Do you know the fourth stanza of our National Anthem?
Long ago, when I began college, I was a part of the Concert Choir at Pfeiffer College. We were a choir of about 30+ students, some of us music majors, but many of us not. We sang many, many places during the four years I sang, up and down the East Coast as well as throughout our country and in Europe. No matter where we sang, churches or schools or public squares, we always sang the National Anthem.
We had a unique way of singing the National anthem. Our choir would be split into four choirs of all voices and we would stand in four places—front, back, and both sides. Our beloved Dr. Richard Brewer would stand in the middle of the aisle and direct us. One person in each group would have a pitch pipe and would blow the pitch for us to sing. And in perfect timing, the first notes of “The Star Spangled Banner” would pour forth from four locations filling the space with sound. It was thrilling to sing in such space and in such a manner.
Our director, Dr. Brewer, was veteran of World War II—Navy, South Pacific. He had definite notions about what it meant to serve God and what it meant to serve country. For Dr. Brewer, serving during WWII shaped his life profoundly, as that chaotic and provocative time shaped many of that generation, including my father, who was stationed on the other side of the world in Italy. For all of us who sang under Doc’s direction, singing the National Anthem at the beginning of our concerts, no matter where in the world we might be singing, was a moment of pride and memory. It was also a statement of what Doc believed and a statement about sacrifice and trust, a reminder that war is painful, should not be taken lightly, and should only be undertaken when the cause is just and that is not always easy to determine.
You see, we never sang the first stanza of the National Anthem—the stanza that all of us know by heart. We sang the fourth stanza because it is more about peace and not war—at least it cautions not to undertake war unless it is a necessity.
“O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto – “In God is our trust,”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” —Francis Scott Key
There were concerts, during those years, when I thought very little about those words that we sang. Mostly, I wanted to make certain that we all started on the same pitch and I wanted our music to surround and inspire all that heard those first few notes.
However, there were times when I thought about those words of that stanza, usually when I could see my father sitting in the audience and I knew that he was thinking about those words and what his own experience had been, during WWII when the world seemed to be mad and chaotic and uncertain and suffering reached into the four corners of the globe.
This past Sunday and Monday, we observed Veterans’ Day, an important time for us to think again about sacrifice.
In our scripture passage this past Sunday morning , we were again in the Gospel of Mark, a recording of Jesus speaking a message filled with urgency, demanding our attention—our whole attention. For the Gospel writer, it isn’t important for us to get the biographical or historical stories to add validity to the teachings of Jesus. It is important for us to understand that Jesus means business and that following his teachings, trusting God and allowing the Spirit to move our lives means that we offer all of our lives, not just part of our lives or what seems to be convenient for us to offer.
Prior to this particular moment, Jesus had spoken about the parable of the Vineyard and then about paying taxes to Caesar. He spoke about resurrection, the great commandment, and the questions about David’s son. This chapter in Mark offers challenge and opportunity and begs us to listen with our whole hearts, his teachings for our lives—to listen as if our lives depend upon his very words.
Then, we reach this moment in Jesus’ life with the disciples when he is in the temple observing what is going on all around.
Jesus calls attention to the most visible people in the temple at that moment—the scribes, temple leaders. He challenges their self-importance by drawing the disciples and our attention to their actions.
“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
What do we think of as we hear Jesus’ words? What did those who heard him think? Jesus is speaking a warning about what we hold up as important, about who we hold up as important. Did the scribes have a place in bringing the people to faith and understanding? Of course they did. But there is also an air of self-importance that does not speak of the love and mercy of God, especially when the scribes were known to “devour widows’ houses”and call attention to themselves, thinking that they are more deserving than any others—that they were entitled to certain kinds of treatment and respect.
And Jesus is also speaking about sacrifice.
The Latin roots of the word sacrifice combine “sacred” and “to make” so that sacrifice—at its basic level—is something of value offered as an act of devotion or worship to God.
For us sacrifice means something a little different. It often means giving up more than we should and less than we can. Can you think of what is meant by this kind of sacrifice? Throughout this world there are those who are asked to make sacrifices of this kind: the poor are asked to sacrifice basic necessities of life—shelter, food, health care, and in some places in the world education and security. Throughout this world there are those who are asked to make sacrifices such as working so that others might maintain a standard of living that is far out of reach of most of the world’s citizens—shouldering the burden of tax cuts that benefit those who are wealthy, or giving up something of great value so that life for a privileged few continue in ease at the discomfort of others.
