Walking in Love

Walking in Love (A Sermon for Proper 26B – 2021)
St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church (Keller, Texas)
Ruth 1:1-18
Mark 12:28-34
October 31, 2021

Our lectionary this week offers us two stories about love.

In our Gospel, a scribe comes to Jesus and asks, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus responds with an answer we church folks know so well…”to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.”

In the story, the scribe agrees, and elaborates on Jesus’s answer with a surprising insight of his own: to love God and neighbor is “much more important than whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

In other words, love is more important than piety, ritual, tradition, or penance. Love is more important than religion.

When Jesus hears the scribe’s wise words, he says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Everyone listening in on the conversation falls silent, not daring to ask Jesus another question.

Jesus declared that his way of love required everything…heart, mind, soul, and strength.

It’s easy for us to think that loving God and neighbor means expressing friendly sentiments to God in Sunday worship, and exchanging warm pleasantries with the people who live near us during the week.

We forget that in Scripture, the call to love is a call to vulnerability, sacrifice, and suffering.

It’s a call to bear a cross and lay down our lives.

Biblical love is not an emotion we feel, it’s a path we travel.  As the children of God, we are called to walk in love.

But what does this kind of love look like in practice?

In this week’s reading from the Hebrew Bible, a young woman named Ruth pledges to love her mother-in-law, Naomi:

“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, and there will I be buried.”

This passage from Ruth gets romanticized, and with good reason. It’s beautiful.

I remember being a teenager – who thought I knew what it meant to be in love – and praying over this verse. I just knew I could make this kind of vow to my girlfriend. I thought romance and hormones and teenage angst were what it took to make that kind of vow.

But if we consider the context, we have to remember that Ruth’s vow to Naomi is not the vow of teenage love. It’s not the pledge that two people make when their love is new, hopeful, and full of promise.

It is the vow of one grief-stricken, traumatized, and profoundly vulnerable woman to another.

As the story of Ruth begins, Naomi and her two daughters in law, Orpah and Ruth, have lost their husbands. Naomi is a widow in a culture with no safety net. Naomi is a foreigner in a culture hostile to outsiders. She is a woman who has given up, a woman so overcome with grief that she literally renames herself.

She tells her neighbors to stop calling her Naomi (which means pleasant), and instead call her Mara (meaning bitter), for “the Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.”

Naomi knew that her daughters-in-law would be better off if they left her behind, so she told them to go.

One daughter-in-law left, but one stayed with Naomi.

Ruth stayed with Naomi.

Ruth’s vow, then, is a vow of tenacity, fortitude, and sacrificial loyalty.

She knows that leaving Moab with her mother-in-law and traveling to Judah will make her an unwelcome foreigner in a culture that has a history of expelling foreign women as dangerous. She knows that money will be scarce, her prospects for remarriage uncertain, and any future reunion with her birth family unlikely.

She knows that sticking with Naomi will require a reordering of her life. 

And yet she puts her legitimate worries, losses, and fears aside, and vows to walk in love with  Naomi through the hard times to come.

When Ruth pledges to remain with Naomi, she knows that the journey won’t be easy. It will be jagged. It will be unfamiliar. It will be costly.

And yet, as we know from the end of Ruth and Naomi’s story, it will also be the path that leads to healing, redemption, joy, and new life.

We’re called to walk the same way of love…a way that can be jagged…unfamiliar…costly.

We’re called to love when it’s hard.

We’re called to love when it might cost us something.

We’re called to love when we don’t know how the journey will look.

We’re called to love, period.

And that way of love leads us to healing, redemption, joy, and new life.