“The Courage of Sacrifice”
Rev’d. Tanya N. Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
11 November, 2018
Armistice/Remembrance/Veterans Day 100thAnniversary
Proper 27
1 Kings 17:8-16
Mark 12:38-44

This Sunday is Veterans Day, originally called “Armistice Day.”[1] On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month—on November 11, 1918—exactly 100 years ago this Sunday, the truce was declared that ended World War I, then known as “The Great War” and “The War to End All Wars.”

    “Armistice” is from the Latin arma(“arms”) andsistere(“stand still”).  Imagine the stillness, the quiet—both eerie and sublime—that came from laying down weapons on both sides, after years of trench warfare.  

    The United States Congress subsequently declared that the date “should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.”  

    Sadly, it was not ultimately “the war to end all wars” – and so in 1954, the day was renamed “Veterans Day” in order to honor veterans from all the wars since, not just World War I.  But the words of Congress still resonate, as do the holiday’s origins in that great stillness one hundred years ago. 

    Let us make today a day of thanksgiving: for the service of veterans, living and dead; for the service of caregivers – doctors and nurses and chaplains and mental health professionals and spouses and family members and friends – who  walk with veterans through the ravages of war, even after the bullets and bombs and missiles stop flying; and for the days of peace that come at long last.

    Let us make it a day of prayer: for people of all faiths (or no faith at all), a time of prayer, meditation, or reflection on the stillness of armistice, so that the days of peace on Earth might increase, and the days of war decrease.

    Let us make today a day of exercises designed to perpetuate peace through goodwill and mutual understanding between nations: for all of us to find ways, large and small, to build bridges across lines of difference, suspicion, or hostility, in our neighborhoods, our country, and among the nations of the world.

    To lay down our arms, whatever those represent (so often we arm ourselves with weapononized words).  To step into a new stillness together.  To sing with our ancestors that we, too, will lay down our swords and shields, “down by the riverside… and study war no more” – so that the next hundred years may be more peaceful than the last.

            In the two minutes commencing at 11:00, we will stand as we first, ring our church bell 21 times (instead of a 21-gun salute), in unison with church bells across this land celebrating and commemorating these 100 years; and, in the silence that follows, we will give thanks, we will remember, we will pray, we will envision the peace that God intends and envisions for all people.

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One of the words we often hear with regard to our veterans and their families and the caregivers who wind up walking with veterans through the ravages of war, is sacrifice.  The literal translation of “sacrifice” means to make something holy.  (Sacer, the Latin root word of “sacrifice” means “holy”—as in, sacred. And faciōmeans “do, make.”)

I was at a ceremony a few nights ago where a lot of high school students pledged to maintain and encourage high standards of scholarship, service, leadership, and character.  Before they took their vow, the president of the National Honor Society urged her peers to practice a number of character virtues.  Among them was sacrifice, which she defined as “yielding one’s own interests for the interests of another.”

Although neither of our lectionary passages this morning has anything to say about the sacrifices often associated with military service, both passages invite us to think about sacrificial giving.  The lectionary texts across the past several weeks have placed in front of us widows, orphans, and immigrants—those who long represented society’s most vulnerable individuals—with clear reminders that these are among the marginalized that God expects us to look after most carefully and faithfully.  It may seem a bit of a stretch to juxtapose the armored soldier, backed up by the might and wealth of a government military, with the defenseless, destitute widow.  But in both cases, we discover that true sacrifice requires courage, conviction, and commitment to something greater than one’s own self-interest, regardless of the resources at one’s disposal.

In our first reading, we observe Elijah (who’s been living in the desert, trusting in the provision of God to sustain him) responding to the promptings within him to go to Zarephath, where he’d find a widow who would feed him.  He demonstrates confidence in the voice that’s leading him, and he discovers a widow there gathering sticks to build a fire on which to bake a final cake for her son and her.  She expects it will be their last meal.  That is, until Elijah comes along and asks her for a drink of water. Oh, and a morsel of bread would be nice, too.

Maybe it was because she herself had begged from others that she didn’t balk at Elijah’s request.  She calmly explained to him she only had that handful of meal and a tiny bit of oil left—enough to create a last supper for her boy and herself.  But why she didn’t laugh out loud when Elijah had the gall to say to her, “Don’t be afraid.  Go and do what you’ve said—but first make me a little cake and bring it to me, and then afterwardsmake something for yourself and your son. 14For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth”[2]?

