The story of the widow of Zarephath and Elijah is bracketed by two other stories that are excluded from the lectionary and are therefore never heard by many people in our congregations. Both of them concern the deviant monarchy under which the widow and her child live.
Some years ago I visited a Roman Catholic parish in one of the poorest areas of Mexico City. Mass was being held outdoors, and I arrived as people were setting up plastic chairs and wooden benches in a circle around the brightly dressed altar. The Virgin of Guadalupe smiled her approval from a mural on the side of the church as a few stray dogs settled down to nap in the warm dust.
Many churches, including mine, will mark All Saints Day this Sunday. Of course, politics will also be on everyone’s mind. At first it seemed to me that the two have little in common, but then several connections occurred to me.
To understand what I am going to tell you, you need to know that my parents were scientists and that my mother’s mind had a decidedly unpoetic bent. Nonetheless, they read me poems from the time I was very young because they paid attention to what gladdened my spirit.
I went to Lübeck, Germany, this summer to explore my recently discovered Jewish roots. My grandfather built a successful ironworks plant in Lübeck and lived there until he and my grandmother were sent to the concentration camp where he died. I wanted to visit St. Mary’s Church, where my grandparents brought my father to be baptized as a toddler.
When my father boarded a ship to New York in 1938, he brought his trunks of family silver and linens—and his faith. Years later he returned to Germany with my mother and me and showed us the magnificent church where he was baptized, raised and confirmed, St. Mary’s in Lübeck.
In the hospital emergency room, someone accidentally bumps into an aide carrying a bedpan, and urine sloshes onto the floor. After several hours of waiting, my mother is finally admitted. I pay for TV, but she does not have the strength to push the buttons on the remote. She can’t find the red button to call the nurse either. She tells me that last night she was taken down to a dungeon where she lay awake in terror. Now she wonders why someone left a black Scottish terrier in the corner of her room.
As I write this, the kitchen table is shaking. If our table is shaking, I worry that the church’s beautiful stained-glass windows, desperately in need of repair, are also shaking. The parsonage is attached to the church and shares the same foundation. Seven feet away all hell is breaking loose. Several blocks of businesses that have served this neighborhood are being knocked down by giant backhoes and inflated real estate prices to make way for towering apartments.
In the essay “Jesus Shaves,” from Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris describes a day in a French class that he enrolled in shortly after moving to Paris. In the second month of class, students were learning about the holidays. The textbook listed a series of holidays with accompanying pictures, and the students were told to match the picture with the holiday.
My installation as pastor at a Manhattan congregation began with a festive outdoor procession weaving through public housing projects and then looping around to the parking lot near the pricey apartments and condos on the other side of the street. We wanted the procession to declare our commitment to both sides of the street.
Tweety Bird is everywhere—on balloons, plates, napkins, cups, walls, cake, piñata and party bags. Plaster Tweety Birds mounted on styrofoam greet the guests as party favors. Everything is yellow and white.
Manny, the treasurer of our church, is often the bearer of grim tidings. When he brings me bad news it makes me think I should become a more aggressive fund raiser. But if I spend more time raising money, how can I be a pastor? And if I don’t, how will we remain a church? How much longer can we go on like the widow of Zarephath?
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