Sunday, November 8, 2009

For all the Faithful Women

1 Kings 17:8-16; Mark 12:38-44

The women in our Bible texts today have no names. Most of the women in Scripture are nameless, and women are mentioned much less often, in comparison to the men. We’ve also talked before about how women have little value in that ancient society. So, if the writers of scripture included a woman in a story, we need to pay attention.
In the case of the widow of Zarephath, she is a foreigner who worships a god other than Elijah’s Lord. Elijah has been sent to her, but she seems to not have received the message that he was coming to her. She and her son are down to the last crumbs of food, and expect to die soon of hunger. When we explore the context of this time and place, we learn the woman would probably have worshiped Baal, who was the god of storms and fertility. The rains brought by the storms are connected to the raising of crops, and the feeding of animals and people. No rain means no food, and that means no life.
When Elijah tells her she is to give him some of the last of her food, she doesn’t argue with him, but feeds him first, as she has been told. And, as promised, the food never runs out. Through this foreign widow, God provides for the prophet, as well as for the woman.
We learn some lessons from this little story. First, the Lord is more powerful than Baal; second, the Lord provides what is needed; third, that God’s provision sometimes comes in surprising ways; and fourth, we often benefit by giving up something we think we need.
In the Gospel text, we have compare and contrast stories. Jesus and the disciples are in the temple, after the triumphal entry and the cleansing of the temple, and before Jesus’ betrayal and death. Jesus will soon predict the destruction of the temple, and has increased the emphasis he places on the lack of true righteousness of the religious leaders.
In the first story, Jesus describes the scribes as hypocrites, who want others to believe they are super-holy, so they wear long expensive robes and say long prayers. But at the same time they prey on widows and take their houses from them. They are similar to those who have promoted predatory lending practices in the US, and received pay raises and giant bonuses, while the rest of us have less and less to live on, and may lose our houses as a result. The widows Jesus mentions are being taken advantage of, and they deserve justice. The scribes, who think they are so righteous, deserve condemnation.
After this scathing review of the scribes, Jesus sits down on a bench and watches how people put money into the treasury. These were special chests conveniently located all around the women’s court of the temple, so people could easily pay their temple taxes and offerings of various types. Apparently it was possible from the bench to observe how much each person put into the chest.
Perhaps those with a lot to put in take a long time to drop the coins through the slot, or they make an ostentatious show of putting in so many coins. A lot of coins would make a lot of noise as they dropped into the box. It seems Jesus knows what the percentage of their offering was in comparison to what they own. In contrast, the widow puts in two small coins. It wouldn’t take her long to deposit them, nor would they make much sound as they fell. Yet, Jesus looks at her and knows that she has given all the money she had, 100%. She has nothing left. She has given everything she had to the institution whose leaders are likely to take her home away from her.
There are several lessons we can learn from these two stories. The first is that people haven’t changed. There have always been some people who will take as much as they can get, and more. And they will take the last coin from the poorest person in town, if they can get away with it. We also learn that Jesus doesn’t like it when poor people are taken advantage of.
Second, apparently, the widow trusts God a whole lot more than the scribes do. She trusts God to feed, clothe and house her, even though she has no money. The scribes have their wealth and want to keep it and show it off instead of trusting in God to provide for them.
Third, we learn that Jesus knows what is on our hearts. It’s no use in trying to hide it, from ourselves or from God. Jesus can look into our hearts and know what we really think about what we give to God to use for ministry. God knows if we are sharing the most we can, or the least.
And, Fourth, there are consequences – condemnations – for deceptive practices. Just because we think we are righteous – right with God – doesn’t mean God agrees with us. As with the widow of Zarephath, there are benefits to be had for generously giving away what we have and think we need.

In the contemporary congregation, this same scenario plays itself out in familiar ways. Marilyn’s congregation was situated among modest houses, and the membership was mostly people of moderate means. Marilyn was a strong advocate for evangelism, and frequently invited people to knock on doors with her. They focused on the neighborhoods near the church, and gained a few members of modest means.
She and her husband were relatively wealthy, and generous givers. As her congregation struggled to pay its bills, she issued another challenge for people to go out and invite folks to come and worship with her. This time, she added her true thoughts. “For God’s sake, let’s find some wealthy people!”
I, too, have wished for a  millionaire member who believed in tithing, but have yet to encounter one in the churches I’ve belonged to. Yet the poorest people I know believe in giving as much as they can, because they know how hard it is to be poor and they want to help people who have even less. 
I have a pastor friend who has confessed to having to pay attention to the biggest givers in the congregation, and doing what they want him to do, so he can keep his position. As he does that, he realizes he has ceased to serve God, but has been forced to accede to the wishes of wealthy members. His call to serve God has become merely a job in which he serves powerful, pushy people.
And I can point to Women of the ELCA and its predecessor organizations. They all began with a desire to send missionaries to share the good news of Christ, especially overseas. Over time, they also realized their funds were needed in their own neighborhood. My home church in Michigan records several times in its early history when the funds the women had set aside for mission were used to pay the mortgage or other essential bills. And it was with the Women of the ELCA funds that the church kitchen renovation was begun.
Women of the ELCA, locally as well as synod- and church-wide seek to do ministry with and for poor and oppressed people, especially women and children around the world. Through national programs and grants to local organizations, Women of the ELCA works to educate women and children, eradicate poverty, improve lives, seek justice, and share the good news of a loving God with all people.
Using the often nameless women in scripture as their faith models, the women of the church have given of their time, talent, and often limited financial resources to change the world, one woman, one family, one community at a time.
This week, I have two challenges for you. The first: ponder and pray about whether you are more like the widow or more like the scribes as you consider how much to give to ministry in Jesus' name.
And the second: think about the faithful women in your life. For many of you, that will be your mother, grandmother, aunt, or God-mother. For others, it is a friend or neighbor.  Tell someone a story about them, and if they are still living, write them a note to say how much you appreciate them and their influence on you.
Please pray with me: Faithful God, you know our hearts, our strengths and our weaknesses. Draw us closer to you, that we may learn to trust in you more, and learn how well you really do provide for whatever we need. In Jesus’ name, amen.