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Sermon for 23rd Sunday after Pentecost 2021

Ruth 1:1-18 Psalm 146

Hebrews 9:11-14 Mark 12:38-44

One Sunday in church during the announcements, the pastor reminded the congregation that there would be a meeting of the board after the service concluded. So after the service, the board met in the back of the church and noticed a stranger among them. When asked what he was doing there, he answered, “Well, after that sermon I’m as bored as the rest of you.”

While this is just one example of how humans can hear something and not understand it, we know there are many more. We fall short often in our understanding of God’s mission in the world and in our lives. Jesus offers us clear instructions, though, so that we can gain understanding. Even if we mishear sometimes, there are moments of grace and clarity for living the Christian life.

The introduction to the book of Ruth is our Old Testament reading for today. It culminates with Ruth’s speech to remain with Naomi. We are familiar with “where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.” We hear it often at weddings. The irony is that our text is set years after a mixed marriage and immediately after the death of a Hebrew husband. There is no promise of marriage for Ruth or Naomi. These words come out of grief and barrenness. These words introduce us to two women through whom God will tear down some long-admired and carefully crafted walls. Walls to separate one from the other. Their story offers us hope.

J. L. Kraft (head of Kraft Cheese Corporation), said “The only investment I ever made which has paid consistently increasing dividends is the money I have given to the Lord.” In Psalm 146, the Lord is praised as both creator and sustainer. A connection with the reading from Ruth in offering an assurance that God watches over strangers and cares for widows and orphans. The psalmist is urging the community to praise God, not for the ways God was made manifest in the lives of their ancestors. The psalmist does not recount the great stories of deliverance or being led out of Egyptian bondage. We hear the urging to the community to give praise to God because of what God is doing now in their midst – in our midst.

What in the world, is God doing?” We are reminded to look for God’s hand in our daily lives. We are to believe in the faithfulness and trustworthiness of God not of men and women. We are tempted to put our trust in the powerful leaders, the wealthy, and politicians, hoping they can solve all of our problems. The reminder of the absolute faithfulness of God is followed by a list of things that God is doing in the world. According to the psalmist, God: “keeps faith forever; executes justice for the oppressed; gives food to the hungry; sets the prisoners free; opens the eyes of the blind; lifts up those who are bowed down; loves the righteous; watches over the stranger; upholds the orphan and the widow; brings the wicked to ruin.” Isn’t that what we, as followers of Jesus are supposed to do? Isn’t that what the Church is called to do? Only our coming together and giving from our hearts and not our heads, can this be possible.

The Sunday School teacher was just finishing a lesson on honesty. “Do you know where little boys go if they don’t put their money in the collection plate?”, the teacher asked. “Yes ma’am,” a boy blurted out. “They go to the movies.”

The reading from Hebrews continues the focus of Jesus as the high priest, insisting on effectual power of Christ’s sacrifice to purify our conscience. The Gospel reading brings to light Mark’s version of Jesus’ teaching about the Great Commandment, we hear Jesus quoting the Shema and insisting that obedience is more important than sacrifice.

The readings for today join in urging continuity between Christianity and Judaism by focusing on the heart of both: love of God and love of neighbor. It begins with one of the scribes asking a question. One exceptional scribe, impressed with Jesus, approached Him with an honest question based on a common religious practice of the day – categorizing the commandments (such as heavy, great, light, or little). Jesus cited two commandments and presented them as one love for God should naturally issue in love of other human beings. Only Mark records the scribe’s favorable response to Jesus’ answer, as well as Jesus’ encouraging reply.

By Jesus’ time, the Jews has accumulated hundreds of laws – 613 by one historian’s count. Some religious leaders tried to distinguish between major and minor laws, but some taught that all laws were equally binding and that it was dangerous to make distinctions. This teacher’s question could have provoked controversy among the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Jesus answered summarized all of God’s laws.

Although Jesus is asked for only the single most important commandment, He answers by naming two commandments: love God and love others. He includes both because these two teachings can never be really separated from each other. Some people think they can love God and ignore the people around them, but Jesus frequently makes it clear that loving God apart from loving His people is impossible.

Murray J. Harris wrote, “All too often we regard stewardship simply as a matter of our giving to God, but this aspect is secondary. Before we can give, we must possess, and before we possess, we must receive. Therefore, stewardship is, in the first place, receiving God’s good and bounteous gifts. And once received, those gifts are not to be used solely for our own good. They must also be used for the benefit of others, and ultimately for the glory of God the giver. The steward needs an open hand to receive from God and then an active hand to give to God and to others.” Now that will preach!

For our diverse faith communities, today’s gospel provides the framework for ethical thinking and conduct, and theological reflection. For example, we might ask if our words and actions reflect and embody love of God and neighbor. We might ask if the text inspires us to love God and neighbor. This teaching about love of God and neighbor has a powerful and rich universal appeal that transcends the literary and cultural contexts of the biblical passage. In his response to the scribe, Jesus finds common ground by affirming the rich heritage that has provided the foundation for his own teaching and ministry. In other words, what has a ring of universality is actually grounded in Jewish particularity. When the scribe asks Jesus to describe the most important commandment, Jesus speaks the words of a passage known in Judaism by its first words: Hear (Shema). The Shema calls Israel’s attention to the allegiance and complete commitment that is due to God alone. “Our life is to be like a river, not a reservoir.”—Unknown

“Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Mark proceeds with the understanding that this creed calls forth absolute devotion, obedience, and commitment from the heart, soul, mind, and strength. Mark’s Gospel theme of love differs from John. In Mark, the focus of love comes at a critical moment in the life and ministry of Jesus. His ministry is now centered in Jerusalem, and he has set himself against the temple cults. He has overturned the tables and driven people out of the temple, engaged the religious leaders in debate which angers them and their wanting to arrest him. In this context, Jesus speaks words whose very particular demands are foundational to the faith.

A pig and a chicken were walking through a poor section of the city. The chicken said to the pig, “Look at all these hungry people. Let’s give them ham and eggs for breakfast.” The pig said, “Wait a minute. For you, it’s a donation. For me, it’s a sacrifice.” Indeed… is both a donation and a sacrifice! Amen.

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