What makes a person valuable?
Is it the amount of money in one has in their bank account? (Capitalism may say yes.)
Is it one’s looks? (Magazine covers may say yes.)
Is it found in how hard one works? (Your protestant ancestors and current boss may say yes.)
Is it found in how much one plays? (Your kids and your inner child may say yes.)
Is it the ability to perform impeccably to societies high standards while hiding one's messy humanity? (The country club may say yes.)
Is it one's intellectual prowess? (The academy and your colleges may say yes.)
Is it the ability to exploit the vulnerable and displace your fears in others so that one feels more in control? (The power hungry may say yes)
But wait. Aren’t all people valuable? (Jesus says yes.)
After 2000 years of marinating in Christian ethics we are still struggling to value and love all of God’s people. (Which is everybody.) After Jesus willingly became the scapegoat and the sacrifice for our sins, we are still pinning our own sins on others, happy to let someone else take the blame, still content if someone gets the short end of the stick, still pushing our bags of shame on someone else in order to feel some relief and goodness about ourselves.
The church’s job historically has been to care for widows and orphans, to welcome the stranger, to include the outcast and to help the poor. When my peers tell me that religion is the root of all evil, I remind them that Jesus’ teachings inspired the creation of hospitals, food banks, and community.
But what is our motivation for helping those less fortunate than ourselves? Is it to create sustainable change in their lives? Or is it just so that we can pat ourselves on the back and feel good about ourselves? Is it to lift someone up to equality, to invite all to dress in dignity, or is it merely to feed our own piety? If it is the latter, then we will always need someone else to play the role of less ‘than us’ in order for us to feel good about ourselves. And that’s not Christian ethics. That’s participation in systems of oppression that even the religious leaders can get caught up in—back then and now. And that’s what Jesus was working to dismantle and what we must continue to work to dismantle.
It’s too easy to fall into the trap of ‘I have more value than you’. Sometimes our practice of religion itself becomes the biggest defense against experiencing the living God. Why is equality and love for all such a hard road to walk?
The women who come to us in the readings today are not here to be used for our piety. They don’t want us to look down on them, feel sorry for them, or to guilt us into boosting our pledge. They are here to help us see the systems of oppression that we still participate in today today—to see clearly when certain individuals are denied equal status, to see how we as a community and as individuals can so easily dump on others our own shame that we have not yet figured out how to forgive or hand over to Jesus.
The widows remind us to see what kind of a world we live in:
One where those who fall on hard times and experience calamities are not shown mercy, but harshly judged for being lazy,
Where one medical emergency/death/divorce/job loss can bankrupt a family,
A world that we are not really in control of as much as we would like to think,
Where we possess medicines that can save people’s lives but they are just too expensive to afford,
Where a divorce can cost 6 figures (when it costs nothing in many other countries),
Where we need people to be sick in order to keep the economy booming,
Where wellness would put people out of businesses,
Where people’s suffering makes someone a profit at every turn,
Where justice must be bought,
Where the poor are fined and punished for being poor,
Where people are treated less than human because of their gender or sexual orientation or skin color or social class,
Where demanding equality would risk people losing their jobs, even their lives, and put us at odds with our family, neighbors, coworkers and even members of the church?
We open our eyes to see the broken systems around us it’s not to just wallow in shame, guilt and apathy. When we are willing to see and behold our human vulnerabilities, we have the opportunity to wake up to the power we have to create something new together. Jesus reminds us: Jerusalem will fall. But my kingdom will last forever. All of feel us the effects of crumbling systems around us. But chaos is necessary for new life. It’s what comes right before new life. And over and over again the scriptures remind us to fear not. Behold. Believe. Do not tire of doing good. Press on.
The widows in our scriptures today remind us to open our eyes and face what is broken so that we can act more justly. We can act like the widow at Zarephath, and we can rage at the prophets when things go wrong. We can act like Elijah and demand a resurrection from God when things go wrong. We can act like Jesus and help people see the big picture and the backstory when people stereotype and judge wrong.
