The Widow's Might

Scripture can be found here

Sometimes we experience something that marks a turning point in our lives, something that either changes its course, or changes us, forever. Military service, especially in a time of war, active duty that takes one into battle, is one such experience. It's hard to imagine many other life experiences that leave such an impact on a life.

For many who enlist, it is the first time they are away from home. In boot camp they are immersed in a situation in which they learn what it is to have a commander, what it is to work harder than they ever have before, to endure physical challenges and training that push them beyond the point of exhaustion. Some learn for the first time how to handle deadly weapons—not only how to shoot accurately, under all kinds of conditions, but also how to care for those weapons, to disassemble and clean and reassemble them, so that they are always in perfect working condition.  

They learn how to follow orders in terrifying and dangerous conditions. They learn how to depend on one another, and are knit into a band of brothers—and sisters—whose connection will often last their whole life long. My dad’s unit of paratroopers had annual reunions, and he attended them until he was well into his 80’s. My mom was always worried they might make parachutes out of the bed sheets, and jump from the balconies of the Valley Forge Holiday Inn.

But war is not only camaraderie that lasts a lifetime. War is also hell, as we all know—either because we’ve been there, or because we love someone who has. Those tight groups that are formed—when someone dies, the group is fractured. Combat duty leaves emotional and spiritual scars, often for the simple fact that people have had the experience of killing and witnessing death, all the while being terrified. According to my mom, my dad experienced night terrors—terrifying dreams—every night for the first ten years of their marriage.

And yet, there is little that can be compared to the pride and satisfaction that come with having participated in national service, having served their country with honor. Such service is something that can never be taken from them. And it changes them forever.

There are many things that either change the course of a life or change an individual, forever. Being widowed, unless there is divorce, is something that occurs, eventually, in every marriage. It is another kind of turning point, one we don’t talk about much. And it marks a profound transition, as well as a profound loss. Often, a series of losses. At the time a spouse dies, a surviving spouse loses a deeply intimate companionship which, for better or for worse, has often shaped their life for years. The widow or widower grieves, and that grief can surge back with each passing year on the anniversary of the death. And there can be wholly unanticipated losses. Sometimes the survivor loses friendships that depended upon the gathering of couples. Sometimes they lose financial security, and can find themselves struggling to regain their footing for years. They may lose a beloved home. And if they are parents, they lose their partner in parenting, which can leave them feeling like a chair missing a leg.

This morning, our stories from both 1 Kings and the gospel of Mark place widows at the center of the conversation. All the above things I’ve said about being widowed certainly can apply to widows in the ancient world as well, but there was another additional devastating outcome: unless they had an adult son, or brother, or father to care for them, women who lost their husbands entered a frightening landscape in which they were completely vulnerable. They could not work—that was not an option. Relatives formed the only real social safety net for them, and if those relatives didn’t exist or couldn’t step up, the women were in dire circumstances. Widows were then forced to support their families by any and all means available, at risk to not only their health and reputations, but their lives. 

This was the reality for women who were widows in first century Palestine. In our gospel reading, we hear a very familiar story—almost a parable—that has a widow as one main focus. But there’s another main focus, and that’s one that is a little uncomfortable for a preacher. That would be the scribes, a.k.a. the religious professionals. Jesus’ harsh words about them set the story rolling.

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! ” ~Mark 12:38-39 

We’ve been reading through Mark’s gospel this past year, so I’m sure you have noticed—Jesus is in an almost constant state of conflict with religious leaders. The first hint we have that there will be trouble is right in the first chapter. The people are “astounded at his teaching, for he [teaches] them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (v. 22). After this burn—the people saying, essentially, hey, this guy’s the real deal, and the scribes, not so much—it’s all downhill for Jesus and the spiritual professionals. They are scandalized when he dares to forgive sins (2:5-12). They criticize him for breaking bread with those they consider sinners (2:15-17). They scold him for violating the Sabbath when disciples pluck grain as a snack (2:23-27), and when he heals a man’s withered hand (3:1-6). They reason that he can cast out demons because he’s a demon himself (3:22).

