Sermon for Nov. 14, 2021
Honour and Sacrifice: Remembrance Sunday
One never knows what they might find when renovating an old house. Veronique Cote knows that better than most. She was renovating her home in Chambly, Quebec. It was time to remove the old papers and put in proper insulation. She began the arduous task and was pulling out all kinds of old newspapers that had been stuffed between the wall when all of a sudden an envelope fell to the floor. Inside the envelope was an 8 page love letter dated Sunday, May 23, 1943, written by Lt. Robert Macfarlane to his young wife Jean Macfarlane. A portion of the letter stated, “My dearest wife, I’ve just come in from a walk of a few miles and thought I would write down, if I could, some of the things I’ve been thinking about you, things that are deep in me but that I’ve expressed perhaps only rarely to you, I hope you won’t find it too sentimental. I don’t think you will, I know I never do when you write that way to me.” Veronique says that it was a beautiful letter about how much this engineer serving in the Canadian Armed Forces overseas deeply missed his wife. Veronique wanted to know the end of the story, wanted to know if Lt. Macfarlane made it home. She posted a picture of the envelope on social media and hoped that she might learn a thing or two about Robert and Jean. The next day, while she was back at work removing the paper between the walls, there was a knock at the door. The 70 year old man at the door introduced himself as Bruce Macfarlane, son of Robert and Jean. A friend had phoned him just 12hrs after the post went up. Macfarlane had grown up in Chambly and from the Facebook post describing the letter, he recognized the house where it had been found. He decided to drive from his home in the Eastern Township about 115 kilometres away and see the letter for himself. Robert did indeed return from the war and grew the Macfarlane family. This is just one of many stories of sacrifice that we know took place and takes place amongst our armed forces families. Sacrifice is a funny word because it is usually made in reference to an offering towards a deity, but in this case we are talking about giving up or surrendering a part of ourselves in the service of others. The widow in our scripture passage today displays sacrifice as she makes a small offering at the treasury.
The passage we hear today occurs in two different places amongst two different groups but the two situations are closely related and linked to all that Jesus has been preaching and teaching for the last little while. In the first scene Jesus is in the temple amongst a mixed audience, disciples, followers, religious leaders, likely a few scribes too. In the next scene Jesus is opposite the treasury, within the temple grounds or nearby and he calls to only his disciples to make his final point.
Jesus has been teaching in the temple for the last few chapters. He has been fielding of all sorts of questions about the resurrection and David’s son. Our reading picks up at Jesus’ cautionary words about the scribes who walk around with their swelled heads and expecting esteem as they make their way through the market place. Yet, as they take up the best seats in the house they are also devouring the widow’s houses. It is unlikely that Jesus meant that the scribes were literally devouring widow’s homes but perhaps it was the result of either demanding tithes from the widows beyond what they could afford or mismanagement of the widows’ assets with which the scribes would have been entrusted. Either way the scribes are behaving badly.
In the next scene, however, Jesus then points to an example as he sits opposite the treasury and sees a widow put in two copper coins. In this two part story Jesus is transforming our understanding of honour and sacrifice. Those who are listening to Jesus’ warning would have typically either been the scribes expecting respect in the market place or those who gave respect to the scribes in the market place. Yet with his follow up example Jesus is declaring that it is the widow who sacrifices much and therefore it is the widow who deserves honour. This would certainly have surprised the disciples who would likely have had pity for widows but not honour.
It is also perhaps surprising that this widow gives so much. Two copper coins, or lepta, was the smallest denomination in first century Palestine. Jesus seems to know about this particularly widow’s financial situation and states that she has put in her whole life. Truthfully, the NRSV version that we heard does not give a proper translation. The Greek expression is olon ton bion autes which means, “her whole life”. Yes, she puts in everything she had but really, she puts in what her life depends upon.
I read a commentary by Amanda Brobst-Renaud in which even our traditional reading of this text may be in need of some transforming. Yes, this is a story about stewardship and giving all that we are to God. But, what perhaps we might begin to wonder is, in relation to Jesus’ warning about the scribes devouring widow’s houses, why is the widow who gives two copper coins so poor? And why is she giving to a clearly broken system? Why does this woman sacrifice everything to an institution that has devoured her house?
You know, over the past year in particular, I have had a lot of conversations about why the church still matters, especially as we reflect on horrendous moments in the church’s history like the residential school system. One of the reasons I remain in the church, is not because of the story of redemption or salvation or grace, but because the church is often a broken system- and the only way it can be fixed is by sacrificing time, energy, and finances in trying to make it more like the kingdom of God. I suspect that many of my friends who serve or have served in the military feel somewhat similar. They serve not because it is the perfect system but because they want to work towards providing hope and peace and justice in a broken world.
Brobst-Renaud says, “Perhaps this widow’s house has been devoured as she gives the last of it to a broken system. Maybe this widow places her whole life in the treasury (not because she trusts the scribes but because) she trusts God with all she has and all she is. Maybe the widow’s offering is both an expression of trust in God in the midst of the world comprised of broken people, systems, and communities of faith…Those whose sacrifices provided for the temple financially were not the ones who gave the most. Rather than lifting up those with power and influence in the community, Jesus identifies the widow as having given more: she gives herself.”
This past week we took a moment to reflect and remember people who sacrificed their youth, their love, their efforts, gave themselves up for our country, an often broken country, but this sacrifice represents hope, and for many trust in God. Giving of our whole lives to God means that the systems that are broken have a chance to be fixed. It forces us to ask the question, where do we put our energy, our finances, our time, our sacrifice, and our patience? Who do we honour? How do we give of ourselves so that the kingdom of God, the realm of peace, and hope, and love, has a chance? When we remember- it is also an opportunity to reflect on how we can do our part to make it better.
As we think about how we can give of ourselves to fix a broken world or system and to demonstrate our trust in God, I’m going to close today’s meditation with words written by F.B. MacNutt from his book A War Primer: an Anthology of War Prayers, Intercessions, and Prayers of Devotion:
We arise today with the power of God to guide us, the might of God to uphold us, the wisdom of God to teach us, the eye of God to watch over us, the ear of God to hear us, the word of God to give us speech, the hand of God to protect us, the way of God to direct us, and the shield of God to shelter us. Amen