All That One Has to Live On

The Rev. Elam D. Jones SermonThe Rev. Elam D. Jones M.Div. ‘19, Ph.D Student, Harvard Divinity School, U.S. Navy Chaplain Candidate Officer. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.



By the Rev. Elam D. Jones M.Div. ‘19
Ph.D Student, Harvard Divinity School
U.S. Navy Chaplain Candidate Officer

(The following is a transcript from the service audio)

Let us begin with prayer. To the God of our collective and individual understandings. Thank you for this moment of congregation. For waking each and every one of us up this morning and setting us on a right way. Please bless our ears so that we may hear and our mind so that we may process all that you would have us to receive today. And I ask that you allow for my thoughts and for my words to be purposeful, pleasing, and good in your sight. Amen.

First giving thanks to Dr. Matthew Potts and to the entire Memorial Church staff. I would like to start this sermon by sharing what an honor it is to address all of you today. On this founder's day, Sunday, on which we celebrate the annual November 11th Veteran Day celebration. I feel like I also must admit as a reservist in the Navy's chaplain corps, how unbelievably intimidating this opportunity is as well. And this is not only because I've spent an overwhelming three fourths and counting of my commission as a graduate student here, but also because of where we are in the Memorial Church where names line the walls of service members of past wars. And also because it is on occasions like these, that we hear some of the grander and more inspirational passages centered around arm service, cleverly woven into empowering speeches and sermons that highlight service members and veterans and the courage, the strength, and the fearlessness that they must possess to perform their duty.

These are passages like Joshua 1:9, which reads, "Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go." We also have First Corinthians 16:13, "Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong." And of course, John 15:13, "Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one's life for one's friend."

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that Veteran's Day speeches and sermons that featured these verses tend to share a common message. The acknowledgement and celebration of the extraordinary efforts of those few within this country shouldering so much of the risk and worry of associated with defending it as undeniably kind, well-meaning, and often warmly welcomed as these attempts to establish connection and to offer gratitude can be. It often creates the opposite effect, generating a sort of social distance between us and our service members and veterans through failing to truly appreciate our common, messy humanity, the potential ordinariness of their service, and ultimately by allowing deference to take place of true and deep engagement as the accepted and seemingly appropriate method to relate to them. It was elegantly and harmlessly, as these are often offered. If left underdressed moments and interactions like these conspire together threatening to endorse a more careless than truly grateful nation that watches and applauds as its sons and daughters go off to war and return yet fails to notice or to care for long that they come back often different and desperate having put in everything that they had, all that they had to live on.

It's for this reason that we find ourselves today in the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 12. A mere chapter following Jesus' procession through Jerusalem, which has come to be remembered and celebrated as Palm Sunday. And but verses away from Jesus' decisive clearing of the temple of all money changers, merchants, and sellers scolding them for turning what was designed to be a house of prayer into a den of robbers. Scripture tells us that Jesus takes a break from teaching and the temple courts to sit opposite the treasury, to watch crowds as they place money in it. And in doing so, he notices many wealthy people throw in large sums of money and a poor widow who puts in just two copper coins worth only a little. Jesus then calls over his disciples and says to them, "Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has placed in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all that she had to live on."

Perhaps the most common and traditional interpretations of what may seem like a simple biblical lesson on proportion, give particular attention to the widow's act of sacrifice underlining it as evidence of the unselfishness with which she was expected to give. A reading of Mark chapter 12, which finds support in Second Corinthians 9, as Paul urges the church in Corinth to remember this, "Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly and whoever sows generously will also reap generously." All of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

This story of the widow, therefore, is commonly regarded as an invitation to challenge the attachments that we may have to our worldly possessions. And to give graciously from our hearts as an act of worship and as an act of service for the significance of an offering is located not in the amount that we give, but in the reflection of our hearts. So with all this in mind, it would seem important to note that Jesus, busy as he was teaching in the temple, was the only one to watch and to catch the widow's offering and all of its significance. Because it was only when Jesus pulled them aside that the disciples seemed to grow aware of her giving, begging the question, how is it that someone can so easily overlook another who is giving so much? In the case of the disciples on this particular visit, fatigue maybe, dehydration, there's no telling, but for others, perhaps even for some of us in this room from day to day.

How Mark Chapter 12 is commonly interpreted provides us with a few clues. For to compliment its call to charitable arms, this interpretation honors the widow exceedingly, often regarding her as uniquely selfless, an exemplary of obedience, sacrifice, and of service to others. The picture of virtue, faithfully and cheerfully, willing to offer up everything that she had, all that she had to live on. Putting this another way, it valorizes the widow beyond practical recognition and much the same way that we may regard service members and veterans praising the widow for her exceptional sacrifice and her heroic commitment. We nevertheless fall short of considering the potential complicated and ambiguous feelings that this celebration may generate. Honored by the recognition on one hand, and at the same time, annoyed that one's burden is dismissed as only for the special to bear on the other.

We may never know what this may do in the life of the widow, but for service members and veterans, it strips them of an opportunity to express and an ear to listen to an honest assessment of how they're doing, eager, unenthusiastic, tired, hopeful, angry, and perhaps even resentful. The absence of this connection greatly reduces not only our ability to care or to recognize that those who give so much may need replenishment in addition to our respect, but also our collective desire to more equitably assume shares of a rightly common load. For if deference takes the place of true engagement, we undermine even the best of intentions that we have.

So as parting words, I implore us to consider ways in which we can better support those who give all that they have to live on. Standing with service members and veterans rather than standing apart and cheering them on. And the hopes of maturing through mutual exposure to one another. Where we all must work together to forge a fair exchange of service and support that benefits all who need it most. Thank you.


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