To End All Wars

1 Kings 17:8-16; Mark 12:38-44

Sermon

Good morning! Today is Veterans Day, a day when we honor all those who served this country. On this day, we are especially mindful of those veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice. This holiday was first celebrated in 1919, when it was called Armistice Day. It marked the end of the hostilities in World War I, which ended exactly 100 years ago, today.

The First World War doesn’t occupy the same space in our cultural imagination as World War II. It’s easy to understand why. Most of us know or remember World War II vets. We know them from our families and our churches; there’s still at least one living WWII veteran in this congregation. There are thousands of books, movies, and documentaries that record the events and the lives of the men and women who served in the Second World War. We have an idea of what it looked and felt like. And it’s a story that we like to tell. It’s a story of how the United States, as part of the Allied Powers, overcame the military might of the Axis—Germany, Japan, and Italy—in their attempt to dominate the world. We’re proud to be a part of that story.


World War I was somewhat ambiguous. It wasn’t even called World War I until there was a World War II. At the time, it was called the Great War; some people even called it “the war to end all wars.” The First World War visited death and destruction upon the world on a scale that was previously unimaginable. Between 1914 and 1918 nine million soldiers and seven million civilians were killed.[1] Poison gas was introduced as a weapon of war.

One of the offshoots of World War I was a worldwide influenza pandemic that lasted from January of 1918 to December of 1920. Researchers estimate the total numbers of dead as somewhere between 50 and 100 million people.


The Russian Revolution was another result of World War I. Millions died from warfare and disease. When the Communists came to power, they confiscated farmlands and livestock. At the same time, there were massive droughts. Famine and disease killed millions more.[2]

The war itself was a grim slog. On the Western Front, the war was fought from trenches in Belgium and France. It was four years of mud and disease, shrapnel and gas, and the occasional charge through No-Man’s-Land, the space between the sets of trenches. There was nothing glorious about World War I, so that may be one reason why we don’t seem to remember it.


Most people who’ve served in combat will tell you there’s nothing glorious about it. I’ve never served in the military, but I’ve met a number of veterans over the years. They rarely speak of their time in combat. Oh, they’ll tell you lots of stories about basic training or military bureaucracy, but very few will speak of the horrors they witnessed.


I’m sure that some soldiers don’t want to relive those awful experiences. They know that the rest of us don’t understand the burdens that they bear; we don’t appreciate the weight of the grief that they carry. They lost some of the best friends they ever knew. More than a few combat veterans suffer from survivor’s guilt.


So, I understand why so few veterans are willing to share the worst of their experiences with the rest of us. Unfortunately, those of us who didn’t serve are left with a distorted picture of their experiences. We see movies that glorify the combat. We also get lots and lots of biographies and movies about men like Churchill or Eisenhower or Patton or MacArthur. Yes, their stories are important, but it was the masses of young men who offered their lives as a sacrifice—they were the ones who won the wars, to say nothing of the men and women who worked in the factories to supply those soldiers and sailors. The people without famous names, whose stories are known mostly by their families.


Both our Old and New Testament lessons this morning feature nameless women who were willing to make great sacrifices, the Widow of Zarephath and the widow who gave two copper coins. We never get to hear their personal names. Each one is known only by the relationship she used to have, by the fact that her husband is dead. And each one responds in righteousness when she is called. The Widow of Zarephath is called to share the very last of her food with the prophet Elijah. The widow in our gospel lesson makes a very small offering, but those two coins are all that she has in the world.


At this point, you might be wondering if this is a stewardship sermon. You might even be thinking, “Is the pastor gonna ask us to give more money?” Maybe. But, as Jesus said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes.”


Before we go there, let’s spend a little more time with the widows. The widows are alone. They lack resources. Particularly the woman in the gospel story. We don’t know anything about her. We don’t know if she has children. We don’t know if she has any relatives who might look out for her. We can guess that she doesn’t have any property, because Jesus says that the two coins that she gave were all she had.


It’s easy to use her. It’s easy to hold her up as an example of true righteousness—she trusts in God completely and she gives everything back to the Lord. Pastors love to use her generosity like a club; we want to use her to squeeze more money out of you. We want to make you feel guilty, so that you all cough up a little bit more when the collection plate comes around. That’s my trick.


