Scripture: Mark 12:38-44
Cody Coffman and Justin Meek: presumably not names you know. Young men, they both died in the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, California, on Wednesday night when a rampaging gunman killed twelve people. It was another in a horrifying series of mass killings we have experienced over the last several decades. One 19-year-old, in fact, wrote recently that her life’s span has been defined by such acts of hatred and violence, beginning with 9/11 and continuing just recently through San Bernardino and Orlando, Sutherland Springs and Las Vegas, Parkland and Pittsburgh, right up through the shootings in Thousand Oaks. Such acts have become so common-place that we notice them, and then we tend to move on, numbed by the sheer repetitiveness of it all.
We dare never get inured to it, though, do we. Lest discouragement overtake us and we begin to think that’s all there is, I mention Cody and Justin this morning because of what they did that night. A survivor of those shootings said Cody “stood in front of her as the shooter approached from the front entrance. [He] yelled for everyone to get down and told her to run for the front door as the shooter moved farther into the bar. . .. ‘Cody saved so many people last night’ [she said]; ‘he was shielding people and getting them out’” (http://plaindealer.oh.newsmemory.com/publink.php?shareid=068f69149). And Justin did likewise. Yes, they both died. But they also embodied the best of what human beings can be. They gave. And they gave the most valuable thing they had: their lives.
And here’s something else: just before they died, one had planned to join the Army, the other the Coast Guard. I’m guessing there was a connection between that desire to join the military and their impulsively sacrificial acts. While we have learned over the years that our national military initiatives are sometimes compromised, sometimes destructive, we have also, in more recent years, come to acknowledge our grateful appreciation of those who have put their lives in harm’s way, and have done so to protect something larger than themselves. After Vietnam, says my friend and colleague John Schluep, countless soldiers returned to this country with what he calls “soul wounds” and “moral injury,” largely abandoned and shunned by those who thought that war was a fiasco. The price those returning soldiers paid was staggering, with mental illness, depression and unemployment running rampant.
So we seek to redress those past wrongs by remembering, on Veterans Day, the heroism and valor of so many of those who have served in the military. A phrase from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address lingers: those who died in war have given “the last full measure of devotion.” They have so often demonstrated the instinct to “protect and serve,” the motto of so many police departments. It’s the instinct that animated Cody and Justin. And it’s the instinct that motivated Sgt. Ron Helus, the police officer killed when he tried to stop the shooter in Thousand Oaks: protect, serve, care for something larger than yourself.
This devotion to something larger than self is what prompts the widow in Jesus’ story to come to the Temple one day, and, as does the whole community, to make an offering to the collection. And while others give large sums—important sums, valuable sums, sums that in fact keep the Temple going—this poor widow, who puts in only two small coins, worth a penny, gives, as Jesus says, “extravagantly what she [can’t] afford—she [gives] her all” (Mark 12:44, The Message). And she, poor as she is, is the one commended. Why? Precisely because she gives “everything she [has]” (NRSV).
Everything she has. Soldiers give it. Cody, Justin and Ron gave it in Thousand Oaks. And the poor widow gives it. We know, deep down inside, that Jesus speaks the truth, that that sort of giving is the goal and calling of life, that life at its richest is about extending ourselves for the sake of something or someone larger than ourselves.
Few of us, of course, will be in the position that Cody, Justin and Ron found themselves in at the Borderline Bar and Grill on Wednesday night. We aren’t all presented with the opportunity to so dramatically give everything we have.
At the same time, though, we know our lives are richer when we seek ways, in the course of our daily comings and goings, to express significant, difference-making devotion. Don Snyder was a babysitter of mine when I was a child, and he has begun just such a venture. Don graduated from high school in 1968, when tensions in this country were at a fever pitch, rooted as they were in conflicting views of race relations, gender relations, and the Vietnam War. Don was vehemently opposed to the war, and was unafraid to express his views, even to his father, who had been in the military. Don’s father, in fact, had enlisted in the army as soon as he heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and he had lost two of his best friends at Normandy.
But as Don says, “When I was eighteen, I just didn’t believe in the War in Vietnam. . .. I just felt that our government was lying to our soldiers. My father and I fought bitterly over this. We got into a fist fight in the parking lot when he took me to the draft board to sign up on my eighteenth birthday . . . I never really forgave myself for that. He was a good man, . . . very humble and kind to everyone he met. So I carry that burden of guilt and shame deep in me. And now that I’m old, I want to do something for soldiers that my father and his World War II buddies would approve of. And I want to do this for the memory of my high school buddies, who I played football with, and who went to the Vietnam War in my place when I went off to college on a football scholarship. It’s selfish I know” (personal correspondence).
The “this” that Don refers to, this enterprise in which he hopes to be able to give back, is that he is starting, of all things, a school for golf caddies. And not just any caddies. His school is explicitly and intentionally for veterans of war. And this school will be at not just any course, but at the Old Course at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St. Andrews, Scotland. This is the course known as “The Cathedral of Golf.” Eight years ago, Don himself spent a summer caddying in St. Andrews. It was such a rich experience for him, an experience of awe and discipline and respect, that he wants to offer it to veterans who may have returned from war needing something for which this opportunity would be such a gift.
Don vividly remembers how his high school buddies who returned from the Vietnam War came back wounded psychically. They struggled to pick their lives back up. “Their lives were difficult, and they died far too young.” Don would have loved for them to have the opportunity to be caddies in Scotland, to “join another band of brothers there, and learn a trade that they could fall back on for the rest of their lives, to earn a decent living, and to work in some of the most beautiful places on earth.” A Caddie School for Soldiers, as he calls it.
