Pentecost 24, Year B Remembrance Day
Readings: Ruth 3:1–5; 4:13–17; Psalm 127; (Hebrews 9:24–28); Mark 12:38–44
Remembrance Day carries so many different memories for all of us. We have such different relationships to the two major conflicts of the Western world in the 20th century, and all the other hostilities. Perhaps we remember the Second World War and its leadup and followup and combatants and all the feelings. Perhaps reflection on military matters brings back recollections of a later war: tear gas, love beads, draft dodgers, deep social divisions, or Desert Storm, IEDs, Taliban, schools for girls. The national flag, the national anthem, the Last Post–cause for weeping for some, embarrassment, anger, or apathy for others. High schools full of another generation of young people summoned to attend to adult memories from before their birth, aged veterans with their shopping bags of memorabilia, the poppy poem.
All those affected by the First War prayed that it would be the war to end all wars, so horrific were the tactics and the carnage. As a result of it, biochemical weapons were banned from the battlefield. One side won that war, but everybody lost the peace, and in twenty years, the guns were booming and barking again, to regain lost dignity, to reassert dominance. So more plaques were made and hung on more church walls. More battles and dates were carved into cenotaphs marking strife.
This time we did the peace differently. So far, so good, for three generations, if we ignore the list of ongoing conflicts we heard here back on Peace Sunday. Now new tensions are testing Europe once again. How united will those nations prove to be as the economic situation worsens and everyone is tempted to look out for themselves? As neo-fascist movements gain ground, and those deemed different are scapegoated once again?
Remember. So much to remember. Propaganda campaigns on all sides succeed in whipping up support for combat. Everyone is recruited to do their bit. A terrible blow today, a stunning victory the next. A long-running far away football game with the line of scrimmage moving back and forth over months and years–Maginot, Ypres, the Somme, Dieppe, Boulogne, the Ardenne, Monte Cassino. Society suddenly organized for a common cause as never before. Other people moving into the paid workforce for the first time. A daycare system and unemployment insurance are suddenly created, only to disappear when hostilities end. And as always, certain people getting rich by producing material.
How to sort out the memories? What to learn from it all? “What they could do with 'round here is a good war.” Bertholt Brecht, the German poet, playwright and theatre director, being sardonic. “What else can you expect with peace running wild all over the place? You know what the trouble with peace is? No organization.”
War certainly takes organization. One of the veterans of the Canadian contingent to Afghanistan was contrasting his life there, on the front lines, with his peace time life now in response to a reporter’s questions. He notes how the imperative of combat pushed the usual priorities for an adult into the background. Paying taxes, work, children, the messy stuff of peace all superseded by the urgent need to do this adrenalin-filled job while trying to avoid dying. Another German, Thomas Mann, the German novelist, shares Brecht’s conclusion about war: “War is only a cowardly escape from the problems of peace.”
The problems of peace. The problems all around us. Jobs, justice, pollution, resources, sexism, drugs, mental illness, all illness, the search for dignity. Bullying, homophobia, poverty, wealth–the list goes on. Very messy, very persistent. Have we structured our society so that we can address them to honour those who fought for freedom? Have we reached the limits of democracy, or have we barely tried it yet?
Who is the foe, and what is the quarrel? The poet was talking about the conflict of his day, of course. 1915. McCrae didn’t know when he wrote it that he would be among the dead mere months later, handing the torch on to others to hold it high as poppies blow between the crosses, row on row.
The question lives, though. If we encounter a foe big enough, don’t just quarrel, declare war on it– poverty, drugs, terror. Marshall all resources to combat it. Override normal rules and rights. Organize all sectors. Achieve victory. Rest. It must be tempting, in a country such as the United States which has been at war almost continuously since it was founded by war, where the President is also the Commander-in-Chief, to see every problem from a military point of view, always solvable by a war.