I have to admit, when I first read the texts I had to preach on this week I cried. They hit just a little too close to home. I cried because the woman who had nothing was supposed to feed a prophet. Because I know how hard it is to feed my kids on my small income, because I know the shame I feel at not being able to give more, and the shame of losing status—from being a prestigious professor’s wife—to a divorced single mom who is still trying to figure out how to stand on her own two feet.
I cried because God keeps calling us right into the impossible. And I’m tired of going there. Because it’s hard.
I cried because the little bit of food that she had did not run out. Because God keeps asking us to put our hope in things so little (like prayer, manna, mustard seeds and widow’s mites) and because God keeps asking us to trust in mysterious ways.
And then because after the miracle--her child dies.
And then I got angry. I got angry like widow at Elijah for bringing calamity upon her; and angry like Elijah got at God for bringing calamity on the widow. And then I got angry at myself for all those times I have stopped short of demanding God’s justice, for demanding new life, for giving up before the miracle, for remaining in my own apathy rather than pleading for a resurrection.
Sometimes we’ve got to plead for a resurrection.
I got angry because God keeps showing up at the end of our rope. Because why do I have to get all the way to the end of the rope before God shows up? Did her child have to die/did the marriage have to fail/does the church have to split/do we have to suffer so much before faith can be born? Can’t the way be a little easier?
Elijah and the widow learned that being obedient to God often earns one even more suffering.
And we will experience this too, when we decide to stand up to systems of injustice, when we take a stand for our own self-worth and the worth of others, we will see the systems of fear and power try and push us back down and go back to playing their old game. That’s why there’s a cross at the center of our faith. It’s the hard way. It’s not the glamorous way. But it’s the good way. It’s the only way that leads to resurrection and a renewed creation.
This week I watched again one of my favorite movies: Moulin Rouge. It’s a contemporary musical and you get to hear the gorgeous singing voice of Ewan McGregor. The movie works to resolve the questions: can we live for truth, beauty and love? Or is it foolish? Must we settle for less in order to get by? Or is love like oxygen, does love lift us up where we belong, is love really all we need?
The psychologist Carl Jung taught that new life comes from holding the tension of opposites, until a resolved third is born between the strenuous dyad. He likened this internal experience to a crucifixion of the self, a death of the old ways, a struggle to avoid pinging to either pole where we would become dichotomous and insipid towards the opposites rather than more compassionately integrated.
I think many of us are living these tensions every day. We have to be practical while we hold on to the truth that love can make things right. We must keep holding the tensions. Soon we will all discover that love is not so impractical. It’s the way. Sometimes it hurts, like birth pangs bring new life.
We are living in times of great change. Nearly 60 million people are currently displaced from their homes — more than at any time since World War II. I’ve seen a few videos of the way refugees have been welcomed into other countries: I’ve watched them be hosed down with water, tripped, and ridiculed. I have also seen people awaiting their arrival with warm blankets and medical care. Someone reminded me this week: kindness begets kindness. Love begets love. We are remaking the world every moment. Let’s build on the premise that all of God’s creation is valuable. Let’s build upon goodness. Let’s choose love. Over and over again. Let’s keep choosing love.
As we open wide our arms to the strangers in our midst, in our community and in ourselves, we will discover too that God Immanuel who is with us, is also concealed in a mystery that is only approachable in the space between ourselves and the strange other.
There is no defense that will hold against the inevitable frailty of being human. This is what the widows show us today. They invite us to behold the vulnerable and to see that we and they are still valuable, even if society says otherwise. They invite us to lift the veil on our perceived notions of safety. To face the brokenness within and without so we can work together with God to renew the world.
Theologian and writer Debie Thomas, wrote on this week’s gospel:
“The widow was also prophetic in the Messianic sense, because her self-sacrifice prefigured Jesus's. Perhaps what Jesus noticed was kinship. Her story mirroring his. The widow gave everything she had to serve a world so broken, it killed her. Days later, Jesus gave everything he had to redeem, restore, and renew that world.”
Will you also notice this week those frailties and vulnerabilities in yourself and in the world? Ask God to reveal to you how these frailties can become and ally and strength in building a more compassionate world that thrives on love. Discern what gifts you have to bring and see what you can give to redeem, restore and renew this world. Let us leave empty handed having done our best to act like Christ to give our whole lives to the work of love.
Because small things go a long way.