Sunday, November 8, 2015

Three Widows

The readings for this twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost can be found here (track two). Today I am at St. Thomas in Auburn.

The Law and the Prophets use the phrase “widows and orphans” nearly a hundred times as a kind of code-language to speak about the most vulnerable members of society. So in Exodus 22 we read: “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.” And today we prayed the words of Psalm 146, including these:

The LORD loves the righteous;
the LORD cares for the stranger;
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.

This, in a nutshell, is another way of summarizing what the God of the Bible is up to – in both testaments. God is turning the world upside down, to make it right side up, as our new Presiding Bishop said in his sermon last weekend at the National Cathedral.

In Biblical times, becoming a widow put one at great risk economically. While Social Security and life insurance policies and gains made for women in the marketplace have all helped to alleviate the profound economic dangers that women and children without a male bread-winner face, the grief of losing your life-partner has not changed. There was an op-ed this week in The Washington Post entitled:  "The Condolences End. Being a Widow Doesn't" written by a young widow whose husband died tragically at 34 – just nineteen months after they were married. Listen to what she had to say:

In the first year, people check in constantly. They call, text, bring food, plan girls’ weekends and excuse — even support — the shuffling around in pajamas crying each day as we wait for the black, hollow feeling to lift. The Year Two widow, however, is comparatively abandoned to the continued reality of a new and unfamiliar life. We are among the “walking wounded,” those largely without outward signs of trauma (weight regained, estate settled, tears more easily stifled) but who are still under equal, if different, strain. I had an idea that passing the one-year mark meant the hard part was over, like crossing the finish line of a particularly grueling marathon, or getting to the front of the line at Target on a Saturday. But it is not over.

So I want to talk with you today about three widows. The first two come from today’s readings: the unnamed widow in Zarephath and then the unnamed woman from today’s gospel reading. And then I also want to tell you about a twentieth-century widow named Margaret.

While the commandments are focused on showing mercy to the orphan and widow, in today’s Old Testament reading we see a widow who has very little who is willing to share that little bit with the prophet, Elijah. They are living in desperate times, in the midst of a famine, and she has carefully measured out the flour she has for her daily bread. And then Elijah shows up asking for something to eat.

What to do? The Lord helps those who help themselves, right? Actually that’s not in the Bible! That’s more Ben Franklin – more American individualism. The truth is that God helps those who can’t help themselves. God helps the widow and the orphan. But how interesting when the widow and orphan are the ones who turn around and show generosity and extend hospitality even with the very little they have. So the woman welcomes Elijah to her table. And there is enough.God provides.

The second widow I want us to notice is the one Jesus himself points out in today’s gospel reading. He is criticizing the rich because they think that their giving ought to buy them power and respect and prestige. Their giving comes with a quid pro quo. Jesus calls our attention to this widow who walks up and gives two small copper coins, about a penny, commenting that…

…she has put in more than the rest, for they contributed out of their wealth but she gave out of her poverty: she put in all she had, everything she had to live on.

It always kills me to see this story be twisted, especially by well-off persons who say, “see, it doesn’t matter how much you give.” I’ll just continue to live in my fancy house and drive my fancy car and leave a small tip at church….

My sisters and brothers: that is absolutely not the point of this story. Jesus is saying just the opposite: it does matter how much you give. If one of those rich people went up and put two pennies in the plate Jesus would definitely not be pointing them out in a positive light. But the issue here is about whether or not our giving is sacrificial and intentional. The wealthy ones whom Jesus is criticizing can afford to write out big checks, but relative to their wealth they aren’t doing that. They may feel they are paying their “fair share” but they aren’t giving in a way that takes account of the fact that to those to whom much is given, much is required. (That is in the Bible, by the way – see Luke 12:48!)

This widow, like the one who lived centuries before her and found room at her table for Elijah, is generous with the little she has. She is easy to miss because she isn’t driving a fancy car to temple or going home to a big house. She’s on a fixed income.  Yet she is faithful. Her giving back to God is a priority in her life—in fact it is the priority of her life. If you reflect on Jesus, the Jewish rabbi, then you can see how he is turning the table by pointing to her. For centuries his people have been taught to care for widows and orphans. While necessary, and a commandment, it can also be patronizing at some level. The poor can become invisible except as some generic “category.” But Jesus suggests that they need to see the widow before them – that one over there who is so faithful. To really see her and to look to her as their model for generosity.

