Sermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, October 31, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Ruth 1:1-18+Psalm 146+(Hebrews 9:11-14)+Mark 12:28-34

Those of you who have been listening to me preach for a while know that I often remind you to take a look at what’s going on around the scene we read in our morning lesson from the gospels. If you are especially observant, you will have noticed that last week we were in the 10th chapter of Mark and today we are midway through Mark 12, and I hope that my telling you that prompts you to wonder what happened between then and now. Whether you are wondering or not, I’m going to tell you, because it is important!

Immediately after his encounter with Bartimaeus in Jericho, Jesus and his companions arrive in Jerusalem where the crowds greet him with shouts of hosanna and the waving of palm branches. The messiah has arrived! He goes to the temple and drives out the moneychangers, and almost immediately, the temple authorities begin to ask who this guy is and where does he get off coming in here and causing all this commotion? Jesus tells a parable – the one we know as the Wicked Tenants – which basically tells these religious leaders that they can’t recognize one who has come from God if it hits them in the face, and they have missed the boat.

At the time the gospel of Mark was written some forty years or so after the actual events, the Jewish leaders had every reason to be nervous. There was a series of Jewish revolts in the years leading up to the destruction of the great temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, so trying to figure out what kind of people the Jewish followers of Jesus were was of crucial importance. So, in this 12th chapter of Mark, the questions posed are to try to determine if Jesus was okay with paying taxes to Rome or if he believed in the resurrection. Different groups of Jews – the Pharisees and the Sadducees – had different opinions about these things. So, whose side are you on, Jesus?

I think the questioner from this morning’s reading is interested in something else. He observes the disputation with the Pharisees and the Sadducees and thinks Jesus holds his own, and I think he is genuinely curious: if it’s not about taxes or the resurrection, what is most important then?

Jesus gives not one, but two answers. Love God with all you have and love your neighbor as yourself. He links two commands from the Torah even though they come from different places. Love the Lord your God is part of the Shema, “Hear, O Israel,” from Deuteronomy (6:8) which forms part of daily prayer of Jews to this day. The second is from Leviticus where God gave to Moses all the laws that were to govern the people of Israel, the 613 commandments. “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18).

In placing these two together, Jesus is telling us that you can’t really have one without the other. You cannot say you love God and then treat your neighbor badly. You can’t just have warm thoughts about someone else and them wash your hands of them. This kind of love is a verb, and it asks something of us.

Our first reading today is from one of the most beloved stories in scripture. Ruth’s words to her mother-in-law are read at weddings as promises of lifelong fidelity:

Where you go, I will go; 
Where you lodge, I will lodge; 

your people shall be my people, 
and your God my God.

Where you die, I will die— 
there will I be buried. (Ruth 1:16-17)

What we tend to forget is that these words were born of desperation. There had been a decades-long famine that first brought Naomi to Moab with her husband and sons, and now that the husband and sons had died, Naomi just wants to go back to her people in Bethlehem where she has heard that there is food. Ruth is determined to return to Judah with her, but Ruth is a Moabite, a foreigner.

Warsan Shire is a London-born Somali poet who wrote

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark…

…no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly…

…you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land…

…no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison
because prison is safer
than a city of fire…

…no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now…[1]

Ruth really had no choice but to leave. What would she stay for? An unrelenting famine? A widow with few options? Yes, Orpah went home with no promise that she would be received or welcomed or fed. So, Ruth became a refugee. She also became the great-grandmother of King David and one of five women in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:5). She survived because she was welcomed in the homeland of her mother-in-law. She was treated as a neighbor by a people who loved God.

Welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, being present for the lonely – all of these are ways we show our love for God. God gave these commands to Moses in the midst of the wilderness. Jesus gave these commands in the final few days of his life. Mark wrote these commands when the center of Jewish life and worship was about to crumble.

Sure, we may still be in the midst of a global pandemic in a world that is filled with uncertainty and strife, but the words still come to us: love God and love neighbor. It’s a verb. It asks something of us. To truly follow Jesus is as simple, and as hard, as that.


[1] https://www.facinghistory.org/standing-up-hatred-intolerance/warsan-shire-home

ASEPSermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, October 31, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas