First Reading: 1 Kings 17:8-16
8The word of the Lord came to [Elijah,] saying, 9“Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 10So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” 11As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” 13Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” 15She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.
Gospel: Mark 12:38-44
38As [Jesus] taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” 41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Usually, I choose my titles early in the week I will be preaching the following Sunday. Occasionally, I need to change those titles because of the way things happen through the week. This time, I chose the title even earlier to plan the order of worship for the baptisms and our guest organist. On Monday, I needed to remind myself what I had chosen for a title, and saw that I had chosen nothing. To be more accurate, I had chosen the word, “Nothing,” as my title.
Today, the town of Paradise, California, is pretty much that. The hospital, the high school, and the elementary school have burned to the ground, and as of yesterday, NPR had reported that the only thing standing in the business area was a Taco Bell. Another source quoted the mayor reporting two of the three grocery stores burned to the ground.
Ironic for your pastor to tell you that there’s virtually nothing left of Paradise… :-)
We hope that the people who have lost their homes do have insurance to recover. We hope that people who have lost their businesses do have insurance so that they may recover. We hope that the people who have lost their jobs will be compensated. We pray for God’s mercy for those who lost more, for those who lost their lives, and, of course, for those who have nothing.
Our Gospel reading for today tells of a widow who gave all that she had to live on. I used to believe that Jesus was praising her generosity. A few years back when this text came up in the lectionary schedule, I remember preaching about those people who might have loved this widow and taken care of her after she had deposited all her money in the treasury. Of course, we don’t know. What happens to people with nothing?
Jesus, though, was not speaking merely about the widow and her generosity. He was speaking about the greed of the Scribes. He could have been speaking about others, others not so different from ourselves… Beware of the Scribes, he had said.
You probably have all heard the advice that we ought to do to others as we would have them do to us. Jesus actually says something quite similar to that in another part of the gospels. Have you seen how we in this world have altered that advice? It’s appeared on posters and patches and who knows what else… but it says, “Do unto others, and then split!” Usually, the picture is of a figure impaled by a huge spike or (more commonly) a screw. I remember laughing at it the first time I saw it, because I couldn’t imagine anyone actually promoting such heartless treatment of others.
Now, I see it. We all see it. Apparently the reason for the shooting in Thousand Oaks, California was, “This is boring, so why not?”
As we observe the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, which was to have been a celebration that all wars in this world would be no more, we realize the emptiness of that hope, of that promise. We’ve undergone worldwide war and large regional conflicts time and again since then. We’ve changed the name of the day to Veterans Day. We’ve responded to terroristic events and attacks unimaginable 100 years ago. What has changed? Has anything? Has nothing?
Nothing? The widow of our story, after her contribution to the Temple treasury had nothing left to live on. The widow of Zarephath, from the first story, would have had nothing after providing for Elijah, had it not been for the miracle. Many of the people of Paradise, California, today have nothing other than what they were able to carry with them.
In some ways, nothing changes. We will always have people with next to nothing. We will always have people who are greedy, who, like the Scribes, will happily receive and spend what people with nothing scrape to provide. We will always have people who will cheat, and pretend to have a right to the property of others—especially those with fewer resources to fight back. When we do have systems crafted in good faith to frustrate the greedy and to assist the needy, there will always be someone who tries to use the system unjustly, to pad the pockets of the greedy at the expense of the needy. That’s the world we live in.
It is actually possible that the widow from our Gospel story may not have been as generous as we would like to believe. It is likely she was compelled by a corrupt system to give what she could not spare. We, on the other hand, revel in our freedom to give only from our abundance. Our tax code relieves those at a certain level of poverty from paying into the system. After that, we have the freedom to decide to give from what we can spare after satisfying some of those little temptations that are thrown at us every day.
Unlike the widow from our story, we live with the freedom to give as little as possible—maybe even nothing, believing that someone else always makes up the difference.
Sometimes, though, when we look for that somebody else, we see … nothing. Somebody else has moved away, or somebody else has died, or somebody else no longer has means to give, or somebody else has dementia, or somebody else is focused on another need.
Jesus advises us to beware of the greedy, because they leave others—like the widows—with nothing.
We need the other side of that advice. Beware of being the greedy. Beware of being the ones who give only for recognition. Instead, take notice of all the nothings around you—that could benefit from something you can share—a bit of your time, a bit of your skill, a bit of your resources.
There are things all around you that need your care, before they become nothing. Those things might be people. They might be organizations. They might be instruments of support.
Finally, remember that God’s gift of salvation cannot be purchased—nor can it be stolen. The only way to lose that is to treat it as if it is nothing—as we walk away…
Today, we celebrate God’s gift—which eclipses all nothings. In Jesus’ name. Amen