Texts: Hebrews 9, Mark 12
I remember my great uncle Bob. When I was a kid, he lived in the ‘Western Counties’ part of the Westminster veterans’ hospital in London. For a child visiting, it was like summer camp buildings, with Muskoka chairs in the yard, but a lot of old men chain-smoking, playing cards, or sitting still.
Not many others remember Uncle Bob, who died 50 years ago, but you’ve got your own connections to people like Uncle Bob. The Great War, 1914-1918, with 42M combatants, 20M dead humans, was big. Canada only had 8M people but 600K were in uniform, 60K died, another 172K wounded like Uncle Bob.
Newer Canadians have their own connections, to conflicts around the Ottoman Empire’s collapse, including Armenian genocide, or connections to the Bolshevik revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union, or the collapse of colonial empires in Africa, South and East Asia. We’ve all got an Uncle Bob story from last century.
In 1914, most Methodist ministers opposed the war, but by 1918 they were unemployed or chaplains for grieving families. Trinity Methodist Church in Berlin was renamed after Kitchener, an Allied butcher boss, at the instigation of our members. Germans from St Matthews were beaten in the streets.
We were all changed, by this Great War: when the boys came home unsupported, a General Strike in Winnipeg was tied to our Social Gospel, and our saintly Methodist Mafia business leaders were accused of ‘war profiteering’ for providing food or equipment for armies. Income tax was for war, not peace.
The world was changed, though the ripples continued for the rest of the century, in depression, another war, cold war, and liberation of former colonies. Wounded, dis-membered, we keep asking ‘what’s worth dying for, or living for’? What parts of these sacrifices justify pride, regrets, or spur us to change again?
100 years ago today, at 11am on November 11, 2018, ceasefire and Armistice.
By 9-11, September 11, 2001, we were stunned that anybody would do such things in this century. We called them religious extremists or terrorists. Were they different in kind, or degree from our combatant ‘Uncle Bob’ relatives? Deaths are fewer among our current forces, but trauma kills more at home.
Sacrifice has a clear crude ancient basic meaning. You take something live and valuable – an animal, or even a person – and you give it up to God. You sacrifice, waste, or destroy, in a gesture that you can’t take back, which points beyond itself. There is nothing subtle there: take your best animal and lose it. No loan or exchange or tax receipt. Sacrifice.
Sacrifice in our mouths, in our ears, has a wider and milder semantic field of meanings. We talk about sacrifice as any transaction where you give more than you get. You ‘sacrifice’ for your children, hoping for a later payoff, or sell old goods for a sacrifice price, a discount, usually acknowledging market value.
This Remembrance Day, 100th of Armistice, we don’t understand our elders’ choices, to sacrifice sons and wealth in wars – but we pause to acknowledge them, and wonder about it all. Crude sacrifice offends us. But vicarious sacrificial suffering on behalf of something beyond ourselves is powerful. But for what goods do we spend, or save ourselves and our own life and times?
What is our highest good, the purpose of it all? What is our community or church or country about: a mutual service contract? Are we simply stakeholders or shareholders, or consumers of collective services, cheaper if bought in bulk? Do we pay taxes to get at least as much or more back in government services – or donate to church for its recreational fun or entertainment value?
Our sacrifices are not crude, but shrewd. We are culturally captive to an ethic of self-serving consumption. We participate heedlessly in a horrible selfishness, cocooning in comfort, oblivious to those less fortunate. We base our pride in our buying and selling, earning and achieving, owning and investing, the roles and activities rewarded by our world.
Occasionally even our shrewd sacrifices, if not the old crude ones, remind us that there may be other ways of keeping score, in a Gods-eye view.
As he taught, Jesus said:
Look out there – for the ones in long robes.
Look out there – for the ones who give their all.
The discourse of duty and loyalty had a terrible 20th century. The ideals of Victorian empire, the poetry of Kipling, were crucified in the Great War, which echoed in the poetry of Laurence Binyon instead. Commitment to kings and empires was followed by commitment to ideologies and totalitarian fascism, communism, capitalism in a series of wars, using escalating technology.
