... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

Pentecost 24 Year B
Message November 11, 2012

Remembrance: Know the Past to See the Future

Text: Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9:24028; Mark 12:38-44

Remembrance Day is a time to remember and reflect on our past – specifically our past in relation to the various wars both great and small and all those who for the higher good answered the call to arms and in many cases gave the ultimate sacrifice. But as Brueggemann states in his commentary for today’s readings, “Why bother with the past?” Amid all the turmoil of the present, the devastation of super storms, the collapse of the economy, the imminent doom of beloved organizations such as the ACW, are there not enough challenges for us to contend with apart from remote past events? Indeed as each new generation comes along the remoteness of those wars ever dulls the causes reasons and results for having a Remembrance Day.

In an email sent to me this past week a friend highlighted what is supposedly a true story. In September a high school teacher with the permission of her superintendent, principal and custodian had all the desks taken out of her classroom. When the young people entered for their first class they discovered that there were no desks. With a collective perplexed look some asked the teacher, “Where are the desks?” the teacher replied, “You cannot have a desk until you tell me how you earn the right to sit at a desk.”

Several students replied, “Maybe it’s our grades?” or “Maybe it’s our behaviour”. To each suggestion the teacher responded with a simple, “No”. As the day wore on with the young people sitting on the floor trying to take notes and finding no answer either to the cause of the lack of desks or a way to be comfortable, the teacher finally said, “No one has been able to tell me what he or she has done to earn the right to sit at a desk. Now I will tell you!”

She went over to the door, opened it and 27 War Veterans, all in their Legion uniforms walked into the classroom, each carrying a desk. They placed the desks in rows and stood by the wall. The teacher turned to her class and said, “You didn’t earn the right to sit at these desks. These heroes did it for you. They placed the desks here for you. Now it’s up to you to sit in them. It is your responsibility to learn to be good students, to be good citizens. They paid the price so that you could have the freedom to get an education. Don’t ever forget it!”

While this story, true or not, is a great illustration as to the meaning for today, it is also a great segue into the lessons of the Biblical stories presented today. Like last week’s lections the scriptural passages point out the relevance of the past not only for the present but as a sight-line for the future.

The story of Ruth while simple on the face of it describing the plight of three widows, two of whom are Moabites, one of whom returns to Israel with her mother-in-law in search of survival, appears to be a “once upon a time” ale which has a happy ending. It is a story of the past, the hardships, the tyranny and the seductions which would make for any great modern day soap opera. The real surprise comes at the end when the story line ends with a son for Naomi (Ruth’s mother-in-law) and this child is destined to be the grandfather of Israel’s greatest king. We are drawn into the past to experience the present and have an understanding of God’s proposed future for Israel.

The psalm likewise looks at the past but as a past which is dependent upon God. Without God there is neither present nor future. The first part of the psalm is a play on words. Not only is the house the physical dwelling place, it is also the family line. Juxtaposed to the reading from Ruth we begin to see that the dynasty of King David and indeed for any family has its origins in the handiwork of God. The last of what might be called a series of unfortunate events or serendipitous encounters turns out to be a divinely appointed colander to effect a result around generations into the future.

While the second part of the psalm is difficult for modern ears with its patriarchal overtones and emphasis on sons, the context has to be understood in terms of an agrarian society where children, particularly sons, meant a survival of the family. This is something our great grandparents would have taken as axiomatic but for which we might want to put in a different illustration. As a whole the psalm points out that the ones who try to write design or earn their own lives are deluding themselves. A life that does not start with God, does not contribute to the future is a life “in vain.”

The author of Hebrews dwells elaborately with the past actions of Christ and presents a rather complex Christology. Yet in the last verse of today’s passage there is a forward direction anticipating the second coming not as a time of judgement and punishment for sin but as a rescuing of those of faith and who have dwelt according to his teachings.

The final lesson for today is Mark’s gospel account of Jesus’ last public ministry. Despite the tendency to view this passage as a condemnation of the religious leaders and a patronizing of the poor widow, the passage is not necessarily either. In fact to use this passage as a “financial stewardship” springboard is a great disservice to the church, Jesus’ teaching and the congregation. Perhaps this is why the authors of the Revised common lectionary chose to put this passage in with the Old Testament readings we have just looked at. If anything it is a scathing commentary on those who puff themselves up thinking themselves successful by their own hands and at the same time a lament on how the institution has preyed on the faith of those who are vulnerable. To be sure the widow is commended for her trust in God by giving out of her poverty. However it has to be seen in context of what Jesus has just spoken concerning the hypocrites of the religious institution. And here too we must be careful not to lump all the leaders into one. Immediately prior to the caution, “Beware the scribes…”, there is an encounter with a scribe concerning the laws, and the scribe in this case is seen to be one possessed of humility and wisdom. Indeed the warning Jesus gives is to Beware of those scribes who like prestige but who at the same time show no mercy when dealing with the poor. These are the very ones the psalmist describes as the ones who labour in vain, keep watch in vain and who work long and hard, “eating the bread of anxious toil”. They have not understood the past; they have not appreciated the handiwork of God in their lives and as a result work not for God but for themselves. The result is no future and if this becomes the prevalent trend of the majority spells the doom for all.

Yes, we enjoy relative affluence and prosperity, we enjoy all the modern conveniences, we live in freedom. But these were procured for us by the lives and deeds of others, and especially by the divine design of God’s will. We cannot squander what we have been given; we have a responsibility and must endeavour to look to the future – there are so many issues: the environment, the economy, the social milieu, even the religious. To each we are indebted and to each we have a responsibility. May we by God’s help so live today as to be faithful to the past and give for the future.