The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (November 8, 2015)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17

Naomi and Ruth, two women in desperate straits, were not unfamiliar with anxiety about where their next meal might be coming from. In the world of their day, women “without a man” just weren’t accounted for much. Some people say the more things change, the more they say the same.

Boaz plays the role of “kinsman-redeemer” — one who brings hope from a hopeless situation. It’s a great story, gender bias issues aside. Ultimately, it is the Lord who provides. Don’t forget that we are also given a glimpse into the “greater story” of the gospel here, as the offspring of Ruth and Boaz will lead to the line of David, King of Israel and, ultimately, to the story of Jesus.

Psalm 127

Psalm 127 perfectly complements the story of Ruth and Boaz; again, it is the Lord who is building this house. We all need God in charge of our construction projects!

1 Kings 17:8-16

Another widow, more hunger; we may be seeing a theme developing in the texts for this day! God provides by means of the prophet, but only after the widow of Zarephath is challenged to release her hold on the only source of sustenance she possesses — her last “dab” of meal and oil.

What can God do with the little that we have, when we are willing to let it go?

Psalm 146

Hey, who do you trust? The prince? The president? The congress? Your bank account (whether meager or much?)

The psalm calls us to trust in the Lord, who made the heavens and the earth (and the sea and all that is in them and a few other cool things in creation.) God looks after the lowly — here, the hungry and the oppressed, the widows and the orphans. One assumes that God is perfectly willing to look after the high and mighty, as well — it’s just that when you have more, it may be a little harder to “let God and let God.”

Hebrews 9:24-28

Two trips for Jesus are mentioned here in Hebrews — once, Jesus came to deal with sin — and did so quite effectively, we might add! For his second time on earth, Jesus will complete the salvation of those who are eagerly waiting for him. We are being saved, my friends!

Mark 12:38-44

And finally, here in the gospel, more widows!

There are few people meaner than those who would “devour” a widow’s house — i.e., who would take legal advantage of someone who has no standing with regard to property rights. What is our response to the oppressed and disenfranchised of our day? Who are the widows in need of protecting?

In the end, it is once again the least who often become greatest in the kingdom of heaven. A widow — literally penniless after giving her offering at the temple — is lifted up by Jesus as a worthy example of surrender. When you give God everything you have, you discover that God gives you everything you need!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

As I sit down to write this sermon on Oct. 28, 2015, USATODAY has on the front page what it calls “GOP Power Rankings,” accompanied by a picture of candidate Ben Carson and the headline “Carson now on top.” A millionaire taking over the lead from a billionaire. Over in Section B there is a long story about “Wealthy CEOS.”  It says that the largest 100 CEO retirement packages have about $4.9 billion dollars in them, equal to the combined retirement funds of 41% of the American people.

This picture of wealth and power is in sharp contrast to the two widows we read about this morning.  The widow of Zarephath is down to her last bit of food, intending to feed it to her son before preparing to die.  Jesus says the widow in the Temple “gave all that she had,” “two small copper coins.”  In modern terms – enough for a cup of coffee and some fries, maybe a small burger at a fast food restaurant.  Just enough to get by.

Most of us have heard stewardship sermons about the widow’s mite.  These sermons lifted her up as an example of true giving.  We’ve been told that it’s not the size of the gift that matters, it’s what’s in the giver’s heart that counts.  “Have you given your all?” we’re asked.  “Have you done everything you could?  Did you give until it hurt your pocketbook, or just until it didn’t tweak your conscience anymore?”  And then we’re told to look at the widow, giving all she can, all she has, because she cares that much.

Well, those sermons are somewhat effective with some people, and there even some truth in them.  But they do not truly get to the heart of the text, not to the core of the story we have before us. In this story, the emotion that matters is not one’s devotion to the cause, but one’s ability to trust completely in God and God’s future.  Jesus does not belittle large gifts as being unworthy – he simply points out that the big givers gave out of their abundance while the widow gave out of her poverty.  They still had plenty left to depend on – like the 100 CEOs depend on their plush retirement accounts.  The widow had put in all she has, everything, and Jesus applauds her because her action shows what faith really is – it is placing our faith and our future completely in the hands of God.

This is what the widow of Zarephath did. After she told Elijah how little she had, he told her to give it to him anyway, promising that God would provide for her and her son throughout the drought, that they would have meal and oil and water with which to make bread as long as they needed it.  And she believed the promise of the prophet, she entrusted her future to a God who was not even her own God, to the prophet of a people who were not even her own people. With absolutely nothing else to fall back on, she risked all, trusting in the word and love of God.

