A Sermon for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday After Pentecost, also Veterans Day in the United States
Naomi, the widow
The story of Ruth begins with a widow, Naomi, who suffers the death of her husband and sons and therefore the loss of family, land, wealth, homestead - in one word, everything. Everything is taken away from Naomi, not by God, but by the mysterious force of evil in the world. The one thing Naomi is left with, the thing that seems meaningless in the face of all the grief and loss she has experienced is not a thing at all; it is a person. She is left with her daughter-in-law Ruth. Not a man who can restore her to a life of family with sons and land and well-being. Not an estate that could provide a livelihood. A daughter-in-law. No wonder she weeps and laments and says she cannot go on. What consolation is a daughter-in-law? Who in the history of the world has ever said, “You can take my husband, you can take my sons, you can take my livelihood, you can take my money, you can take everything I have, the one thing I ask is for my daughter-in-law.”
But Ruth turns out to be exactly what Naomi needs. Ruth is a person. She is not money that Naomi can spend. She is not an estate that will provide Naomi future income. She is a person. Ruth provides Naomi with community. One, after all, is the loneliest number.
In the beginning of the story of Ruth, Naomi begs Ruth to leave her. Naomi has nothing to offer. Even if Ruth were to bear sons, Naomi would not live to raise them and benefit from the livelihood they could produce. But in an incredible display of faithfulness and commitment, Ruth refuses to leave her alone. Ruth will not abandon her mother-in-law, which surely speaks to Ruth’s character as we all know how easy of a decision that would be for most of us. I could easily imagine a different conversation. Naomi: “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you as you have with me. Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me” Ruth: “Well, I tried.”
But no. Ruth does not abandon her mother-in-law. The rest, they say, is history. So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. They named him Obed; Obed was the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David.
David became King over all of Israel, the greatest King Israel ever had. Many years later, “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The angel said to Mary, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”
From a broken, destitute, grieving widow comes the Son of God, Savior of the Universe, Lord of All.
Jesus and the poor widow
One day Jesus finds himself in the treasury where people would give their tithes and offerings to God at the temple. He sees some scribes there and warns, “Beware of the religious leaders. The ones in long robes, who have the best seats in church and say long prayers. They are condemned.” I better be careful.
On the other hand, Jesus praises the poor widow. Just as Jesus does not condemn the scribes simply for being religious leaders, Jesus does not praise the widow for being poor or suffering the lack of her husband. It is not a bad thing that we have religious leaders, or that we pray, even pray in public. It is not good that some people in the world are poor or widowed. What is bad, Jesus says, is that the religious leaders, the ones in charge of leading the community of God justly where all are cared for, neglect care for this widow, and probably others. They have failed to fulfill their charge to be in community with the widow. She has been forgotten and marginalized probably because she has nothing to offer the religious leaders who are looking for the respect of the powerful elites or the bank accounts of the wealthy.
Jesus does not give us any information about the situation of the widow. Why was she widowed? What was her life like before her husband died? Has she squandered the estate and wealth her husband left her in his estate? We do not know. But the fact that Jesus says nothing about her previous history also means that it does not really matter. Why does she have in her possession only 2 copper coins worth a penny? It is not important, says Jesus. What is important is that she gives up those two copper coins to the treasury. At first, we might think this is Jesus’s stewardship sermon since our pledge cards are due in a few weeks, surely he is encouraging us to give more of our money to the church for the work of the kingdom of God. Let me suggestion this it would not be a bad thing for you to do so, but it is also not what Jesus is saying.
Why does Jesus praise the widow for giving away her only means of financial resources? Does he want her to be poor? If Jesus is concerned only with the giving of our financial resources then he should encourage the rich who have showed up at the treasury to give even more. Redistribution of wealth so that all will be equal. Jesus in fact says nothing about the redistribution of wealth nor does he encourage the rich to give an even larger percentage of their wealth to the treasury. He says, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.” He doesn’t say the rich should give more to compensate for the widow being unable to make an offering. He says the offering the widow gives is already more than the offering of the rich. Her two copper coins are worth more than everything else that has been given. Why? Because they were giving out of their abundance, she out of her lacking. In fact, he says, she gave everything she had to live on. Everything.
Communities and widows
Surely this is irresponsible. Surely God does not want us to give everything. If we give everything, we cannot provide for our families or those in our communities who are in need.
But the widow’s offering is an incredibly faithful and generous act that stands in contrast to that of the religious leaders. Because of the reality that such a widow with only two copper coins exists in their community, religious leaders have failed their vocation. The widow, on the other hand, fulfills their failed responsibility to foster community because once she has given away her two copper coins, all that she has to live on, her very life, the only thing the religious leaders and everything else in the community can do is take care of her.
At first, this sounds like some kind of a welfare state. She squanders what she has and now the rich are called on to give her what they have and she can continue being irresponsible with her possessions. But in reality, the widow creates community. Undoubtedly, there are others like her in her community.
Widows, orphans, poor, lepers, those with demons and unclean spirits. The widow’s offering sounds off like a trumpet. When she had two copper coins, the scribes could look at her and say, “You have enough. Your problem is your lifestyle. Live more frugally. Then you will have what you need.” Now, they can say no such thing. As scribes they would surely know the commandments: “Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.” “The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless.” “You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child.” And “At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.”
