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The Word for Widows – and others. 

3rd Sunday after Pentecost, Common Lectionary year C

Luke 7:11-17; 1 Kings 17:8-16

©2013  Elisabeth R. Jones. 

“Do not mistreat the stranger.
Do not take advantage of the widow”  (Exodus 22)
“Do not take the cloak of a widow as a pledge”  (Deuteronomy  24)
“Learn to do good in the land;
bring justice to the orphan and plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah  1:17)
“Do not oppress the widow, the orphan and the alien” (Zech 7)

And so it goes on – injunction after warning
after plea after solemn prophetic word,
from one end of scripture to the other,
calling for the people of God to look out for
the widow, the orphan and the foreigner.
Because, it seems evident,
God has a particular concern for these,
society’s most vulnerable,
most disenfranchised of all humans.

Now, this recurrent, persistent divine concern for the weakest
is not lost on either the writer of Kings, or Luke,
but both today’s writers choose to get God’s point across,
not with some placard parade of “do this, don’t do that”
moral injunctions, but  instead with stories, fables.

And their strategy works. 
Long after the tale is told, 
you’ll still feel the desert grit on your teeth,
your ears will listen for the widow’s wail of disconsolate grief,
your own eyes may tear up at the hopeless despair of drought-riddled hunger, and hunger for relief.
It’ll be hours, or weeks later that you’ll maybe stop
and ask the hard-headed question,
“Did it really happen?” because that’s not the point of either story.

The point is to feel them, to taste the salt of tears,
to yearn alongside the desperate for the glimpse of life
in the midst of hell.

The point is to feel these stories, these lives,
as God feels them,
to see these ancient tales replayed on our TV screens,
in our families, and in the families of strangers,
and to recognize the truth of these stories
in the truth of life really lived.

Zarephath,
it was a two-bit town on the highland
overlooking the Mediterranean coast line of
what is now Lebanon, but what was then Sidon.
Philistine land – you may as well call it “God Forsaken Land.”
Famine and drought-riddled, war pock-marked land.
Land  which, by all Isrealite accounts of that day,
was beyond the borders of God’s concern.
But to this land, God sends his A-lister prophet, Elijah.
To this land, and to the least of the land.
Widows of the Bible are the lowest of the low, the least of the last.
No income, no safety, no security, no hope.
Left by death to eke out existence until death releases them from a living hell.
His  seemingly simple request, for water and bread,
are laughably, foolishly extravagant.
Beyond her means.

Nine centuries later,
another town, another scene.
Nain…. a non- descript village about two days’ walk from Nazareth.
No drought this time, but the pain, the desperation is no less intense.
This time, it’s our ears that are assaulted by the scene Luke conjures;
as two crowds clash on the road just outside the village.
The first  crowd is part fan-club, part media mob
 – the hangers on and iphone video camera-toting
thrill-seekers following the latest newsmaker in Galilee,
Jesus of Nazareth,
in hopes of catching and uploading to Youtube his latest miracle,
his latest healing. 
This crowd jangles up the road,
only to be stopped in its tracks, by the piercing wail of a widow,
rising above the lower, groaning, unmistakable anguish
of a funeral procession, fraught with grief
for a desperate death,
as it follows the shrouded corpse of  the widow’s  last hope,
her just-grown, just-dead son.

They have us by the gut strings, don’t they these stories?
We can’t begin to imagine a scene more desperate,
more drought-driven desolate, than Zarephath,
more fraught with the fury of death than Nain.

We in our generation don’t need to imagine;
we see Zarephath and Nain, and their widows,
every night on the news.
We know how hard it is to enter the anguish
without ripping out our own hearts.
We know how we steel ourselves against the onslaught
of chaos, inhumanity, war, and hurt.
We know how we ration it, to save our sanity,
and protect the unravelling shreds of our hope.

But Luke and his ancestor, the writer of Kings,
have a story to tell, that we most need to hear,  most need to feel,
precisely  because we are not immune, innocent or ignorant
of all the widows, all the Zarephaths, all the Nains
of ancient worlds and our own.

These tales are indeed about widows, 
about all voiceless, disempowered, victims of chaos,
but they are also tales interrupted by
startling, miraculous grace.
For what else other than the miracle of God’s
presence can possibly redeem such  texts of terror?

Both stories, the second echoing the older one,
deliberately carve a perilous path
into the valley of the shadow of death.
And into that crucible of chaos
walks God.
God walking into, right up to,
touching, holding, even  caressing
the very realm of death itself to restore life.

It’s beyond our imagining, beyond our logic,
beyond our scientific capacity to understand.
As mortal creatures we cannot imagine a more final barrier to the
grace of God than death,
but in the witness of these scriptures,
even, or especially death
is no barrier to the reach of the compassion,
the love of God.
These are miracles spun before our longing eyes
to make a point and promise.

There is no Zarephath, no Nain, no widowhood,
no pain, no terror, no nighttime of watching anguish
that is ever God-forsaken.
No where, no one, no how,  that is beyond the
loving  reach of God.

I know that in this place today, there are folk
who are in Zarephath,
there are others whose  parade of joy-filled living
has turned the corner unexpectedly
right into the midst of the funeral cortege of the widow of Nain.
God’s word to you is this.
“I am with you. You are not now, nor ever, in this alone.”

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