Sunday, November 8, 2009

Giving Their All

Preached at St. Mark's Chapel, 14 Wing, Greenwood, 8 November, 2009.
23rd Sunday After Pentecost
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17, Psalm 127, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44

"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." (Mk 12: 43-44)

The Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey. The Field of Remembrance is established each year by the Royal British Legion, turning the grounds of Westminster Abbey into a sea of remembrance crosses with scarlet poppies. This year, there is a special plot of crosses to remember those men and women who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each one bears a name, photograph and dedicated message. [Picture: Sergeant Ian Houlding, Crown Copyright/MOD 2009]

One of the phrases we like to use to describe those we remember today is that they “paid the supreme sacrifice”. The phrase sounds slightly pompous and stilted, one of those words a politician or a preacher likes to use in a speech– “they paid the supreme sacrifice”. If those words seem abstract and remote, try these words -“they gave everything they had”.

For the young men and women who came back home along the Highway of Heroes, and for those legions buried abroad, “everything they had” was anything but abstract. Everything they had included the girl and the newborn waiting for them back in Edmonton Garrison. It included the fishing trip they would take with their buddies up in northern Quebec. Everything they had included the truck they’d buy with their tour money when they got back to the Rock. It was beers at the cottage and Saturday mornings at Timmies and maybe, one day, the chance to be like one of those old guys at the Legion with their medals and their stories, proud of their service and of their grandchildren.

No soldier I’ve ever met wants to give their all. They want to come home and enjoy the simple things I’ve just described. But most soldiers understand, at some basic level, the idea of unlimited liability, or the military’s expectation that the service they agreed to might lead them lawfully ordered “into harm’s way under conditions that could lead to the loss of their lives” . It may be a simple thing that leads them to put service before self, like Leonard Birchall placing himself between a comrade and a camp guard to take the beating on himself, or Smokey Smith, placing himself between his section and a forty-ton tank. It may be more complex, a vision of a better world worth fighting for, as Nichola Goddard saw when she wrote to her parents that “we have such a burden of responsibility to make the world a better place for those who were born into far worse circumstances”.

Today’s gospel reading introduces us to another person who gives all that she has. Jesus sees watches a poor widow offer her few pennies to the temple treasury. He praises her above all the other wealthy and holy people who give some and keep far more, and Jesus tells his disciples that “she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mk 1:44). For Jesus the widow becomes a symbol of a life given wholly to God, without any holding back, in stark contrast to the wealthy and self-important hypocrites who talk piously while looking out for number one.

When this reading comes up in church, preachers usually tell people to be like the widow and not like the scribes and hypocrites. It’s especially tempting to preach this way before the collection plate gets passed around. However tempting it may be, I think this approach to the text is dishonest. First, giving all we have doesn’t come naturally. It’s natural to want life and happiness and safety. Second, most of us are like the wealthy scribes and donors in the temple – we are willing to give up a little to feel good and look good, but we don’t want to give too much. And that, I think, is the point of the lesson. Jesus uses the contrast to ask if we are like the wealthy and pompous scribes, and asking us what systems of hypocrisy and self-interest we are caught up in.

This Sunday, close to Remembrance Day, the story of the widow who gives all she has seems uncomfortably close to the young men and women we remember who have given all they had. I don’t want the troops overseas now, and the ones preparing to go, to give all they have. I’m glad they are willing to give their all, but I want them to come home to all that’s waiting for them – the girl and the baby and the fishing trip and the Timmies and the ripe old age. I think instead that our gospel lesson challenges those of us who have much and give little, we who, in Jesus' words, are only giving a little out of our abundance. A lot of Canadians have yellow ribbon magnets on their cars and send little patriotic chain emails. They talk a lot about supporting their troops and about their love of country. They make jokes about Moslems and terrorists.

How many of us are like the scribes in Jesus’ story, doing a little for the sake of appearance while holding back more? How many Canadians have bothered to look at a map of Afghanistan or have tried to understand its complicated history, rather than just shrugging and saying "they're all crazy, let them kill each other"? While we try to help build a democracy there, how many Canadians lately have written to their MP or even not bothered to vote in the last election? How many would be willing to pay the increased taxes that will be required to make Nicholas Goddard's vision come true and help the people of Afghanistan? After Afghanistan, will we be willing to go to some other country we may be called to in the years to come? Will we willi pay the bills to help support our newest generation of veterans with the help and education that they will need, and be willing to listen to their stories?

This Sunday the faithful remember, as we do each Sunday, that God out of his abundance gave his all for us. As we heard in the first lesson from Hebrews, our Lord gave himself so that we may not fear sin and death: "But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself" (Heb 9:26). That work is done once and for all, by the only one who ould do it. I think that when Jesus watched the widow in the temple, he was seeing in her a type, a foreshadowing, of the self-giving he was called to on the cross. For believers we are called to live in the light and life of that deed of cross and resurrection, to be worthy of Christ who "will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him" (Heb 9:28).

This Sunday, so close to November 11, we are likewise challenged by the sacrifice of those we remember. Those who have given their all ask us a simple question. What will we, who have so much, give? We cannot redeem their sacrifice. Only He died for the sins of all can change and heal our broken and fallen world. But we can do more than just remember - we can live in a way that is worthy both of the many, and of the One, who gave their all for our sake.

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Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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