In one incredible act of faithfulness, the poor widow becomes Naomi and the religious leaders must become Ruth. They must stay, take care of her and provide for her. Only when they do so will the presence of God be manifest and they shall be established as a faithful community of God. While the religious leaders have been acting strictly for themselves in order to garner respect or prominence among the people, the widow acts for everyone, for herself and every other widow, orphan and marginalized person in the community as well as the religious leaders, scribes and the rich and powerful. She unites them all through her personal generosity and sacrifice.
Veterans and widows
Today is Veterans Day in the United States of America. Today in our country we are called to give thanks to and honor those who have served our country by participating in the military. Veterans Day is not a Christian Sunday or Holy Day. In the Church, we do not use the language “Veterans Day Sunday,” but rather “The 25th Sunday after Pentecost.” There are Christians all around the world who live in other countries who do not celebrate the Veterans of the United States today.
But we do live in America and there are many citizens who are both serving and have served in the military. I have members of my family who have served in the military. My brother-in-law Jeremy is currently deployed in Afghanistan with the Air Force. We have members of our church, some of whom are here today, who have served in the military. I have always found it difficult to find the right words to express how we should feel towards those who have served. On the one hand, we want to thank you and express our gratitude and recognize the tremendous sacrifice you have undertaken for so many. On the other hand, too many people do this in crass and immature words and actions that ends up making a mockery and is a sign of disrespect for what veterans have gone through. If the best we do is to say, “God bless our troops”, “Thank you for your service”, turn everything into red, white and blue and make a collage of football, American flags, beer and guns, then maybe we should say nothing at all.
The reality is, unless you are a veteran, you have no idea what they have gone through. The months of training and years of service. The skills acquired and strategies crafted. The community and bonds of friendship formed. The pain, suffering, torture and even death endured. The loss of friends and commanding officers. The trauma suffered. The wounds unhealed. The return to everyday life and a society that does not understand why you cannot simply and quickly return to “normal.” The medicines and treatments that have not mended your bodies or restored your minds to what they once were.
The reality is, most of the time most of us do not want to know what really happened. We do not really want to know the truth. We simply want to thank them for their service and move on with our lives without contemplating the horror of war. We do not want to have to think about the fact that we have sent those in the military to kill on our behalf. We often hear and talk about the way those in the military are called to sacrifice themselves and die for their country. We do not often hear and talk about the way those in the military are called to sacrifice their normal unwillingness to kill another human being (quoting Stanley Hauerwas). They are often asked to take a life and then return from battle as if it never happened.
To be sure, Christians are against war. There are times when Christians have determined that the need to go to war was needed and just. But there are also many wars that have been fought for unjust reasons. If we tried to split hairs I’m sure many of us would disagree on what makes a war just and when we should go to war. But the reality is that we live in a country with so many people who have been affected by war, violence and death. Not only those who have served, but their family members, friends, school mates, fellow church members have all been affected and are in it together. We often hear that military personnel are not the only ones to sacrifice. Parents, brothers and sisters, spouses, children all suffer and have to learn how to love a person who returns home different from before.
There is a sense in which those who have served in the military are widows, like Naomi and the widow in the Gospel of Mark. They have experienced some of the most devastating loss a person can endure. I am not a veteran and cannot speak from experience, but I wonder if they always feel like the heroes we make them out to be. On a pedestal, dress blues, shiny medals. Or is there brokenness, pain, even shame, that we cannot see.
There is also a sense in which those of us who know and love and support veterans are widows. We too have experienced loss and suffered much. It is of a totally different kind of loss and suffering as veterans themselves, but nevertheless valid. We often do not know what to do or what to say. Should we act glad and excited when they return? Should we feel guilty for not going to battle ourselves?
When we read stories like the Book of Ruth or the widow in Mark’s Gospel we are tempted to think, “Gee. Wouldn’t it be great if there weren’t any widows in the world?” But there are. Jesus’s point is not that there is not suffering in the world or that we should give more money to widows to support them, although that is not a bad idea. Nor does he magically bring their husbands back to life and restore their relationships. But he does help us see how our communities can be healed through people who are often marginalized and oppressed. Jesus helps us see how the least among us can be the source of greatest strength and unity.
When we wake up and find that it’s Veterans Day we are tempted to think, “Gee. Wouldn’t it be great if there weren’t any veterans in the world? If we never went to all those wars? If everyone lived in peace?” But there are and we did and we don’t. This is not to say that we should not strive for peace; we should. Indeed, Jesus practiced non-violence and we would do well to be his disciple in that regard. But the question remains of how we will treat and care for and support and minister to those who have participated in and been affected by war. Where are the widows among us? Where are the hurting among us? Where are the broken among us? Will we be like the religious leaders and stand back and say, “You have done this to yourself. If you were just more frugal and a better steward of money you wouldn’t be in this situation. Just get your act together. You don’t need to see a doctor, just pull yourself together.” Or will we be like the widow and acknowledge that we might not have much, but what we have we give to the community for the healing of all.
Veterans Day teaches us we need to know what we are willing to die for. The widow is willing to give everything up and risk death for the sake of her community and that it might be one. What are we willing to die for? What are we willing to sacrifice? What are we willing to give up for the healing and restoration and reconciliation of our community? If we believe as Christians that Jesus was the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, then we believe this healing and restoration and reconciliation has already happened on the cross. If we truly believe that Jesus died for us to reconcile us to God, then we are not at war with one another and all that the Lord requires of us is to care for the widow, the orphan, the veteran because we are one. We are one body, the Body of Christ. Thanks be to God.