This is the text of the message I prepared for the people gathered at Kaniva and Serviceton on Sunday 11th November 2018. It was the centenary of the Armistice and the 25th Sunday of Pentecost in Year B.
Good morning Church.
Today is a significant date in the history of the planet, and specifically in the history of Australia. One hundred years ago today, at 11:00am Paris time, the guns of the Great War fell silent. Today, in the remembrance of God, we actively recall the ultimate sacrifice of the 1st AIF on land, sea, air, and ward.
Today’s stories from Mark 12 locate Jesus in the temple in the days before his death. Maybe that’s a good point of connection between the scriptures and the calendar. We get to earwig on Jesus on Wednesday knowing that by Friday he’ll be dead – perhaps like an entrenched Anzac preparing to go over the top an hour before sunrise. I think there’s more to it than that, more to Jesus’ teaching and more to who and what the Anzacs are and were, but we’ll get to that in good time.
First, the Bible stories. So we find Jesus teaching the crowds who have gathered for the festival of Pesach and who have then wandered across the temple courts to hear him. Since Palm Sunday, which was three days ago in Jesus’ time he has been busy and has actively cleansed the temple of its corrupting traders and enacted a parable about fruitlessness by cursing a fig tree. Jesus has spoken at length about integrity in religious observance, teaching from the parable of the wicked tenants and by more direct explanation about taxation, about Heaven, and about obeying God in the way that God desires. And Jesus has spoken about who he is with respect to the ideas of the day around what the messiah would be like. Today’s readings continue the teachings on integrity, making clear that what God desires in worship and discipleship is action done for God and for no one else. It is good to be an example to others, but it is not good to seek fame simply for doing what God expects of those who follow the Way of Jesus. The example of the scribes is actually an example to be avoided, the example of the widow a little more complex.
The two stories give alternative views of widows. In the scribes’ way of thinking widows were destitute and therefore to be cared for; that’s what the scriptures taught and as scribes the interpretation and implementation of the scriptures was their area of expertise. Jesus has seen through their false piety; he saw the long robes and the desire for titles, he saw the desire for prestige the scribes held for being seen to do the godly thing rather than humbly serving the widows out of obedience to God. Jesus also saw that the false piety is a reflection of the false charity going on as well, and that with the widows’ welfare in their hands some of the scribes were exploiting their position, making money out of the care of the poor and leaving the widows worse off than they would have been had they been left alone. Shift the widow out of her big house into a little house, or a shared house, then sell the big house and keep back some of the money as commission, that’s their plan. After all, who is going to argue with a scribe, who is going to contradict a pillar of society? No one, that’s who, especially not a widow with no adult male relatives.
That’s the scribes’ view of widows, but what is Jesus’ view? Jesus’ view is that widows are capable of more than being the passive recipients of welfare or the absurd victims of corrupt officials. The scribes devour widows’ houses in Mark 12:40 as they hold back the profits for themselves, but one particular widow contributes all she has to live on in Mark 12:44, holding nothing back for herself and giving all she has to God. That’s how I choose to read this anyway. Maybe Jesus is continuing to criticise the system, arguing that this widow feels obliged to give her last two pennies and that even this woman is being exploited right before their eyes. If you read the story that way then the widow is still a victim of exploitation, and I think you can read it like that, the words on the Biblical page allow you to understand the story that way. Maybe both are true; the widow is being ripped off by the religious leaders but she still trusts God to look after her anyway. This is a woman who won’t be defeated by the system, because her confidence is not in ritual obedience and begrudging handouts from the welfare division of the local religious authority, but in the God she trusts and knows she is loved by.
The scribes are what used to be called “yuppies”, they are literate in a society where most people were not but beyond literacy these men were academics and lawyers. Many may have come to Jerusalem from regional or rural areas and have made a go of it in the city; they are both proud of and uncertain about their position as social climbers. They are not the dumb peasants that their parents and brothers are, but they aren’t completely secure in town either since they live amongst peers whose families are city people or merchants or priests. If you’re a bushie trying to show how civilised you are then your appearance and your reputation are everything. On the other hand the widow is secure in her identity, somewhat because she doesn’t have one. There is no pretence to be had in being the left-over woman in a family where all the men have died, and so the widow relies only on God for her sense of self, and God thinks she’s amazing.
Perhaps that’s why when it comes to brining the tithes and gifts into the temple the widow is confident to hold nothing back. With no reputation to uphold, no image to maintain, no bribes to pay and no need for a fancy wardrobe and enough wine for unexpected honoured guests the widow can give all she has to worship her lord and saviour. She has given her whole life to God, everything she is worth in the eyes of the world has been laid on that tray in the temple; she made the ultimate sacrifice and she had no hesitation in doing so.
