Sticking With It
The last year has brought hardship to many people, as we all are aware, because of the financial meltdown. In the last several weeks employees of this University have learned the details about staff reductions here, and it has been painful for everyone, especially those affected directly by layoffs, time and salary reductions, and office reorganizations. Last Sunday during this service we announced a program we were offering the next day for staff called “Space for Grace,” a time to reflect, pray, share feelings, and be strengthened by community. I hope the participants did experience some grace in that space, because I know I did. What gentle, profound, lovely testimonies I heard about faithful persistence in the face of hardship, of the support of families and spiritual communities, of enduring, indefatigable hope, and trust, of compassion and charity to those worse off. People looked back in their lives at previous trials and named the blessings that had come from them. Without denying how challenged they are today, they witnessed to the fresh possibility every day of unexpected new beginnings, the dawn of new blessings, the numinous potential for grace. There was grace in that space indeed.
The feelings and experiences shared by these staff members still consumed my thoughts as I reflected on our biblical passages this week, and have really informed these thoughts. The widows who “star” in each story are enduring times of profound hardship themselves; even at death’s door they hold on to goodness and faithfulness. They stick with it. In a throwback to the TV game shows of my youth with their giddy references to “Door Number One!” and “Door Number Two!” I find myself thinking of them, perhaps irreverently, as Widow Number One and Widow Number Two.
Widow Number One in I Kings is a Canaanite and she lives in the land of Baal, the vegetation god. That god is not doing a very good job – even a person of means like this widow, wealthy enough to have an upper room in her house, has come to the point of starvation because of the region’s famine. A woman, widowed at that, a Canaanite, at death’s door – this is a highly unlikely person to serve as the source of Elijah’s own salvation. Her story is meant to teach Elijah and each of us that God can provide in the most unconventional and most desperate of circumstances. How can we give up hope when God has not? How can we give up hope, whatever hardship we endure, when God can make a way out of no way?
Widow Number One persists in goodness and faith. She continues the custom of hospitality to the stranger even though it can only shorten the brief remainder of her own life and that of her child. As a parent, it’s the compromising of her son’s welfare that hits me hardest. How many parents would choose without thinking to die in place of their child? Many. How many of us would divert food from our starving child’s mouth so that it may go to a complete stranger? Not me, I think. Our text says that God had commanded her to feed Elijah, and so she sticks with it. She continues the practice of hospitality in the face of death. She persists in goodness. She listens to a god not her own – she tells Elijah “As the Lord your God lives.” She follows that god’s word against all human common sense.
And then there is Widow Number Two, from the Gospel According to Mark. Widows and orphans, as we read throughout the Bible, are the most vulnerable members of society. They do not have protection – financial, social, physical, political. Widow Number Two makes herself all the more vulnerable by giving all that she has to the temple collection box. She risks all, in trusting expectation that God, and God’s institution the temple, will thrive. She puts her two lepta, her two tiny copper pennies, into the box so that God’s will might be done through the temple. Jesus is, in Mark’s gospel, about to teach on the end of the world – on the apocalypse – and about how the only thing that will matter then is faith in God. Forget a big retirement account, investments, home ownership, a solid professional reputation, whatever else we cling to. The only thing that will count is faith in God, and that is what this widow has. The well-to-do people who contribute large sums that make no dent in their wallet do not show that they are ready to risk or trust. Widow Number Two gives it all away. Jesus continually has been teaching to love God with all one’s heart and soul and mind and strength. Our widow does this. Who are the people around us today who give in great percentage in order to make good things happen? I think of the poorer communities of our country who choose to pay very high property taxes on their low-value property in order to raise enough money to fund a decent public education for their children. They can’t ever tax themselves highly enough – they don’t have the assets – to provide anywhere near the education available to kids in wealthier communities. Like Widow Number Two and her fellow congregants, we all put our money into the things we believe in.