What are the options? What would people who have a bible and a love for God, self and others have to offer in place of an us-against-them approach? Where does prayer, or communion, or singing fit into desperate conflicts, when two sides are reaching for arrows, or spears, or small arms, or nukes? We have our stories to offer. Stories that reveal a different vision of how things could be, are meant to be. Stories about women today, as it happens. Ruth and the least coin woman. Ruth the foreigner, the Moabite, the foe. Least coin woman observed by an itinerant teacher and preacher. Ruth the hero of a beautiful story developed to make a point about faithfulness and exclusion. Copper coin woman praised to teach about faithfulness and status.
The book of Ruth comes after the Exile, when Hebrew society was inclined on the one hand to see itself as exceptional, different, exclusive. “Divorce your foreign partners! Racial purity! No consorting!” On the other hand, some people imagined Israel as “a blessing in the midst of the earth,” and “a light to the nations.” (Isaiah 19:24, 42.6) Ruth, the foreigner, resolves conflict through her imagination and her courage. Her Jewish husband has died before any children were born. Her husband’s brother has also died, also childless. Who will bear children for the family? Her mother-in-law, Naomi, goes home. Ruth goes with her, and we get a tender love story between Ruth and a well-to-do cousin, Boaz. In the end, they marry, and Ruth has a child at last. Not just any child, but the grandfather of David, Israel’s greatest king.
The story is about racial tolerance. It’s about how love and loyalty are intermingled with each other, and better than hatred or hostility.
The story about the widow and her small coins is a bit different. What is sacrifice, really? What is the foe for this poor widow? How does she go about the quarrel with it? Jesus is aware that for the decision makers in his day God’s dream of world of dignity for all is the foe. Jesus’ allies in working for this dream, this vision are here and there, unlikely people. Widows, hated tax collectors, foreigners, people with severe physical or mental challenges, those who have downsized in a changing 1st century economy, or I think the phrase we use now is going through workforce adjustment.
They don’t fight fire with fire, fear with fear. The people Jesus learns from, admires, imitates, resist peacefully, with their heads up. They may not “smile, smile, smile” as the old song goes, but neither do they threaten violence, or demonize those who cling to a different vision. They practice good stewardship: in the story about Ruth, we find her in Boaz’ fields harvesting the portion that God insists belongs to those without land. We catch sight of Copper Coin Woman as she takes her only two coins, lepta, they were called, off her headdress and put them both into the treasury. She’s making a total commitment.
That leaves us. Who is the foe for us, for you? How did that start, and how long has it been going on? Is it boredom, depression, some substance, a relative, a social system, yourself? And how is the quarrel going? Who is on your side? What is your strategy, what are your tactics? How do you gain from Jesus’ example, or Ruth’s, or Least Coin Woman’s? Is there anything you would not do, any tactic you would not use in your struggle? Why? Is there any way to befriend your foe, any bridge across the divide you have not tried yet? And how much do you need the quarrel in your life because it’s an escape from other problems?
Remembrance Day. A day not to forget. A day to learn from the past. A day to honour those who gave their all. A day to honour the power of the foe, and to admit the capacity we all have to be the foe. A day for trumpets and a day for silence. A day for tears and a day for hopeful smiles. “Be yours to hold it high.” Does that mean take up the same techniques, the same propaganda, the same goal as those who are passing the torch to us? Or do we have permission to depart from the way they quarrelled? To remember the future differently.
This is the part where you allow to yourself that the quarrel may be more than you can handle alone. That you need allies, a plan, and most of all, a vision of a different future. A dream that grabs you and fills your horizon, that gives you energy to reframe the quarrel, to move on from win-lose to another way of being in the world. This is the part where you accept that you are a person of dignity. That’s what pours out of the stories about two long-ago women today–their dignity in the face of adversity, their confidence that non-violence is the better, the sustainable, the sacred, the only real way to go. Learn from them.
Non-violence: no violent thoughts about yourself or others, no violent decisions, no violent language, no acceptance of violence on the part of others. A total commitment. What do they say at the poker table? All in. A pledge to make this Remembrance Day.