Hope for the Hopeless, or a Tale of Two Widows

A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost

I Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146; Luke 7:11-17

This morning we hear two stories of God’s provision.  The reading from 1 Kings and that from Luke feature two widows, widows in desperation.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that women had very little or no status in the ancient cultures that serve as the context for these stories.  Widows had even less.  Without a husband to head the house, families would often slip into poverty and be among the first to starve in a famine.

Jesus and the apostles repeatedly admonish their followers to “care for widows and orphans.”  Given their plight, it’s no wonder Jesus’ thoughts turned to them, just as he showed concern for all those who lacked status in their culture, the vulnerable, the marginalized.

The widow of Zarephath has basically given up by the time Elijah encounters her in the reading from 1 Kings.  From the text, we know there is a drought in the land.  She and her son have no means of getting more grain or oil, not until the rains return and the crops grow and they are allowed to glean.  But God tells Elijah that things had been arranged.  God had spoken to her and prepared her for his visit.  So why has she become so desperate that she has given up – she is going to make one last meal for her and her son and then lay down and die.  Did she not believe God?  Was she embarrassed that she had so little?  We don’t know.  All we know is that she was at the point of death.

Elijah does a strange thing, at least from human standards.  If you met a woman so desperately poor she was going to eat her last meal, would you say, “Make me some bread?”   No, we would probably take her to Kroger and buy her bread and the staples of life.  Instead, Elijah asks her to feed him.  Pretty selfish sounding, if you ask me.  And yet, this is what God had told both of them to do.  The woman could have refused, but instead she gave generously from what little she had.  She showed hospitality to this stranger, despite her fear and desperation.  It is in response to this unflinching generosity that God rewards her with abundance.

Now, I’m going to resist the urge to make this into a stewardship sermon.  Come on, it’s summer.  I’d rather let this woman’s faith speak for itself.  To the end, she was still listening to God.  Perhaps she had thought that God had forgotten her.  We don’t know the story behind her desperate situation.  But in the end, her faith, her obedience and her generosity were not in vain.

God provides.

God provided for the widow in the gospel reading as well.  This is a scene not unlike that in 1 Kings.  Here a widow has lost her adult son to death.  No doubt he was her only means of support.  A large crowd is accompanying the funeral procession when they encounter Jesus along the way.  Jesus is moved with compassion for the woman.  Rather than admonish the crowd to take care of her, or call her to follow him, Jesus does the more remarkable and the more impossible thing – he raises her son from the dead.  I love the detail that the young man sat up and began to speak.  What did he say?

By restoring her dead son to her, Jesus provided greatly for this widow, a woman who had no reason to hope.  Like the widow in Zarephath, she might as well have laid down and died.  She was destined to be alone and resourceless.  She doesn’t put on any display.  She isn’t asked to show generosity or to even ask Jesus to raise her son.  It is because of the compassion Jesus feels for her that her son, her future, her hope are restored to her.

In the Psalm we hear praises to the God who sees.  This God who made heaven and earth is also a God who gives justice to the oppressed and food to those who are hungry.  This imagery is of not just a God of power and majesty, but also a God of compassion and lovingkindness.  God cares for the stranger and sustains the widow and the orphan.  Again, these are words of hope for the hopeless, words of comfort for those in desperation.

Now, we can’t go around raising dead sons, nor can we guarantee a single-mother and her family endless food supplies, but I do think we need to be reminded that widows such as these do exist in our town.  Mothers with very few options left for them.  Might we take the example of these readings and help provide for them.   I dare say that we have made a good start both in this town and in this parish.  We do try to fill the hungry with good things and we try to help single mothers hold regular jobs so that they can provide.  Hope for the hopeless – this is no small miracle, even today.

As we send forth our pilgrims today I pray that they will have eyes to see and ears to hear.  Look for those around you who have lost hope.  Look for those who need compassion shown to them.  It is out of our abundance that you are being sent to walk this pilgrim way.  Consider the feet of those who have walked that ancient path before you.  Some had brand new hiking boots, others had bare feet.  God brought Elijah to the widow who had lost all hope.  Jesus encountered the widow who had lost her son, her hope.  Are these coincidences?  I’m not sure I believe in coincidences much anymore.

I pray God is preparing your way and setting up some appointments for you on your pilgrimage:  perhaps in a youth hostel, perhaps in the airport or train station, perhaps even on the path itself.  Be watching.  Be praying.  God provides.  Amen.

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