Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23, Year C)

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on October 14, 2007. 
Based on Ruth 1, Luke 17:11-19 (Proper 23, Year C).

“Wherever you go, I will go.” Ruth’s well-known words to Naomi epitomize loyalty. And not just a perfunctory, dutiful loyalty but a loyalty born of love and steadfast faithfulness. “Wherever you go, I will go.” A loyalty that transcended legal or cultural bounds. Ruth had absolutely no obligations to her mother-in-law. There was no expectation that she’d leave her own country to follow Naomi back to her own. But she does. And her selfless devotion remains an inspiration. “Wherever you go, I will go. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

Such unadulterated loyalty can’t help but beg the question, where do our own loyalties lie? My own loyalties run the gamut. From sports teams to hobbies to family to church. One quick test of your loyalties might be to check the “My Favorites” section on your computer. I’ve got links to the Baltimore Orioles and Ravens; the New York Road Runners Club; a bunch of church sites including the Daily Office online. I’ve got a few daily newspapers, some humor sites, mapquest, Travelocity.com – though since I don’t get out much, that’s more wishful thinking than anything else.

But there’s a difference between hobbies and interests and loyalties. We run into trouble when our primary loyalty is not to God. Everything else is a potential distraction that draws us from the love of God. That doesn’t mean that the online Bible should be the only link in your “My Favorites” section. But when our primary loyalty is to God, every other interest in our lives gains meaning and perspective. When our things or hobbies don’t become idols, we’re better able to enjoy them and see them as the gifts in our lives that they truly are.

This week we’ve been inundated with rummage. Thanks to the efforts of the cleanup crew, you wouldn’t know it. But I was certainly struck by how many of us are devoted to our stuff. Even when we’re getting rid of it – we brought over two minivan loads full – we’re constantly in the process of replenishing our supplies. My personal rummage philosophy is that the outtake must be greater than the intake. We fit the criteria this year
(only by keeping a tight rein on the boys).

“Wherever you go, I will go.” An important message in these words occurs when we turn them around. Because these words of loyalty and faithfulness and love are also spoken by God to us. Wherever we go, God will indeed go too. It’s the incarnational promise of Jesus Christ, that he will be with us even to the end of the ages. Whether we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” or “walk with the saints in light” or travel on a road somewhere in between, God himself is with us. God will never forsake us or deny us or abandon us. And the story of Ruth and Naomi gives us a human glimpse into the steadfast love of God’s abiding presence.

“Wherever you go, I will go.” If we further turn this question around, it comes right back to us. The question becomes whether we will go and do likewise. Will we go wherever God goes? Will we, like Ruth, remain loyal and steadfast in our faith or will we, like Orpah, turn away and turn back. There are plenty of compelling reasons to turn away; there are plenty of lame reasons to turn away. Following Christ is hard work; to use the journeying metaphor, it’s a lot easier to stay in one place than to travel. Inertia is a powerful force; so is apathy and indifference. It would have been easier for Ruth to stay in Moab amid familiar surroundings. But she doesn’t. Her loyalty drives her actions just as our loyalty to God hopefully inspires our own.

And this is a way of living a life of thanksgiving. Which is precisely what the gospel lesson this morning is about. Jesus heals 10 lepers and only one returns to offer his gratitude. In the euphoria of our blessings we often forget to give thanks to God. The lesson here isn’t about simply being polite. The power of the gospel goes beyond learning to say please and thank you. The church isn’t a “finishing school.” Sure these other nine lepers could have used some manners. If they were ungrateful over being healed of leprosy I doubt they’d have thanked a neighbor for lending them a hammer. But it’s about living life with a grateful heart in things large and small.

You could argue that they were so overwhelmed with joy that they simply forgot to return and give thanks. And of course Jesus didn’t heal them in order to be thanked. Which is why thanks freely offered is such a powerful response to God’s mercy and grace. God doesn’t sit around waiting for us to send thank you notes. Genuine gratefulness is for us, not for God. It gives us perspective on life.

God’s love doesn’t come with strings attached. And that’s hard for us to comprehend because so rarely is this the case with human love. God doesn’t engage in some sort of spiritual quid pro quo. “I’ll love you if you go to church every Sunday, teach Sunday School, and tithe your income.” Now these things may well draw you into a deeper relationship with God but there are no requirements to gain God’s love. It is freely offered.

So in a sense there was no requirement that these nine healed lepers return to Jesus and give their thanks. The healing wasn’t conditional on saying thank you. They walked away healed, even though they walked away. But by walking away they weren’t able to access the deep well of faith, they merely sipped from the surface. It this was their loss, not God’s.

“Wherever you go, I will go.” God promises to be in our midst. The only possible response is to accept this love with truly thankful hearts.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2007

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