November is an interesting month. I remember from my childhood and early adulthood in Germany that November always had a certain somberness about it. It usually was grey and uncomfortable, with a lot of cold and drizzly weather; and then there were all those rather sad days of commemoration: All Saints and all Souls, ‘Buß- und Bettag’, a Protestant day of repentance and prayer, Volkstrauertag, which is the equivalent of Memorial Day in this country, and Ewigkeitssonntag – Eternity Sunday, on which the dead of the past year are remembered.
The month of November is a little more cheerful in this country, with Thanksgiving at the end. Now there is a special day coming up this week: November 11. This day is a special day of commemoration, and in more ways than you may think. November 11 is Veterans’ Day, the day we remember those who served and serve this country in the armed services. It is a day to honor and give thanks to those who risked their lives for the greater good, those who were injured in body, mind, or soul as they fought for their country.
November 11 is also St. Martin’s day, which is celebrated in many places in Europe. The Kinderhaus actually just had an early celebration of St. Martin’s Day here at the church on Friday. I have wonderful memories of St. Martin’s Day: children go out in the dark evening hours, carrying paper lanterns, singing songs, and bringing light into the darkness, in memory and honor of St. Martin.
St. Martin lived in the 4th century A.D. He was born in what today is Hungary, served as a soldier in the Roman army, and had a conversion experience at age 18, which led him to become a monk and eventually the bishop of Tours in what today is modern day France.
The legend of St. Martin you may have heard about is the legend of Martin and the beggar. Legend has it that Martin, the young soldier, encountered an almost naked beggar at the side of the road on a cold winter’s night. Moved with pity, Martin took his overcoat, which he then cut in two with his sword, and gave it to the beggar – which is no small feat, if you consider the rather scanty uniform of a Roman soldier. That same night, Jesus appeared to Martin in a dream, wearing the half of the cloak Martin had given to the beggar. And Martin heard Jesus say to the Angels, “Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptized; he has clad me.”
Martin was baptized shortly afterwards, and eventually abandoned life as a soldier because he could not reconcile his faith in Christ with military violence. However, Saint Martin is the patron saint of the soldiers today – how very fitting as November 11 is also Veterans’ Day.
We are not done yet with commemorations on November 11.
November 11 was also Martin Luther’s baptism day. Luther was born on November 10, and, according to the custom in those days, baptized the day after and named after the patron saint of the day, which was Martin of Tours – St. Martin.
And November 11 has a special meaning for me because, 4 years ago on this day, my husband Fred popped the question.
Now there is one common thread, a common theme, which connects all of these things, yes, even the engagement. And in order to explore this common theme, let’s look into the gospel we just heard.
The gospel story we heard is often called ‘The Widow’s Mite’, and it is a story about ultimate sacrifice. Widows in Jesus’ days were extremely vulnerable. According to the Judaic Law, a woman wasn’t allowed to own property, and could not conduct business, or make any decisions for herself or her children. A woman needed patronage and protection: either through her husband, or her family. If a woman lost her husband, and she was lucky, she stayed with the family of her deceased husband, and ideally married one of her husband’s relatives – that would be the case if she were of child bearing age and hadn’t given birth to any sons yet. Second best option, she returned to her own family. Worst option, she had nobody to fall back onto. Now we tend to think of a widow as an elderly woman, but theoretically the widow in today’s gospel could be a very young woman. In fact, if you think about it, a widow in her middle age, which in those days was between about 25 and 35, was the most vulnerable – she’d probably already have kids, and would be too old to be remarried, and too young to have adult sons who would take care of her.
Because a widow wasn’t allowed to own any property, or could not conduct business on her own, the temple scribes would act as a widow’s custodian, and handle the sale of the deceased husband’s property. Temptation must have been great for many of those powerful scribes to ‘devour widows’ houses’ and cheat women out of their rightful share. To be a window in those days was almost synonymous with being poor, and, interestingly enough, there is still a disproportionate share of widowed women in this country today who live near or below the poverty line.
Jesus attacks the practice of the temple to take advantage of widows, especially since, according to the Mosaic Law, widows and orphans were to be granted special protection. So the message of today’s gospel is twofold: firstly, Jesus’ message is about justice. But then it is also about the whole-hearted devotion of this one poor widow putting in her two cents into the treasury of the temple. Jesus makes clear: this is all she has to live on. She entrusts it all to God. Like Martin, the saint, she could have easily divided her meager possessions, and given one coin to the temple, and could have kept one for herself, to buy bread for herself and her children, if she has any. But she’s all in. No compromise. Total commitment.
November 11 is a day of commitment. Veterans offered their all in service to their country and their fellow people, risking their lives and often bearing visible and invisible wounds which take a toll on their health and their relationships. They were all in. No compromise. Total commitment.
St. Martin may have kept half of his cloak for himself in the beginning, but soon after surrendered his entire life to Christ, giving up worldly status and military honors for a life dedicated to God. He was all in. No compromise. Total commitment.
On November 11, 1483, an infant was baptized and named Martin; and, as every child, every person who is baptized, this infant and his life were entrusted to the grace of God. In baptism, we are all in. No compromise. Total commitment.
And what happens when we make a proposal to share our life with someone else, or say yes to such a proposal? We take the plunge. We entrust ourselves and our lives, warts and all, to someone else. We promise to share everything. We are all in. No compromise. Total commitment.
So this is a day to think about commitment – and a day to think about our commitment as well. As I already mentioned, when we were baptized, we were committed or committed ourselves to the grace of God. Whenever we affirm our faith, as we do on our confirmation day, we commit ourselves anew to the grace of God and the community of saints. So today, let’s not only remember the commitments others have made – let us also remember our commitment to God, our commitment to God’s church, and pray about: what does that mean for me? How can I show my commitment? How can I show that I am all in, all embraced by the grace and love of God, and all willing to live the vision of God’s kingdom as it grows among us? How do we live our faith with our whole heart and body and soul?
It has been pointed out by Bible scholars that the poor widow at the temple is not only a model of Christian faith and faithfulness – the widow also foreshadows Jesus’ fate: wronged by the temple authorities, and yet willing to give it all. Jesus died on the cross. He is all in. No compromise. Total commitment to God the Father and all of humanity and creation.
So let us remember today all those who gave their all. And let us give thanks and praise to Christ who gave his all for the sake of us and all creation.