Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
(Pastor Sue’s last Sunday at Trinity)
Today I am, as the kids would say, “feeling all the feels.” My heart is full, and I know I’m not the only one. It’s more than just the fact that we are saying goodbye to one another for now, which would be enough. It’s also the state of the world these days—the fires and floods, the grief and gun violence, the famine, war, illness, vicious political rhetoric, shrinking polar ice caps—any of it, all of it! Sometimes it seems like Chicken Little might have been right; the sky is falling.
But into the swirl of all that is on our hearts and minds right now, God has given me one more message to deliver to you, so hear this, people of Trinity: God sees. God knows. God cares. I’ll say it again: God sees. God knows. God cares.
Not long ago I heard a story on NPR about a couple whose daughter was killed in the mass shooting at a Colorado movie theater in 2012. That couple now travels to the sites of other mass shootings to console survivors and family members of those who were killed. They don’t have a specific agenda, they simply want share their empathy with other people who are experiencing this particular kind of grief that they understand all too well. One of the siblings of a shooting victim said that what she liked best about being around this couple was that she didn’t have to say a word. They just looked at her and she felt understood.
It’s a beautiful and precious thing when we feel someone truly sees us and understands us, isn’t it? That is what I like best about today’s story from Gospel of Mark. Jesus sees a poor widow. Though no one else is paying attention, he sees—really sees—her. As she drops her two little coins into the offering plate, Jesus comprehends the enormous sacrifice she is making and points her out to his disciples.
But he doesn’t just feel sorry for this woman who has clearly known loss (she’s a widow after all), nor does he just use her generosity as an object lesson for his followers. He wants others to see her as well. He calls attention to her noble gesture and to the hypocrisy of the Temple’s religious elite that have necessitated her giving away her last pennies. Jesus is incensed that they, who should have been providing for this woman’s well being instead of causing her suffering, do not see her plight.
When Jesus and his disciples leave the Temple (in a story you’ll have to tune in for next week), Jesus is very clear that the whole corrupt Temple system needs to be abolished, and replaced by his very self—a God who sees. Knows. Cares.
Our reading from 1 Kings is another example of God seeing, knowing, and caring. Before today’s story begins, the prophet Elijah has been trying very hard not to be seen by King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. He’s told them over and over what will happen if they don’t turn from their evil ways, but they won’t listen. So he curses the land and calls for a drought that will not be lifted until God commands it. Now he’s on the run from the law, living on bits of bread that God has directed the ravens bring him to eat, when God sends Elijah on a trip to the land of Sidon.
You need to know that not only is Sidon Gentile territory, but it is the homeland of Elijah’s enemy, Queen Jezebel. God assures him that he will be ok, for God has instructed a widow in Sidon to take care of him. Having experienced God’s faithfulness in the past, Elijah risks trusting that God sees, knows, and cares for him. And he goes.
I very much wish the Bible recorded God’s conversation with the widow of Zaraphath, so we’d know how God prepared her to meet and care for a foreign prophet, but that story wasn’t written down. All we know is that when a thirsty stranger arrives at her gate, begging for some of her carefully rationed water (there is a drought after all), she goes to get it for him. Even before she gets out of earshot, the man asks for another favor—something to eat.
Now, this woman and her child are down to just a little fistful of flour and a teaspoon of oil. She is sure her child will die soon of malnutrition soon. Famine and poverty are always harshest on the children, aren’t they? But here is Elijah, begging her for some water and a bite to eat. Her response to the strange man who practices a different religion, who speaks a different language, and who generally doesn’t belong to her community, is a gracious one: “I’m sorry, Sir. I can’t help you. My God is dead. Or at least dead to me. And soon my son and I will be dead too.”
Elijah then tells her what messengers of God always tell people: don’t be afraid. God is a living God and will provide. “The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that YHWH sends rain on the earth.” Don’t be afraid. God sees. God knows. God cares.
So she invites him home for supper. Many people read this story and think it is a miracle story because of what comes next: the flour and oil don’t run out. That is remarkable, to be sure, but isn’t this moment right here, when a struggling woman, sure that she is about to eat her last meal with her son, and still invites company over, also a miracle?
On his deathbed Martin Luther is said to have murmured, “We are all beggars, it is true.” Indeed we are all beggars before the cross of Christ, no matter what our bank accounts say. All of us come to the throne of grace with nothing to recommend us but God’s love for us. What’s amazing is that as we humbly acknowledge that everything we are and everything we have comes from God, something in us shakes loose. We are liberated from the idolatry that money and security can present. The widow of Zaraphath demonstrates this liberation. The promise of God’s abundance frees her from her fear and enables her to step out in faith with generosity and compassion.
And that makes what happens next even harder to bear. Despite the miracle of the oil and flour that didn’t run out, the widow’s son dies anyway. She is understandably outraged at Elijah: “Didn’t you say that if we took care of you, your God would take care of us? How do you explain this?” Who could blame her for her agony? Even Elijah had similar questions. He cries out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” Don’t you see? Don’t you know? Don’t you care?
But then Elijah performs some kind of CPR, and God restores the boy to life. The boy’s mother’s joy turns into faith. Unlike Queen Jezebel, who cannot bear to hear the words of Elijah, this other woman of Sidon exclaims, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”
It’s a wonderful story, but I can’t help feeling for all the other mothers whose sons are not brought back to life. On this 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, what about all those mothers sons buried in cemeteries across Europe? What about all the sons and daughters who died in the many wars that followed that “war to end all wars”? What about the mothers whose kids were shot just this week? What if the death rattle you hear is in your own body or the body of someone you love? Where’s Elijah now? Doesn’t God see? Know? Care?
I do not know why some children never grow up while others grow old. What I do know is this, the message God has asked me to announce to you in my last sermon here: don’t be afraid. God sees you. God knows you. God cares for you. Though it may not always look the way we expect, our God is always a God of resurrection and new beginnings. God brings life out of death every time.
Whatever calamities befall us in our personal or collective lives, God is with us, and will provide for us by raven or by stranger. God will not let us let us be swallowed up by our own panic or pride or by the evil of this world. No need to close the borders. No need to hoard resources. No need to fear strangers or neighbors or the future or even death itself.
If God can order creation to feed a starving prophet, turn the heart of a Gentile woman toward a Hebrew prophet, make something out of nothing at all and call it good, then surely God can provide a way for you and for me and everyone else through all the droughts and deaths we experience. We can risk our last 2 pennies on God’s faithfulness and love. We don’t need to be afraid. God sees. God knows. God cares.
~Pastor Susan Schneider