Naomi said, “Turn back my daughters, why will you go with me?”  But Ruth clung to her.  “Do not press me to leave you, or to turn back from following you.  Where you go, I will go… Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried.” -Ruth 1: 11, 16-17

One of the scribes came near… and seeing that Jesus answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”  -Mark 12: 28

And Jesus answered the man, saying, “‘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.’  And the second command is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’   There is no commandment greater than these.”

It’s a familiar passage, isn’t it?  I would bet that a lot of you know this one already.  There’s a problem with familiarity, though, as we’ve explored before.  You get to the point where you know something so well that you can say it without thinking too hard, and you lose the sense of the words.  To the point where they can almost seem just a little bit cliché.  The problem with stories and passages like this one – or like Ruth and Naomi – is that they have lives of their own, whether or not we recognize it.  And so we don’t always really hear them, and what we do hear is colored deeply by centuries of tradition; by our own experiences.  By a Christianity that is mainstream, possibly habitual, that is part of our culture and therefore, to some extent, stripped of its power.  It is a Christianity that has been tempered over centuries by a myriad of other forces.

And so we hear, “love”, but receive it not as a thunderclap, not as a lightning bolt coming down among us, but as a sort of nebulous, nice, cozy, warm-and-fuzzy idea.  It’s not earth-shattering, it’s love.  It’s not revolutionary, it’s just love.  We all love, we all have love in our lives and it really doesn’t disrupt much, does it?  Which makes it hard, sometimes, to remember just how disruptive love really can be.

And they you read about Ruth.

You read about love that is, in fact, earth-shattering.  You read about love that is, actually, disruptive.  Because when you read about Ruth, you read about the powerful connection that binds Ruth to Naomi.  That makes Ruth follow Naomi despite everything, and at great cost to herself.  Because although I am sure that Naomi was a really good mother in law – I don’t see this story working otherwise – but no matter how good she was, this still seems a rather disproportionate return on whatever kindness Naomi had shown to Ruth.  Ruth, here, is not choosing the sensible route for the widow to take.  She’s a widow.  She’s nobody.  She’s totally unprotected, totally defenseless.  She doesn’t know where her next meal is going to come from, she has no one to provide for her.  Do we have any sense, in this time – in this age – what Ruth was giving up by not returning to the house of her mother, not looking for another husband, but choosing rather to live in singleness, as Naomi had been forced to?  Choosing to live in solidarity with another widow even more defenseless, even more helpless, because she wasn’t going to find a husband?  Ruth is making a choice that will leave her in a state of helplessness.  She is making a choice that will leave her dependent upon the kindness of strangers.  All to repay kindness.

Would we do as much? Would we repay kindness with this level of devotion?  Or would we count the cost?  The cost in security, in return on investment, in potential stress level, in the myriad of what-ifs that you know Ruth would be asking herself every single day?

I have one of those, too: What if we turned the equation around?  Because the sensible course isn’t always the loving course.  Maybe the question to be asked here is what might be the cost of not loving?

We forget, as we read these familiar passages,  the revolutionary, the extravagant nature of these so-familiar stories and words.  Just, in fact, as we forget that there are other ways to measure.

Cost can be financial.  And yes, it is often the simplest measure of what we can and can’t afford.  Open your wallet: is there enough there, or not?  But it’s become such a standard of measure that the bottom line becomes more important than this greatest commandment, this one that Jesus held up.  The bottom line becomes more important than our shared humanity.  The simplest measure becomes the common measure.

You hear it every day now, the financial arguments that surround us each and every day.  The most recent example, of course, would be Hurricane Sandy.  People talk about it in numbers, every time I turn on the radio or the TV.  Sixty billion dollars in damage: it’s mind-blowing.  This huge hit to our economy – incalculable, although they’re trying.  What do you do when Wall Street is forced to shut down for days?  When the most densely-populated city in our nation is out of commission?

It’s the simplest measure.

And I think we talk this way because it’s tangible.  You can hang on to those numbers, you can calculate them, you can crunch them, you can manipulate them, you can have fun with them.  It gets rid of all the touchy-feely stuff that you have to deal with if you actually take a good, hard look at what happened.  There’s something really comforting in having that tangibility.

It’s the simplest measure.  But in this case, it isn’t simple, it’s simplistic.

Because what amount of money can bring back memory?  What amount of money can bring  back security to those who just lost their homes?  What amount of money can bring them comfort?  What cost – what value would we describe to the nurses at NYU or Bellevue who evacuated their patients one by one, off to other hospitals?  Who walked them out to the ambulances, often having to manually breathe for them, to “bag them”?  What is the value that we would ascribe to that act?  What is the value that we would give to the hundreds of volunteers who are already on the ground in the affected areas?  How do you assign a value to the Mayor of Newark who drove around, before and during the storm?  He drove around his poverty-ridden city, to all the places where he knew the homeless congregated, and talked to them one at a time, and persuaded them to seek shelter?

We can’t assign a monetary value to this standard.  You have to turn it around.  What would it have cost to those who gave, and to those who received; what would it have cost not to act?

What would it cost us?

What would it cost us to let slip the ties that bind us together in common humanity, in covenant and community?

What would it cost us – what does it cost us, every day – to see human beings simply as economic drivers?  To see some of them as costing too much?

What does it cost to calculate a person’s worth by how much he or she makes, or how much he or she costs the system?

What does that cost?  and how do you assign those values?

I’m not against money, don’t get me wrong.  And I’m not going to say that money isn’t what the Red Cross is requesting.  But maybe, how we calculate what we can and cannot afford shouldn’t include crunching numbers.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.  I’m used to hearing this as a lead in to the parable of the Good Samaritan.  What do you suppose it cost him to do what he did?  What do you suppose it cost him to stop for the stranger – beaten, robbed and left for dead by the side of the road?  We don’t think about that part very often.  The Good Samaritan picked up this man; he knew nothing about him except that he was lying there covered in blood.  He brought him to an inn and tended his wounds, and left him with the innkeeper, with payment enough to get him through a couple days and the promise of more: however much more it might cost.  How many of us could afford such a promise?  If you saw someone lying beaten and bloody by the side of the road, could you take them up to the local Holiday Inn and say to the manager, “Alright, I’ve got him patched up, I’ve payed for a couple nights’ stay, and when I come back, I’m going to pay all of his medical bills.  Don’t you even worry about it.”

I think the Samaritan had some qualms.  I have to wonder if the Samaritan didn’t go a little hungry for the next couple days to pay for this act of generosity?  Maybe he only had crusts for dinner for days on end.  Perhaps the numbers, even for the Samaritan didn’t add up.  But perhaps the cost of not acting – of not meeting this total stranger’s most basic human needs – of not loving, was too much.

Why isn’t it too much for us?

This greatest commandment holds us.  This greatest commandment makes a claim on us.

You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your mind, and all your soul, and all your strength.  Not with all-of-yourself-after-expenses.  Not with all-of-yourself-after-you’ve-taken-care-of-that-little-thing-over-there-that-required-your-attention.  That’s not what it says, in any of the Gospels.

Love with all that you have.  Even when you’re scared, even when the numbers don’t add up, even when it’s against the prevailing wisdom and all forms of common sense as we currently understand it.

Love as the Samaritan loved the stranger: knowing nothing about him but that he was human.

Love as Ruth loved Naomi: setting aside common sense and security and coming face-to-face with the power of relationship.

Love as God loved us: taking on human flesh and paying a price greater than any we have ever paid.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.

Love. Because we cannot afford not to.