The Right Rev. James B. Magness
“Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.” “[S]he out of her poverty has put in everything she had to live on.”
Everyone gave something, but a few sacrificed everything they had.
This year, in and around Veteran’s Day there are two important sacrifices being commemorated. The better known event is the fiftieth anniversary of remembering our comrades in arms who fought the very arduous Korean war. Some of my relatives fought in that war and have told me about it. The other, not so well known, occurred 20 years ago last month. This was the incident when over 240 Marines and Sailors lost their lives in Beirut, Lebanon. When this happened I was stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where for three consecutive weeks my life was entirely dedicated to the delivery of death notifications to families. These two events, though vastly different, serve to remind us that on this side of the Kingdom of Heaven, the road to beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks is a long and costly journey. Sacrifice and service are inseparable components of military service.
In a contemporary event, two years ago in this city I was vividly reminded of the connection between service and sacrifice when, while I attended a meeting in the Pentagon an American Airlines passenger plane slammed into the building. Even today we are forced to acknowledge the continued cost of traveling the road to peace when we hear about our service members who are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I wish it were it was not so. I wish that the plowshares and pruning hooks were all we had left of our weapons of destruction. I wish I could believe that all we need to do it lay down our arms and withdraw from the conflict in order to make peace the reality of our land—the reality of our world. I wish we could evolve beyond the old concepts of good and evil. I wish we could jettison the old baggage of sacrifice so as to set us free from our so-called inhumane behavior. I wish we were at the point of joining hands with every man, woman and child on the face of the earth to proclaim that our sole reason for living is to live for the pure good of our species.
Yet, I am afraid our social evolution may have taken us in another direction. Today we are far too near the point of possessing the horrid and awesome capability of being able to annihilate every man, woman, and child on the face of the earth.
Yet in the church we are so bold as to proclaim a gospel that admonishes the believer not to lose heart. In faith, by the grace of God we must continue our journey. Never before in our lifetime has our faith and religion at-large had such an essential role to play in the quest to reconcile the people of, as we say in one of our communion prayers, “this fragile earth, our island home.” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 370)
We remember the ongoing sacrifice because it somehow ennobles all of us and helps us to keep the basics of life in perspective. In London’s Westminster Abby there is a tomb dedicated to the Unknown British Warrior. On that tomb is the inscription, “They buried him among kings because he had done good toward God and toward His House.”
As I read and listen to our lessons from the Old Testament book of I Kings and the Gospel of Mark, I am impressed that personal sacrifice was looked upon as a foundational part of the spiritual life. It was expected that the early church would be made up of people who understood and embraced lives of sacrifice. Even today sacrifice is still the norm for many Christian believers. One prominent contemporary Christian in our time bore clear witness to this truth: the late Mother Theresa of Calcutta. This God-inspired woman taught and proclaimed, from the background of scripture, that sacrifice is a part of life that needs to be given its due. Mother Theresa’s life taught that through righteous personal sacrifice we find opportunities to get beyond our own fears and sorrows to spiritually grow and mature.
Of course, not everyone appreciates the value of sacrifice. Many will say, “Why bother? Skip the pain and give us the glory. Enough about you; what about me?”
Almost always it looks easier to think that a meaningful life can be lived without personal sacrifice. We even see this with Jesus’ disciples. There was a great deal that Jesus’ close companions did not understand about sacrifice. Every time he told them that he must lose his life for the sake of the world, they tried to talk him out of it. They did not understand that true discipleship is costly, sometimes very costly. They did not understand that often discipleship leads us into situations where we are advocates for and actors in causes that are quite unpopular with our culture.
Frequently we act as though the only great values in our lives are to be found in achievement of the journey’s end, not necessarily in the journey itself. However, for the Christian, the process of moving toward Christ may be the highest virtue. Mother Theresa is said to have seen herself as distant from Christ for the last three decades of her life. Perhaps, knowing that the value of spiritual growth is to be found in the journey, she chose to hold to this distance as a vision of Christ toward which she could work. In fear and trembling she worked out her salvation. If she was like most of us, on those occasions when she seemed to be at the journey’s end and had arrived at the fullness of Christ, she realized that the journey had only reached a fork in the road. Hence, the sacrificial journey continued.
According to the Gospel lesson from Mark there was a question in the temple one-day about giving. The issue was a distinction between two classes of people. On one hand were the people of means who gave the largest quantity and, in our present day may have had a bronze plaque in their name applied to the wall in the nave of the church. In contrast was the person whose giving issued forth out of her heart; a poor widow woman who gave out of the depth of her poverty and likely was transformed by her sacrifice.
Last Sunday we talked all the Saints of God. Today we see what it takes to actually be a Saint. The poor widow, a disenfranchised woman who lived with none of the support systems we know of today, gave out of her poverty.
Out of the genuine piety of a poor widow two copper treasury coins (about the value of a penny) were offered. This was the two-farthing “mite” from which some of us will know that we derive the term “mite boxes.” Though the coin was the smallest unit of money in that time and place, the widow gave all she had. To give in this way was to make a considerable sacrifice. Out of her poverty she put in everything she had, her whole living.
Years ago the late C.S. Lewis wrote a book about love entitled The Four Loves. In this short volume I find connections between giving and the impulse to love. Once the impulse to love comes along it has to fight with the impulse of the self. The conflict is between the sacrifice of self-needs for the needs of the other, the object of our love. For many this type of sacrificial giving may be the gateway to the highest form of love. Sacrificial giving is the foundation for spiritual transformation. However, beware for this type of transformational giving can be very costly.
The key to this passage is the “beware of,” “watch out for,” and “be on guard against the scribes.” The scribes and Pharisees are depicted as being obsessed with their love for religious show and honors, obsessed with their own needs. It is not the religious honor and show that is all bad. It is the fact that the public displays do not lead to action. Jesus does not attack Judaism or Jewish religious practices per se. Jesus does attack their out of control ego and avarice masked in the vestments of religious learning and practices. Jesus exposes their greed.
For disciples in every age the story underscores the negative example of the scribes and the positive example the poor widow. The scribes serve as a warning to the crowd in general, but with special application to disciples who are leaders in the church. Jesus’ power is revealed in the regal simplicity with which he gives his life. As we seek out our best seats in the temple/cathedral/church and seek to be afforded the appropriate exalting honors, do we run the risk of being contemporary scribes? The Gospel’s message is to take heed to this—take heed.
Perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from the widow is her humility. Her sacrificial giving arose out of her knowledge that she could not save her self. Only by submitting herself and sacrificing what she had to God could she place herself at the feet of God and therefore receive his grace. Her universe was guided by what we affirmed in Psalm 146 this morning:
The Lord sets the prisoners free, opens eyes of the blind, lifts up the bowed down, loves the righteous, cares for the stranger, the orphan, the widow and will reign forever.
Today and tomorrow God is!
Once more relying upon one of our Communion prayers, I find a clear description of the sacrifice we are called to make. These oft repeated words will be familiar to many of you:
“And we earnestly desire thy fatherly goodness mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; most humbly beseeching thee to grant that, by the merits and death of thy Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his blood, we, and all thy whole Church, may obtain remission of our sins, and all other benefits of his passion.” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 335)
Time and time again during our journey of faith we believers are asked to pour out our lives for people who need us. From domestic to global settings, we are called to make this sacrifice.
In the days ahead many of you will have opportunities to make your own sacrifices for the sake of our Lord—some of those sacrifices will be quite significant. However, at this hour there is only one sacrifice you are called upon to make: the sacrifice of your praise and thanksgiving to God.
In the temple that day two thousand years ago, everyone gave something. However, the widow gave all she had.