Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
November 11, 2018
“We Need to Stop Making Heroes”
Mark 12: 41-44 – Common English Bible
Jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. Many rich people were throwing in lots of money. 42 One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny.[a] 43 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. 44 All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.”.
I’m glad I had a few days to process Tuesday’s election. But even more to the point, how to preach about it. After all, as a church, our concern isn’t about how one party did vs. another but how issues were impacted related to our vision of a world that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. I was reminded that we must still pray for the day when the right of people to vote and equity in representation, among other things, would unite us as Americans instead of divide us as parties. For now, that does not seem to be the case. Or is it? Do I perceive dawn on the horizon?
These weren’t simply the result of a blue wave but something broader, cross-partisan. They make me more hopeful today than I was just a few days ago.
Of course, the bigger story is that Congress will be more diverse than ever.
If you don’t know her story, her son was Jordan Davis. You may remember, Jordan was murdered by white man in 2012 while sitting in a parked car with friends at a gas station in Florida. Michael Dunn fired ten times at a car of unarmed black teenagers during an argument over loud music. He then drove away, went to a hotel, and ordered pizza. He cited Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, claiming he felt threatened by the teenagers, who never left their car. It still took two trials to convict him of first degree murder. Well, out of that tragedy, Jordan’s mother became a gun control advocate and was just elected to Congress. In Georgia. In the former district of Newt Gingrich.
That’s a lot of good news. There were plenty of disappointments too, including for the environment. But I wondered how I could tie all of this good news to today’s gospel story. The story about a widow and her two small coins wouldn’t appear to have much in common with election results.
But listen to all the things I mentioned. We celebrate the restoration of voting rights. Increased access to health care and raising the minimum wage. Limiting interest charged to the most vulnerable. Removing slavery from our state constitution. We rightfully celebrate these things. But, then again, why must we celebrate something that should already be?
But in the same way, in our gospel story, why do we celebrate that a poor widow gave away literally everything she had? That’s how this story is often told. We praise her “choice” to be generous. This is often used as an inspirational story for stewardship campaigns, with the message, go and do likewise. But it is a false interpretation to suggest that the purpose of the story is to praise the widow. Yes, she is certainly worthy of praise. But the story actually started three verses earlier, often left out of those inspirational stewardship sermons.
You didn’t hear this part earlier. It starts with Jesus outside of the Temple teaching. He observed and pointed and said, “Watch out for the scribes. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. 39 They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. 40 They are the ones who cheat widows out of their houses, and to show off, they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.”
We may think it’s about her generosity but it’s only after those verses that then he pointed at the widow who put everything she had into the temple treasury. It wasn’t praise so much as a statement. Or, an indictment. What kind of system would expect her to give away literally everything she had while others put in their spare change? She should have been protected.
Which makes me think: What kind of system would celebrate the restoration of voting rights? Limiting interest to only 36%! Increased access to health care and a living wage? Why don’t people already have those things? Sitting in the Temple courtyard teaching, Jesus might have a thing or two to say about or to us.
On Wednesday morning we awoke once again to news of a mass shooting. Over breakfast, we have a standard set of questions: How many victims? What city this time? There’s really no emotion left we haven’t expressed. And then we go to work. I don’t think the NRA even bothers to offer thoughts and prayers anymore.
This time we mourn a hero. Ventura County Sheriff's Sergeant Ron Helus was killed while responding to the shooting. We thank him and all who put their lives on the line every day they show up for work. Thank goodness there are people willing to do that for our public safety. But we don’t need any more heroes. We need to stop making more heroes.
Just as Jesus did at the Temple, he would sit with his disciples and observe the Sergeant’s flag-draped coffin, pointing out how he literally gave everything he had.
Jesus would shake his head and point at all of them and say, “They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off, they say long prayers.” Is it the sergeant’s heroic sacrifice that Jesus points out as much as the cowardice that creates the need for heroes? It makes for a good distraction.
On Veterans Day we celebrate heroes. Especially men and women whose lives were lost serving their country. People like the mayor of North Ogden, Utah. Major Brent Taylor was killed a few weeks ago on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan by someone he was training, leaving behind a widow and seven children. His sacrifice was indeed heroic and worthy of praise. But we don’t need any more heroes like that. We need to stop making heroes. Like the poor widow and the sergeant, he literally gave away everything he had. He shouldn’t have had to.
No disrespect for any of their sacrifice is meant, but the larger issue for Jesus in the story of the widow was the hypocrisy of the authorities desperate for places of honor in the market and at banquets. The ones responsible for cheating widows out of their homes or cheating soldiers out of their life. In turn they soothe their conscience with talk of heroes. If we want to praise heroes, we need to stop making them necessary, either from war, gun violence, or poverty. How can we redeem their sacrifice? Lucy McBath did exactly that when she won a seat in Congress on behalf of her son murdered by another racist claiming to be “standing their ground.” Instead of refusing entry to refugees we can elect them to Congress.
Among the good news is an increase of veterans elected to Congress from both parties. Neither can claim to be on the exclusive side of veterans. That’s a really good thing.
As many of you know, Veterans Day was originally observed as Armistice Day marking the end of the “war to end all wars” at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month – one hundred years ago today. In Latin, armistice means literally “arms stand still.”
Congress declared this date “should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.” Since it ended up not being the war that ended all wars, it seems they gave up on Armistice Day and renamed it Veterans Day in 1954. Instead of pursuing peace anymore, we turned it into a day for heroes.
But the words of the original call to Armistice Day still resonate: a day of thanksgiving for the service of veterans as well as caregivers who walk with them after bullets and bombs have stopped flying but the ravages of war continue through injuries of body, mind, and spirit.
Secondly, a day of prayer by people of all faiths for the time when arms stand still.
But not just prayer. Or thoughts and prayers. The third thing Congress declared is a day of exercises to perpetuate peace, explained in 1918, through “good will and mutual understanding between nations.”
Perhaps we could expand on that and seek even good will and mutual understanding among the people of just one nation. Our nation. We proved on Tuesday that bridges can be built – across lines of difference, suspicion, and hostility. And in exchange, some voting rights were restored and protected, access to health care was increased, and some people achieved closer to a living wage.
Sure, it should already be that way. But instead of seeing what’s not there, let’s keep working toward what is possible when friends and opponents work together for a world that is at least a little more open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. A world that doesn’t need more heroes. Or widows.
 SALT Project Collective reflection on Armistice Day
I love being the