Guest Preacher: Rev. Katherine Mulhern
Every once in a while, we here at Church of Peace, join together in reading the United Church of Christ Statement of faith. It’s not a CREED, exactly. Because we do not believe that there should be a test of faith to be part of our faith community. Maybe it is more our testimony – it begins a conversation about who we are and what we believe.
My favorite part of the Statement of Faith is the ending – words about the church and God’s promises of faithfulness. They go like this: God, you call us into your church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be your servants in the service of others, to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil, to share in Christ’s baptism and eat at his table, to join him in his passion and victory. God, you promise to all who trust you – forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, your presence in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in your realm which has no end.
This morning’s scripture texts could have been written as illustrations of that part of our Statement of Faith! These are three women who live at the margins of society. They are poor beyond poor. They are hungry and broke and there is no relief. Worse than that, there is no HOPE of relief. Without husbands or fathers, these three women lived at the mercy of the rich and powerful men who ran the towns and cities. And the fact that the scriptures – both in the New Testament and in the Hebrew Scriptures – the fact that these women are lifted up as witnesses to faith and commitment and hope is a bald-faced condemnation of the society that has turned a blind eye to them and that kind of poverty.
For those of us who live with enough – and more than enough – we come before these two stories with a variety of thoughts and feelings. Some of us may be bewildered. How could anyone let themselves get down to 2 pennies? Maybe there’s a little pity (or certainly sympathy) – the poor women who lost their husbands and had no children and then there was no food. Somebody should help, we think. And maybe there’s a bit of righteous anger – asking the hard questions about why in the world this kind of poverty exists in the presence of so much royal wealth – and where is God in the midst of all of this?
For Naomi and Ruth, God’s presence and power transforms the harsh reality of their hand-to-mouth existence. They were refugees – actually they were double refugees. Naomi and her husband had left Bethlehem as a young married couple….because of a famine. They settled in Moab – they worked hard, their sons were born and grew up and they married Moabite women. Foreign women But then, Naomi’s husband and her two sons died – and now there were no children or grandchildren. And so….Naomi and Ruth left Moab, and went to Bethlehem. Hoping against hope that there would be food and help from Naomi’s distant in-laws. Bethlehem isn’t all that far from Moab – maybe 150 miles? So they walked. Two women traveling alone on roads that were dangerous – filled with robbers and rapists.
They arrived in Bethlehem (which – in Hebrew – means “the house of bread”), and Ruth was given permission to glean the fields – and the two women survived on the harvest that was left behind after the pickers had first taken the best grain or vegetables or fruit. But Naomi knows that much more is owed to them. Her husband’s kinsman is Boaz – a wealthy landowner. His fields are full of good food, and his tables are loaded with meat and wine. And under Jewish law, it is his responsibility to see that at least Naomi id safe and well-fed. It is more complicated for Ruth, since she is a foreigner. But Naomi devises a scheme to shame Boaz into living up to his responsibility. And when Ruth and Boaz are finally married, they conceive a son – Obed – who becomes the grandfather of King David himself….and one of the Bethlehem lineage of Jesus himself.
In this story, poverty and wealth rub shoulders. Refugees and foreigners find out what home really means – and in the grace of God’s community and in the commitment of deep love – life generously overflows with hope and joy – and a future unfolds for Israel and for all the world. God surprises us when we least expect it – transforming the lives of two poor widows and bringing forth new life when we only saw grinding poverty and fear and (to use a modern term) an immigration issue.
Generosity abounds in this story – Ruth’s generous presence that sticks with Naomi when she could have gone home to her family and said to-heck-with-all-this, Boaz’s generous invitation for Ruth to be his wife when he could have turned his back on a foreign-born woman, Naomi’s generous heart that found a way to nudge God’s dream of wholeness and hope into the reality of new life. Generosity abounds. And generosity creates new life.