Sacrifice is a word we hear a lot of today, and this day especially since it marks the centenary of the ceasefire which brought the fighting part of the Great War to a close. Technically the war did not end until the surrender documents were signed in Paris on 28th June 1919, and peace was ratified on 10th January 1920; but as every Australian child at school in the past hundred years has been taught, at precisely 11:00 Paris time on the morning of Monday 11th November 1918 the guns fell silent. We know that many women were left widowed by the events of the Great War, millions of women across Europe lost husbands to enemy fire where they were soldiers, sailors, airmen, or civilians caught up in the battle. Millions more women in Australia and New Zealand never saw their husbands return. Add to that the women who lost sons, the girls and boys who lost fathers, and the families of mothers, sisters, and daughters killed in service or in crossfire, and the word “sacrifice” is utilised a lot.
Maybe some of the dead, the maimed, and the survivors in 1918 had once been like the scribes in our story. Proudly strutting about in their clean and polished uniforms in 1914, declaring that they’d be home by Christmas just as soon as they’d given Tommy and Billy (or perhaps Fritz and Abdul) a jolly good seeing to. Maybe there were second sons of the wealthy who became officers, loving being called “sir” and proudly flashing the red bits on their khaki jackets and trousers. Maybe the Anzacs made a big deal of not being English, especially when a Sergeant from Sydney met a Private from Portsmouth. Maybe who could blame them?
Or maybe those who left these shores between 1914 and 1918 were like the widow in our story. Maybe all they had in the world was themselves, and so the “Cooee from The Dardanelles” that gifted a stir of brotherhood and patriotism in their being was enough for them. Maybe the uniform was about belonging to a family at last. Maybe it was the outworking of their faith such that in obedience to Christ they “rendered unto Caesar”, and the uniform with its straps and epaulettes was just work-wear for their mission to resist evil and cause it to flee.
Regardless of the reasons why so many men and women, chose to go into uniform and catch the next boat to Egypt or France, and whether God was an active part in that decision-making or not, we continue to use the language of sacrifice to describe their attitude.
In religious terms the word sacrifice means “to make sacred”. It is not necessarily about death, or glory, but it does involve giving something away and giving it with complete devotion. Isaac was a sacrifice of Abraham even though he did not die, because Abraham dedicated him to God. Samuel was a sacrifice, a gift of Hannah to God, and he lived for decades as a priest and judge. The widow’s two pennies were a sacrifice not just because they were the last two things in her earthly possession, but because they were given to God, they were set apart and made holy by her action. Jesus was a sacrifice because God set him apart as a gift for us, Jesus was made sacred and was both given by God and gave himself up to God for a special purpose. This idea makes me wonder about the phrase “the ultimate sacrifice”. If sacrifice is making sacred, of dedicating a thing to God for God’s own purposes and without restraint, then isn’t every sacrifice ultimate? Unless a sacrifice is ultimate, unless the thing given over to be made sacred is given with no hope of return, then is it a sacrifice at all? If this is true then everyone who went to war made sacrifice, even those who came home, even those who came home unscathed. If this is true then the monetary offerings given by the scribes were not a sacrifice at all, regardless of their size, regardless of the pain they might have caused. A sacrifice, if it is to be a sacrifice, is all or none.
It is almost the middle of November now, and our church year is drawing to a close. In just three weeks from today it is Advent Sunday and from then it is four Sundays to Christmas. I say this not as a spur to begin your shopping, but to point to the sacrifice of God that we are soon to remember – that God sent the Son to us. Christmas is about sacrifice, again not the sacrifice of living on beans and dry bread throughout January so as to be able to afford the new X-station or Play-box, but about God choosing to present Godself in the world in the shape of a baby. God came, God saw, and God died (briefly), and God made the world sacred to Godself by doing that. God is not an Anzac, and as treasonous as it is to say such things in today’s Australia the Anzacs are not gods, but maybe the ultimate sacrifice if there is one is the sacrifice made by the Ultimate one. When the Lord Godself, who came to bring peace to a confused, arrogant, incompletely lead and warring world showed greater love than any woman or man had seen or expressed, or would see or express, we were made sacred. God’s sacrifice for you and me is more than the cross, (although it is no less than the cross), because God chose you and me to be the inheritors of personal love. We were made sacred when God set us apart, our sacrifice is the sacrifice that we are rather than the one that we give, when it comes to the grace of God.
The question asked by the widow, and maybe by the Anzacs, is how will you respond to the news that you are God’s sacrifice?