Sunday, November 8, 2009

Lectionary 32
1 Kings 17:8-16
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

Jehovah raiseth up them that are bowed down.

I don’t keep a detailed budget, although there are times I’ve had to be very careful about every penny. I do keep track of our spending and we have to make difficult choices sometimes. You can only do as much as you have money to pay for it, so we can’t just go out and spend money like it grows on trees. Like every family, we’ve had tough times, times when we weren’t sure whether we’d have enough to make it from day to day. We have had to put off bills, and I remember a time when I was borrowing money out of my children’s savings accounts. Thankfully things are different today and I was able to restore my children’s futures. I’m sure that there are many people in this current time that have to watch every penny.

I know that there are businesses and organizations that are dealing with the same thing. Even churches have had to carefully consider their budgets, planning ahead for the possibility that tomorrow might be even worse. This isn’t the time to get involved in a grand new building project, flippantly spending money on unnecessary things until there is nothing left for the work that needs to be done. What good is a pretty façade if people are going hungry?

For many, the budget questions are well beyond whether or not to buy something pretty. Too many are to the point of wondering whether or not they will be able to pay the rent or buy dinner for the kids. It is easy to cut out the lattes and fast food lunches when money is tight. It is easy to wait another month to buy that new television or to wear last year’s blue jeans for another season. It gets much harder when the choices are more basic. Do you pay the electric bill or the water bill? Do you put gas in the car of food on the table? For those of us who have enough, these questions seem impossible. But for many people, these are choices they have to make every day. They are hungry because they need gas for the car to get to work. They are cold because the electric was turned off.

When things are fine, even when things are tight, most people of faith are good about giving to God first. We might not give a full tithe, but we know it is important to give faithfully for the work of the charity in the world. There comes a time, however, when there just isn’t enough to do what needs to do be done. It is very easy to consider giving to charity as an extra when there is barely enough to keep a family sheltered and fed. This is true not only of people, but also organizations. I’ve been in too many budget meetings where people are quick to cut stewardship money so that they can pay the bills. I’ve even experienced the attitude of the woman in today’s Old Testament lesson: we’ll do this last thing and then we will die.

We tend to see the widow as a woman without means who is suffering because society does not care for the widow and her son. She is described as desperate because there is no one to help her. What we don’t hear in this lectionary is verse seven which says, “And it came to pass after a while, that the brook dried up, because there was no rain in the land.” There was drought and famine in the land. The widow and her son were not the only ones doing without. They were not the only ones suffering. It did not matter if the widow had been wealthy. You can’t buy food if there is none available. You can’t buy water if the well is dry. If there is no water, there is no grain so there is no bread. The people were starving. Whether she was rich or poor, she had given up because there was no hope.

How would you feel if you were in a position of having nothing left and someone asked you to give you something to eat? How have you felt in that position? Your answer may have been the same as the widow. “Look, I have nothing left.” You can’t think in terms of trust when you are at the bottom of the barrel. Even if it rained at that very moment, it would be a long time before anyone would have grain for a loaf of bread. Elijah found her at the town gate, gathering twigs to build a fire to bake her final meal. He asked her for a drink of water, and then as she went to get the water called out to ask her for bread. She explained her situation, but Elijah did not accept “no” for an answer.

She said to Elijah, “As Jehovah thy God liveth, I have not a cake.” Did she know the God of Elijah, or did she just accept Elijah’s faith? She had respect for Elijah’s God, but that doesn’t help when there’s nothing to eat. She might have found a sip of water for a thirsty man, but how could she feed this stranger with a son on the verge of death? But as we see in this story, she heard the word of God and believed. She recognized the God of Elijah as a living God and trusted Him. When Elijah answered her fear with a promise, she believed. He told her to not be afraid, “For thus saith Jehovah, the God of Israel, The jar of meal shall not waste, neither shall the cruse of oil fail, until the day that Jehovah sendeth rain upon the earth.” Of all the people suffering in the land, God used this outsider, this woman who had given up all hope as an example of deep trust and faith.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus was sitting in the women’s court of the Temple, watching the throngs of pilgrims giving their first fruit offerings during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, part of the Passover celebration. There were thirteen trumpet shaped receptacles where the worshippers could drop their coins. The court was likely full of people – rich and poor, locals and foreigners who had come to worship. They were there to do their duty, some with a hard heart and others with a heart of faith.

Jesus pointed out the hard-hearted scribes to the disciples. They were walking around in flowing robes seeking honor and respect from the people gathered there. Yet, they were not living as God intended for His people to live. Jesus says they devoured widows’ houses, taking advantage of the most vulnerable. They prayed for show rather than to seek God. He also pointed out the widow who gave two tiny coins. She gave everything despite her lack. She did not worry about tomorrow. I don’t think she necessarily gave her last two coins in the hope that God will give her a hundredfold. She gave with a heart of faith, knowing that her God would make sure she had enough.

