A sermon preached at the First Church UCC, Middletown, CT on October 31, 2021
–back in the day – a family emigrated from Bethlehem in Judea to Moab, looking for a place to live with adequate food. They settled there, and their sons married there – married women who were not Jews. In the course of time, all the men in the family died, and the surviving mother decided to go back home to Bethlehem, as the famine there was over.
When she announced her plan to leave, she told her daughters-in-law they were free to leave and return to their family homes and their family gods. That’s where we’ll pick up the story:
Then [Naomi] started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab. . . . [and] Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.”
But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said,
“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!
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.
May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”
When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that [Jesus] answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
It’s said that it was October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses – a polemic against the sale of indulgences – on the front door of the cathedral in Wittenburg, Saxony. It’s been a long time, some of the details are fuzzy, but the central premise of his complaint was clear. He thought – and worse said – and even worse said it publicly — that it selling promises to get out of purgatory was no more than a scam to finance the building of St Peter’s in Rome.
Five hundred and four years ago. Over all that time, it seems to me that we’ve mostly thought of the Reformation as something historical, which it is, and something which happened a long long time ago, and it did. We’ve also pictured it as something like us against the Roman Catholic Church, and that’s not so fully accurate.
That’s what I want us to look at today, because while history is important, it’s all too easy to think that when we know dates and actions, we know everything there is to know. But the Reformation wasn’t really about one day in October; it was about re-thinking everything about what it meant (and means) to be a Christian.
It was the opening of a centuries-long conversation about whether there is one right way to be what we are.
And while the conversation over the centuries has looked like it was Protestant versus Catholic, I think if we look more closely, we’ll see that however true that was in the sixteenth century, in the twenty-first, it is much more clearly a conversation between those who are committed to one right way, and those who believe there is more than one right way.
The question then, the question now, is how can we hold together our human desire for similarity with our human recognition of the need for diversity?
This isn’t just about relations between the various flavors of Christianity. We can see the same questions in our internal conversations here in the church; we can see it happening in our homes, in our families. How do we balance things out?
First, though, let’s look again at the Scripture readings for today. We opened with the wonderful story of Naomi and Ruth…. and Orpah. Orpah went home and was not condemned. Ruth stayed with Naomi, and has been praised for that – but let’s not forget that Orpah returned to her family. There was more than one right answer to the dilemma of staying or going. Ruth’s choice brought her into the continuing story and she is known as King David’s great-grandmother.
There are many things to be taken from the story of Ruth, and the first of them is that there is more than one right way.
The lesson from Mark takes us in another direction. It tells us upon what foundation we can build our unity. If there’s more than one right way to live out our lives, how can we hold together? A scribe (think: bureaucrat, niggler, one of those fill-in=all-the-boxes folks) …a scribe thinks to nail Jesus by asking him which commandment is most important. And Jesus’ answer names our truth: the most important thing, he says is to love God, and right next to that is the call to love your neighbor.
There you go. Love God; love your neighbor. Let Jesus’ call to center on those things help you to sift out the important from the extra added stuff. Church being what it is, you’ll be glad to know we have a special, obscure name for extra added stuff…. it’s adiaphora, which is Greek for something that doesn’t matter.
Following Jesus is important; whether the pastor or anyone else wears a pulpit robe is adiaphora.
Feeding the hungry is an obligation; whether we give them food, or money to go to a restaurant, or groceries, is adiaphora… not because we don’t care how they’re fed, but because feeding is feeding. One church has a free meal in their hall – great. We got folks lunch from local restaurants – also great. Neither way is better than the other.
The question is, is it important in the eyes of God? Years ago, I pastored a church that was redecorating their reception room. And, of course, we were of two camps when it came to the carpet. Would it be a lovely soft gray with flecks of maroon? Or a lovely maroon with flecks of gray? Would we match the wall color or contrast it? As I remember, we chose the gray to make the room seem bigger… but whichever we chose, I am absolutely certain God did not care, not one bit. What God cared about was that that church welcomed the stranger to the newly decorated room. and that when the teen-ager tripped and fell, and dropped a full platter of ham slices on the new carpet…. we didn’t up and throw him out. Carpets are adiaphora.
We love God; God cares that because we love God, we love our neighbor.
God calls us to center our ministries upon that foundation – love of God, love of neighbor. And to put the rest – all the details in proper perspective.
© 2021, Virginia H. Child