by the Rev. Emily Trubey-Weller
Preaching texts: Proper 27 on the RCL
The widow walked into church carrying a paper box full of pantry staples and dragging a huge bag of clothing. She brought them for a family that had hit hard times when a fire closed down one parent’s place of employment. This immigrant family was working off-the-books, and though job opportunities were plentiful, they were unreliable and low-paying.
She remembered when the war in Germany had closed her father’s business, cut family ties, and pushed them out of the city where they lived to sleep in a farmer’s barn. She remembered that at times their only source of sustenance had been potatoes that the farmer’s wife roasted by the basketful in a huge fire, and then gave without hesitation to any who asked. She remembered the compassion of the wealthy family in New York City they’d met after they immigrated. They had employed her whole family: her father as their driver, her mother as their maid, eventually paying her to work alongside her mom. They’d helped her and her siblings with homework. They’d bought them gifts. They’d given her family a home and stable income, and they’d been kind.
By adulthood, the widow owned her own business. She always tried to employ immigrants, and she paid them well. She strove to show kindness to the families of her employees: providing free childcare and tutoring for the kids, sending them home from work with pans of homemade food, finding furnishings for their homes to help them settle in.
Perhaps it’s excessive to throw this third widow into the mix on a Sunday when we have two other widows to read about, but I can’t help but think of her story when I read theirs.
This week, the lectionary readings invite us to step into apocalypse. Whether you’re planning a seven-, six-, or four-week Advent season, today the texts pivot to remind us: it’s the beginning of the end.
Fellow Barn Goose Linnéa Clark reflected on the apocalyptic tone of this week’s lessons like this: “Sometimes the world doesn’t end with a bang. It ends quietly, with the whisper of flour and drip of oil…[or] with the soft sound of two little coins in a full treasury.” My widow friend with the box of food and the garbage bag of clothing just wanted to make sure it didn’t end today. At least for one family.
The revelatory apocalypse of Advent is happening all around us. Everywhere, worlds are ending in the quiet way the widow of Zarephath’s might have. The end is near — perpetually — for so many.
O God, to those who have hunger, give bread,
and to us who have bread, give the hunger for justice.
Of course we know that justice is bigger than one widow and her son, or one immigrant family. Some of my loved ones would be quick to remind me that acts of charity can perpetuate injustice, allowing broken systems to look as if they are functioning for the good of all when in reality they only serve those who already have full bellies. When Jesus points out the widow offering her last two coins, he’s disrupting the norms and expectations of his own unjust society by commending her while condemning the hypocrisy of the religious leaders. Our own society needs such calling-out, too. Pointing out such injustice and working to end it follows Jesus’ own example. The ancient song of scripture thrums with praise for the Almighty’s ability to topple unjust systems and sings out the invitation for us to join in such work.
Yet so often we feel overwhelmed by that call: What I can do isn’t enough…. Could smaller acts — a box of food, free childcare, sharing a fire-roasted potato or a bit of flour — be acts of apocalyptic hope? …or is it?
What if such small things are a cheeky and defiant way to bring hope into a world that has never been free of injustice? Not this family. Not this widow. Not today, powers of darkness. You can’t have them.
What if we could connect, not only our own experiences of hunger, but also our experiences of fullness, to the hunger of others? I have more than I need. Who doesn’t have enough?
What if it’s the small acts, taken throughout our lives, that keep us from becoming jaded, bitter, or despondent? What if it’s the small acts that keep us hungry for justice?
What I can do isn’t enough… or is it?
When the widow put two coins in the treasury, it was a small act. She didn’t shut down a whole system of injustice. She didn’t overtly confront the hypocrisy of the leaders. But it did defy a system that told her she couldn’t give enough, couldn’t be enough, wasn’t worth enough.
When the widow of Zarephath shared flour and oil with the prophet Elijah, it was a small act. She didn’t save everyone from the famine. She didn’t bring rain down to water the crops. She didn’t eliminate all the pressures of an unjust socio-economic system. But she did make a bold play for life even as she looked down the chasm of death.