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STORIES OF TWO WIDOWS

Ruth 3; Mark 12

 

This week I’m thinking about widows.  Not only do many women live longer than men, creating a disproportional number of women in retirement homes, but many widows over the years have had very minimal support to help them continue in their lives.  In the United States there are safety nets like Social Security, or a spouse’s pension, or Medicare, or even Medicaid if necessary. For those in younger generations who lose their husband, the popular way to offer support to them is with a GoFundMe page on social media. Back in the 90s, our congregation was heartbroken to have two women have their husbands die at age 34 to melanoma. They were filled with sorrow. My own mother is a widow, but my father’s pension and careful saving has allowed her to live comfortably, although she very much misses my father. In her world, he was the ying to her yang; she kept the home and did much of the raising of her four children. He worked full time, invested their money, and did the projects around the house that needed attention. She does not have his skill sets. So being a widow makes her, and others like her, feel a loss for a very long time; even the rest of their lives.

 

This week my heart has broken for two widows who were in the news: First, the widow of Sergeant Ron Helus, a 29 year veteran of the Ventura County Sheriff’s office in California. He was on the phone with his wife when he got the call that there was a shooter at a bar in Thousand Oaks, California. He said to his wife, “Hey, I’ve got to respond to a call. I gotta go. I love you.” Those were the last words she ever heard from her husband. He was gunned down by a suspect who had first killed the security guard. What pain; what sorrow; what loss she is feeling. A special man is gone, and his beloved widow grieves. Second, I’m thinking about the widow of Army National Guard Member Major Brent Taylor, who also served as Mayor in North Ogden, Utah. He had taken a leave of absence from his mayoral post to go serve another tour in Afghanistan. He too was killed in the line of duty, and it devastated his widow, Jennie Taylor. Now she is a widow too, and the remaining parent to their seven children Megan (13), Lincoln (11), Alex (9), Jacob (7), Ellie (5), Jonathan (2), and Caroline (11 months). What pain; what sorrow; what a loss. Another special man is gone and his wife grieves.

 

In the Bible we have two other sets of widows I want to lift up today. One was Naomi. We heard about her situation last week. Because of a famine in Judah, she traveled with her husband Elimilech to the foreign land of Moab to find food and rear their sons. I have trouble imaging the heartbreak she had: her husband died, so she had to care for, and then lean on, her two sons for comfort and support. As her sons turned their eyes toward marriage, their attention shifted in part from her to their new wives. They married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Oprah Winfrey has said her mother named her for Orpah, but it was misspelled on her birth certificate! After Elimilech died and her sons died, Naomi had little choice but to leave Moab and return to Judah. There was no social security in Moab, nor any pensions. In fact, there was no pension or social security in Judah either, but there was an arrangement. If Naomi came back as a widow, by custom the male relative of her late husband who could best afford to take her into his household was obliged to welcome her and comfort her. In return, she would pull her weight on the farm and in the household. If the male relative she went to stay with—in this case, Boaz—was not married, or was a widower, Naomi and he might have married. But there was a situation; have you ever heard people say “We have us a situation!” Well, they had one; it was Naomi’s Moabite daughter in law who insisted on coming back to Judah with her! Ruth was young, hard working, and presumably caught the eye of Boaz. So not only did Naomi lose her husband and two sons to death, she parted ways with daughter in law Orpah, but tag-along Ruth was with her to marry the man who might have been Naomi’s husband instead! Unselfish Naomi actually instructed Ruth how she could win the approval of Boaz so Ruth could stay in Judah! What an amazing widow. There are plenty of amazing widows in our world, but she is one of them.