Did you notice the prophet’s first words?  They’re the words that we’ve heard Jesus say so many times to his disciples—those words that get repeated so often throughout the pages of Scripture, because they address one of our deepest human problems.  He said, “Do not be afraid.”  Do not fear.  Trust. Embrace and engage the courage within you.  Believe in God—take the risk, and see how your view and experience of the world will change.

Elijah instructs the woman to bring hima cake first, even though this makes him sound self-absorbed.  It’s actually a teaching/learning and growth moment.  Elijah knows that if she performs this risky act of hospitality and sacrifice, it will prove to the woman and her son the strength of her faith.  She will also experience the profound spiritual reward that accompanies sacrifice: having yielded her own interests for those of another, she will be more profoundly aware of participating in and strengthening something greater than herself. She will see how her own needs are met, even as she helps to meet the needs of a world larger than herself. When you’re only focused on getting your own needs met, your world gets incredibly small and you shortchange yourself from the deep experience of joy in being connected to God’s much greater, wondrous world.

Had she served herself first, the widow would merely have been hedging her bets, which is not truly trusting God.  She would have experienced God’s faithfulness, but she may not have recognized it for what it was.  She certainly would still be tied to her fear and doubt—so, not truly free.  Instead, this widow discovered the miracle of how God does truly provide what is most needed for those who trust and live by the principles of love and sacrifice.  And as a result, she found herself closer to the heart of God, with all the power and peace that abides there.  She seemed to understand what Jesus would teach his disciples a few hundred years later, when he said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[3]Elijah wasn’t even a friend; he was a stranger. So her sacrifice—her sacred act, her holy doing—was arguably even more virtuous.

The second story, from Mark’s gospel, is also a story about a widow’s confidence in God’s provision.  It’s often highlighted as a lesson on proportional giving, where the gift is only sacrificial if what’s offered doesn’t represent mere surplus, but reflects a willingness to live more modestly so that another might experience relative abundance.  It’s presented as a story about a woman’s deep faith and hopefulness in God’s provision for her, and through her – and it is that, for sure, as she drops everything she has into the offering, or treasury.  We might debate about whether her act was more foolish than faithful, but the point is that she didn’t seem to worry as she made her donation with a spirit of gratitude.  Those two pennies would have made a difference in her life, in a way that the much larger donations would not be felt or missed by the wealthier givers.  She, however, was crystal clear about where her ultimate security and help came from: it was not from the money or material stuff she might acquire.  And that is a difficult thing for most of us to fully trust, even if we say it in church.

But Jesus (and Mark) was making an even larger point than this.  The scene is set up in a way that’s meant to get us reflecting on our posturing, or potential insincerities, as people professing faith in God’s provision.  Jesus’ first word in this scene is, “Beware.”  Pay attention.  Pay attention to what motivates you to give, the ways that you give, and also the ways that you acquire what you give: Is there integrity in howyou’re earning the money that allows you to make your gifts? Jesus pointed out that the scribes—men from the temple viewed as religious authorities—who made such a big show of their importance, also made a practice of “devouring widows’ houses.” So, not only were they failing to fulfill God’s command that they care forthe vulnerable and needy, they were actively doing just the opposite: they were cheating those same vulnerable individuals out of their homes and livelihoods.  There was no courage or virtue in their actions, only self-interest; they were more concerned with how their service or gifts benefitted themselves than they were with doing good for others, so their gifts could never truly be sacrificial.  Their daily walk did not match their impressive talk. They may have been enjoying earthly wealth and esteem, Jesus was saying, but spiritually they were bankrupt. Beware.

Friends, on this Armistice/Remembrance/Veterans Day Sunday, when we’re reflecting on the sacrifice made by so many in times of war, may we never lose sight of the sacrifices required for lasting peace.  They are actions and decisions made in very small moments, requiring a commitment to live in ways that cut against the grain of a world that preaches fear, scarcity, and the imperative of self-interest.  The courage of sacrifice entails a determination to remember that we are part of something larger than ourselves, and the gifts we offer – even when our gift might be our very life – were never ultimately our own possessions in the first place.  All we own, and all we are, trace their origin and ownership to the God of love who designed this world to love, and to be loved.  This same love-centered Creator wants us to understand what Jesus Christ, God’s own flesh and blood, came to proclaim with his life: There is no greater love, nor more enduring power, to be found than that which willingly yields its own self-interests so that another might know life, and experience it abundantly.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1]The first portion of this reflection was written by Rev. Dr. Matthew Myer Boulton, published at: http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/a-brief-theology-of-veterans-day. Slightly adapted by tnsr.

[2]1 Kings 17:13-14, emphasis mine.

[3](John 15:13).

© 2019 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC