24th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper27B
"Stewardship and Discipleship," by Rev. Fred Kinsey
Robin Craig, a native of Houston, who calls herself “The Widow Lady,” spends much of her time, these days, helping other widows. Just 11 days after her 21st wedding anniversary, her husband Danny died suddenly of undiagnosed cardiovascular and hypertensive disease. He was only 43.
“Once my husband died I was just thrown into this chaotic abyss,” Craig recalled in an interview, “with no instruction manual, no life jacket, no crash helmet – and just struggling to swim out of it.” When a spouse dies, you find you often lose your best friend, confidant, lover, life partner, financial manager, or cook. “I felt like half of my body was gone,” says Craig, “because I used to tell my husband, together we made one, really great capable person.”
“I think the hardest part for me has been making decisions on my own. A spouse is a great bouncing board. A spouse is the only person who has a vested interest in every single decision you make,” Craig pointed out. “And when you are faced with making them on your own, … it's extremely difficult.”
Then something happened to Craig that had never occurred before, or since. “During my second week of widowhood when I was just such in shock I had this crazy premonition where my body jolted forward and I heard my own voice, saying with urgency, ‘I have to help the widows,’” she recalls.
And she did. A year later, Craig put together a radio program in Houston that featured a grief counselor and young widower from her church, and she became the TV producer for the next three years. Later Craig expanded the program by getting some business sponsors together, creating “Help a Widow Day,” where widows could come together, talk about their problems, and support each other. .... and from that she created, “Camp Widow” in San Diego, hosting a weekly web-TV program that offers comfort, support and encouragement to widows, and dealing with topics such as finances and dating.
Widows saturate our readings today, with stories of hope and self-sacrifice, amidst great trials and tribulations. The Hebrew root for widow, “alam,” means, “one unable to speak,” because quite literally, a widow then was a woman without a voice, having no husband, in a culture that gave widows no legal status. In Greek, widow means “forsaken” or “left without.”
The prophet Elijah, in our First Reading, is directed by the word of the LORD to visit the widow at Zarephath. A severe drought has filled the land of Israel, and at the gate of the town, Elijah finds her gathering sticks with her starving son. Her plan is to make her final meal before the two of them lay down to die! Which is shockingly sad, but depicts well the way natural disasters disproportionately affect the poorest of our communities.
Elijah is gentle with her, asking at first only for a little water in a vessel, a common gift for strangers to receive. But immediately as she turns to do this, Elijah adds, and if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, could you bring along a morsel of bread to eat? He’s pushing the envelope, just enough, so that we now learn the widow has only enough provisions for her, and her child’s, last meal, and is probably so exhausted, and at the end of her rope, she is ready to die. Elijah then gives her, what is also called in the New Testament, the greeting of the angels: “do not be afraid,” he says. And he promises the widow of Zarephath, by the power of God, that her provisions will never run out, at least until the drought ends – and, says the text, “The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that God spoke by Elijah.”
My own mom was lucky enough to have beaten the odds. She was not cast into poverty when my dad died, but none-the-less, she experienced deep grief and loss, that changed over time, but never completely abated. She said she sometimes felt like a fifth-wheel at gatherings they had previously attended together. One thing she did, though, to help herself and those around her, was to develop a movie night with her other widow friends. She ordered a new DVD from Netflix every week, and invited a room full of ladies to her apartment, who all had lots to share about being widows, and, knowing my mom, lots of laughs too.
We don’t know very much at all about the widow in our Gospel Reading. Jesus watches her from afar, across the Kidron Valley from the Temple Mount. Without a firsthand knowledge of her, the tradition of church history has moved-in to ‘name and claim’ her, usually making an example of her, for the purpose of stewardship; that is, for financial Stewardship; or more to the point, about our pledges to our congregations, or our weekly envelope giving, or our tithe, or simply, for our gift-giving in the offering plate.
But the meager two pennies she puts in the temple treasury, it seems to me, is much more about her Discipleship than her Stewardship. To understand, it helps to keep the widow’s story in the context of the entire scene of Jesus’ visit to the Temple, including the stories immediately before, and after his observation of the widow. In the first verses of our reading just before, Jesus points out the showy-giving, and status-seeking of the community leaders, and how they are actually using the temple treasury to devour widow’s houses.
So what does Jesus mean when he points out that, the poor widow has, put in everything she had …contributed out of her poverty, all she had to live on, …which is more than all the others who are contributing to the treasury… out of their abundance?!
We cannot discount the sympathetic picture that Jesus portrays of the widow, that she gives, her whole life. He’s definitely impressed with her, and her generous giving. But probably not because Jesus thinks everybody should be emptying their pockets and their bank accounts, to zero, whenever the offering plates are passed around! Without a greater plan for sharing, at the very least, that would be chaos.
I think Jesus is both impressed, and grieved, watching the widow in the Temple from across the way – not unlike the variety of conflicted feelings many widows have after losing a spouse. Jesus is impressed that she understands discipleship, that is, giving her whole life, for the widow is a clear foreshadowing of his own self-sacrifice on the cross, and the way of the cross all disciples are called to. But Jesus is also grieved, because he knows that for this particular widow, her impressive gift will not find its mark or reap the reward she desires, because this particular Temple, corrupt as it had become, is about to be destroyed. And that’s the very next story in Mark’s gospel: “Do you not see these great buildings,” Jesus asked his disciples as they gawked at the temple’s beauty? “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
This was Jesus’ way of predicting the historical destruction of the Temple a few years later, and also condemning the corrupt system that was no longer serving its people.
And so, the Good News, I believe, is obvious for us: The widow in the Temple is impressive to Jesus because she emulates his own giving, of his whole life. And the lesson for us, the readers of the Gospel story, is to know that we must not waste our discipleship on the corruption of false-sacrificial systems in our own neighborhoods and cities, wherever we live out our Discipleship, but rather to invest our whole lives in following the one who is the New Temple for us, Jesus the Christ.
Jesus is grieved for anyone, who like this widow, is doing the wrong thing for the right reason. Her trust, unfortunately, is in a failing temple that is dying, will not rise again, and whose stones are still lying where they were thrown down. But in the same breath, Jesus is inviting us to use our faith and our knowledge, not to be afraid, but to believe in the new temple that has been raised up by God, that is not a building, but is, the living Christ, a sanctuary not made by human hands, as our 2nd Reading says. It’s not, first of all, about Stewardship, but about Discipleship. And Christ, having offered himself as a sacrifice once for all, has already saved us and has set us free – free as disciples and followers, to give our whole lives to God.