Sermon November 7 2021 Remembrance Nigel Bunce
Every year, early November brings three liturgical days of remembrance. They are All Saints, November 1st; All Souls, November 2nd; and Remembrance Day on November 11th. This year, unusually, we are celebrating all three on the same day.
In the weekly e-mail I called these days of remembrance “Saints, souls, and soldiers”. I don’t mean that the alliteration should ignore naval and air-force combatants. But the combination of the days of remembrance seemed to me to give the occasion a different flavour than usual.
Today’s liturgy: a collage of the three days of remembrance
All Saints (capital S) remembers the “heroes of the Church”. We have already sung For all the saints who from their labours rest. We will finish the online service with When the saints come marching in.
On All Souls, we remember family members and friends who went before us. What they meant to us. Especially, the love we shared and their influences our own lives and development. The lovely passage from Wisdom reminds us that we have not forgotten them. Likewise, the Prayer for All Souls Day right after this homily.
Thirdly, Remembrance Day. An opportunity to remember with grateful hearts the men and women who served their country in the armed forces. Col. John McRae’s poem In Flanders Fields makes us think mainly about the Canadians who died in the two world wars of the 20th century. But we also have more recent casualties to remember. Notably, this year in Afghanistan, where we remember also the Afghani translators who put their lives at risk to help our forces in Kandahar.
Attitudes to Remembrance Day
I’ve spoken before about the idea of sacrifice in war — the idea of making holy. I hope that we have moved on from the jingoistic attitudes of my youth. Back then, the memory of WWII was still strong. Perhaps, we can now forget the demonization of “the enemy”. We can step back and also remember those on the other side who died or suffered injuries.
They, too, were mostly conscripts. Their families felt the loss of their loved ones no less keenly. Today, I hope, we realize that those loved ones felt exactly the same pain of separation as the people on “our side”.
Running the races set before us
However, all the groups – Saints, souls, and military – in these days of remembrance have this in common. They all had to “run the race that was set before them”.
Hebrews 12: 1-3: “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses around us, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely. Let us run with endurance the race before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith. Who, for the joy that was before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and sits at the right hand of the throne of God.”
The idea of life as a race is common in the New Testament. That’s because the NT authors came from a Greek culture, where games of endurance were popular. However, the race that life gave us is not always the one we choose. Jesus’ race certainly isn’t one that most of us would choose.
Christ’s fragrant offering
In the Letter to the Church in Ephesus, St. Paul called Christ’s crucifixion, “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” [Ephesians 5:2 ]: “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
This image recalls the Temple practice. The priest offered a sacrifice on an altar. As the fire consumed it, the aroma pleased God (according to the priests). Likewise, when Christ “gave himself up,” standard Christian teaching is that his sacrifice was pleasing to God the Father.
The link to today’s Gospel
But, the “race of life” connects the groups we remember today, and us, to today’s Gospel reading. Jesus ran the race that life set before him. It forced him to challenge the Temple leaders. And therefore, to endure the Cross, despising the shame of it. It explains why he spoke out against the Temple leaders.
They demanded respect from other people. They expected to get the best seated at banquets. Inevitably, this criticism displeased them. So they worked to have this tiresome troublemaker put away. But that was part of the race that Jesus had to run.
The widow’s offering
But another theme today is offering. We see it in the familiar story of the widow’s mite, to use the old King James words. The Gospel writer Mark didn’t choose these stories at random.. The widow’s offering relates directly to the attitudes of the Temple leaders.
The widow put two small coins into the Temple treasury. Jesus commented that she had contributed much more than the rich people. They gave out of their abundance. In contrast, she in her poverty put in all that she had.
People often think that the story shows how wonderful this woman was. She was prepared to give everything she had to the Temple. By extension, she is an example to the rest of us. We should emulate her when we think of our contributions to the Church.
The widows offering isn’t a call to generosity
But that is not Jesus’ message. That is clear when we set it against Jesus’ criticism of the Temple leaders. In this context, the widow is not an example of wonderful generosity. She is a victim of the rapacity of the Temple authorities. It’s not about the widow’s piety.
The mandatory Temple tax took everything that this poor woman had. In fact, if you think about the race in life that this woman had to run, it’s not one that she chose. She was poor; she was a widow. More than that, she was near the bottom of Judean society.
None of us would choose her race to run. So let’s set aside all those sermons we have heard about what a fine example she sets for us. No. Let’s not set them aside. Let’s put them in the garbage. Those sorts of sermons just perpetuate inequality in society.
The only redeeming feature in the story is the widow’s faithfulness. She paid the Temple tax despite her poverty. Remembrance Day draws a parallel between the widow in Jesus’ story and the soldiers who risked or lost their lives in war. They too offered all that they had. But whether we are mostly remembering Saints, or souls or combatants today, we remember especially that, like us, they all had their race to run. Amen.