I’m not so sure it’s all that different today. One of the things that I am most grateful for here at Church of Peace is the opportunity to rub shoulders with people who live in poverty. And I especially experience that when Dick and I work at the Food Pantry on the occasional Saturday. I learn so much. Many of the people who come through the line are refugees. They have come here from far-away. They have names we cannot pronounce. Often they do no recognize the food that we have to offer. But always. Always. Always. They bless us with what they have. A smile. A thank you. And my life is so much richer for it. Our church is richer for it.
And so often, I think of the words of the Statement of Faith. O God…you call us into the church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship….to be your servants in the service of others…..to proclaim the gospel to all the world…. Or in the words of the God Is Still Speaking campaign – to embody the welcome that says…. no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey…you are welcome here.
But what of that OTHER widow? The widow of Zarapheth? The one who gives everything she has to the Temple’s treasury? She, too, has things to teach us about faith and commitment and God’s grace. And she has something to show us about the hypocrisy of a faith that says one thing about generosity and does another.
There were lots of gifts given at the Temple that day. Some were probably pretty large gifts, given by important people in Jerusalem. But what Jesus noticed was the two little coins – and a heart that was filled with love and faith and trust. And a willingness to sacrifice.
Everywhere else in the world, the big important people would be praised and lifted up for their gifts. But always….Jesus turns the table on that value system. The last shall be first and the first shall be last. We hear it over and over and over again. And just in case we haven’t learned it by heart yet…Jesus gives us another example. The gift of the widow’s mite is bigger than the largest contribution given that day. And I have to say, I understand why Jesus noticed.
A couple of times in my life, I have watched as someone gave everything to the church. And I think we have to be VERY careful when we talk about that sort of sacrifice. I think of the televangelists who have – over the years – asked people to give far more than they could afford toward the building up of an empire that includes million dollar homes and private jets. And all of us should rise up in righteous anger at that kind of solicitation.
But then there is another kind of generous giving. It comes from gratitude – not from guilt or fear or misplaced responsibility. It comes as a response to the gift of grace and hope and new life that is offered to us through Jesus and through the community that gathers in his name. Let me tell you about one of the times when I have witnessed that kind of giving – giving everything. And I have to tell you that it took my breath away.
It happened at our Food Pantry. It was a Saturday morning in our church basement – but then, they all are. People fill the lounge, waiting patiently for their turn to go through the line. Children read books and dance around their parents. Old people lean on canes and nap a bit. There are hushed phone conversations. And one-by-one people are invited back into the pantry to pick out food that will feed their family for a few days.
This one day, an older woman came through the line alone. She didn’t have a large family – it was just her and her husband. And I happened to be working at the end of the counter – helping her with fruits and veggies. And as she turned to leave, she stopped and looked at me and said – with tears in her eyes. This is so generous. I can’t believe it. I want to pay you. And of course, I said that wasn’t necessary, that the good people at Church of Peace support this ministry and want to help. But she insisted. And she opened her wallet, and for whatever reason I was able to see what was in it. Nothing. No bills at all. And she opened the change purse and took out everything she had. Everything. And she gave it to me. And the total was…drum roll… 37 cents.
All I could say was thank you. There were tears in my eyes. We shared a hug of blessing. And she went on her way. Never has 37 cents meant more to me. Never has there been a gift given to this church that was more important than that one. And never have I been so blessed by someone else’s gratitude or faith or generosity. As Pastor Mariah says, that kind of blessing is just like a tube of glitter – it gets all over everything! And it just shines and shimmers with joy.
And I hear the echo of our Statement of Faith…. God, you call us into your church…to accept the cost and joy of discipleship….to be your servants in the service of others….to proclaim the gospel to all the world….
Three widows who were each poorer than poor. Three widows who trusted God’s promises and walked with courage and faith. Three widows who have showed us that God really does turn the world upside down and inside out. Three widows who blessed the world in Biblical times and continue to bless us now. Like glitter, that blessing just won’t go away.
Which takes me to the ending of our Statement of Faith, which goes like this. Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto you, O God. Amen.