Not Far from the Kingdom

Not Far from the Kingdom

Ruth 1: 1-18———-Mark 12: 28-34———-23rd Sunday after Pentecost

October 31, 2021———-Rev. Patrick Mecham

Several years ago, I went to see a movie called “The Green Mile,” based on a book by Stephen King.  Except for one horrific scene, it was an excellent film.  The story line was full of Gospel messages and truths about selflessness and healing and judgment.  I had always thought of the author as some “wacko” who excelled at writing horror stories.  But, at the end of the film, I discovered a newfound respect for Stephen King, and I said to myself, “This man is not far from the Kingdom!”  Anyone who could write so powerfully and express so eloquently these Gospel themes must be close to the Kingdom—has to have some understanding of how the Kingdom works!

I’ve said before that we are not in the business of determining who is and who is NOT in God’s Kingdom—but our texts for today talk very clearly about two people who could very well be considered “outsiders.”  They are people who showed remarkable faith and insight, and they illustrate the fact that we might draw a line and exclude people, but God draws a line that includes many of us who are “unlikely candidates” for membership in the Kingdom!

Our texts challenge us to see people in the light of how God sees them—who they are and who they may yet become.  After all, God is in the metamorphosis business!

I’ll start with a woman from Moab, a woman named Ruth.

Ruth the Moabite

Moab was a kingdom directly east of Judah.  It was a poly-theistic culture, not monotheistic (like Judaism).  During the time of the Judges, a Jewish family moved to Moab because of a famine in Judah.  The father died, leaving Naomi with her two sons, who took women of Moab as brides.  But the sons also died, leaving Naomi with two daughters-in-law.  By this time, the famine had ended, and Naomi wanted to go back to Judah.  She told her daughters-in-law to return to their mothers and find new husbands.  But one of them, Ruth, clung to Naomi, and begged her to let her go with her.  “Wherever you go, I will go.  Wherever you lodge, I will lodge.  Your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God!”  (We don’t have details, but it sounds as though Ruth was ready to give up the polytheism of Moab and embrace the God of Israel—becoming an Israelite.) 

Next week, we will see the part that Ruth played in The Big Story of our faith.  (Here’s a hint: she became an ancestor of David—and of Jesus!)

Ruth’s story is that of an outsider becoming an INSIDER—an extreme insider!  We could sum up her statement of faith like this: There is only one God, the God of Israel; I want to be one of those who worship this One God.  Ruth’s faith “in a nutshell.”

Our Faith in a Nutshell!

Sometimes we are asked to “sum up our faith”—put it in a nutshell.  No one has time for lengthy conversations that would reveal a person’s faith—so we want them to state it succinctly.  When I am asked to do this with Presbyterian belief, I say something like this: “There is one God in the universe; that God created us, loves us, sent His Son Jesus to save us from our sins by dying on the cross; God is with us today through the Holy Spirit.”

In our Gospel reading today, a scribe asked Jesus to sum up his faith with the question, “Which commandment is the first of all?”

Jesus answered with what is known as “The Great Shema”:

“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.”

  • Worship in the synagogue always begins with this defining statement;
  • It is so central, so important, that it is contained in phylacteries—little leather boxes which the devout Jew wore on his forehead and on his wrist when he was at prayer;
  • The same text is encapsulated in every Mezuzah, a little cylindrical container affixed to the doorpost of every Jewish home.
  • It is saying that you should love God with your whole being, and it is utterly familiar to every Jew.

But Jesus quickly followed it up with another commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  The scribe did not ask for the “second commandment” (which we find in Leviticus 19:18)—he just got a bonus answer!  Jesus was the first to combine these two principles as most important.  He says there is no commandment greater than these!

Now, in Luke’s account of this exchange, the scribe then asked, “But who is my neighbor?”  This led to the telling of the parable of The Good Samaritan to illustrate what it means to love one’s neighbor.

You see, for Jesus, religion meant LOVING GOD, LOVING PEOPLE.

It’s very simple, isn’t it?  Simple, yes.  Easy, NO.  But anything else we proclaim in the name of our faith all needs to eventually serve these two principles—loving God, loving people.

Love God AND Neighbor

I am sure you have noticed that Christians don’t agree about everything.  Right?  We Presbyterians hold a few things as CENTRAL—and then we agree to disagree about a good many things.  The Disciples were also a varied and unlikely group—they were NOT homogeneous.  Some were Zealots—people who wanted to shake off the Roman oppressors and establish Israel as a theocracy—to have no king but God.  Matthew was a former tax collector, one who worked for the Romans!  The fishermen were a bunch of working stiffs without a lot of education. And Judas was a well-educated man who was an ideological follower of the Messiah.  This collection of highly-different individuals found unity in following Christ.  They had their differences, yes—but those differences faded into the background in the presence of the Messiah.

Now, today, we could divide Christians into two main groups (and it is a huge over-simplification).  There are Evangelicals, and there are Christians whose primary focus is Social Justice.

The Evangelicals focus on having a personal relationship with God, professing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and they see the solutions to the world’s problems from a spiritual point of view.  “If the world is evangelized for Christ, then all would be well.”

The Social Justice Christians see a more physical answer to the world’s needs.  They ask, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”  They see the solutions to the world’s problems in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned.”

So which group is correct?  The ones who believe in a spiritual answer, or the ones who believe in a physical answer?

Which group would Jesus align himself with?

Well, for Jesus the answer is BOTH/AND!  I believe that Jesus would say that if I am most comfortable with one aspect of the faith, it’s time to explore ways to grow in the other aspect!

Let me finish with this thought.  Friends, Jesus offers us an invitation.  He says, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.  You have come so far!  Will you come further in and accept MY way of things?”  Oh, sure, there are so many things that we don’t understand yet, but we hope to!

I am comforted by a poem by B. M. Franklin called “The Weaver.”  Here’s how it goes:

My life is but a weaving between my Lord and me.  I cannot choose the colors He weaves so steadily. 

Oft times He weaveth sorrow and I in foolish pride, forget He sees the upper, and I the underside.

Not till the loom is silent and the shuttles cease to fly, will God roll back the canvas and explain the reason why,

The dark threads are as needful in the Weaver’s skillful hand as the threads of gold and silver in the pattern He has planned.