The Twenty Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27B)
11 November 2018
O God, whose blessed Son was manifested that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us the children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant us, we beseech thee, that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves even as he is pure; that, when he shall appear again with power and great glory, we may be made like unto him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where with thee, O Father, and thee, O Holy Ghost, he liveth and reigneth ever, one God, world without end. Amen.
1 Kings 17:8-16
The lesson of the widow’s mite, our Gospel this morning from Saint Mark, is an interesting story in and of itself. It is commonly misconstrued to understand Jesus saying that he approves of the old woman giving her last coins to the temple, and we should do likewise. Yes, Jesus commends the woman’s generosity. At the same time, however, his actual focus is on condemning a system that allows an old woman to give all she has while those who are wealthy, though giving considerable sums, are only offering to the needy a small fraction of their wealth, pocket change, if you will. This is an instructive enough lesson for us in these days.
Yet today we also commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the conclusion of the Great War of 1914-1918 and the story of the widow’s mite offers us another, perhaps more allegorical or figurative, but no less powerful lesson about the sacrifices made in the twentieth-century by those fighting in that war and others. As I have been rereading Anthony Powell’s monumental twelve volume, kaleidoscopic portrait of mid-twentieth-century English cultural and social life, A Dance to the Music of Time, I came across an exchange between the narrator, Nick Jenkins and his old schoolmaster, Le Bas. Meeting up in 1947, they inevitably discuss the war just ended, and Le Bas, now almost eighty, remarks, “Sad about those fellows who were killed. I sometimes think of the number of pupils of mine who lost their lives. Two wars. It adds up ....”(1) It is at the same time glib and poignant. It sums up a sense of loss that two successive generations were decimated in war and there seems to be nothing to be done about it.
The members of two generations were either wiped out or forever changed. They offered themselves out of a sense of duty, of camaraderie, of wanting to be counted, to protect their country and their families; for many, many reasons. Tens of millions served, millions died. “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.” For those who sent them to war are like the warned against “scribes, who like to go about in long robes, and to have salutations in the market places and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers.” Those who served gave all they had, their last two pennies, and many died in “the mud of Flanders and the burning rocks of Gallipoli"(2) in the first war, and in even more far flung places in the second. What is to be done? How can we respond as Christians to such sacrifice on the part of those who gave their last pennies? Those who went to war came back changed and it was incumbent upon the church to do something, to be there, to provide a place for these men and women to make meaning of their experiences and their lives, not to mention the death of so many. The church as it was before 1914, however, was not prepared for 1919, let alone for the post-atomic age of 1945.
Early in the Great War, Percy Dearmer left his post as vicar of the London parish of Saint Mary the Virgin, Primrose Hill to work as a chaplain with the Red Cross, first in the Balkans (where his wife, serving as a nurse, died of disease) and then on the Western Front. By the war’s end, he had lost not only his wife, but a son serving with the Royal Navy at Gallipoli. His other son, Geoffrey survived four years in the trenches in France. Dearmer’s experience—both his personal losses and in his work on the front lines—led him to question why so many of those who served and gave their all had no interest in church and did not think that the church could do anything for them.
It wasn’t because this generation lacked faith, or because of some flaw in their character. Quite the contrary. He believed “Christianity has something to do with self-sacrifice and their readiness to go over there, and to be immolated—their passionate desire to give—has struck silent. You cannot fault a martyr because he has absented himself from mattins.”(3) Dearmer felt that so many people who had made such sacrifice, who had shown themselves truly Christian in their spirit of self-offering, their sense of service, who were showing themselves livers of the Great Commandment in the world in many aspects of their lives, found that church no longer resonated with them. Indeed, he couldn’t blame them in the least for avoiding organised religion. He agreed “that, on the whole there is little to draw average, sensible folk to church, and little to help them when they get there,” (4) He described, quite colourfully, the situation as he found it travelling during and after the war as a priest without his own altar: “Mattins in church was generally a service that took an hour and a half, in a hideous, stuffy, and pretentious building, where the service was marred by bad reading and bad singing, and overlaid under a mass of dreary music, stupid hymns, and sermons that were not interesting.” Nothing beautiful. Nothing relevant. Quite a condemnation, but not an inaccurate one.
What he proposed was a vibrant form of community and worship that linked stirring and beautiful liturgy and music, rousing like the flags and music they followed to war, with engagement in the world. Dearmer called for something to stir the blood, “that something which flutters vivid and universal, eloquent in message, sacred in its associations, passionately calling.”(5) He was looking for that Vexilla regis, that Royal Flag, the Cross that “shines forth in mystic glow where he through whom our flesh was made, in that same flesh our ransom paid.”(6)
He felt that Christianity, in its fullest, was corporate, sacramental, “because the manifestation of the Word in human flesh is itself a sacrament,” indeed, “true worship is sacramental because life itself is sacramental and [human beings] a living sacrament.” He believed, as do I, that “most of the good that [a person] can win in this life comes ... through outward means.”(7) That he could make this affirmation in 1919 says something about his hope for humanity and for the church in the aftermath of so much death and dislocation, and in that I find some inspiration. Dearmer’s observations about the experience of those who served in the Great War and came back to a church they found irrelevant remains true today for the vast majority of people. People are more committed than ever to give themselves over to a cause, to struggle for what they believe in. People are willing to give up their last two coins in the service of something meaningful. Where do we fit into this movement? More to the point, how can we help fashion a world where those who are willing to sacrifice so much are supported and loved are not hung out to dry by those who are willing only to give chump change.
The hope for the world and for the church is found in our engagement, physically, sacramentally, with the stuff of life. It is found in the willingness to commit ourselves body and soul to the work of the Royal Banner, the flag of our King, that flies before us, symbolising all that Jesus himself has given, in our flesh, to bring about the victory of love over death. It is about meeting people where they are, for who they are, in the depth of their need and sorrow, of their trauma and loss, and seeing all people as beloved children of God.
Today we remember both Jesus teaching about the widow’s offering and the end of the First World War. It is a day to remember sacrifice offered, sacrifice made, but look critically at the circumstances that had been created to make these offerings feel expected. People want to make an offering. How do we help make that count, help move in the direction of the Gospel of Love? This is the world to which the church must minister, spread the Gospel of the one who is Love enfleshed, and because of that identity suffered and was killed, and yet rose again on the third day. In this story, as in every Christian story, is resurrection and it is our job to bring that good news to a tired and jaded, war weary world so that all people—rich and poor, according to their ability—will see and hear it and be inspired to respond, all of us together, according to our ability, not just those like the widow giving her last two coins, but all of us with all we have.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
5 November 2018
1. Anthony Powell, Books Do Furnish a Room, A Dance to the Music of Time, 10, 1971 (London: Arrow Books, 2005), 236.
2. Percy Dearmer, The Art of Public Worship (London: A. R. Mowbray & Co. Ltd., 1919), 3.
3. Dearmer 1919, 3.
4. Dearmer 1919, 5-6.
5. Dearmer 1919, 4.
6. The Hymnal 1982, 162. Vexilla Regis proderunt, plainsong hymn attr. Venantius Honorius Fortunatus (540?-600?), trans. The Hymnal 1982.
7. Percy Dearmer, The Church at Prayer (London: James Clarke & Co., Ltd., [s.d.]), 174.
© 2018 Andrew Charles Blume