This is the message for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, 5 November 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY. The Scriptures are Ruth 3: 1 – 5, 4: 13 – 17; Hebrews 9: 24 – 28; and Mark 12: 38 – 44.
Parts of this sermon were adapted from “Yahweh is my God” from “Living the Word” by Michaela Bruzzese in Sojourners, November – December, 2003 and “Living by the Word” by Mary W. Anderson in Christian Century, November 1, 2003.
This is an interesting Sunday, if other Sundays are not. It comes after the day on which an individual can make the single most dynamic expression of independence known to civilization. And it comes just before the 85th anniversary of one of those events that insured that our independence could be expressed by our vote. Last Tuesday was the first Tuesday of November and it is our traditional Election Day. Yet, the majority of citizens of this country, for whatever reason, choose not to participate. And this coming Tuesday will be the 85th anniversary of the “war to end all wars.” I do not know if bells will ring at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month to honor what once was called Armistice Day and is now known as Veterans’ Day. And if they do ring, I am sure that most people will think that it is only a signal to begin shopping for the many specials that will be offered on Tuesday.
It is highly ironic that, in a country that values its independence and speaks so highly of it in the abstract, the people cannot even remember what the holidays are about or what is required of them to insure independence. Ask yourself and then ask others what is the meaning of Memorial Day. Other than a reason to begin summer, why do we celebrate this day? Can the people you know state what it is that Thomas Jefferson wrote and was first adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4th? Do people understand why Benjamin Franklin said, “surely we will hang together or we will hang separately?”
And so you will not be embarrassed when you ask these questions to your friends, Memorial Day was begun as a remembrance of the Union dead of the War Between the States. It was not until after World War I that the meaning of the day was expanded to honor all those who have died in American Wars. And it was not until 1971 that Congress made the day a national holiday.
Major General John A. Logan, head of the Grand Army of the Republic (an organization of Union veterans) picked the day of May 30th as Memorial Day since it was believed that flowers would be in bloom all over the country. General Logan’s orders for that day stated, “We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. … Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.” (From http://www.appc1.va.gov/pubaff/mday/mdayorig.htm)
The opening line of the Declaration of Independence, which was first read on July 4, 1776, was “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and Nature’s God entitled them a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” The statement about self-evident truths is the beginning of the second paragraph.
Benjamin Franklin knew that the struggle for independence was not an individual struggle but a group struggle and were this noble effort of the colonies to fail, all signatories to this Declaration would be hung, either with their comrades or alone. It is interesting to note that when the American people saw the Declaration of Independence for the first time, the only signature on the document was that of John Hancock, the President of the Continental Congress. Most of the other signers did not affix their signatures to the document that resides in the National Archives until a month or so later. But as one of the wealthiest men in our young country, Hancock was acknowledging that he was willing to lose everything, his money and his life, should the fight for independence fail.
We cherish our independence. Jesus’ choice of the widow in the Gospel reading today was not by accident. In those days, there were no rich widows. Women were totally dependent on male relatives for their livelihood. To be a widow meant that you had not only lost someone you loved but that you had also lost the one on whom you were totally dependent.
We seek financial independence because we do not want to be dependent on someone else. Money gives us independence and freedom. In a sense, it gives us the right to determine what our lives will be. But does financial independence mean that we have simply surrendered our independence for a dependence of another form? The issue can never be about the amount of money in our checkbook or the size of our portfolio bur rather what the money does for us? Is it our heart, our security, our source of power. Or is it our tool for stewardship?
When we read of Ruth and Naomi gathering food in the barley field, do we remember that it was the law of the community that commanded farmers to leave some behind for the poor and the strangers. In Leviticus 23:22 we read, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning from your harvest. You shall leave then for the poor and for the stranger: I am the LORD your God.”
What gives us independence? Do we find independence in what we have or the things we seek? Jesus contrasted the example of the widow who gave the two coins with the actions of the church leaders whose superficial piety did nothing to disguise their quest for power and acclaim at the expense of the poor. “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes … and to have … places of honor at the banquets.” (Mark 12: 38 – 40)
Independence really means that your choices are your own. The widow in the Gospel was free to give her money. Those with more would have told her to keep it. Now who has the independence?
The widow trusted in God rather than in her money or rather her lack of it. The same can be said for Ruth. Faced with poverty and an uncertain future, she chose to trust in God. Some may say that Ruth’s marriage to Boaz was preordained but Ruth still had to make the choices and that in itself required trust in God.
The theme of Hebrews throughout these past few weeks has been that it is no longer necessary to offer sacrifices or perform rituals in order to seek redemption. Such things are no longer necessary because of Christ’s single sacrifice. And today we are reminded of that sacrifice and the trust that Jesus placed in God.
Remember that on that night the Last Supper with the disciples and Jesus was alone in the Garden, he was alone in part because the disciples could not keep watch. With all the pressures bearing down on Him, Jesus trusted in God to see that everything would turn out okay. Even facing the fact that one of his best friends, one he had chosen to be by his side for some three years was in the process of betraying Him, Jesus trusted in God.
As we celebrate communion today we will say “We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” It is a measure of our independence that we can say that for it shows that we trust in God first.
The idea of independence can never be measured in terms of money or power. For whatever we have, we always find someone who has more. And if someone has more than we do, then we are limited by what they have, not who we are. Independence is measured in trust.
When John Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence, he implicitly stated his trust in the American people, even though the British army was the best in the world. Independence was gained because there was a trust in the cause and not necessarily in force or might.
When the widow gave her two coins in the offering that day so many years ago, she was stating that she placed her trust in God. When Ruth sought Boaz, it was with trust in God that things would work out. As we read, their marriage leads to the birth of Obed, the father of Jesse and the grandfather of David. Without trust, the House of David could not have been established.
In a world of power and money, people don’t give up power and money since that is what they are defined by. But it is a definition that limits them for they are afraid to lose what they have. That is what makes Christ’s sacrifice so much more important to us. He gave up everything so that we might have freedom over sin and death. And what can be a greater measure of independence than that?