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Worship and Sermons
November 11, 2018

“Everyday Foxhole Faith” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, November 11, 2018, Year B / 25th Sunday after Pentecost – 1 Kings 17:8-16 and Psalm 146  •  Hebrews 9:24-28  •  Mark 12:38-44

THEME:  Learn to love the vulnerable as God loves us.

It’s often said there are no atheists in fox holes.  That’s a difficult thing to prove, but, as some of you know firsthand, war can have a profound effect on faith.

A few years ago, a team of researchers from Cornell University tried to measure that phenomenon.  They surveyed 1,000 WWII veterans to find out how their war experience influenced their religious involvement.

What they found was a strong, positive connection.  Soldiers who experienced intense combat were more than twice as likely to turn to prayer as those who did not.  That experience of relying on God in the face of death often had a lifelong effect on their faith.

That’s precisely what happened to the great author and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis.  In November, 1917, he joined the ranks of 6 million British soldiers called into the fighting in WWI.

Lewis was stationed on the Western Front in Northern France.  On April 14th, 2018, his unit took part in a counter-offensive charge.  Shrapnel from a German shell left him seriously injured and he was sent back to England to recuperate.

Having entered the war a confirmed atheist, Lewis began to consider faith as he reflected on the enormous number of casualties, including some of his friends.  As he rode the train back to a London hospital, he looked out at the English countryside.  In that springtime beauty, he sensed the reality of the presence of God. 

It was the beginning of a spiritual journey that would eventually lead C.S. Lewis to become one of his generation’s most influential advocates for Christianity.  It all began in his encounter with death.

I suspect something similar has happened to the widow whom Jesus points out to his disciples in our gospel text.  As they stand in the Temple courtyard, wealthy men come forward to deposit their tithes and voluntary offerings into various chests around the walls of the of the courtyard.  Each chest has a brass funnel shaped like a trumpet horn. As the heavy coins are dropped in, they make a distinctive clanking sound.

And then along comes someone who stands out from the rest:  a widow clutching something in her hand.  She approaches one of the wooden chests, reaches up to the mouth of the brass horn and drops in her offering.  It’s obvious from the gentle tinkling sound that she’s just deposited two of the very smallest coins.

In monetary terms it was a tiny gift.  A day’s wage for the poor was one denarius.  Each of her two small copper coins were worth 1/64th of a denarius.  It was barely enough to buy a few grapes.

But, as Jesus points out to his disciples, the value of her gift far exceeds that of even the wealthiest contributors.  Unlike them, her gift represents all her material wealth.  The value of her gift is not determined by the coinage, but by what it represented.

Just like the widow of Zarapheth entrusted her last drop of oil and spoonful of meal to God’s purposes through Elijah, so does this widow offer to God all that stands between her and death.  It’s an expression of supreme trust in God.

The contrast with the Scribes could hardly be greater.  They trust only in themselves.  They are self-important, self-serving, and self-aggrandizing. 

The irony is they are the experts in the Jewish law.  They know better than anyone that the law requires them to care for the widow and the orphan, the stranger and the outcast.

But they do the exact opposite.  They feed on the vulnerable.  They offer to manage widows’ money for them and then take extravagant, unwarranted fees for themselves until there’s no more money left for the widow!  They trust in money, power and status – not God.

But we remember from last week, that one scribe understand  the requirements of the law as Jesus summarized them:  love God with your whole heart, mind, soul and strength and your neighbor as yourself.

But this poor widow is the only one putting Jesus’ Great Commandment into practice.  And the question we might ask is why is she down to her last pennies?  Who is looking out for her?

It’s as if you and I are right there with the disciples in the Temple courtyard, watching and listening as Jesus holds up her faithfulness for us to emulate.

I daresay, most of us would like to see ourselves as possessing the kind of faith in God she did.  But in truth, we are all more like the scribes than we care to admit.  Which is why, on this Veterans’ Day, we celebrate the selflessness of those who choose to serve their country in the military. 

Today is, in fact, the 100th anniversary of the event that gave rise to Veterans’ Day.  On this day in 1918, at 11:00 am - the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month - the ceasefire called for in the Treaty of Versailles took effect, marking the end of WWI.

For many of those soldiers who survived, it was the beginning of a new life of faith.  The same has been true, of course, for the survivors of other wars.

The battlefield is not the only place where such transforming foxhole faith develops.  It sometimes happens to those who’ve come face to face with death in a car accident or an unexpected diagnosis of serious illness.

I know some of you are in this position right now.  You know better than anyone, that it’s a time that tests and clarifies our faith.  Most of us know folks whose faith has been confirmed and solidified in exactly this way. 

Today, in addition to our Veterans, we also celebrate those of you who are caregivers.  Many of you have stories to tell of ministering to friends and loved ones as they approach illness or death with a new or renewed confidence in the new life to come with Christ. 

Whichever of these categories you fall into, you know you’ve been blessed when you encounter this kind of Christian conviction.  It’ s nothing less than the full trust in God that Jesus commends in the widow. 

But for most of us, daily life does not include dramatic brushes with our mortality.  How do we nurture this firm, foxhole faith and keep it flourishing?  In other words, how do we avoid the temptation to love ourselves like the scribes do, and learn to love God like the widow does?

Maybe the best way is to rededicate ourselves to doing what the scribes should have done - caring for those who are vulnerable like the widow.  When we learn to love them the way God loves us, our hearts grow and our lives change.  I can think of no better example of this than a French-Canadian writer and Christian entrepreneur named Jean Vanier.

Jean Vanier served in WWII as an officer in the Royal Canadian Navy.  After visiting survivors of the Nazi death camps, he began to feel God tugging at his heart.  His first step on the path toward faithfulness was to return to school in Paris.  There he earned a PhD in Ethics, and wrote his thesis on Aristotle and the nature of happiness.  But, after teaching for a few years, he once again felt the pull to live a more spiritual life.

Then, in 1964, through his friendship with a French Catholic priest, Vanier became aware of the plight of persons with disabilities.  Thousands of these so-called ‘Idiots’ were languishing in mental hospitals and institutions.  He decided to visit them.  If you’ve seen “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” you’ll have some idea of what he encountered.  The thing that most moved him was how lonely these people were.  No one loved them.

He decided then and there that God was calling him to do something about this.  So, he invited two of the men to come and live with him.  The transformation he witnessed in them was nothing short of miraculous.  So was the transformation in his own heart.

From that humble beginning, emerged a ministry of 137 group homes across the world where disabled persons live with volunteer helpers in a communal setting that is very much like a family.  The impact is felt by both the community members and their care-givers.  It is the power of loving and being loved.

Earlier this year, a documentary film covering Jean Vanier’s life and ministry came out.  It’s called “Summer in the Forest.”  In an interview, Vanier said, “Look, there are two realities, two cultures. There is a culture of power and there is a culture of relationships.  The men and women I live with see that it’s good to be together and we don’t have to solve all the problems of the world when we are together. They teach me to lighten up.”

Friends, we all need to lighten up and love a little more. 

Yet another bitterly-contested election has left us just as angry and divided as we were before.  The need has never been greater to learn to trust God’s love completely and to love one another, especially those who are different, and most especially those who are like the widow:  marginalized, powerless and vulnerable. 

I’ll bet you can think of someone in your life who needs love.  The truth is we need to learn to love them every bit as much as they need to be loved. 

That is how we nurture everyday foxhole faith:  by living and loving as those prepared to die, so that we might die as those prepared to live. 

May it be so.

Last Published: November 13, 2018 2:22 PM
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