So, Jesus asked the disciples to observe what was happening at the treasury as the crowd was putting money into the offering. They would have seen many rich people putting in large sums of money. And then, they saw a poor widow putting in two small copper coins, which were worth about a penny. Jesus told the disciples that the poor widow put in more than all those who contributed large sums because out of her poverty she put in everything that she had.
It was an offering that was an act of devotion and worship on the part of the widow. A sacrifice in the deepest meaning of the word. Not only was this offering of two coins an offering of devotion, it was also an act of placing all that she had into the treasury—all her wealth, all her security—right in plain view of those who might have placed her in such a dire position in the first place. Remember, Jesus spoke about the scribes—the religious leaders—devouring the widows’ houses.
How did Jesus know this? Because Jesus knew the plight of the poor. Jesus did not ignore the poor and marginalized people. Jesus knew them, loved them, healed them, helped them, and called those who follow him to do the same.
We speak about sacrifice a great deal, but it is much easier to talk about it or to admire it when someone else is performing the sacrifice. We almost make it glamorous.
We marvel at Mother Teresa for her great sacrifice working among the poorest of the poor in India, but that sacrifice came at a cost. She worked for decades, helping others die with dignity, helping others to feel comfort, but in so many ways the work was difficult and she wondered where God was in the midst of such pain.
Over and over again, we appreciate the tireless dedication of public or social servants, especially those who attend to people in painful situations—a mother whose son has overdosed, a parent who endures the loss of a child to disease or tragedy, a teacher in our schools, and many, many others. We lift them high, put them on a pedestal with the poor widow, but keep them at a distant from our daily lives. So often, their sacrifices are too much for them to bear, especially when we do not act to change the situation that brings on the sacrifice.
We offer our thoughts and prayers.
This kind of sacrifice is what Jesus called us to think about, to beware.
In my first full time appointment as a pastor, there was a parishioner who I loved very dearly. His name was Morris. Morris was a WWII vet. He was so interesting, full of life and stories. He was kind and would go out of his way to pay attention to the children of the church, listening to them and in turn talking to them as well.
At first many children were afraid of him.
You see, Morris had a hook where his left arm and hand should have been, because his ship was blown up during WWII. After the ship was blown up, he spent hours in the water untreated before he was rescued. He wasn’t certain that he would make it out alive because the enemy was all around. He nearly died and spent much time in a hospital before he was finally able to come home.
He suffered so much for his sacrifice for his country.
Morris and I talked a great deal during my time as his pastor, but there are two conversations that stand out to me. One was about a year after my son, Ethan, was born. One night at Wednesday evening dinner, Ethan was stumbling around, practicing his walking skills. Morris placed his hook right around the strap of Ethan’s Osh Gosh overalls and pulled on him so that he could walk, but not fall. I remember Ethan looking around at the Morris and then looking at the hook and then giggling as he pulled Morris all over the place walking. Morris was giggling too.
Later Morris said to me that he should have asked before he did what he did, but he did not want any child to be afraid of him and he would gladly talk to any child about what had happened to him and how he understood and prayed for peace.
Morris was an avid hunter and he had beautiful English Setter dogs. One day he called me to tell me that his dog was dying. Could I come over and tell the dog good-bye. I knew that it was really Morris that needed some comfort and so I went over to sit with him for awhile. I prayed for the ease of his dog’s passing and gave thanks for the companionship that the two of them had shared.
As we sat for a while, Morris talked again about his sacrifice in WWII. He told me how much he loved his country and his home and family. He loved all the people that God had put in his life and as he thought about his sacrifice he was certain that he would do it again if he had to and the circumstances were the same as WWII.
Then he said, “But I do not ever want any other young man or woman to have to sacrifice as we did. It is more important that we make sure that no other soldier or soldier’s family bear the burden of sacrifice when we can do something to prevent it. We must care for each other and for this world.”
On that day long ago, Jesus was not discouraging us to make sacrifices. In fact, his life and teachings call for us to make sacrifices in the deepest sense of the word—to offer our lives in deep love and devotion to God. Indeed Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for all of us.
Jesus was cautioning us to consider whom we force or require to make sacrifices on our behalf when circumstances can be changed. Jesus was calling us to work for justice and righteousness and for the day when all people will have what they need to thrive and the world will know peace.
On this day, let us be grateful for all those who have fought for freedom and justice, especially the sacrifices made, but let us also make sacrifices—an offering out of devotion and love for God—to bring about God’s justice and mercy and peace.
And this be our motto – “In God is our trust.” (from the fourth stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner, by Francis Scott Key)
To God alone be glory!