1 Kings 17:8-16
I grew up in a family that believed in pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. We learned that from our pioneer forebears who were cowboys; actually they were cattlemen and railroad men in West Texas. What we didn’t know is that not all of us were born with bootstraps. Some members of our family suffer from mental illness and sometimes they could not find any hold at all to pull themselves up. They were dependent on the rest of us to keep them going. Those of us with bootstraps often don’t realize that we are dependent on the gifts of others—or that the fact that we have bootstraps is no more our doing than the color of our eyes. We need each other’s gifts in order to survive. We have to take care of each other. My family has learned that the hard way. We don’t all have bootstraps.
But how do we survive when the social fabric wears thin? When we don’t have families or support systems? When circumstances bring us to our knees? When we don’t have bootstraps? The readings this morning are about widows who are at the end of their resources. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the widow of Zarephath is preparing to use the last of her resources to make one last meal for herself and her son. A drought, a natural disaster, has devastated the region making those at the margins even more vulnerable. The widow in the gospel reading puts small copper coins, the equivalent of about three percent of a single day’s wage in the temple treasury, all the money she has to live on, throwing herself of God’s mercy. We don’t know how she came to be in such a precarious condition, but we can infer that she may have been a victim of the scribes who Jesus says walk around in long robes and devour widows’ houses.
We live in a time when the social fabric has become not only threadbare—it is ripping and tearing. Families are scattered. We treasure our independence over community. The economy has shifted to reward the wealthy so that the gap between the very rich and the poor is expanding. In very real terms, unscrupulous lenders have actually devoured widows’ houses. The fear of scarcity fuels our politics which in turn has decimated the social safety net. Even our churches are succumbing to the fear of scarcity as they try to meet growing social needs with fewer members and resources.
I think that there are a couple of things that we can do. I wanted to be careful not to make claims based on the scriptures that are not true. I would tell you that God has always provided for me, even in the midst of very real economic hardship. That’s my experience. But I wanted to talk to someone who has had a different experience. There was a time when I would have told you, based on my life, that if you tithe, God will always provide for you. And I have noticed that I could see God’s hand providing when things were the hardest. Otherwise, I gave myself most of the credit, or failed to notice my thriving.
But I wanted to talk to someone who tithed and then experience the bottom falling out. My friends Terry and Roberta gave me permission to share their experience. Terry had a great job and Roberta worked a couple of part time jobs for extra income. Five years ago Terry’s company shipped his job to India, laying off all of the technical support team. Terry got a good severance package and three years of medical benefits if he could pay the full premiums, a sum larger than their mortgage. He searched diligently for employment but found only a few short-term contract positions that paid little more than his unemployment benefits. He went back to school to beef up his education. His unemployment ran out several times, becoming smaller each time a short-term contract ended. The family got food stamps in the early days, but that program was cut and they lost that subsidy. Roberta increased her hours at one of her part-time jobs, but her pay was not close to what Terry’s had been. They clipped coupons, didn’t buy anything new, didn’t repair anything that was broken. They squeaked by for a couple of years. They Roberta’s parents who lived out of state needed her care. All their resources were gone. Then they began to receive gifts from their congregation: frequent flier miles, grocery gift cards, and anonymous cash donations. Someone from a former church sent a generous check that made them weep. The bank began foreclosure procedures on their house. Part of the process of forestalling foreclosure was proving that they lived in their home and that it was well-maintained. The mortgage company sent someone to take pictures and that person took a photo of the wrong house which is in much better condition. Just when they were within a hair’s breadth of foreclosure, Roberta lost her part-time job at the church where she worked because the church was also experiencing tough financial times. Roberta says the worst 24 hours was the day the bank was foreclosing and she lost her church job. The next day Terry landed a permanent full time management position. Not at his original salary, but good enough.
I asked Roberta about their faith during those five years. She said they never lost their faith, but they often wondered if God had abandoned them. They have lost so much they will never catch up. They will not be able to retire as their friends are. But they have remained faithful to the church that saw them through the hard times.
I think that one way we survive is by being part of a small group. A small church or a small group in a larger church gets to know its members. When we know what’s happening to our friends, we respond. When they know what’s happening to us, they reach out. We become the resources that God uses to meet each other’s needs. It’s not easy because sometime problems like Terry and Roberta’s can seem overwhelming—too great to solve. But I see the small groups in this church being the kind of community for one another that weaves a safety net. Terry and Roberta’s church were their extended family, their safety net, by providing real and practical assistance.
But that’s not enough. We need to work on the systems that have eroded the larger social network. We need to find ways to ensure that each child of God is able to find adequate resources: food, housing, health care, and community. The system has been dismantled. It is our task as followers of Jesus to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves, who have been left behind by the economy, who are the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. We must reweave the social safety net because not everyone has family or the capacity to care for themselves. We don’t all have bootstraps with which to pull ourselves up. Some of us need a helping hand. Really, all of us need a helping hand at some time in our lives.
I think about the widow of Zarephath and the widow at the temple putting it all in, the last of what they had to live on, trusting God with their very lives. What if we gave ourselves to God in the same way, trusting God with all of our talents, gifts, and financial resources? What if we created community in such a way that we were all in, none left out? How can we, out of our faithfulness to God and one another, reweave the safety net? May we rediscover the abundance of God’s creation, in ourselves and the world around us by giving fully of ourselves. God has already provided for us—God gave us each other.