Jesus watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury and His comment about crowds is neither negative nor positive. It is simply the truth. They are giving out of their wealth. But isn’t that the way we usually do it? Are we not like those ‘rich folk’ who give the offerings that pay the bills and support the ministries? It is so easy for us to read these scriptures and compare the poor widow with the rich folk, uplifting her while demeaning those casting their coins into the offering. We want to assume that she is the one with the heart of faith while they have hard hearts. We want to paint them as unjust, unwilling to share their resources with the poor while showing off with their gifts to the temple. But they are no different than us. Do we give to show off? Or do we give out of faith? Most likely we give out of faith and duty, both saint and sinner in our response to God’s grace.

The people were in the Temple not only giving their financial offerings. They were taking young lambs for slaughter and other sacrifices. They were remembering the past while looking forward to a future without fear. Day after day and year after year the temple priests offered those sacrifices to God but they did no good. Not even the coins would be lasting. The bills had to be paid; the priests had to be fed. The writer of Hebrews tells us that the work of Christ on the cross was lasting. Christ appeared at the end of the age and sacrificed Himself to remove sin. There is no longer a need for such sacrifice. It is finished. He completed the work. We who hear His voice are called into faith to eagerly wait for him.

In the widows we see the image of faith: astonishing trust in the grace and mercy of God. Both these women also present to us a foreshadowing of sacrificial offering of Jesus Christ the final days of His life. He had nothing to give, yet gave to us the bread and wine of the Eucharist that we might know the forgiveness of God. He had no coins, but gave His life as the first fruits offering that would set the world free from sin and death forever. They gave first to God and received a hundredfold in return.

We can certainly focus on the injustice of their poverty, but we do not know that they were victimized or oppressed. The widow of Zarephath was an example for the widow in the Temple. She first answered Elijah that she had nothing, but she believed when she heard the promise. The widow knew the promise of God and gave her offering trusting that tomorrow there would be enough flour and oil in the jars. She was just one among many doing their duty, but Jesus saw something more. He saw her heart of faith. He calls the attention of the disciples to the poor widow and tells them, “This poor widow cast in more than all they that are casting into the treasury: for they all did cast in of their superfluity; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.”

I doubt that many of us are like the scribes or the widows. We are more like the crowds giving out of our abundance. The test comes when we are facing difficulty like the widow of Zarephath. When there is drought, when there is no hope, how do we respond? Is our charitable giving the first thing we drop out of our budget? Is our offering to God the last thing we pay when the money is tight?

We learn three things from these lessons. First, we need to remember that our gifts are not worthy of praise. We are giving out of our wealth and God does not need anything we have to give. It is all His and He gave it to us to be good stewards of His gifts for the sake of others. Secondly, we are reminded that God deserves our first fruits, not our leftovers. Like the widow of Zarephath and the widow in the temple, faith means trusting that God will provide according to His grace. Even if those first fruits mean that we are giving ‘unto death’ we need not fear, for God will bring great blessings out of our faith.

Finally, we are reminded that all good things come from God. The psalmist writes, “Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, Whose hope is in Jehovah his God: Who made heaven and earth, The sea, and all that in them is; Who keepeth truth for ever; Who executeth justice for the oppressed; Who giveth food to the hungry. Jehovah looseth the prisoners; Jehovah openeth the eyes of the blind; Jehovah raiseth up them that are bowed down; Jehovah loveth the righteous; Jehovah preserveth the sojourners; He upholdeth the fatherless and widow; But the way of the wicked he turneth upside down.”

The psalmist says, “God raises those that are bowed down.” He raises those who are victims, who are oppressed, who are outcast. Jesus certainly did throughout the scriptures. But we can see this in another way because there is a promise for even those who live in fortunate times. God raises up those who are bowed down, those who humble themselves before God, those who trust in God at all times. He raises up those who give with the heart of faith, whatever our circumstances. We also see this in the work of Jesus. He fed the crowds whether they were poor or wealthy. He healed the sick no matter their circumstances. He raised up the ruler’s daughter. He raised up Lazarus. He was raised on the cross so that all who believe might receive the greatest gift of all, eternal life.

All good things come from God and He calls us to live in faith by sharing His goodness with the world. We might not know what tomorrow will bring and we might be wondering how we will pay all the bills this month, but God has shown us that we need not fear. It might seem hopeless, no bread to buy even if we have the money to buy it. We might not have the money to buy it. It is much easier to be generous out of our abundance. But God invites us to be generous with everything. He doesn’t invite us to be generous so that we will be blessed a hundredfold. He calls us to be people who trust in the Lord, knowing that He gives enough so that we can share our great riches, whether it is an abundance or two pennies, with others.

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