Sacred Soil

A Tale of Two Widows
November 11, 2012, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

Lectionary 32
November 11, 2012

1 Kings 17:8–16
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9:24–28
Mark 12:38–44

Elijah was a gruff man, insisting, even demanding that this widow, the widow of Zeraphath, make him some food. In our Old Testament text for today, in the midst of a withering drought, this widow is out gathering a few twigs, with which to build a fire, so that she may make one last cake of meal, before she and her frail son lay down to die. She is equally clear–there is not enough food even for one, let alone Elijah. But he insists, without any flourish, God will provide, and the three of them make a way from no way. And despite Elijah’s gruff nature, God’s abundance us shown as they cast their lot together, making their way as unlikely companions through a difficult time.

It is as if a love is built up between the two of them, despite the insistence, the gruffness–a love and care that surpasses expectations of possibility.

And central to this story is the fact that this widow gave everything she had. Her last bit of meal, her last drops of oil. And some how God made a way. And we admire this, honor this, lift it up as a beautiful and glorious thing. And it is. Though sometimes I think we miss the point as to why it is so beautiful. Hint: it has something to do with God.

In our passage from Mark today, we have a very similar passage. A widow who also gives everything she has. Jesus points her out, as she drops her last two coins into the temple treasury. And we are similarly tempted to lift her up, raise her up for her generosity and trust in God. For we all know, it is good, and wise and hopeful, to give all we have to God, to trust that God will provide.

But, sadly, in our culture we have far too many impostors for God. Far too many who would claim to be God, or agents of God. Far too many who would devour a widows house, claiming to be doing God’s work.

You see, in this passage Jesus begins by decrying the hypocrisy of the temple scribes–look at their long robes, their elaborate prayers, and yet they devour the widows houses. And then there is this shift as our eyes focus on the widow, and we so often are tempted to read this next passage as a compare and contrast–the bad scribes compared to the good widows. But Jesus says nothing to exalt the widow, not thing to lift up her generosity. No, rather than compare and contrast, I think he is citing an example, pointing out precisely how the scribes accomplish the task of devouring widows houses, as this destitute woman drops in her last two coins. Her whole livelihood. Everything.

We have been tempted, compelled throughout history to see these stories as the same thing, I think in part, because we are so compelled to see God and the temple, or God and the church as the same thing. Tempted to believe that surely, surely, our place of worship must always be working God’s will.

But we know this isn’t true. We know too much history, too much pain caused by church, caused by people claiming to be working in God’s name. If we are honest, we know that we are a human institution, subject to the same reality of sinfulness as any other human institution.

And this is precisely what Jesus decried as the scribes, with their power and control established the order of the temple to benefit themselves.

Which then leads to this question– what is different about these two stories? Why does God rejoice in the sacrifice of the Widow of Zeraphath, but not the widow in the temple?

From looking at the text, it becomes clear that God is at the center of the relationship between Elijah and the Zerapath widow. And human greed and sinfulness is at the center of the relationship between the temple scribes and the Widow in Mark. And we know that we are to keep God at our center. It is nice that the authors were so clear.

But in our lives, it is not always so easy to tell. When is God at the center, and when is it our own sinful self? The way forward is muddy with complicated intentions and motivations. Nothing ever seems pure and as clear.

Despite the easy clarity of the Old Testament story, I do think the text gives us a clue into the greater complexities of our own reality. A window. Relationship. Elijah threw his lot in with the widow. He connected with her, stood with her, cared for her, desired her survival as much as his own. Relationship.

A friend of mine recently wrote an article wrestling with common critiques of church, tackling these as important questions that need honoring and holding. One of these is this sense that the “trouble with church is that it just brainwashes us.” I’m sure you have encountered friends and loved ones that have hinted at this challenge… maybe you’ve wondered about it yourself?

He is quick to say that yes, the church is complicit in terrible acts of brainwashing, or denying the tensions of human reality, of trying to impose structures and rules that serve only to further itself– much as the Temple in Jerusalem of Jesus’ time.

But, church is not the only purveyor of such brainwashing. Just listen to the commercials on your television, look at the ads in the magazines, count, how many times have you been promised salvation by human means? by make up or beer? a car or a vote, by whiter teeth or a freshly baked pie?

He goes on to suggest that perhaps, church can be precisely the antidote we need to such brainwashing. To the insistence of our culture. To the innumerable replacements for God that we might find lurking at every mall and in every addiction.

Because here is what we have– Elijahs in our midst. People who are willing to be honest and clear. And people who will steadfastly stay in relationship despite disagreements. People who can wrestle with the difficult ground, people who can discern together, looking for what is truly of God, and what merely serves human sinfulness.

It is a great gift. For this temple that was destroyed has been raised up—raised up in the body of Christ. For death and sinfulness have no power over our God. And I am convinced that the best symbol of Christ’s body, the best example we have are the people gathered here. As broken as we are, we are given this task, to seek God and the good together. And in so doing, find God’s abundance in ways never imagined.

For we cannot give anything that is not already God’s. So shouldn’t we do our very best to return that gift to the good that God so richly desires for all humanity? Indeed, I believe this is true. But this is not something any of us can do on our own. We need one another. Together, the body of Christ. The new temple, risen to God’s glory, not our own.


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