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Sunday, November 8, 2009

Everything She Had

I've been thinking a lot about Veteran's Day this weekend -- the actual holiday is this coming Wednesday, commemorating the armistice that ended the First World War. A few years ago I read through my old American Heritage History of World War One. Of all the stupid wars fought in the history of the world, and there are plenty, the First World War was one of the stupidest. Its causes were stupid, its leaders were criminally stupid, and its tactics were stupid. The war quickly bogged down into trenches hundreds of miles long across France and Belgium, where soldiers died of disease, poison gas, and artillery bombardments. The tedium of life in trenches was broken now and then by utterly futile infantry charges across mined fields of barbed wire into the face of machine guns. But on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the armies stopped shooting. Then at Versailles the leaders of the world negotiated a peace treaty as criminally stupid as the war had been, with the result that twenty-one years later the same countries went back to an even bigger and bloodier war over exactly the same territory.

I've been thinking about Veterans Day because both my father and my maternal grandfather were in World War One -- my father as a fourteen year old torpedoman third class on a Navy Destroyer in the North Atlantic, and my grandfather as an ambulance driver in France. I've been thinking about Veterans Day because of the bad news every day from Afghanistan. I've been thinking about Veterans Day because of the horrific shootings at Fort Hood this week. And I've been thinking about Veterans Day because of this story in Mark 12 about Jesus watching people make their financial offerings in the Temple.

One of the regular pilgrimages of my childhood was to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. We Virginians have our sacred Civil War ground -- we meet today on such -- but Gettysburg is something special. Do students today have to memorize, as I had to in sixth grade, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address? All able-minded United States citizens should have to memorize those two hundred and fifty-six words in ten sentences -- fewer than the lyrics of many popular songs. Lincoln was asked to dedicate the cemetery. Instead, Lincoln insisted that the ground at Gettysburg had already been consecrated by the soldiers who fought there. It's not the land that needed to be dedicated or consecrated, Lincoln said -- it's us:

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

There is something utterly compelling, Lincoln was saying, when people give the last full measure of devotion. We honor military veterans on November 11 because they offered their lives as the last full measure of devotion to their country. We honor those killed in military service on Memorial Day because they not only offered, but they gave their lives as the last full measure of devotion.

What is it that so draws us to that image -- of the last full measure of devotion? I want to suggest there is something deep within our souls that is attracted to self-giving as a moth is drawn to a flame. This afternoon we will sit down and watch men run into each other at high speed. Most of those will be on football fields, some of them will be at the Texas Motor Speedway. Others of us will watch men and women hit a little white ball hundreds of yards through the air. We just finished this week watching the Powers of Evil triumph in Yankee Stadium. Some members of our congregation are training for marathons and triathalons. Some are studying for exams, some are practicing their music, some are drawing and painting and teaching, all honing their craft to perfection. Something in us is compelled by the notion of giving ourselves away.

Jesus is sitting in the Temple, watching people come in and deposit money in the offering plates. Rich people come in and make a great show of depositing noisy bags of coins, impressing others with their gifts. Other people come in and give more or less, according to their abilities and moods. Then, apparently, a widow makes her offering. How did Jesus know she was a widow? Did he know her personally? Was there a particular way she was dressed? We don't know. But let's make the wild assumption that Jesus was right.

Widows in the ancient world were pushed to the margins of society. If they had no children, and no other local family, they could be in dire straits. We know from the discussion of care for widows in New Testament letters and other first-century literature that many widows were extremely poor. Clearly, this widow is also poor -- she places in the offering box two of the smallest coins in existence -- two copper coins worth a half-penny each.

Remember the scene last year on Britain's Got Talent when the frumpy Susan Boyle walked on stage and announced that she was going to sing? It was the widow's mite all over again: people laughed, Simon Cowell smirked and condescended, and then the dowdy Scots woman opened her mouth and began to sing. It's the same story, except that when the widow put her two half-pennies in the box, nobody stood up to marvel and to cheer. Jesus called the disciples to him -- probably because they were laughing. And then Jesus said to them that this poor woman had given more than everyone else combined. She had given the last full measure of devotion.

There's a gospel parallel to this story: it's the story of two men who go to the Temple to pray. The first brags to God about how good he is, all the good he's done, and thanks God for not making him like other men, especially the poor tax collector begging for mercy over in the corner. But it was the tax collector who went home lined up with God, Jesus said, because he gave God everything he had -- his pride, his dignity, and his sorrow.

A year ago Warren Buffet, the richest man in America, announced that he was giving the largest charitable gift in the history of America to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He was going to give away 85% of his net worth. That has been calculated at 37 billion dollars. That's amazing, and wonderful. It leaves Buffet a paltry $ 6 billion to get by on.

Maybe what Jesus is trying to tell us is that the measure of our lives isn't how much we give: it's how much we keep. Veterans Day, as Lincoln said, is consecrated by people who kept nothing for themselves. The widow in the temple gave immeasurably more than everyone else combined because she gave the last full measure of devotion. Jesus is Lord because he emptied himself.

The question isn't how much of your life, or your money, or your time, or your love, you're going to give. The real question is: how much are you going to keep?

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