Duty and loyalty were shaken by wars in the last, 20th, century. Incompetent self-serving political and military leaders ‘sacrificed’ millions of others’ lives. We began to notice, despite our deep respect for those who paid that there was something not making sense. The powers-that-be, the boss, was looking good,
but not being good – and somebody else was paying a price.
Look out there – for those in long robes – or in officers’ uniforms – for the ‘suits’. Look out there – for those who paid, gave their all. Look out there –
for those in suits, and recognize those who paid, who gave their all. The sin of the long robes, as constructed in the discourse of duty and loyalty, is to be unworthy of the office – to be self-serving, instead of serving something more.
Failure as a link in the chain of duties hurts others – ‘for want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost, the war was lost’. We really didn’t notice our loss in abandoning the discourse of duty and loyalty – instead, we derided its formalism and irrationality, and privileged its replacement in the rhetoric of human rights, freedoms, and market transactions.
At most, we were mildly nostalgic for old courtesies. Although we have largely lost the discourse of duty and loyalty, it still works as one way of making sense of Jesus’ teaching. We can look through this lens or window, or construct these patterns and fictions, and preach a pretty good sermon to ourselves:
As he taught, Jesus said:
Look out there – for the ones in long robes….
Look out there – for the ones who give their all.
The gospel today puts two scenes together, and I reminded you of the second one first. Jesus is in the temple, watching people, and commenting on their donations. He has been there for a whole chapter, picking fights and turning tables upside down. Now he is gossiping about people’s charitable giving, being rude and crude in the old way, not shrewd or smooth.
Who, and what, is worthy of deference, and who and what is worthy of defiance? Our creed begins and ends with the language of love and mercy. But our creed also demands that we ‘live with respect in creation’, and ‘seek justice and resist evil’. We can’t stop at ‘love’, ignoring the legitimacy of demands for ‘justice’ by other people crying out to God, and to us.
Watch for the models of a widow’s total commitment, and defend the widows, lest their houses be devoured. Beware of the suits, of those in long robes, and when you are wearing robes yourself, are you living honourably, doing the duty that goes along with the privileges?
We’re voters, taxpayers, many are homeowners, with secured retirement incomes, even if we don’t offer military service. Who is excluded, and whose houses are being devoured? God forbid that we simply preach the gospel of ‘nice’. Perhaps we need to move from deference to defiance, to be true to Jesus and Canadian Christian roots. Our people were far more than nice.
Our church ‘spoke truth to power’ stood up for ‘widows’ of each generation. Conscientious objectors in the war taught in the internment camps, having wrestled with issues. Canadians in the British imperial army
had a reputation for insubordination and independence. They didn’t always do what they were told – especially westerners.
Currie had Canadian troops separated off to their own units, given the impossible job of assaulting Vimy. They fought in smaller units with more autonomy – and won a costly battle, and real honour. For what choices will we be known? It was St Francis of Assisi who instructed his followers: “Proclaim the gospel. If necessary, use words!”
This is a militant gospel, not a militarist one. This is a gospel of pride, not shame, humble but not shy in the face of challenges. We measure ourselves
by a widow’s total commitment to the commonwealth, and criticize leadership that devours widow’s houses and chooses sacrifices to be made by others.
Sure, the ‘casualty’ numbers are much lower in our generation, in times of perpetual wars that go by other names like ‘peace-keeping’, in Cyprus, or now in Mali. We sent kids to the Gulf and Afghanistan, and more died by their own hands in addictions and suicide than they did while ‘deployed’.
‘Casualties’ in new literature from surviving current veterans, mostly American, often use missing limbs from ‘Improvised Explosive Devices’ as markers of their dis-memberment. But their wounds are more like those of my Uncle Bob and his buddies, gassed and ‘shell-shocked’ a century ago. They are broken within, and broken by their separation from the rest of us: dis-membered.
We’ve all got an Uncle Bob to remember today. People dis-membered, not just by missing limbs, but by being ripped into pieces, or ripped from a feeling of belonging by what they did on our behalf in wars more recent than Uncle Bob’s.
Sacrifice and commitment,
duty and honour:
teach us to re-member what is dis-membered.
What word do you have for our hearts, O God,
give us ears to hear.