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The Real Widow

  • October 20, 2019
  • 08:00 AM

Sermon for 20 October 2019 

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             1 Timothy 5.1-8, 17-22; Psalm 121; Luke 18.1-8

Title:               The Real Widow

“Honor widows who are really widows. If a widow has children or grandchildren, they should first learn their religious duty to their own family and make some repayment to their parents; for this is pleasing in God’s sight” (1 Timothy 5.3-4).

Let’s begin this morning by conducting some quick in-house research. Please raise your hand if any of the following things are true about you and your family. Don’t worry about the precise measurements. It’s the big picture that we are aiming for here.

Raise your hand if you have family members who live at least 100 miles away. (That’s the distance to Boston.)  Keep your hand up if you have family members living at least 250 miles away. (That’s the distance to NYC.) Keep your hand up if you have family living at least 500 miles away. (That’s just past DC or Pittsburg.) Keep them up if you have family members living at least 1000 miles away. (That would be past Chicago or Atlanta.) Keep them up if you have family living at least 2000 miles away. (El Paso and Yellowstone are that far away.) And once more, keep them up if you have family members living at least 3000 miles away. (That’s beyond the lower 48 states.)

I’m included in that group, of course, with our son living in Hawaii. Thank you, everyone.

My friends, this is the world in which we find ourselves today. We may wish that it were not so, but it is, and it is not likely to change anytime soon.

Nearly all our families are scattered across vast distances, making all our lives much more complicated than ever before.

Given this reality, how then do we realistically live into these biblical instructions that point to our responsibility to take care of our relatives and family members?

Did you notice how demanding the language is here in First Timothy? It does not leave much wiggle room, or any gray area at all.

“Whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5.8).

Ouch! The instruction here, of course, is directed primarily toward the care of widows. And this makes perfect sense in context, because in that society, women and children needed an adult male to be their protector and provider. Without one, they had little standing in society and limited economic options.

If you look at today’s Gospel reading, the implication is that widows DID in fact have legal rights and had recourse to the legal system when dealing with a dispute. But there can be no doubt that widows who were all alone were in a desperate situation.

From the very beginning, the church began taking care of all widows who entered the fellowship of the church. And evidently, many did so! By the writing of this letter, it was common practice for elders and deacons in each church to keep a list of widows in need, so that they could be adequately cared for by the church.

The Pastor writing to Timothy provides some instruction for how and why this is to be done. “The real widow,” he says, “left alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day” (1 Tim 5.5).

And how do her prayers get answered? Through the care of the church community. By the assembly of Christ-loving people who have given themselves to God so that they might become the embodiment of God’s answer to prayer.

You see, this entire first letter to Timothy is replete with images of the church as the household of God. Almost as if God is sending a message about a bigger vision, and calling us into a larger household that fills in the gaps left behind when families are unable to provide for their own.

“Do not speak harshly to an older man (to an elder), but speak to him as to a father, to younger men as brothers, to older women as mothers, to younger women as sisters—with absolute purity. Honor widows who are really widows (1 Tim 5.1-3).

This “honor” language is the same wording used in the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments. Do you remember it? “Honor your father and your mother.”

And it echoes the culture of respect that Hebrew tradition expected toward all elders, whether family members or not. Leviticus 19.32 reads, “You must rise in the presence of an old person and respect the elderly. You must fear your God; [for] I am the LORD.”

You must rise in the presence of the elderly.

One of the gifts that the church community offers all of us today is the privilege and blessing of being part of a real inter-generational community. Because of the reality of our scattered families, it is true that we are rarely in the presence of the elderly, if we are younger, or rarely with younger people, if we happen to be older.

Each generation is more siloed and isolated from one another than ever before. But what is the one place where this isolation is routinely overcome? Where all generations are brought together in one common gathering?

The local church! We have a unique calling to be an intentional inter-generational community united in our dedication to the mission of God.

And there is one area of growing concern in our society where this kind of community may, in fact, be able to save lives. I’m talking about the disturbing rise in suicide rates in all segments of society. And what is particularly troubling is the rising rate of suicide among young people, including children as young as ten years of age. Ten years old!

This entire subject is complicated. But, without question, access to firearms is one important factor in the rise of suicides. Unfortunately, as we all know, this is a situation without an easy solution. The sheer volume of guns in our society means that a young person who is intent on suiciding in this way can mostly likely locate a weapon, even when steps have been taken to avoid unauthorized use.

Some of you know that a friend of mine killed himself with his father’s handgun when I was in seventh grade. Michael lived on our street. He was one year older than me. He was not one of the popular kids in school. Middle School is such a challenging age! And our school had a socially very important Eighth Grade dance before everyone went off to the big regional high school. Michael asked a young woman to be his date to this dance, and, well, she declined. It seems that this was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. When Michael was alone at home, he found the parts of his father’s handgun that were placed in different parts of the home, for safety, and the ammunition. He knew how to put in together and make it work. And he did just that.

Dr. Thomas Joiner is a scientist who has made it his life purpose to study the root causes of suicide, moving beyond misperceptions and misunderstandings. In his books, he has summarized his findings by pointing to three primary factors that are generally present in each case. (Why People Die By Suicide, Harvard University Press, 2005).

The first is the capacity to harm oneself, a stoic habituation with pain and suffering. But beyond this, a person also develops a loss of belonging. A deep feeling that they do not belong in any community. That they will not be missed. And they develop a sense of being a burden. That they do not have anything significant to contribute. That their purpose in life has been lost.

My friends, we are still charged by God with caring for the widows in our midst. Social circumstances have changed, thankfully, and there is now some social safety net that is available to provide for people’s most basic needs.

But there are other kinds of needs that can never be met by a government program. Such as the need to belong. The need to have meaning and purpose in life. The need to be known and valued and cared for. The need to be missed.

I cannot help but think that my friend Michael’s path could have been different – if only he was connected to God and to God’s church, plugged in to a loving inter-generational community of mutual care and concern, where elders knew his name and took interest in him and  made sure he knew that he was important and needed.

My friends, when I have seen my final sunrise here on planet earth, I hope that I will be remembered as someone who worked and labored throughout my entire life toward the realization of this vision, the realization of God’s dream of the church living and serving and loving together in this way.

Will you join me in this effort? Will you pledge yourself to do what you can to build up the household of God here, in this community, among these people?

Not because WE are all so wonderful and because WE deserve this. But because we never know, on any given day, who may be in desperate need of hope, of a place of belonging, and a community of meaning, within the loving household of God.

And because this is who GOD has called us to be. Amen.

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