You folks in the pews like to use her, too. We want to pretend we’re like her, and then we want to hold her up to the people that we think are truly rich. We like to point to her and say, “I’m like her, I’m giving all I can.” And then we start to stutter, “Pastor, don’t hit me up! Go talk to the rich folks—they’re not paying their fair share! I mean, isn’t that what Jesus is saying?”


You know what? When we start using this widow as an example of how other people should behave, then we become like the scribes in this story. We become self-righteous. And the widow ceases to be a real person. We fail to see our own shortcomings and we overlook the real person behind the two copper coins. We don’t really want to be like her, without power or money. We want to be like the rich people in this story. We want to give generously and we want everyone to notice our generosity. We want to be lottery winners who give extravagantly to the church—and all sorts of worthy causes—while still living the high life. We’re all happy to share our blessings, so long as our blessings include an abundance of material wealth. But none of us truly wants to be that widow. None of us wants to imagine what it’s like to be in her shoes; we’d rather fantasize about being rich. If we stay in a place of self-righteousness, then we don’t need to change. Everyone else might need to change, not us.


Here’s the truth about us: if we truly noticed the widow, we might have to engage with her. We might have to ask why she’s a widow. We might have to ask why her children can’t or won’t support her. We might have to get to know her and listen to her story. And that story might be filled with pain—a pain that we can’t change or take away. It’s really tough to sit with people when there’s nothing you can do to take away the pain.


I would bet that the widow in this story isn’t likely to offer up her emotional burdens. She’s kinda like the combat veteran who doesn’t want to share the pain of watching his buddies die around him or share the guilt of surviving and living a good life. There’s no good answer to questions like, “why me?” or “why did I survive?”


Grief and pain are isolating experiences. Isolation can keep a person from truly living into the joy of God’s love and mercy. In isolation, past traumas retain power over a person’s life. Past traumas shape and mis-shape the rest of a person’s life. This is as true for soldiers as it is for victims of child abuse or domestic violence. The only way forward is relationship.

Through relationship we can develop trust and create the space to hear painful stories. People won’t share stories when they don’t trust, and trust takes time. So, invite people in, but don’t expect to hear the difficult stories right away. However, if you create that space and build that trust—with anyone—then you should expect to be changed through that relationship. An invitation into relationship is an invitation to be changed, for both parties.

So, yeah, this is a stewardship sermon. But I’m not asking you to give more money. I’m calling for you to open yourselves up for more relationships. I’m calling for you to invite new people into your lives and into this community of faith, so that you and the people you invite can be changed through relationships and by this you can transform the world outside of these walls. I’m calling for you to search for the widow and the orphan, for blind Bartimaeus, as well as the lonely veteran, and invite each of them into this church and into relationship.

Here’s one final thought. The First World War, was sometimes called the “War to End All Wars.” It didn’t. The victorious allies sought to punish and shame the Germans. The Treaty of Versailles formally ended World War I. But it offered peace without justice; it created a situation that would eventually lead to an economic collapse in Germany. The Treaty of Versailles helped to create the conditions that enabled Hitler to rise to power; it paved the road to World War II. The Allied leaders failed to imagine that they would do more harm than good by punishing and shaming all of Germany. The Allied leaders failed to imagine themselves as ordinary people; the consequences were disastrous.


Let us search for the widows and orphans in our midst, as well as the veterans and the survivors of trauma, and let us offer them a community where their burdens are shared and where they are no longer isolated. I don’t know how many wars it’ll prevent, but I know it is part of the work of building God’s kingdom. Let us go forth from this place with open eyes and ears and hearts and minds and seek out those who are in need of relationship. Thanks be to God. Amen


Benediction

Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to break down the walls of hostility that separate us from one another. So, go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!

[1] H.P. Willmott. World War I. New York: Dorling Kindersley (2003).

[2] Ralph Raico, “Marxist Dream and Soviet Realities,” Mises Daily, April 20, 2012; retrieved from: https://mises.org/library/marxist-dreams-and-soviet-realities#ref24


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First Presbyterian Church of Freehold

732-462-0234

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118 West Main Street

Freehold, NJ 07728

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