So Don has raised all the money for it. He has secured housing and teachers. He himself will take an active role in supporting the veterans. And this coming February, six veterans will begin their summer-long development as caddies. An elite maker of golf rain gear has outfitted the caddies. An organization called Folds of Honor has offered college scholarships to the children of every American who goes through the caddie school. And Don is doing this, as he says, “to do something for soldiers that my father and his World War II buddies would approve of.”
Not only is Don making amends to his father and his high school friends, of course, but at root, he’s also doing something deeply generous. Neither he nor we are likely to be called upon to give “the last full measure of devotion.” We have other ways, though, in which we can express our devotion, other ways we can share and share generously. Like the poor widow in Jesus’ story, we can give, and we can give in ways that make an amazing difference in the world.
If you are a member or friend of Federated Church, you have received in the mail our stewardship materials. Maybe some of you have already returned your pledge for 2019. Thank you for that. On behalf of the entire church leadership, I am immensely grateful for your support.
Most of you, though, will likely return your pledge next Sunday. That day is Commitment Sunday. We will, of course, return to our Bell Street sanctuary after having been gone from there for nearly six months. Not only that, though, but next Sunday we will remember and celebrate what we are most centrally about as a church of Jesus Christ.
The sanctuary has received a total makeover, enhancing what we most love about that space, and adding features and qualities that only improve it. If you haven’t seen it—or heard it!—recently, you have a lot to look forward to! We have the money to do that work because you have shown your love for this church, and for the work God is doing in our midst, by giving extravagantly to let that work happen.
That capital work is a huge gift, a real blessing in Federated’s life. It looks and sounds beautiful! And that enhances our worship. The greatest gift of that work, though, is that it will inspire us to a deeper reverence and faithfulness. It should both enhance our awe and lead us into a more profound sense of service. It should remind us how blessed we are and inspire us to be a blessing in return.
If you haven’t paused recently to give thanks for the wonders of this church, I invite you to do so this week. Here, week after week, we are moved by music that is gorgeous and stirring. Here, week after week, we nurture our children in holy grace and teach them to love in response. Here, week after week, committed laypeople and staff visit and connect with those who are dealing with illness and death and divorce and depression and anxiety and joblessness. Here, week after week, shawls are knit for people who suffer, communion is served to people who are homebound, members share with others at St. Paul’s Church, Thanksgiving is brought for people in poverty. Here, week after week, terror is calmed, joy is celebrated, loneliness is accompanied, hunger is alleviated, injustice is countered.
We need to give. Not out of obligation or fear of punishment, but simply because, if we don’t, we will shrivel up and die. We need to give our time and attention in places that make a difference. And we need to give our money in ways that transform the world. It’s that giving that is the richest sign of vitality and hope. It’s that giving that changes the world.
My wife Mary has a friend, Sharon, whose father died some months ago. Several weeks after his death, Sharon says, “while I was still in the tender and raw stages of grief, I received an unusual condolence card. I opened the card and out fell 100 $1 bills along with this note: ‘When I have been deep in grief, it often helps me to be generous with others. I offer you these bills to generously give to others in whatever way is meaningful to you. I know this will not eliminate your grief, but perhaps it will ease it just a bit.’”
Immediately, Sharon says, “my mind shifted from my own pain to how I might in some small way ease the pain of others. A gossamer thread of healing began to wrap gently around my own aching heart as I pondered how to grieve with generosity.
“I held onto the money for months, pondering all the possibilities of how to pass it on. Finally, last month, as I was heading to upstate NY to return my dad’s ashes to his beloved Lake Champlain, the time seemed right. I traveled by plane, bus and automobile to get there. Throughout my travels, I quietly but joyfully left bits of my ‘generous grieving’ money along the way. In the airport, I left dollar bills in random places. At the bus station, I left money to help with bus tickets for others. On the seat of the bus driver, I dropped a handful of bills on my way out the door. And on the drive out to Wilsboro Point, we stopped at a Dollar General Store where I left dollar bills tucked into children’s books that only cost a dollar each. All were . . . little gestures, but the opportunity to be generous in memory of my dad warmed my heart each time.”
Like the widow in Jesus’ story, we need to give. And we need to give in a substantial way—maybe even, as Jesus says about the widow, give “extravagantly what [we think we can’t] afford.” Life is so much poorer if we don’t make ways to give lavishly to something bigger than ourselves. We can’t all be Cody Coffman or Justin Meek or Ron Helus laying down our lives for others. Most of us won’t start foundations or caddie schools. But in a regular, ongoing, substantial way, we can let our money do the work that gives it its greatest richness.
Federated Church makes it possible for you and me to do precisely that—to give our money to a place that is in the very business of being generous. Here we make it a priority to minister with and to younger families. Here we have a vital and caring ministry with seniors. Here we look at the world with an eye to what might shine a light into its shadowed corners, what might spark hope in deadened souls, what might ease the burden of someone who is weighed down by grief or mired in poverty or overwhelmed by illness. I daresay your money is incredibly well spent here. It brightens the world. It leaves its mark. It bestows unending grace.
What better way could there possibly be to touch the world with light than to gratefully celebrate God’s grace in your life and make a substantial pledge, an increased pledge, to Federated Church—pledges whose very focus is direct, hands-on ministry, pledges whose very focus is direct, hands-on love. What a blessing! What a privilege! May we give, and give generously.