Sunday, 11 November 2012

Counting the cost

Mark 12:38-44
38 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, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 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. 44 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.”

I had the opportunity this week to discuss todays gospel with folk who are training for ministry.
They had heard this passage about the widow's mite used in various ways by preachers.
Mainly as an exhortation for us who have plenty to give more to the church.
Or as an example of sacrificial love, and that being compared to the kind of love that God has for us.
But we often take the widows mite part out of the context of the verses that go beforehand.
This Remembrance Sunday, the context of this story about the widows mite becomes very poignant.
Listen again to the description of the Temple Authorities in the verses that precede the story of the widow:

38 As he taught, Jesus said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

The widows of the day were reliant on the Temple Authorities to allocate their resources for living. And that's why they were so poor. Because those with the power took more than they needed, devouring widows houses, and left little for those who were dependant on their charity.
In spite of that, the widow still strived to pay her dues to the temple.
She chose to break the cycle of injustice and corruption.
She chose to do what was right even in the face of exploitation.
She wasn't put off by institutional wrongs - she looked beyond that to offer to God all that she had.
This Remembrance Sunday, it seems, we witness the same kind of corruption and are faced with the same kind of dilemma.
Those who have given themselves in war and have returned with injuries seen or unseen.
How do we care for them?
How do we honour the sacrifice they have made - and continue to make.
And those who have not returned.
How do we support their dependants in a life they had not imagined, without their loved ones to share?
How can we ask them to make such sacrifice when, in reality, the institutions that demand such sacrifice are failing miserably to find alternatives to war and, it could be argued, have even stopped trying.
News coverage this week carried pictures of Prime Minister David Cameron on a Middle East tour.
Proudly wearing a poppy, he was in the Middle East to sell fighter planes that the UK no longer needs as well as to win other defence contracts for the UK.
Our UK economy needs a boost - but through the sale of Arms?
The same coverage also saw the Prime Minister touring a refugee camp in Jordan that houses 36000 men, women and children who are fleeing Syria.
Mr Cameron pledged a further 12 million pounds in aid, bringing the total relief Britain is injecting there to 50 million pounds.
A total that pales into insignificance when compared to the 3 billion pounds Arms Deals he was also trying to broker.
Our government speaks of wanting to encourage democracy while at the same time selling arms to oppressive authoritarian regimes.
This kind of bartering displays a shocking disrespect for human rights of those who have no voice, of those we should be protecting - the widowed and the vulnerable.
Libya, Egypt and Bahrain launched their recent violent crackdowns with UK supplied weapons.
We have to question our governments commitment to peace and democracy in the Middle East when boosting the UK economy takes priority over other concerns.

Dwight D. Eisenhower once said;
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone.
It is spending the sweat of labourers, the genius of scientists, the hope of the children.

It's easy, however to criticise our government, and there is much to question there.
But what about ourselves?
How do we honour the sacrifice of those whose lives have been given in defence of our nation?
How do we honour and support those who have returned from war changed forever?
Are we paying those sacrifices cheap lip service?
Or are we committing ourselves to making a difference.
Are we committing ourselves to peace to ensure that we don't keep on asking for more sacrifice, more lives ruined?
We wear our poppies with pride.
Are we prepared to wear them also with commitment?
The commitment to hardship that will be necessary if we want our economy to rely less on Arms Deals and more on brokering peace and on continuing to support families blown apart by the ravages of war.
In preaching on this gospel text this morning, I'm asking, not that we be more like the widow, giving her all but, rather, that we notice the irony of the widow being forced to pay tax to a corrupt institution - an institution charged with protecting her rights that chose to exploit her.
I'm asking that, in noticing that injustice this morning, we will also open our eyes to the injustice that is perpetrated to our service personnel and our veterans in this country every day.
That those who are being asked to give, being asked to pay a terrible price, are not being supported as our government finds new battles to fight and barters more human lives in boosting our economy.
It's a huge, messy, complicated wrangle with no easy fixes.
But, if wearing our poppies today is to be in any way meaningful, it will involve us recognising the corruptness of our institutions today and it will involve us, with our eyes wide open, entering that fray to make a difference for peace.
It is for us, today, to question the costs that we still demand from those who can least afford it.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus called to attention those on the margins of society, those who had previously gone unnoticed, the poor, the blind, the lame, the beggars, the lepers, military personnel and widows.
Those whom society looked down on or simply ignored.
It is these that Jesus brings into focus.
It is in these people that Jesus demonstrates the Kingdom of God.
What is the Kingdom of God?
It is the time or the place or the people in whom Gods will is accomplished.
The time or the place or the people in whom we see the face of Christ.
It is the time and the place and the people to whom God constantly calls us back.
In every decision we make, our over riding concern should be - are we establishing by our thoughts or commitment or action the Kingdom of God?
Are we promoting the face of Christ above all else?
We wear our poppies today to honour those who have fallen in war and those who continue to pay the price of war.
We wear our poppies to establish the Kingdom of God and to see the face of Christ in all those we honour today.
Those who have sacrificed much.
And, from our abundance, we commit ourselves to ensuring that that sacrifice is not made any more difficult.
We commit ourselves to sharing the cost.
The cost of peace.
We are all too aware of the cost of war.
But Peace costs too.
And, unless we are willing to commit ourselves, sacrificially to that cost, our nation will continue to sacrifice lives for war, not peace.
There is a sense of futility in our gospel story this morning - it doesn't appear such good news.
A widow giving her all to a corrupt institution, an institution that fails miserably to care for her as charged.
But she gives anyway.
And Jesus commends her giving.
Jesus commends her giving while condemning the system.
Such is the strange conundrum in which we find ourselves today.
Recognising how flawed and inadequate are our moves toward peace, recognising how flawed and inadequate are our institutions charged with finding peaceful solutions to conflict, charged with reducing the cost of sacrifice.
In all of our hurt and outrage and disillusionment and,often, sense of defeat, yet we honour those who continue to sacrifice.
Our military personnel and their families who make their offerings.
All those who have served.
And those who continue to serve.
We salute them.
And we take up the challenge to bear the cost that must be borne so that the sacrifice is not theirs alone.
Jesus did not undervalue the widow's gift and its cost.
And neither should we.
But we look beyond that gift to determine what we can do to challenge the institutions that continue to demand such sacrifice.
In that work, will our poppies be worn with pride.
In that work will the Kingdom of God reign and the face of Christ be seen.
For the glory of God.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


RevAlli said...

Thank you, Liz, for this sermon. It is excellent. I am so glad you found the Eisenhower quote. Interesting. Did it come from his final speech in which he warned against the military-industrial complex? What a bundle of contradictions he was. General, Supreme Commander, President in Cold War Times, Kansas farm boy, and opponent of arms proliferation.

liz said...

RevAlli - thanks for your encouragement. Eisenhower made this speech early on in his presidency,after the death of Stalin - it was know as his Chance for Peace speech.
Very useful on a day like today.