Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 11 November 2012: Year B, Remembrance Sunday
Texts: Micah 4.1-5
Honouring the ‘Ordinary’
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
There are two parts to today’s Gospel reading; two stories, two sets of stories about Jesus which early Church remembered, and placed together to set up a stark contrast. Neither of the stories might seem immediately relevant to our Remembrance theme, but hear me out!
Jesus is in Jerusalem, the capital city, the centre of civil and ecclesiastical power. He’s coming to close to the end of his ministry, and the end of his life. He is now teaching in the Temple of Jerusalem. The Temple was immensely important to the Jewish people; it’s the centre of their religious life. Imagine an unofficial preacher wandering into St Paul’s Cathedral and teaching people there, and you get an idea of the situation. It’s a tense situation, for Jesus has come to the very centre of spiritual power in Israel. Increasingly he’s finding himself in conflict with the religious leaders of the day- a conflict which will finally lead to his arrest and execution.
Yet crowd presses round him, for fundamentally his message is good news: Mark says that they were ‘listening to Jesus gladly’. Just now, a teacher of the Law asked him what was the greatest commandment, to which he’d replied that there were really two- to love God and neighbour. The Teacher of the Law had praised Jesus’ answer, and Jesus had told the man that he was not far from the Kingdom of God.
But other religious teachers have been less kind to this upstart from the countryside. They’ve been debating with him, often trying to catch him out, get him into trouble, trying to score points. So now Jesus warns his hearers that not all religious teachers are virtuous men. There are always those who take a leading role in religion who are, basically, hypocrites. They serve, not God and their neighbour, but use religion for their own ends. Sometimes people say that Jesus never had a bad word for anyone. But that’s not true. Jesus has harsh words for some people, and some of his harshest are for religious leaders and teachers. For someone like me, the Gospels often make uncomfortable reading. Listen to what he says about the religious leaders of this time:
‘Watch out for the teachers of the Law, who like to walk around in their long robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplace, who choose the reserved seats in the synagogues and the best places at feasts. They take advantage of widows and rob them of their homes, and then make a show of saying long prayers. Their punishment will be all the worse!’
In a few words, Jesus paints a picture of a type of person who is still recognisable today: those more concerned with their status than anything else; the vain, the self-important, who because they are surrounded by sycophants, believe that they can do no wrong.
Recently, the former owner of the Daily Telegraph newspaper, Conrad Black, was released from prison in the United States. He was jailed for stealing from his company, and trying to cover up his misdeeds. A Canadian by birth, he gave up his citizenship in order to accept a British peerage; and he continues to be officially known as Lord Black of Crossharbour. Perhaps you saw some of his TV appearances recently, being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on Adam Boulton, and even appearing as a guest on Have I Got News for You. Despite everything, he claims that he was did nothing wrong, that he was falsely imprisoned, that it was all the fault of an iniquitous American justice system. He told Jeremy Paxman that the charges against him were ‘rubbish’, and when Paxman pointed out that he is, after all, a convicted fraudster, he denied that that was really the case. He is an incredible example of someone who cannot see that they have- or even can- done wrong; self-deluded, really, just like those Teachers of the Law who thought they were entitled to automatic respect, even as they were stealing the home and money of poor widows. ‘Watch out such people!’ says Jesus.
And then Mark the Gospel writer tells us another story. There were various courtyards around the Temple, and in one of them, known as the Court of Women, there were thirteen collection boxes, known as ‘The Trumpets’, because of how they were shaped. People dropped money into these ‘trumpets’ to support the work of the Temple- just as a Church today, might have a collection box for visitors. Just imagine Jesus, resting from the controversies and arguments, sitting in shadow of the cloisters, watching the people coming and making their donations. Mark tell us, ‘Many rich men dropped in a lot of money’. That’s often the way; we like to be seen to do good, we like to be praised for our contribution. And if you’re wealthy, you can afford to give a lot. But what catches Jesus’ attention is not the vast sums, but someone who gives a tiny amount: ‘then a poor widow came along and dropped in two little copper coins, worth about a penny’.
The coins referred to here were called ‘leptons’, which literally means ‘thin ones’. These thin ones were the smallest possible coins. Those who counted the money at the end of the day would hardly notice them. But Jesus notices. For he knows that many of those who put in the huge amounts of money could easily afford to do so. When you’re super-wealthy, you can easily afford to give a lot of money away, for it will not affect you much- you’ll still have plenty to live on. Not so this widow. According to Mark, Jesus ‘called his disciples together and said to them, “I tell you that this poor widow put more in the offering box than all the others. For the others put in what they had to spare of their riches; but she, poor as she is, put in all she had- she gave all she had to live on’.
