Today we find ourselves confronted with two stories of widows, two examples of apparent human failure to care for the most vulnerable in our midst, and while I wish I could say that we, as human beings, have grown in our capacity to care for our most vulnerable, and there are examples of ways in which we in the Church have done so through things like
- Bread for the World
- The ONE campaign
- Lutheran World Relief and Disaster Response
- The Malaria Campaign,
and other such initiatives and strategies of the ELCA and our partners, by in large, there are still far too many examples of neglect, and of the lack of concern and lack of political and social will to make a difference and change the everyday lot of the ones Jesus called the least and the last among us.
Consider these facts, released in September, related to poverty in America: according to the latest government report (with the most recent statistics) released in September 2015 (Coleman-Jensen 2015a).
- In 2013, 14.3 percent of households (17.5 million households, approximately one in seven), were food insecure (Coleman-Jensen 2014b, p. 1). This is down slightly from 14.9 percent food insecure in 2008 and 2009 which was the highest number recorded since these statistics have been kept (Coleman-Jensen 2014b, p.1).
- In 2013, 5.6 percent of U.S. households (6.8 million households) had very low food security, meaning normal eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year due to limited resources (Coleman-Jensen 2014b, p.1).
- Children were food insecure at times during the year in 9.9 percent of households with children. These 3.8 million households were unable at times during the year to provide adequate, nutritious food for their children… in 2013 (Coleman-Jensen 2014b, p. 2). (http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/us_hunger_facts.htm)
Put into terms of poverty, based on the Federal Poverty Threshold, which was $23,500 annual household income for a family of four (and I don’t know how a family of four is supposed to survive on that little, let alone have any real satisfactory standard of living, but that’s the number they use when calculating poverty in the US)
- In 2012, 46.5 million people were living in poverty in the United States—the largest number in the 54 years the Census has measured poverty.
- The poverty rate (the percentage of all people in the United States who were poor) also remained at high levels: 15% for all Americans and 21.8% for children under age 18.
- People with income 50% below the poverty line, (those making somewhere less than $12,000 a year for a family of four) are commonly referred to as living in deep poverty; Census figures show that, 6.6% of our population, or 20.4 million people, were living in deep poverty.
- 7 million American children represented 23.7% of the total U.S. population, but made up a disquieting 34.6% of Americans in poverty and a full 35% of Americans living in deep poverty.
- And there are disparities between men and women, as well, with over five million more women than men living below the poverty line; and two million more women than men living in deep poverty.
- For women aged 18 to 64, the poverty rate was 15.4%, compared to 11.9% for men of the same age range.
And here’s one last staggering statistic to consider
- 11% of women aged 65 and older live in poverty compared to 6.6% of men that age
I think we can too easily read stories like we have assigned for today and think: “That’s a story from a faraway time and place. That doesn’t mean much here and now.” But the stats I just shared show us the error in that sort of thinking…
In 1 Kings, we find a widow and her son at the end of their rope. She’s about to cook the last of their meager provisions, and she fully expects to die of starvation after that. And a stranger, a foreigner, someone who worships a different God, the prophet, comes and says: “My God says that you’re supposed to feed me.”
It’s completely absurd! Who would do such a thing? Who would ask such a thing?
Luther defined sin as being curved in on the self, but in this situation, how could we expect anything else? In this case, I don’t think we can even call it sin? I mean, how could she not be curved in on herself, on her desperate situation, on her need for food, on her impending death? And yet, somehow, this widow manages to uncurl, to uncurve, and to obey God’s command, and, in response, God brings life from what looks like certain death…
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is in the Temple, and he’s teaching the disciples about religious hypocrisy, especially in terms of those who take advantage of vulnerable people, like widows. And then he sits down opposite the treasury, watching as people bring their gifts. Mark points out that many rich people were putting in large sums, and then along comes a widow who drops two small copper coins into the treasury, which Jesus says is more than all the rest have given, for while they’ve given of their excess, she’s given everything that she had.
I wonder if she’s giving up like the widow of Zarephath was doing – just preparing for death?
Mark doesn’t tell us anything more about this woman or about what happens to her after this, but I think she deserves our attention, not because she gave a lot – I mean, what are two small coins worth, anyway? This story, instead, deserves our attention, because this widow and her gift are a type of Christ.
Jesus is a peasant, a homeless, itinerant preacher, seemingly of little to no cultural or historical significance. He’s just another rabble-rouser, just another troublemaker that Rome puts down. That’s what it looks like on the surface, at least. His death is of as much significance as a widow’s small gift.
Well, and there it is!
She gave her all, and in that way, she becomes, for us, a type of Christ.
The death of Jesus, on the surface, was just another Roman execution, it’s just another “who cares” death,
like the deaths of all those people living in poverty in our world today, in the shadows, the people dying, one every 7 seconds or so around the world, from malnutrition and preventable diseases, and not just in places where we expect to find poverty, places we might, in our arrogance, call “backward” or “undeveloped”, but, as the stats I shared earlier demonstrate from our own US Census Bureau, right here, all around us, people live in deep poverty.
So then, faced with the reality of the condition of the world, faced with the reality of poverty and hunger in our world, faced with a Lord who associates himself powerfully with the least and the last – when you’ve done it to the least of these, you’ve done it to me – what is our response to be?…
Today we take step three in our Down, In and Out stewardship program. Today we remember that God sends us out in mission and ministry for the sake of the Gospel and the good of all the needy world. Today, as we gather after worship for our Fair Trade Fair, and share an international tasting menu from all the places where our consignment products originate, we also remember the reason for this fair and celebrate that people are being helped, people are lifting themselves out of poverty and making better lives for themselves, through programs and organizations like SERRV “a nonprofit organization with a mission to eradicate poverty wherever it resides
by providing opportunity and support to artisans and farmers worldwide.”
(SERRV’s mission statement from their website: http://www.serrv.org/category/about-us)
This is just one way that we, as Church, in partnership with groups like SERRV, reach out, uncurling like the widow in our first reading, so that we might recognize those needs that are outside of ourselves, and be bold enough to respond in self-giving love and self-sacrifice.
As long as we’re curved in on ourselves, we’ve got no shot to see the needs of others or to address them, but in the death and resurrection of Jesus, that death into which we were joined in Holy Baptism, we are opened up, uncurved, unclurled, and sent out in mission. And, really, there is no other way to live, as those baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, as it says in the last line of the hymn we’re about to sing:
Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.
(ELW 803 When I Survey the Wondrous Cross Text: Isaac Watts)