Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 32 B
texts: 1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146; Mark 12:38-44
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
That story is not all fun and games for Elijah, either.
The LORD God sends him to live in a foreign country, in the midst of a drought, and ask a starving widow to take care of him.
How could any of us say what Elijah’s told to say to an emaciated woman, gathering sticks for her last fire and meal? Feed me, and God will bless you. Feed me first, in fact, even though you don’t have enough for you and your son. How could we ask anything of someone who says, “I’m going home to prepare a meal, and then my son and I will die”?
We’re not just concerned about Elijah, either. These two widows and those who surround them raise complicated questions. What is Jesus really saying about the poor woman who gave away her last coins? How does God sustain the widows and orphans, as today’s Psalm declares, along with the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, and at the same time command this widow to give away her last meal? What on earth does any of this have to do with us?
That last question is the one that’s most tricky and dangerous.
Every November the lectionary gives to one Sunday readings that deal with money in some way, likely because many congregations focus on stewardship now. So do we at Mount Olive. In a few weeks we’ll all bring our promises of what we will give next year to our shared work together and offer them to God. These readings are sometimes viewed as great texts to convince people to dig deep and give.
Unless we don’t want to use Scripture to manipulate emotions and motivate by guilt. It’s what’s often done. How quickly is the widow and her offering made an object lesson about how miserly we are, giving only a little bit to the church when she gave all her money? How often are these widows lifted up as paragons of faith, implying none of the sluggards in the pews approach their devotion?
It may be there are lessons for our stewardship here, but we’re not going to find them by manipulatively using these widows as leverage.
That happens when we preach these readings apart from the grace of God that loves and saves the world.
God’s grace does not manipulate. God’s grace doesn’t shill for an institution. God’s grace doesn’t send people on guilt trips in hopes of motivating them.
The love of the Triune God for the world is so great God became one of us, taught us a healing way of love and life, died at our hands, rose from the dead, and now makes all things new. That truth gives joy and purpose to our every breath.
We can’t lay it aside every time we get a juicy, legalist interpretation of Scripture that sometimes is effective in getting certain results, but at the cost of true faith and discipleship.
If we’re going to understand anything about these two widows we have to look at them through the lenses of Christ’s life, teaching, death, and resurrection. We need to know before we begin where God’s grace is.
Grace today starts with “she gave everything she had.”
This tense moment with the scribes is right in the middle of Holy Week, and at the end of this week Jesus will, in fact, give everything he has.
That’s the grace at the heart of this story, and the story from Kings. This isn’t news to us; every time Jesus invites us to discipleship it comes from this grace, but in different clothing, different metaphor. We always look into the eyes of the Son of God who says, “I’m going down this path, where I will lose all to save all. Follow me.”
Days from his death, this isn’t metaphor for him, it’s real. These widows gave everything they had; Jesus, the Son of the Living God, will give everything he has. Those who follow are told, “this is the path of life, to lose as your Master loses. That’s where you’ll find true life.”
Well, we have boundaries, barriers we’ve raised that keep us from walking out onto Christ’s path. We see three in these stories.
To walk with Jesus, we need to take down the barrier of what we think is enough.
If we’re frightened by anything these widows do, it’s their giving everything. We’re glad to share with others, even generously. But everything? What if we don’t have enough?
If we share our wealth, will we have enough to live on till we die? If we share our love, what if we’re drained by someone who doesn’t give back? If we share our time, what if we’re asked to give time we can’t spare?
But what we mean by “enough” can change. When we see people who thrive on much less income and “necessities” than we do, we see that “enough” is a flexible idea. Our criticism of people who seem to be unable to function at income levels we can’t dream of reaching is another sign of the multiple meanings of “enough”.
When we take down our “enough” barrier, we find the abundance of a God who has no limits to love or grace, who always provides. We find there’s “enough”, even when we die to our fears, because our Lord is risen, and there is life enough for all.
To walk with Jesus, we need to take down the barrier of whom we love.
Who are the people whom you cannot say “no” to? Whom can you not refuse to love, to help financially or otherwise, to give your time, your energy, your life? That’s the boundary.
This foreign widow opened the circle of those to whom she couldn’t say no to include Elijah. There’s no earthly sense in sharing her last meal with a stranger. The boundary of her circle was changed.
We fear taking down this barrier. We struggle because we think some aren’t deserving of our help, and some don’t belong to us. We fear we’ll be overwhelmed by people who need us, that if we don’t limit our giving of wealth, life, time, love, we’ll be drained dry.
And the One who was crucified and whose life flowed out onto the ground says, “When did I ever tell you otherwise? Of course that’s the risk. And of course some don’t deserve it. Do you?”
When we take down this barrier so we can walk the path with Christ, we find the grace of God to love others regardless of whether we think they deserve it, or that they belong to us. We find the strength of God not to worry about being taken advantage of. And we find the joy that we are never alone, because now all are in our circle.
To walk with Jesus, we need to take down the barrier of whom we let love us.
Who are the people whom you allow to help you, to love you? Whom you trust to reveal your pain, your need, your difficulty, and permit to care for you, give you grace? That’s the boundary.
Elijah’s willingness to ask a starving woman to feed him opened him up to the grace of God for her, her son, and for himself.
We fear taking down this barrier for lots of reasons. As we heard a few weeks ago, for some our pride causes us to hesitate to let others know of our need. For others of us it’s our anger, our fear, our shame, or other reasons. This barrier can be higher and stronger than the others. We don’t like being seen as needy, or trusting others to meet that need. We can be comfortable seeing ourselves as God’s presence to others. We’re frightened of the vulnerability it would take to let others be God’s presence to us.
When we take down this barrier so we can walk the path with Christ, we are given the courage of God to let others help and love us. And we come full circle to the first boundary, because when others can love us, we’ll always have enough.
There is death in taking down our barriers. Losing our protection is frightening.
But the path on the other side is with the risen One who destroys death and makes all things new. Who gives the grace of a new sense of what is “enough,” and the joy of being connected to all, both in our care for them and their care for us.
We are made new in Christ’s death and resurrection, for this path. Once our protections are dropped, our lives begin to flow in love toward God and neighbor and the love of God and neighbor flows toward us and we finally live the life God dreamed for us. Where no one is left out, where the abundance of God is for everyone, where all find their jars and jugs filled to the brim, and we live together in the peace and fullness God intends, until our Lord returns.
This is not fiction. Not in the life of the Triune God. This is the new thing our risen Lord is making. And it lies on the path of Christ that stands before us.
In the name of Jesus. Amen