John Terry, the captain of Premier League team Chelsea, was in trouble recently for alleged racism against a fellow player. He was banned for four matches, and fined £22o,ooo. For most of us, I suppose, that’s a whopping sum of money. But apparently, on his salary, that amounts to less than 10 day’s wages for John Terry. Terry is said to have amassed a net worth of £26 million over the course of his career, so I think he could afford to live on his savings for those 9 or 10 days. Or take the suggestion yesterday from the nominee for Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, that those who bet on his getting the job ought to give their winnings to their local parish Church. Ladbrokes replied to that by saying that they will donate £1,000 to Canterbury Cathedral. Few will be fooled by that- £1,000 is a tiny proportion of their profits.
On this Sunday, Remembrance Sunday, we quite often talk about sacrifice. Sacrifice is where you give up something for the sake of others, for the sake of a greater good. For John Terry, or for the rich men putting money into the Temple treasury, sacrificing a huge amount of money is not necessarily a great sacrifice at all. That’s not to say that there aren’t wealthy people who do give sacrificially. But if you give, and don’t notice it, you aren’t giving sacrificially. The widow gave all that she had- that’s what impressed Jesus about her; not the amount that she gave, but the attitude with which she gave it.
And too often, those in positions of power are happy to make decisions which mean that other people end up making sacrifices. When Jesus attacks the Teachers of the Law who ‘take advantage of widows and rob them of their homes’, he may have had in mind kind of scam, in which some religious leaders manage to part vulnerable women from their money by persuading them that their religion demanded this of them. There are plenty of secular examples of that today: people who make money by being plausible, and who take from those who can least afford it. And too often, those in positions of power are happy to make decisions which mean that other people end up making sacrifices. Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the meek’. But so often, the people we bless are the plausible, those who find plausible reasons to make money from those who can least afford it.
These old stories from the Gospel of Mark, told on this Remembrance Sunday, remind us about the difference between those who seem respectable, and those who make sacrifices. It is easy for a politician, a diplomat, or think-tank expert, a media pundit, enjoying a comfortable life in Washington or London, to say: here’s a problem- in Iran, or Syria, or Pakistan or Afghanistan. Let’s solve it with air strikes, or by arming the rebels, or sending in a drone. They will give you any manner of reasons for their advice, and they will seem credible and persuasive, and they are listened to because they appear to be plausible. They might talk about justice, or honour, or the national interest, so that it seem we must believe them. As the hymn puts it, they can make war appear ‘looking attractive and sincere’.
But the sacrifice is often paid by those who had no say in the matter. Today, I know, many people will be remember those who, like the widow in the temple, gave everything they had. People who understood that sacrifice might be required of them- and they gave their lives, or they returned physically or mentally shattered. It’s those uncles and grandfathers and brothers and friends we remember today. And we also remember those who did not choose to be caught up in war: those killed in air raids, or in towns and villages and cities which became battlefields, the men, women and children who were not combatants, but who also suffered. We remember them, and we honour them, for they gave what they could, which was often all they had.
We human beings are still capable of justifying war and violence, and allowing the innocents to suffer. A few years ago, I was at a reception for military chaplains during the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. We were visited by George Reid, the Lord High Commissioner, who represent the Queen at the Assembly. George Reid was a well-known politician, who was Presiding Officer in the Scottish Parliament. But he had also, in the past, worked for the Red Cross, based in Geneva, but also working in various places afflicted by both natural disaster and war. He pointed out to us that, terrible although the carnage was in the First World War, most of those killed in that war were military- soldier, airmen, sailors. 90% of the casualties back then were combatants, and only 10% civilians. We like to think that we live in a world which is progressing, but as the 20th century progressed, civilians have taken more and more of the brunt of the war. Today, the Red Cross finds that in our modern wars, 90% of the casualties are civilians. The ordinary people are the ones who still make the real sacrifices.
Jesus once said, ‘blessed are the peacemakers’; but for those who find plausible reasons for war and violence, who want others to make the sacrifices, Jesus can only speak of the judgement of God. When Jesus called on his followers to be peacemakers, it was precisely because that it’s ordinary folk who bear the brunt of war and violence: he noticed the sacrifice of the poor widow. And it’s the sacrifices of ordinary people which touch the heart of God: ‘blessed are those who mourn’ says Jesus, ‘for God himself will comfort them’.
Ascription of Praise
To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.
1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2012 Peter W Nimmo