What about the Widows?

Preached on 11 November 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 27 Year B, Thematic track

Today is the hundredth anniversary of the end of the war that the world hoped was the War to End All Wars.  Armistice Day.  That peace lasted barely a decade before we were plunged into another World War.  And then there was another war and another and another and…

I’m not going to preach about it, but I think that on this hundredth anniversary of the armistice, it is fitting to pause and reflect and to pray.  To reflect on just how terribly, terribly costly war is.

The cost is in lives lost, not only the military deaths, but also the civilian deaths.  The cost is in the damage to the souls of those who fought and survived, in the families forever wounded.  The cost is in the orphans and the widows.

As Americans, we have no living memory of battlefields on American soil.  Many of us are insulated from the reality of bombed cities: homes, factories, shops, schools, churches.  It really hit home for me a couple of summers ago when we visited London and Canterbury and particularly Dover.  We toured the tunnels in the cliffs where the evacuation of Dunkirk was planned and carried out; where hospitals were set up to treat the wounded.

These were cities where, in the second world war, civilian volunteers stood on the roofs of the cathedrals every night as their city was firebombed, in order to prevent the destruction of their beloved cathedrals.

Today, we remember the cost of war and we remember and rekindle the hope for peace.

The Tower of London has traditionally been one of the city’s more foreboding landmarks, serving in part as a prison from 1100 until 1952. As the UK marks the 100th anniversary of its entrance into World War I, however, a sea of red ceramic poppies has sprung up around the building, spilling over the bridge and out of the windows into the tower’s surrounding moat to gorgeous effect.

As reported by Colossal, the poppies are the work of ceramic artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper. Slowly but surely, over the past few weeks, volunteers have been carefully planting the bright red flowers. The moat will continue to bloom throughout the summer, until there are 888,246 flowers in total, or one for each soldier from the UK and its colonies who was killed during the First World War. At twilight each evening, a Roll of Honor ceremony will be held and include the reading of the names of 180 of those who died, accompanied by a solitary bugle call.

The poppy became known as a flower of remembrance because of those men who died fighting in the trenches in the poppy fields of Flanders. In the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, artificial poppies are commonly worn on November 11, known as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day, which marks the anniversary of the end of the Great War. Appropriately, the final ceramic poppy in the installation, titled Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, will be planted on November 11 of this year.[1]

And so, let us remember the terrible cost of war.  Let us vow to work for and to hope for peace; that one day we won’t study war anymore; that we will pound our swords into pruning hooks; that we will melt down our guns to build bridges.

Let us pray.
Almighty God, from your throne you behold all who dwell upon the earth:  Look with pity upon those on whom have fallen the miseries of war.  Cleanse both us and our enemies of hatred; have compassion on the wounded and dying; comfort the broken-hearted; assuage the madness of the nations; guide our rulers; make wars to cease; and give us peace in our time, O Lord.  All this we ask in the name of him who is the Prince of Peace, your Son Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.  (Bishop Rob Hirschfield of Vermont)

And now, let’s turn our attention to the widows.

Our lessons today are hard.  They challenge our self-perceptions, don’t they? Most of us who have to preach on this struggle.  If we pay attention to what Jesus is saying and take it to heart, most of us can’t help but feel convicted.  How do we preach authentically and without hypocrisy?

There are three references to widows in today’s readings.  All of them are in desperate circumstances.

First, we have the widow of Zeraphath who is planning to eat the very last of her food and then die.  Then this strange man shows up – a stranger, an alien, someone who worships a different god, even.  And what does he do, this alien? First, he demands that she interrupt her own work to get him a drink of water.  And then he has the audacity to demand that she give him the last of her food, even after she tells him about her dire circumstances.

“Feed me first and you won’t run out,” he promises.  Why should she trust him?  Why would she extend this hospitality to him?  Would you?  I wonder, where is her family, her community?  Why aren’t they helping her?  Maybe they have already died in the drought.

Maybe she thinks, “What have I got to lose?  If I don’t give it to him, I know I’ll die; this is the last of the food.  If I do and he’s trying to trick me, I’ll still die.  But, if he’s for real; if he can keep that promise, we have a chance to survive.”  She trusts him, and God provides for her and her family.

Next, let’s consider the widows in today’s gospel.  First, here’s the context.  This conversation between Jesus and the disciples – this takes place in the Temple in Jerusalem just a day or two before Jesus is arrested.  His triumphal entry into Jerusalem happened three days earlier.  Two days before, he went to the Temple and overturned the tables of the moneychangers.  The day before, he returned to the Temple and taught.

Today we find him back at the Temple teaching and observing.  The disciples are blown away by the grandeur and the pomp and the power and the apparent authority of the Temple scribes and priests and all the well-to-do citizens coming to the Temple; the ones who make a show of their piety and wealth and generosity.

Jesus points out that they have their wealth and power because of their business practices – taking advantage of the poor, turning widows out of their homes.  “They devour widows houses,” is how he puts it.

Jesus observes and points out to his disciples, that the wealthy are giving so that they will be seen and gain status and honor, even though the poor continue to suffer.  Their wealth isn’t a sign of righteousness.

Then Jesus draws their attention to a poor widow.
Is he praising her?  Is he saying that everyone should give to the Temple as sacrificially as she is?
OR is he pointing to her as one of the widows whose house the scribes have devoured?

Is he condemning the Temple authorities and the people for allowing this injustice to exist, to continue; for receiving large sums from wealthy donors but neglecting their responsibility to care for the widows and orphans, for the vulnerable among them.

What about the widow?  Does she give all she owns thinking some miracle will occur and her pantry will be stocked?  Does she do it simply trusting in God’s providence?  Or is she like the widow of Zeraphath, using the last of what she has before she goes home to die?

Is she resigned to her poverty?  Or is she defiant in the face of the rich and powerful, putting the last of what she owns in the box at the Temple as an indictment;
an accusation that they have violated God’s law.  They have taken everything else, they can take the rest.

I tend to think she’s defiant, challenging the powers.
I want to see her as accusing those responsible for the injustice of her situation.  I want to believe that she is claiming and asserting her humanity and her worth.

In these last weeks, in the gospel of Mark, we have been hearing Jesus teaching so much about caring for the poor, the sick, the vulnerable.  I don’t think he’s suddenly saying that poor widows should not only accept their lot but should give everything they own to the wealthy Temple and then die.

In fact, when Jesus and the disciples leave the Temple that day the disciples marvel at the Temple and the huge stones used to build it.  Jesus sets them straight, though, saying that the day is coming when the whole Temple will be torn down, destroyed.  They need to get their priorities in order; they need to focus on God.

So, what do the widows have to say to us;
to our lives, to our priorities?
Who are the “widows,” so-to-speak, in your life.
The ones who challenge you, indict you, even?
Who grabs you by the face and turns your gaze, helping you see what’s actually important?

What are they showing you?
Can you hear God’s voice in theirs?