Thursday, November 5, 2015

Three Widows--One Common Bond

Every now and then, the Revised Common Lectionary offers us a week when all three major scripture passages blend beautifully into one common theme.  This week is one of those weeks.  This next Sunday is listed as Stewardship Sunday on the official United Church of Christ calendar and at the congregation I serve it is also that special Sunday.  So, we have three stories from scripture that all have something to do with trust and giving and hope.

First, there is the great old story from I Kings 17 about the prophet Elijah.  The land of Israel is in the middle of a great time of drought and it has not rained for years.  God sends Elijah to Zarephath where he meets a widow who is gathering up sticks.  He asked her for a cup of water and as she is going to get the water he also requests a little bit of bread to eat.  She replies that she only has enough meal and oil to make one little cake and after she and her son share it then they will have no more food and will just die as a result.  The prophet sounds very selfish as he tells her first to prepare that food for him and then she and her son will eat.  Did he not hear her?  She said she had no more food to prepare.  And besides, he is just an old wandering man who happened by...why should she give him the last bit of food she has in her house?  Perhaps she is despondent and thinks what difference does it make anyway and just does what he asks?  Or maybe she saw something special in who this old man was and decided to take a risk and do as he asks to see what would happen?  So, she brings him that little cake she prepared and then he tells her to go check her meal and oil again, and sure enough, there is enough again to make another cake.  So, she and her son eat and drink as did the prophet.  The story concludes that until the rains came there was never a lack of meal or oil in that household.

This story is a wonderful one that preachers have loved to preach for generations.  It is about faith and taking a risk because of that faith.  The widow decided to risk using the last bit of food she had in her house hoping that the word of this old man would be true, and sure enough, what he said would happen, did happen.  Her needs and those of her son were provided miraculously because she was willing to take a risk and give all she had to give.

So, that brings us to the second widow story, this time from the Gospel of Mark.  As Jesus and his disciples watch those passing through the Temple give their offerings, he observes a widow among the wealthy folks who are depositing their offerings with great gusto.  She drops in two small coins in a quiet way and leaves.  We do not know how Jesus knows this but he tells his disciples that she gave more than all the others who were giving that day because "she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."  (Mark 12:44b).  Jesus commends her because she gave all she had while others had a lot still to live on after they gave their offering.

This story is used often for Stewardship Sunday messages.  It teaches a lesson about giving that it does not matter the size of the gift.  It is the motivation behind giving that matters.  When we look at the main character of the story, however, and see what is involved in her gift, we see, as we did with the Widow of Zarephath, that she took a risk in giving all she had.  She gave away everything she had, all she had to live on, so what would she do then to support herself as a result of her gift?  This too was an act of faith, a result of trust in the God of Israel to supply her needs.  She put herself in a position where she would have to rely  upon God because she had nowhere else to turn.

The final story this week looks at that wonderful story of loyalty and love from the book of Ruth.  Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi are both widows and return to the land of Israel because of the drought in the land of Moab where they lived.  Ruth is a Moabite woman and was welcomed in Israel only because of her relationship with Naomi.  Both women were dependent upon society caring for them because they were widows.  Women only had anything in society because men provided it for them.  So, Ruth took a risk and followed Naomi back to Israel where she would be an alien.  We do not know how society in general viewed Ruth but we know that a man named Boaz took a liking to her and treated her kindly.  Because of this good deed, Naomi suggested that Ruth be nice in return to Boaz and perhaps he would marry her and, sure enough, Boaz fell in love with Ruth and married her and their son became an ancestor to David whose line would rule the house of Israel for years to come.

Ruth took many risks in this wonderful ancient story.  She followed her mother-in-law into a country where she would be viewed as an outsider.  She gathered leftover grain in the fields to support her and Naomi despite it being a dangerous thing for a woman to do.  She approached Boaz by night in a way to let him know that she would be willing to marry him, risking rejection and scorn if her plan did not work out.  God's providence and care were at work, however, and Ruth was accepted and loved by Boaz and she and Naomi became part of the ancestral line of David and Mary and Joseph and Jesus.

Three women who took a risk and found grace and hope as a result.  All gave of themselves so as to bring about good things for their lives.  Today, we offer what we have to God and neighbor in many ways.  Sometimes we give financially to our church and to other organizations to provide for the needs of those less fortunate than we are.  Sometimes we give of our time and talents to assist individuals and organizations that care for others in society.  Sometimes, like the widow who cooked the last of her food for Elijah, we give what we have hoping that it will bring about a good result....and it does.  Hungry people are fed.  Those without adequate clothing are covered.  The sick are given healing.  Those on the road to destruction are given hope.  All because we give as we can in whatever ways we can because we know that God provides for our needs daily and commands us to care for others who have needs.

When I was growing up in the church I attended as a child, the preacher was fond of quoting a verse from the Bible that said, "Give and it shall be given unto you, pressed down, running over, will men give unto your bosom."  I cannot tell you where that verse is found but its promise is one that as we give to benefit others, our own needs will be taken care of.  That I do believe and preach.