 

On the other hand, we have a widow who Jesus saw, according to Mark chapter 12. Jesus taught using whatever or whoever was around him. After skewering the scribes with verbal barbs, he sat down opposite the treasury. The treasury, as you’d imagine, was the place where faithful Jews would bring their shekels for God. It was by the Temple; rich people put in large contributions; people of modest incomes put in modest amounts, and poorer people put in less. The poorest persons in the area were either men who could not work because of disability or disease, or women whose husbands had died. The widows had nothing. By law they were not allowed to work for money; their tasks were to keep the households. And so when their husband died, the bottom fell out of their meager finances. A widow had nothing; nothing except this one widow had faith in God and a hope for her future.  A tithe to God—then and now—is considered to be 10% of one’s gross income, and giving in the days of Jesus was a matter of scrutiny between a local rabbi and a family. A widow, in giving two copper coins, certainly gave more than a tithe to her God. The coin commonly known as a widow’s “mite,” was also known as a “lepton.” It was like our penny. It is even hard to find penny candy for my grandsons these days. Cash only breakfast restaurants leave pennies openly on their counters to make change. And a penny on the ground will often get trampled instead of get picked up. So when this widow gave of her all, Jesus used her as an example.  A widow, in addition to having no income, probably joined the army of widows across the ages with broken hearts. Their husbands were dead. Yet this poor, poor, brokenhearted widow  “put everything she had,” into the treasury according to Jesus. He used her, in her brokenness and poverty, as an example of faith, hope, and love.

 

Today I don’t know the situations everyone here faces. If you are broken, you are not alone. Brokenness is all around the world.  If you are able to work and earn money, or if you have a pension or social security, you have ways to share with others and also honor God with a tithe. Because of your generosity to date, we’ve been able to help change the lives of hungry people in our community through Halifax Urban Ministries and our Good Samaritan program. When you’ve been generous, we have been able to help change the lives of 160 men in Solutions By-The-Sea. Because of your help, supplies given and people volunteering at local elementary schools help children and teachers in their classroom. Because of your generosity, Westminster has been a steady and major contributor to the Presbyterian Counseling Center for 32 years. Because of your generosity, we are able to offer this inspiring space and these wonderful instruments to support congregational and choral singing! Your tithes and offerings truly matter, and are wisely used. Please consider your prayerful support not only for today, but for 2019. And I invite you to join me to have a special place in your heart for the widows … and widowers …and those whose children have died among us.

 

Let us pray: God of the widow; God of the widower; God of the child; God of the

Wounded soul:

How do your children say thanks? How do your children show love?

May our gifts and our prayers reflect our thank you notes to you.

Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          November 11, 2018

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LOVE GOD; LOVE NEIGHBORS

Ruth 1: 1-18; Mark 12; 28-34

 

Sometimes the Bible offers a laser-beam commentary on situations we face in life. This week is such a time.  First, Fred McFeely Rogers was born in 1928 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the hometown of Arnold Palmer. He grew up with a love for others, and a love for God.  One passage that he certainly embodied was Jesus’ commandment to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.” Fred Rogers moved from Pennsylvania to Winter Park, Florida to Major in Music Composition at Rollins College. Afterward he attended and graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity degree. He was, in fact, The Rev. Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister, but he was known throughout the world as Mr. Rogers. He created a neighborhood in the studio of the Public Broadcasting Station in Pittsburgh. Throughout the life of the show he created, he decided on the themes, wrote the music, and voiced the puppets as he spoke directly into the camera to children and the parents or grandparents who may have watched too.  Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood was his ministry from 1968 until 2001; and to this day his family and his Foundation have carried on his themes with Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.

