Four Widows: A Sermon for Proper 27, Year B

It’s just coincidence that we’ve asked you to return your stewardship pledge forms today when we’ve heard the story of “The Widow’s Mite.” We’ve run a subdued stewardship campaign this fall, in part because with construction and everything else that’s been going on, staff and lay leadership have been stretched to our limits. The excitement of renovation, the myriad decisions we are making day to day, and now the planning for our move back into the nave—well all of it exhausts our time and energy. Even as we make those plans, we know that some of our spaces will not be completed by December 1 and that our some of our usual activities in Advent and the Holiday Season will have to be adapted.

Excitement, anticipation, uncertainty. As we stand on the cusp of a new year at Grace and even more than that, on the cusp of a new era, there’s a great deal that we don’t know. We don’t know when all of the construction will be completed; we don’t know what it will be like when we occupy those new and newly-renovated spaces. We do know one thing, however. Whatever transformation has occurred in our building will have no impact on our common life, our mission and ministry, our future, if it is not accompanied by a parallel transformation in our hearts and in our lives, a transformation that sends us out into the community to share God’s love and the good news of Jesus Christ. I’m confident that such a transformation is already taking place. New life is showing forth in our recent lecture series that brought many people from outside of our congregation to us and gave us ideas about how we might engage the issues of racism and inequity that plague our community.

As we continue to explore our role in the wider community, as we discern our future ministry and mission in this place, today’s lessons challenge us to use our resources wisely, to use them to seek justice and mercy, to advocate for the voiceless, and to offer shelter and sustenance to those who have been crushed by the oppressive institutions in which we live and participate.

Today we encounter four widows—Naomi and her daughters-in-law and the unnamed widow who gives her last penny to the temple. In the ancient world, widows were among the most marginalized and vulnerable of all people. Women gained their standing from the relationships in which they lived—their fathers, their husbands, their sons. A widow was dependent on her sons; if she had none, or as in Naomi’s case, if they had died, they could only throw themselves on the mercy of their birth family. Thus Naomi returns to Bethlehem when her husband and sons die in hopes that her relations there will sustain her. For that reason, too, she urges her daughters-in-law to return to their birth families. But one of them, Ruth refuses. The words she says are among the most familiar in all of biblical literature: “Wherever you go, I will go, wherever you lodge, I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

One of the central values of biblical law was care for the widow and orphan. We see that in the story of Ruth, who goes out to gather barley behind the grain harvesters. The Mosaic law commanded that grain, olives, and grapes be left behind after the harvest as provision for the alien, the widow, and orphan. Boaz, a relative of Naomi gives special instructions to his men to make sure that Ruth will be able to gather up adequate grain for her and Naomi. Even as we see this concern for the vulnerability of the widow, our reading offers a reminder that in a patriarchal society, a woman’s value is closely tied to her beauty and her sexuality. By marrying Boaz, Ruth is a widow no longer (nor an alien for that matter). She and Naomi gain standing in the community and Ruth will be the ancestor of the Davidic monarchy.

We see the plight of widows in today’s gospel story, as well. Unlike Ruth, whose story has a happy ending, we have no idea what happened to the widow who put two tiny coins in the offering plate at the temple, everything she had, or as the Greek reads, “her whole life.”

We are in the last week of Jesus’ life. Mark gives a clear chronology and progression of what happens in these days. On the first day, Jesus enters Jerusalem to hosannas and palm branches. He goes to the temple, looks around, then leaves Jerusalem to spend the night in Bethany. The next days he spends in the temple, teaching, but also with a series of confrontations with the religious and political leadership of Jerusalem and the Temple.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus makes a comment about the scribes. They were the official interpreters of the law: consummate insiders “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! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” The contrast with the widow is obvious. While the scribes paraded around, she brought in two copper coins, all that she had. We could hold up these two brief stories as diametrically opposed opposites, the widow’s exemplary behavior over against the hypocritical scribes.

There’s another way of thinking about these two stories that derives from the context in which they appear. Jesus has been teaching in the temple; he has been confronting, and has been confronted by, representatives of the religious and political elite. He has just pointed out the hypocrisy of much of that religious leadership. He has castigated their pride and arrogance, alluded to their wealth. Immediately after the story of the widow’s offering, Jesus and his disciples leave the temple. As they go, the disciples remark on massive size and Jesus predicts its destruction. The widow’s offering, though praised by Jesus, could also be seen as an example of the temple’s oppression of the people. Impoverished, she still gave what she had as an offering.

We don’t know how Jesus delivered those words. Our assumption, in part thanks to hundreds of stewardship sermons, is that he is commending her actions. It might also be that he is lamenting them, offering the disciples a concrete example of a widow whose house has been devoured by the scribes.

We know all too well about institutions that grind humans down. I’m mindful of our current political climate and the toll it has taken on us all. I’m mindful of all those who invest their time, creativity, their all to the work of the university and are demoralized and belittled. The new movie “Spotlight” which chronicles the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting on the sexual abuse crimes of priests in the Roman Catholic Church will hit home for many of us as a reminder of how our churches can oppress and do evil even as we claim to be the body of Christ. Many of us bear wounds and scars from other hurts caused by the church.

Our histories often shape our complicated relationships with the institutions to which we belong. We don’t know what motivated the widow; we don’t know what happened to her. Did she give out of obligation? Did she give because there was nothing else she could do? Did she give out of joy and thanksgiving that she could give? All of these are possible.

In spite of our complicated relationships, in spite of everything else that might claim our allegiance or divert our attention away from this congregation and from our faith in Jesus Christ, we gather here to hear the Word of God preached, to explore and deepen our relationships with Jesus Christ, to seek to be and share Christ’s love with the world.

We are asking for your continued financial support for this congregation and hope that you have already or are prayerfully considering how you might support our work in this place. The money you give does much more than ensure the lights are on and the building is watertight. We touch hundreds, thousands of lives here—through the pantry, the shelter, our music programs, our ministries. We are a place of spiritual respite in the middle of busy city, a prophetic voice for the voiceless. Our shared work, gifts of time, energy, and skills, and our financial contributions make an enormous difference. I’m grateful to all of you, for all that you give, and grateful to God that we share ministry in this place.

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