Posted by on Nov 11, 2018

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Giving Everything & The Grass that Suffers: Thoughts for Remembrance Day

Ruth 4:13-17, Psalm 127; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

Sunday, November 11, 2018 – Remembrance Sunday – The Season of the Saints

Knox-Metropolitan United Church – Regina, SK – Treaty 4 Territory

Cameron Fraser

There is a proverb among the Kikuyu people of Kenya, in East Africa.

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

I read this first in the context of an author pondering how in war, it is disproportionally those who hold the least power, who are the most vulnerable – whether socially, politically, or economically – that suffer the most.

Incidentally, this proverb is also used as the title of award winning Brazilian journalist Lara Lee’s 2012 documentary film about the war in Syria, viewed from the perspective of children living in refugee camps in Turkey.

This also seems to me to reflect the witness of our reading from the Gospel of Mark.

The context of the Gospel of Mark is conflict — it was written during an armed uprising against the Roman Imperial military colonial occupation of Jewish Palestine, and during this conflict, like so many others, indeed the vulnerable suffer the most.

Jesus sits down in the temple area, opposite the treasury, and watches the people who are putting in money…

Many rich people put in large sums. 

A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 

For many these verses, often called, the story of the widow’s mite, is a familiar biblical tale.

The story has become so ubiquitous that the term widows mite has come to be synonymous with generous giving, a virtuous tale of how even those who have little can still give generously and selflessly. But I would suggest that there is in fact more going on – not all of it is nice and rosy – and I would suggest that this is less as a celebration of self-sacrifice or stewardship and more as exposing systemic injustice.

We often read the putting of money into the treasury as akin to putting something into the offering plate here on Sunday morning – but that’s not quite it.

The treasury that Jesus is watching is where people brought their mandatory temple tax – a system that historians suggest was horribly corrupt, bankrupting the poor while benefiting the rich.

The passage begins with a warning Beware of the scribes – part of the establishment tasked with managing this system of temple taxes – who in the midst of their love of wearing the fanciest robes, being greeted with honour and having the best seats, devour widows’ houses.

Mere verses later, we see that devouring being played out.  A widow, gives her last two coins to an exploitative system that unjustly and disproportionately weighs heavy demands upon the most vulnerable, the very ones that society has received a sacred call to remember and protect – while those who benefit most congratulate themselves on the sums they are able to contribute while maintaining their own comfortable, wealthy positions of indifference and privilege.

The crafters of the Lectionary stop the reading here, but the very next verses see Jesus look upon the temple in sadness, stating that note one of these stones, off this edifice, this physical manifestation of a cruel, and corrupt system will remain.

I don’t believe that this is a moral tale setting an example of what generosity looks like, but that it is in fact more about Jesus teaching a lesson about becoming literate in identifying systems of injustice – as the most vulnerable, the very ones the society is called to remember and protect, are forgotten, and bear the burden of holding up the very system by which they are exploited and neglected.

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

In November 1918, 100 years ago, school teacher Miss Moina Belle Michael read John McRae’s poem In Flanders Fields which we heard early she was transfixed by the final lines:

‘To you from failing hands we throw the Torch; be yours to hold it high. 

If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, 

though poppies grow in Flanders Fields’.

She would later describe this a spiritual experience, one that would set the trajectory of the rest of her life.

After the war was over, as professor at the University of Georgia she taught a class of decommissioned soldiers, mostly now disabled, broken in body and mind, and she quickly realized that the nation who sent these young people to fight, were now, upon their return, not adequately caring for their needs — in the words of the poem, not keeping faith.

She pursued the idea of selling silk poppies as a means of raising funds to assist disabled veterans. In 1921, her efforts resulted in the poppy being adopted as a symbol of remembrance for war veterans by the American Legion Auxiliary, and by Earl Haig’s British Legion Appeal Fund (later The Royal British Legion) later that year.

The poppy was for her, a call to remember both those who died, and those who returned home, changed and deeply vulnerable.

For the past few years, this time of year, I think about the time in which I was privileged to sit with the family of Jack Rennie, planning his memorial service in the fall of 2015. I was moved to hear the stories of their dad flying bombing missions in Europe during World War Two – being shot down on his 21st birthday, spending horrific months as a Prisoner of War – surviving the death march chained to a stranger who would become a life-long friend.

They told me the story of how his sister, who was serving as a nurse in England at the time (her own story full of courage) helped him find himself again, in those first months after captivity – he survived an awful experience in Europe they said, but it she that saved his life.

They told me about how Jack spent so much time after his time in the military – still fighting – but fighting for veterans, soldiers, medics and nurses alike – caring for those that a system called to remember, all to often, seemed to forget or ignore.

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

I have a colleague, a United Church minister currently serving as a chaplain with the Canadian Armed Forces on the West Coast.  He’s spoken about how he would be preaching this morning to a United Church congregation near the base, and letting that congregation know about the number of currently serving soldiers, and young veterans that he sits with daily who worry that they are beyond the love of God or the acceptance of their community because of what they have witnessed, and what they themselves have done – and that he as a chaplain working with those who pay a horrific price in service – that he has never met anyone who abhors war more than a soldier, who has seen up close how awful are the things that human beings can do to one another, and who long that we make true our promise to remember on this one day, by working 364 others to see systemic change whereby the needs of those among them who suffer are adequately met, and that we build a world where no others need do what they did.

As we were in silence this morning I am though of Mike’s words, and the people he works with every day.

I thought of Jack Rennie and the many veterans he fought to ensure would not be forgotten.

I thought of Nancy Sutherland a member of the congregation I served in Ontario, who fell in love and married a young Canadian soldier stationed on the base near the tiny town she grew up in on the Southern Coast of England.

I thought of Morris who I met in Ghana, West Africa.  Morris and I are the same age, but when he was 11 he was taken by the Liberian Army and forced to fight until he was 18 – who almost half his life later, struggles to find acceptance in his society, and forgiveness within his own heart.

I thought of Mysaa who I met at a refugee event held a few years ago in the Lower Hall, who came to Canada from Syria just one year earlier and who still does not know where all of her family members are.

I try to take all my complicated and conflicted thoughts about violence and war, about justice and systems that exploit, and somehow quiet them and remember.

I try to remember how still today, in the midst of war and conflict that it the most vulnerable who disproportionately suffer.

I think about how – When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers most.

Like a widow forced to give her only two coins to a system though built to care for her, overlooks her, like the students in Monia Michael’s University class, where she made the first silk poppy.

Someone has carefully and loving carved row upon row of names on plaques that hang just outside of this room of the young people from this community and the congregations who made up this church – who answered a call to service, and who faced horrors beyond my imagining.

For every name on those lists there were those who did not leave, but who worked, prayed, waited, and hoped – who gave and served in so many other courageous and sacrificial ways.

And, I remember that in life, in death, in life beyond death.

God is with us.  We are not alone.