Two widows, both possibly in their last days, both at the end of their resources certainly. The word “widow” in Hebrew means “silenced one,” “one who has no voice” [Seasons of the Spirit, 11/8/15] –and neither of these women, like so many other women in the Bible, are given a name. So, no time, no resources, no voice, no name.
And yet, here we are, 2 and a half, and 2 millenia later, hearing their stories, looking somehow to connect their stories with our story. On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much similarity–like a “bridge too far”–the one woman, in the middle of a drought, gathering up sticks for firewood on which to make what would surely be the last meal for her and her son, for there was only a handful of meal and a little oil left in her jug. And along comes the prophet Elijah, asking for some water–in the midst of the drought–and a little morsel of bread, which was all that that handful of meal and drib of oil were going to make. “Give me all you’ve got left,” Elijah might as well have said to her, except that he wasn’t a robber. In his asking and in her giving, they opened up the spigot to an ever-flowing stream of sustenance. “She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that God spoke by Elijah.”
The other woman slips into the offering line at the Temple, barely visible among the long robes and grand gestures of the scribes and clergy. [Always makes me a little uncomfortable robing when this Scripture reading comes around in the cycle] She empties the little coin purse and slips in the contents–a couple of coins that together are worth about a penny. And nobody notices her or her offering–except Jesus. He notices her. “She out of her poverty has put in everything,” he comments to his disciples–and to himself, “all she had to live.”
Jesus is within days of dying himself, as this scene takes place in Jerusalem, during what we now call Holy Week. If the widow has indeed put in all she had to live, she too will die a few days later, as one commentator has pointed out [Debie Thomas, journeywithjesus, 11/1/15]. Notice that Jesus doesn’t exactly praise the widow’s offering, but he does notice it–notices her courage, her dignity, her self-sacrifice, her pre-figuring what he will do in the days ahead. “She gave everything she had, all she had to live on.”
This is not a ready-made illustration for a Stewardship campaign sermon. If anything, it’s a condemnation of the religious institution that lifts up the wealthy who have way more than they need to live on and which bores people with their long prayers. “Long prayers are miserable enough,” commentator Mark Davis remarks. “Pretentious long prayers? Even worse.” (leftbehindand lovingit, 11/8/15] As soon as the widow slips away, Jesus and his disciples leave the Temple, and when one of them remarks at the grandness of the building, Jesus says that it’ll all be destroyed with not one stone left standing on another. Any institution that devours the vulnerable and bloats its treasury so the wealthy can have more is doomed for destruction. We can only imagine Jesus’ review of the newly released books on the Vatican’s alleged diverting of money given to benefit the poor that ended up supplying the Curia with luxuries.
Perhaps it is, in part, this betrayal by religious institutions of all types that has contributed to the current situation in this country and Europe where more and more people identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Have we asked people to commit their lives to an institution, or to God? If it has been only to the institution, then that institution may be in decline to the betterment of all. If we can preserve the real treasure of the institution–the community, the practices, the resources that enable and empower people to live out their love of God and neighbor and their best selves–then that is an institution worth revitalizing, to support people in their love for God.
We, of course, are in the midst of our stewardship campaign, but the issue really isn’t about money. It’s about what the money is for. Can we use our money to give voice to the voiceless, to bring into our midst those who have been shoved to the margins of our society? Do we use our money to help our neighbors live with dignity, to have the food and shelter and healthcare they need? Do we use our money to provide resources for people to come together for support and mutual accountability, to learn the practices of faith, to explore ways to embody “whole life living,” which is what the widow pointed to? Do we use our money to spark imaginations about the abundance that exists in the midst of what appears to others to be merely scarcity? So we use our money to help people love God? Do we use our money to light up the world?
The widow of Zarepheth was not at all sure that Elijah’s request was anything but an abuse of desert hospitality which would simply hasten death. But, as Cameron Howard writes, “The widow’s doubt, as well as her profession of faith, may also be our own. It is easy to believe in death-dealing powers, for that is what we witness in the world every day. It is much harder to imagine the power of love that conquers death.” [workingpreacher.org, 11/2013]
It is hard to “imagine the power of love that conquers death” when all around us, with every newscast, every item on our newsfeed, and many conversations on the street, we see and hear only about death and dying, really. The life that is lifted up is shallow, fleeting, solitary, needing to be desperately preserved and clung to. But we have an alternative to offer, an alternative that is generous, self-giving, communal, expansive. “Generosity connects us with the energy of the universe and the wisdom of God,” as Bruce Epperly writes, “which will provide for our deepest needs.” [Faith Forward, Patheos, 2010]
The rich, the successful, the “winners” are the ones held up by our society and, too often, by the church, to be noticed. They are the ones whom God has blessed, we even say. Except that Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor,” not because it’s fun or healthy or even desireable to be poor, but because there are no illusions about being self-sufficient and all-powerful and in control when you’re poor. Jesus noticed the widow dropping in her two coins. Do we take the time to notice those who have no voice or power? Do we try to understand what it is like not to be in charge of your day, your time, even your body? Can we imagine what it is like to have to respond to crises everyday, another child getting in trouble, something wrong with the car so you can’t get to work, the money you had saved in an envelope to go toward the rent stolen to buy drugs? Do we notice, and if we do, is it only with judgment? Don’t be too busy to notice, Jesus says, or too spiritual, or too self-absorbed to notice.
The gospel–the good news–in all of this is in the God revealed in Jesus [David Lose, inthemeantime, 11/8/15], the God who gives God’s whole life, God’s whole self for us and for the world. The invitation into God’s kingdom is the invitation into whole life living, whole-hearted living, pouring ourselves out for others because the stream of living waters–the fountain of Love– never runs dry. When death-dealing powers seem to be all around us, we can trust in the love that not only embraces but conquers death. Notice the ones who are giving of themselves; join together with them and encourage and remind one another of the divine energy and wisdom at work in the world, set loose in the world. If you want to call that coming together “church” insofar as you embody Christ in the world, so be it. Invest in it. Support it with your time, your talent, your treasure, your whole lives. So may we light up the world.
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark