To End All Wars

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


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 o