Rev. Sabrina Ingram Remembrance Day
1 Kings 17: 8 – 16; Mark 12: 41 – 44

A young man we know married an American girl and served with their Armed Forces for 5 years. Apart from basic training, he trained as a sniper and he applied to be a Navy Seal. He was sent on a 36-hour wilderness survival exercise and in the last couple hours he injured his ankle but finished the exercise limping. He was disqualified because he returned to base 2 minutes late. Among other deployments, he was saw action in Afghanistan and was part of the peace-keeping expedition in Darfur. In his training, one of the first things he was told is, “From this moment on, you are dead.” He was told this for a few reasons. On the battlefield, he’d see many dead bodies, including his comrades – he needed to expect this; there’d be no time for grief or trauma. If he took death seriously – an “it’s him or me” approach – he wouldn’t hesitate to kill someone. And, if you’re already dead, putting yourself in harm’s way is easier. You have nothing to lose. We’re grateful he survived. Many don’t. Not only did he think of himself as dead, his wife did too. While he was deployed, she was a “widow in spirit”. And, of course, war creates many actual widows. Sacrifice takes a lot of forms.

Today we heard “a tale of two widows”. We don’t know their circumstances. We do know being a widow in the time of Elijah was a tough life. If your husband’s family didn’t provide for you, you were forced to beg or worse. In Jesus’ day, 900 years later, things hadn’t changed. The destiny of a widowed woman was stark, degrading and limited. Despite their poverty, we remember these two women for their extraordinary sacrifices.

We don’t know much about the widow Jesus saw. We do know she was dirt poor. Jesus was spending the afternoon sitting in the temple, not far from the offering box, watching people make their donations. He noticed a number of wealthy people making generous contributions. Then along came this widow who dropped a couple pennies into the box. Many people would sneer at such a donation. What difference could that small amount of money make? Why did she bother? We may wonder the same thing. Maybe she could have begged for more and gotten a bit to eat. Maybe this woman thought she had nothing to lose. Death was nipping at her heals, why not give in? But perhaps she thought that since she had little to lose, she’d give what she did have as a sign of her trust in God. Jesus saw her generosity. He called over his disciples and pointed out, “…this poor widow gave more to the collection than all the others put together. All the others gave what they’ll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford—she gave her all” (Mark 12: 34 & 44)

At the time of Elijah, Israel was suffering due to drought. The wadis had dried up, impacting the crops and animals. Food and water were scarce. Elijah, God’s prophet, was directed to go to Zerephath, a Phoenician city, where a gentile woman would feed him. Upon arriving Elijah met a poor, thin widow and asked for water and a little something to eat. To mooch off a widow at the best time takes a certain callousness and nerve, but to approach this woman was an appalling act of faith. The woman told him, “I don’t have so much as a biscuit. I have a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a bottle; you found me scratching together just enough firewood to make a last meal for my son and me. After we eat it, we’ll die.” (1 Kings 17: 12). Elijah instructed her to go ahead and do that, “But first make a small biscuit for me and bring it back here” (vs. 13). Anyone listening would have been disgusted by his selfishness. We’d have likely said it was a poor witness to the gentiles around him. Perhaps the woman was also sickened by Elijah’s selfishness. Elijah went on to promise her, “The jar of flour will not run out and the bottle of oil will not become empty before God sends rain on the land and ends this drought” (vs. 14). I wonder what went through this woman’s mind. On the one hand, she already saw herself as dead. One more meal wasn’t going to make much difference. She had nothing to lose. On the other hand, she had a son. She had everything to lose. Hope might have been faint, but one last meal would keep them alive for another day or two. The widow decided to trust Elijah and his God. Her life was in God’s hands. She made the ultimate sacrifice. She did as Elijah asked, and God kept his promise, “The jar of meal didn’t run out and the bottle of oil didn’t become empty” (vs. 16). The woman and her son survived the drought. She had given her all.

The tales of these two widows may have been recorded as a lesson on stewardship or to show how God’s faithfulness. What’s remarkable about them is that two poor women gave their all out of love for God. They risked their lives unselfishly and we don’t see that very often. Six people were trapped in a dark, cold cave. Each had a stick of wood. The fire in the middle of the cave was waning. The first woman refused to put her wood in the fire because there was someone in the circle she didn’t like. The next man refused because someone in the group didn’t belong to his church. The third man was poor and didn’t want to give up his stick to warm the rich.” The next man was rich. He said, “Why should I sacrifice my stick to warm the lazy poor?” The next man was greedy, “I’ll save my stick of wood for tomorrow night to warm myself.” The last one thought, “There’s no point in giving my stick, one stick won’t do anything.” That night, they all died, not from the cold in the cave, but from the cold in their hearts. Taking a sacrificial risk requires us to put others first and to realize our lives are in God’s hands. Sacrifice is an act of trust and love. “Giving our all” happens in many ways. We can go to war for the freedom of others or stay home alone to worry and wait. We can give food to spare someone’s life or offer God the last little bit we have to give. We can throw our only stick on a fire.