But away from TV, Mr. Rogers’ actual neighborhood was the area around Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh where, on October 27th, Satan entered a man, urged on by his henchmen on a website of hate, and he killed 11 neighbors who were worshipping God. The henchmen across the globe cheered. But Mr. Rogers had heard the teachings of Jesus and had exemplified them to others in his own unique way. Mr. Rogers modeled what it meant to be a neighbor- welcoming people of color, people with disabilities, people of different faiths, and people from different walks of life: and he called everyone of them “neighbor.” He planted good seeds in his neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. How do I know? Jesus said you can always tell that a good seed has been planted by the fruit that is produces.  When The Tree of Life Synagogue went through unspeakable tragedy last week, the Presbyterians did not say, Oh, you are Jews; Jews should help you.” They said, “You are our neighbors. You may use our building; our people are at your service; we will pray for you and be with you; and we are broken with you.” Jesus would have been pleased. The Muslim congregation in Squirrel Hill did not say, “You are Jews; Jews should help you.” The Imam said: “We are your neighbors and we mourn for you and with you. Do you need money? We will raise it. Do you need comfort? We will offer it. Whatever you need, just ask.” Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood knew how to be neighbors so well in the midst of evil. Even now, they are doing Kingdom work, and Jesus would be pleased.  How do I know? In the gospels, Jesus showed who his neighbors were with his encounters and some of his parables. When he told the story of the good Samaritan, recorded in Luke chapter 10, the Jews must have flinched. (Remember, there were no Christians until after Jesus’ resurrection at the end of the Gospels.) So Jews flinched because there was no such thing as a good Samaritan. They believed they were bad; ungodly, and should be shunned.  Jesus told the story in their face to change the narrative. Jesus was demonstrating who our neighbors are. Another time Jesus crossed into Samaria deliberately (a line as uncrossable as the one between Palestinians and Israelis today) Yet he went there and spoke to a woman at a well; she was convinced Jesus was a prophet and became one of his first evangelists in her land. Jesus was being a neighbor. He was a neighbor even to a Syrophoenican woman who was said to worship different gods.  Other Jews would have shunned her. But she engaged Jesus in a conversation and begged him to heal her daughter from a demon. Jesus heard her out, and inspired by her faith, healed her daughter. Jesus was being a neighbor. Fred Rogers learned how to be a neighbor from his Savior Jesus.  Go and do likewise, as those in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood are doing.

 

Second, our country is in a heated debate regarding immigration, and issues regarding purity of race. Oh if people really read and understood their Bibles. Take, for example, the book of Ruth which I will mention briefly today and say more about next week. Because of a famine in Judah, a Jewish couple—Elimilech and Naomi, and their young sons Mahlon and Chilion—crossed the border into the country of Moab, which today is in Jordan. In our day, crossing a border like that takes a passport and several hours of inspections. But it was not impossible to cross a border during a famine in the days of Ruth. Thank God. The family took up residence in Moab, even though Moabites didn’t worship our God; desperate times call for desperate measures, then and now. Elimilech was the husband, and Naomi was his wife. They were from Bethlehem. Their sons from Judah were Mahlon and Chilion. The sons ending up finding and marrying Moabite women named Orpah, and Ruth. The Judeans grew up in Moab away from their native country because of a famine. In due time Elimilech—the he father—died, leaving Naomi as a widowed Judean in a foreign land. Within 10 years Mahlon and Chilion also died, leaving Naomi, a Judean, in a foreign land with her two Moabite daughters-in-law. Naomi decided to return to Judah where family members would take her in. Orpah agreed to stay behind in the country of her origin and where her people were, but Ruth wanted to go with Naomi, as she said in the famous line in the King James Bible: “Entreat me not to leave me or to keep me from following after thee. For whither thou goest, I will go; where though lodgest, I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part me from thee.”

 

There was a Jewish law that required a blood relative man to take a Jewish woman relative who was widowed into his household. So Naomi had a place on the farm of her kinsman Boaz.  But with Naomi’s request, and Ruth’s unexpected presence as a respectful, hard-working woman, who was a foreigner—a Moabite woman—she was welcomed into the house of Boaz in the little town of Bethlehem.  Spoiler alert: in the last chapter Boaz and Ruth end up married-a Judean man and a Moabite woman. And from that mixed marriage, Boaz and Ruth had a son. According to Ruth 4:17, and it says it exactly this way in the Bible: “The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, who is the father of David.  And who was born from the house and the lineage of David, in that little town of Bethlehem? (O Little Town of Bethlehem) Yes. The Christ of Christmas. Jesus was born from a mixed marriage lineage. Who better to be show the world what it means to be a good neighbor? Today I ask you what a special minister asked boys and girls every day:

“Won’t you be my neighbor?”

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          November 4, 2018