My Mother died a year ago; she lived the last eleven years of her life as a widow, and a relatively poor one at that – she got by on less money than many people waste in a year.  And yet she was a generous person.  I used to call her once or twice a week.  One time I called and she was out and I left a message.  She called back and said, “Sorry I wasn’t here when you called.  I was out taking food to the old people in the church.”  I said, “Mama, you’re 83.  Who are the “old people”?  She said, “Well Owie for one, she’s a hundred and four.”  I ceded her point.  Then she added, “I also had to take some soup to that Jones girl and her baby.  They’ve been coming to church.  She don’t have hardly nothing.”

I knew who Mama was talking about.  She had more than Mama, and by some people’s standards was not at all worthy of my mother’s efforts – but none of that mattered to Mama.  When I said, “Mama, you really can’t afford to be giving food away to people,” she said, “Well, somebody has to.  And people give me food and money.  What kind of person would I be if I didn’t pass it on?  Son, you know what Jesus said about “the least of these.”  The Bible don’t set no age limit on that, does it?” “No Mama, it doesn’t.”

Pastor Tim Smith recently became the bishop of the North Carolina Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  He tells a story about something that happened while he was a parish pastor.  “These widows . . . . remind me of a dear African woman in our parish.   . . . Whenever I would visit, she would shuffle over to the drawer and produce an envelope full of one-dollar bills to send back to the church as her tithe.  When once I suggested that she might keep a portion for her own needs, she sternly chastised me, “Pastor! You know this is the Lord’s money.  The first fruits always go to Christ’s church!” . . . .I took her out to get a gourmet burger, but when it came, she ate the fries and an order of hot peppers, but had the burger boxed up for a treat she could savor at home that evening.  On the way out of the restaurant, a homeless man on the curb called to her, “Mama, pray for me!”  She laid hands on him, prayed, and asked him when he last ate. “Yesterday morning, Mama.” Without hesitation, she gave him her precious burger. When she died, she left a large percentage of her meager estate to the church. . . . As Mother Teresa often said, “You’ll never know that Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.” (Sundays and Seasons, PREACHING, Year B, 2015, p. 282)

“You’ll never know that Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.”  Recently the state of Georgia executed Kelly Gissander.  She was guilty of plotting with her then boyfriend to kill her husband.  During her stay in prison, Kelly turned her life around, not only becoming a Christian but also studying theology through a program of the Atlanta Theological Seminaries. She said of her crime and her past, “I will never understand how I let myself fall into such evil, but I have learned that no one, not even me, is beyond redemption through God’s grace and mercy.”  (Christian Century, Oct. 18, 2015, p. 19)

Though many people, including the pope ask for clemency for her, it was denied and she was killed by lethal injection.  In its report of this story, the Christian Century quoted Tara Tragesser, who works at the Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center in Chattanooga: “She found transformation, she bloomed in a place where there is no sunshine, no love, no nurture – no one except the very real God in whom she placed all her trust.” (CT, 10/28/2015, p. 19)

The Psalmist reminds us, we should not “put our trust in rulers, in mortals in whom there is no help.”  We cannot rely upon presidential candidates or political parties or bank accounts or retirement plans or anything else but God.

The voice of God comes to us through the voices of these women today: “The first fruits always go to Christ’s Church.”  “You’ll never know that Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.”

“I have learned that no one, not even me, is beyond redemption through God’s grace and mercy.”  “She found transformation in a place where there is no sunshine, no love, no nurture – no one except the very real God in who she placed all her trust.”

The very real God invites us this day to let go of everything else and place our trust in completely in the love and grace of God, revealed to us in Jesus, the Christ.  AMEN AND AMEN.

2 thoughts on “The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (November 8, 2015)

  1. Great message, Delmer! This hit home for my wife and me as we are now retired and trying to care not only for ourselves, but also for our mothers in assisted living. We trust that God will provide for us all.
    Blessings in Christ,
    Gary in Chattanooga

  2. Wonderful, challenging, sermon. Thank you. Putting the emphasis of the ‘widow’s mite’ account on trusting God rather than on giving per se was helpful. Hearing about your mother, Delmer, is an inspiration to me. (What a wonderful heritage you had in her!) Also the stories of the other two women. As always, your notes on the scripture readings, John, set the tone and start me thinking. Thank you both.

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