You get the picture. With only a few exceptions—such as those Pharisees who helpfully warn Jesus to run when danger approaches—Jesus and the religious authorities are mostly at odds. And in this passage, Jesus finally really lets us know what he thinks. 

He thinks the scribes really like their fancy robes, and that they really like it when people notice that they are religious professionals, because, as Father Guido Sarducci pointed out years ago on Saturday Night Live, “Nothing brings out the finest cut of veal in an Italian restaurant” like the sight of those fancy robes. Not to mention the places of honor/ the best seats!

But then Jesus says something really quite chilling. He says, “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation” (12:40). There are four types of people who are named throughout the Bible as being in need of particular care and protection. These are the poor, the orphaned, the stranger (which is to say, immigrant), and the widow. Time and again God’s laws point out that these people are the most vulnerable, and remind God’s people that their empathy needs to extend to those beyond their immediate families to help them.

But here, Jesus accuses these powerful leaders of devouring the houses of widows—of enriching themselves at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable. And this sets the stage for the part of the story we know much better, the touching sight of the poor widow offering her two small copper coins at the Temple treasury. The coins are worth about a penny all told. Jesus tells us, this gift is worth much more than the gifts of the wealthy. He says, “She out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (12:44).

It is a beautiful thing to see that this woman has done this. It is a deeply inspiring thing to see that, even in her position of loss, and grief, and depleted resources, she somehow finds in her the gratitude for blessings she has known. She finds a way to continue to trust in God. She finds hope for a better future, and in that hope, she gives all she has for the building up of God’s house. In her selfless act, there is a kind of power, a strength of character that is truly inspiring.

But Jesus also gives us a warning about this beautiful act: She shouldn’t have to do it.

I want to tell you something I hope you already know. If you are teetering on the edge financially, no one wants a financial gift to the church to put you over the edge. We receive and are enriched by many kinds of gifts—the kinds of gifts that fall under the categories of time, and talent, as well as treasure.

But if you are not teetering on the edge financially, I would like to say this: gifts to help the church to meet its financial obligations—to care for our buildings and grounds and staff, to reach out to a community that has, itself, seen many challenging transitions—these gifts are needed, welcomed, and appreciated. And it is my prayer that we all may be able to find the gratitude for the blessings we have known, and the trust in God, and the hope for our future together, to be able to engage in the spiritual discipline of giving. Gifts transform our lives together, because they are tangible expressions of our acknowledgement that God is the giver of every good thing, and has given us stewardship over it all.

The issue of vulnerable and hurting people is a timeless one. Today as two thousand years ago, there are people who need to be fed and clothed, educated and protected, healed and given hope. If we were to come up with a list of the most vulnerable folks for today, military veterans might need to be on it. One in five of veteranss who have returned home from Afghanistan or Iraq have PTSD or major depression. And about one in five of those veterans have experienced a traumatic brain injury. These men and women face significant obstacles to getting care, including the unhelpful messages they may have taken in throughout their service, that being tough is the only thing that matters. Being tough is good; but healing is what opens a space for life abundant.

Jesus is our model in seeking ways to help all who are hurting. As many of you know, this week marked the opening of our new CHOW Food Pantry. Traffic was light, but that’s because the folks at CHOW don’t want to overwhelm us at the start, and are helping us to ease into our exciting new ministry. The pantry offers us yet another opportunity to open our doors in the middle of the week to members of the community who are fending off hunger. 

When you consider your gifts to UPC for 2018, I hope you will keep this new ministry in mind…as well as our Days for Girls project spearheaded by the Mission Committee, helping with the most basic of needs to ensure that young girls and women can stay in school. I hope you will call to mind those vulnerable people who are being helped by the hands and hearts of the people in this congregation. Imagine the widow who comes into 202 East Main Street, who is trying to find her footing and feed her family. Picture the veteran who needs a hand while he is trying to find his place in the community once more. I invite you all to join us throughout 2019, our Bicentennial year, in expressing our gratitude for our heritage, our trust in God for the present day, and our hope for our future together. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.