On a dreary winter day in 1943, 903 troops and four chaplains boarded the SS Dorchester. World War II was in full swing, and the ship was headed across the icy North Atlantic where German U-boats lurked. At midnight on February 3, a German torpedo ripped into the ship. “She’s going down!” the men cried, scrambling for lifeboats. A young GI crept up to one of the chaplains. “I’ve lost my life jacket,” he said. “Take this,” the chaplain replied, handing the soldier his jacket. Each chaplain followed his example, giving his life jacket to another man. The heroic chaplains then linked arms and lifted their voices in prayer as the Dorchester went down. They gave their all.

Banished from their homeland, Bohemia, some Moravians came to Germany for refuge. They became known as the Moravian Brethren. In 1730, they learned about the need for missionaries to evangelize slaves on the Virgin Islands. (Not the owners – but those were the times.) 18-year-old Leonard Dober heard God’s call. He recognized the hardships he’d endure but what he didn’t anticipate was the persecution of his fellow Christians. Dober found himself ridiculed, mocked, and chastened. The Christians asked him how he planned to live in the Virgin Islands and how he intended to minister to the slaves. The persecution climaxed when they discovered Dober planned to sell himself into slavery to identify with and reach those who were enslaved. When Dober arrived in the Virgin Islands he did not become a plantation slave. Instead he became a servant in the governor’s house. However, he soon resigned his position, because it placed him above those bound in slavery and limited his work for Christ. He chose instead to live in a small mud hut where he could work one-on-one with the people. In three years, his ministry grew to include 13,000 new converts. Dober gave his all.

In a Japanese seashore village over 100 years ago, an earthquake startled the villagers, but, being accustomed to earthquakes, they soon went back to their activities. Above the village on a high plain, an old farmer looked at the sea. The dark water was moving against the wind, running away from the land. The old man knew what that meant. His one thought was to warn the people in the village. His barn contained a great crop of rice, ready for market. It was his livelihood. He called to his grandson, ” Quick! Bring me a torch!” The old man touched the rice with his torch, setting the dry stalks ablaze. Soon the big bell pealed from the temple below announcing a fire. The village people, responding to the call to save their neighbours crops, hurried away from the beach and up the bluff. As they reached the plain, the old man shouted, “Look!” At the edge of the horizon they saw a long, lean, dim line of the coming tsunami. The swiftly moving sea rose like a wall. Then came a shock, heavier than thunder. The great swell struck the shore with a weight that sent a shudder through the hills and tore their homes to matchsticks. It drew back, roaring. Then it struck again. On the plain, no one spoke. The old man stood among them, his wealth gone and his neighbours safe. He gave his all.

These stories are touching and inspiring, yet you may be thinking: I’m just an ordinary person with an ordinary little life. No wars, no prophets to feed, no sinking ships, enslaved people or tsunamis. Just me and my one stick of wood. The theologian, Fred Craddock said, “To give my life for Christ appears glorious; to pour myself out for others…to pay the ultimate price of martyrdom. ‘I’m ready, Lord, to go out in a blaze of glory’. We think giving our all to the Lord is like taking a $1,000 bill and laying it on the table; ‘Here’s my life, Lord. I’m giving it all.’ But the reality for most of us is that he sends us to the bank and has us cash in the $1,000 for quarters. We go through life putting out 25 cents here and 50 cents there. We listen to the neighbor kid’s troubles instead of saying, “Get lost.’ Go to a committee meeting. Give a cup of water to a shaky old man in a nursing home. Usually giving our life to Christ isn’t glorious. It’s done in all those little acts of love, 25 cents at a time. We live the Christian life little by little over the long.” Whether we lay down our life $1000 at a time or 25 cents at a time, we can still give our all. Either way, it takes the same confidence in God. It takes the same awareness that our lives are in God’s hands, so we have nothing to lose. It takes the same courage because we have everything to lose. It takes the same trust to know God never asks anything of us he is not willing to give us in the first place. And it takes the same faith to know he never asks more of us, than he himself has given.