since she has given “all she had to live on.”
You see, it is one thing to wear the long, flowing robes, with all of their meaning and symbolism. It is another thing to live all that those symbols represent.
In today’s reading, the poor widow in today’s text places into the treasury two lepta, the smallest copper coins then in use during that time. Calculating that a lepta was worth one-half a Roman quadrans, it would have taken 128 lepta to make a denarius, which was a day’s wage. Therefore, two lepta were nearly worthless—an inconsequential gift by any ordinary standard.
But not Jesus’ standard. Jesus rejects the false proposition that somehow this widow’s gift is somehow less because it is smaller than all the other gifts. The others, he says, contribute out of their abundance. The widow gives all that she has. While some would give for their own need for recognition and glory, this woman gives because she trusts God, and believes this is the right response to God’s love.
If this text was only about money, it would let us off the hook far too easily. Jesus says, “She out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on,” and I am not sure we are allowed to let that go. Earlier in Mark’s gospel, in chapter eight, Jesus says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” That is a somewhat vague and difficult text to decipher. Yet, what if this widow, this woman on the margins, invisible to everyone but Jesus, is what it looks like?
What if Jesus means it? What if Christianity is not just another activity competing for our valuable time, talents, and resources? What if it is instead a new way of life and living, and what if that way of life really means that we surrender the very best of ourselves to further this movement of the in-breaking of God’s love into this world?
What if Christ is calling us beyond the mere symbolism of faith, instead calling us to pursue and embody all the meaning those symbols represent. What if Jesus is challenging our comfort with playing faith and inviting us to truly live what we believe?
I never served in the military, but I did serve the military. Ordained at twenty-five and appointed to Hampton Roads for six years when I was twenty-six, my ministry was to the homeland, to soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen and women, coast guards, and their spouses and children. I pastored alongside both active-duty and retired military. I visited them in private homes, base housing, and military hospitals. I officiated at their funerals in base chapels and at military gravesides. After 9-11, I learned how to complete pre-marriage counseling in compressed sessions so that couples could marry before one or both of them went off to war.
In conversations in my study or in their kitchens, living or hospital rooms, even in the church parking lot, I learned a great deal about the culture and ethos of the United States military, whose veterans we recognize this day. In my ministry, I have met a World War II veteran who volunteered because he was tired of being poor and hungry. I met the young people who saw military service as either a viable alternative to college or a means to pay for it. I met the submariner who with his fellow sailors used to use their shore leave to repair the homes of the poor in places as far away as the Philippines.
I met the survivor of the battle of Okinawa who spent every free moment volunteering at church because he regarded the church as God’s appointed means of spreading peace and justice throughout the community and world he had served so faithfully to protect. I met the young airman, husband and father of three small boys, an officer who joined because he wanted to fly, only to learn he was too old to become a pilot, and who joined anyway; this airman who, on his knees each night, earnestly prays for a world where he would never have to do the things he had been trained to do.
To a person, each person, each family for whom I was a pastor, active duty or retired, were people who truly lived to serve, people who lived and died believing they were preserving freedom, tilling the soil so that peace and justice could take root and grow at home and abroad. They were people who went months, even years without seeing their spouses, who missed births, infancies, and first steps, who returned sometimes with bodies that could no longer do things that they could when they first deployed.
And today, we honor them, and this week, we remember the kind of tyranny and genocide they fought against.
There is, and will continue to be, debate among disciples of Jesus Christ as to how is the best way to do this and what I would like to suggest is that whatever we do, we do it in a way that, like the widow in this morning’s text, transcends mere symbolism and invites us into an “all in” ethos, so that we are as committed to doing good with the freedoms so generously entrusted to us as were the persons who sacrificed so much to preserve those freedoms.
To be clear, symbols are indeed important, and I say this as someone with a wedding ring on my finger, a cross on my chest, a cassock covering my body, and a ministerial stole around my neck, standing in a room filled with important and meaningful symbols.
What I am saying is that symbols by themselves are never enough. They are merely outward and visible reminders to embrace and embody inwardly and outwardly the ideals they represent.
A wedding ring does not make me a husband. A lifetime of devotion and self-giving love does. A stole around my neck does not make me a pastor. It merely serves to remind me and remind you of vows I have taken and agreed to live by. A cross on my chest does not make me a Christian. A life redeemed and directed by the cruciform love of Jesus Christ does.
Of course Christians can fly the flag of the land that helped make us who we are. The challenge is to work each day to both embody and bring to bear the high ideals the flag represents. As such, we need both patriots who celebrate those ideals and prophets who will speak truth in times when we fall short of them.
Of course Christians can sing “My country ’tis of thee” and remember fathers and mothers who have died in the land of the “pilgrims’ pride,” yet we must sacrifice together so that we might live into the grand ideal of our nation being a “sweet land of liberty” for all of God’s children.
Of course we can sing “America the Beautiful” and celebrate “purple mountains majesty” and “amber waves of grain,” yet we also must be stewards of creation to keep our land and this planet that have been entrusted to us just that: beautiful.
Of course we can name streets and schools after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but only if we are willing to work for a nation that, in his words “will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [men] are created equal’” while acknowledging that this progress will only come, in his words, “from the tireless efforts of [women and men] being coworkers with God.”
When we sing the “Star Spangled Banner,” it strikes me how, of all of the lyrics in our anthem, the most difficult word to sing, the most difficult note to hit, is the one for the word “free.”
As we know too well, freedom is built and carried upon the backs of those who sacrifice for it, and the challenge for God’s people today is not to merely dispute what is the most appropriate way to celebrate our freedoms, and especially the freedom to practice our faith, it is to be passionate stewards of that freedom, to remember from whence it came, and to be committed to this common life of this faith that we share, so that we may freely utilize it as we have been commissioned to do: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Jesus upholds the poor widow in this morning’s text, her gift of two lepta against the backdrop of the pomposity of the scribes, regaled in their vestments, not because of the difference her gift made to the Temple, but because how her gift to the Temple visibly revealed the difference God had already made in her life. It is one thing to stand in the market place in flowing robes to pray long prayers about the generosity of God. It is another thing to be generous. It is one thing to sit in the places of honor and speak of a God worthy of trust. It is another thing to actually trust God.
It is one thing to celebrate a nation’s symbols. It is another thing to live and sacrifice in such a way that we partner with God to bring to bear a nation’s ideals.
It is my prayer on this Veterans’ Day, on this day when we remember the end of “the war to end all wars,” that our God will show us, you, me, and this congregation, what our thing is, our thing that gives meaning to our symbols, our thing that transcends mere symbolism and forms our lives and our life together. For it is my belief that when you, when I, when we can find that thing in our lives, that thing that transcends and illumines all of the other things in this world, when we find our thing that is worth pushing a baby in the rain for, it is then, and perhaps only then, that we will find that peace that passes all understanding that Jesus speaks of, that joyful obedience we pray for in our Communion liturgy.
For it is then that we will fully be who we were created and redeemed to be: disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, disciples who transform the world, until the day comes when all the guns fall silent, when the last mother has sent a child off to war, when all the tyrannies end, when the last march is over, when there is nothing left to protest, when our high-minded ideals become our daily life, when God’s dream for God’s children is realized, when the world fully knows peace and justice and shalom.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.