As a parish priest I came to believe these two stories about widows quite literally because I got to see it unfold year after year. It was amazing to me how often women (and sometimes men) on fixed incomes were committed to making their giving come first rather than last.  One such witness in my own life brings me to my third widow this day: my grandmother, Peg Miller. Her husband, my grandfather, died just before Christmas, when my mother was still a little girl. So I never met him. My two uncles had already left home at the time of my grandfather’s death, which left my grandmother on her own to raise my mother as a single parent. My grandmother never re-married. When I say she had next to nothing I mean it quite literally; she had only a small social security check each month to live on and in the long cold winters of northeast Pennsylvania she kept the temperature in her house cool, so the oil bills wouldn’t be too high.

Yet she was one of the most generous people I have ever known. I never heard her complain about money, except on the rare occasions when she would give one of us a gift at Christmas or on our birthdays and say something like, “I so wish it could be more.” Never, however, did I hear her complain about money for her own sake. The only reason she ever wished she had more was to be able to share it.

We worry about all kinds of new strands of diseases in our time, and that is understandable. But my grandmother lost a brother in the prime of his life to the Influenza of 1918, which really was a pandemic that took somewhere between twenty and forty million lives. We worry about the economy and we should, but she quit school to help her mother out during the Great Depression. We worry about the endless wars in the Middle East, and rightly so; but she lost two brothers in the Great War that was supposed to end all wars. That war finally ended on 11-11 at 11, as we will remember this coming Wednesday. Let’s remember it not by looking for yet another excuse to go shopping and find a bargain, but to remember all who have served this nation in wartime and to recommit ourselves to be instruments of God’s peace.

All of those difficult experiences could have broken my grandmother. But amazingly they left her stronger and more courageous and generous and optimistic. The thing that amazes me is that while I obviously loved my grandmother very much, she was not completely unique. I bet even as I speak of her you all have someone in mind in your own life – perhaps a mother or grandmother, perhaps someone in this parish.  My grandmother got up every morning and counted her blessings and that practice changes how we live.

We can choose to live our lives with faith or with fear. We can choose to covet our neighbor’s stuff or we can count our own blessings. The focus of this sermon is on three widows and there is a reason the Bible speaks of widows, along with orphans, as people who experience life as precarious. I don’t mean to suggest that generosity of spirit is limited to widows and the Bible doesn’t either. It’s just that there is no substitute for experiencing our own vulnerability, which then leads us to acknowledge our utter dependence upon God. That, I think, is the common thread here. As long as we hold onto the illusion that we are in control, we live as if all that we can hold onto is “ours.” In fact, all things come of God – and when we give it back to God we are acknowledging it was only ever on loan in the first place.

Many of us live valuing security above all else. I know this is my own temptation. I am not a person who values fancy cars or clothes very much and am fortunate that my nature is to be pretty content with what I have. (I do, admittedly, think life is too short to drink cheap wine and I enjoy good food a little too much.) But more even than those things what I want is to make sure things are covered, and my ducks are lined up: getting my two kids through college and then planning for retirement and making sure my wife and I have healthcare as we grow old. There is a part of me that figures if I can control those things all will be well.

But that is an illusion and the truth is that goal is elusive to say the least. What is enough? That’s not an argument not to be prepared or to not do some financial planning. But we deceive ourselves when we begin to believe that we are in control. We cannot number even the hairs on our head. When the illusion of security is stripped away (as it was, by the way, for the Israelites over forty years in wilderness of the Sinai Desert, and as it is for people who are living the twelve steps in recovery) then there is an opportunity to re-discover a profound truth that goes to the heart of our faith: what we get in this world is one day at a time.

Every time we gather together for the Eucharist we pray the prayer our Lord taught us, rooted in the experience of Sinai and the life of widows everywhere: give us this day our daily bread. And then help us to remember to say thank you when it is provided . 

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