But that this widow believes in the temple is a wonder to me. As our passage says of the temple’s leaders, the scribes, “They devour widows’ houses.” It was these well-to-do, pious men, perhaps, who appointed themselves as helpers or executors to the unfortunate little ladies who’d lost their husbands. In the name of unctuously overseeing their affairs, did these scribes appropriate for themselves as much of the widow’s assets as possible? Did they devour their houses? Those of us who read the New York papers and have been treated to months of coverage of the trial of Brooke Astor’s son and attorney know that this is not just an ancient world phenomenon. Today we hear, too, of predatory lenders. Our widow’s is a case of a predatory financial consulting. It’s particularly hard to think of a vulnerable person being fleeced by a pious person with some expertise, and from one’s own congregation. Our Widow Number Two is really something. She walks right past those who may have devoured her house and she puts all her money right into the box. She is going to persist in her goodness and faithfulness. She is sticking with it – sticking with the temple, God’s institution – even if some of its human members are corrupt, and may have done her harm. She gives out of her total faith in God. No human injustice can take that away from her.
It is appealing to identify ourselves with Widows Number One and Two, who selflessly persist in goodness and faithfulness, no matter how hopeless or corrupt the circumstances. But I wonder what we can learn from others in our texts, we who also want to persist in goodness and faithfulness, no matter what our circumstances. Let us dare to stand in the Biblical shoes of even the Prophet Elijah, and ask ourselves who it is around us, most unlikely, the last person we’d ever think of, who may be the one to save or sustain us, to teach us about faithfulness, to do God’s will. Who do we write off, and why? I could suggest categories of people right now, but I think that might limit your imagination. You know yourselves best. Let your imaginations roam with honesty about who for you is the least likely person to point you to God, or increase your faith.
While we’re at it, let’s dare to identify with those scribes, too. This one’s much less comfortable! Are there ways in which we devour the houses and resources of the vulnerable? Do the people who grow the food we eat and drink get a fair wage for their labor? That buck really does stop with us, the consumers. How about the clothes on our backs and shoes on our feet – were they made in sweatshops? Did we get them for cheap because the factory workers do not earn even a living wage? The scribes love to be noticed and honored for all things at all times, even at worship. In what ways do we want to be noticed and honored, and for what? Perhaps it is even for virtues – for humility, goodness, intelligence, honesty, integrity, faith. Why don’t we just inhabit these things, and not give a hoot if anyone notices?
There is much to learn from the widows too, of course. They teach us that what we give away comes back to us many fold. More specifically, what we share, no matter how measly, from the depths of our love, our faith, our generosity, our compassion, our thirst for justice – the returns will be greater than our wildest dreams. This is not true of what we share, no matter how costly or valuable, out of obligation, dept, parsimony, squeezing off what we have to rather than giving all that we possibly can. I’m referring here to money, but also affection, concern, mercy, human kindness. We are so often stingy with these. Whatever we give away in a spirit of compassion will come back to us many fold.
And the widows teach us to stick with it – whatever good road or place has become quite difficult. Persist in goodness and faithfulness. I think of Widow Number Two and what she can show us about sticking with very imperfect denominations and congregations. The church is a divine institution, but its human members have gotten so much wrong. We’ve been complicit in fascism, human chattel slavery, white supremacy, sexism, the fleecing of poor communities or nations, violence and war whose aim wasn’t a restoration of justice but the perpetuation of privilege. Like the widow at the temple treasury some people today just can’t give up on institutions that have hurt or neglected them. I think of gay men and lesbians who persist in their desire to serve in the military while it requires them to lie about who they are. I think of many queer people I’ve known who attend seminary in answer to God’s call, and who go through the ordination process refusing to deny who they are, knowing that their denominations eventually will refuse their calling because they are out. I think of so many women I know who answer holy callings to go to seminary and prepare for ministry in denominations that will not ordain them. They go anyway, so that when gender equality arrives they’ll be right there ready for leadership. It may not happen in their lifetimes, and they know it. But they believe that their tiny, individual witness does move the effort forward, even if on many days if feels like it’s adding up to a whole lot of nothing. They persist with an institution they love because they believe they can do more good if they stick with it and stay inside it than if they walk away.
Our widows say to us this morning “Stick with it, all of you, whatever your challenge.” These women aren’t meek; they’ve got lots of moxie! They stick with their goodness and faithfulness no matter what comes, and they invite us to do the same.
Julian Claassens, I Kings 17: 8-16, workingpreacher.org, 11/8/09.
Henry Langknecht, Mark 12: 38-44, workingpreacher.org, 11/8/09.
Carol Newsom and Sharon Ringe, eds, Women’s Bible Commentary (Louisville: WJK Press, 1992).
Herman Waetjen, A Reordering of Power, (Minn.: Fortress Press, 1989).