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31st October 2021

Growing Loyalty

Passage: Ruth 1;1-17


The boy stood on the burning deck whence all but he had fled.… famous poem by Mrs Hemans about the boy who remains loyal and obedient to his father’s command to stay where you are even in the face of death. I have heard three basic reactions to this poem. 1-what a brave, noble, loyal young man. 2-what a prat. And 3- rather rude alternative versions of the poem, which I am not going to repeat.

Loyalty, like all virtues, can be complex. We train our children in loyalty to family and friends, school and sports club, workplace, neighbourhood, nation because we know the value of community and of the need for structures which will hold us loyal to that community, even when life gets chaotic. But, as we are not programmed robots, we hope that, in time, our children will decide for themselves that family and community are deserving of loyalty; that their loyalty will be given without pressure; and that they will be able to make their own choice as to whether loyalty involves standing on a burning deck because your father told you to…..

The story of Ruth is set in turbulent times in Israelite history. There was little national unity, no international co-operation and-as we heard- frequent food shortages. Not the best of times to live but there were social systems set up to protect the vulnerable. Men of a family were expected to provide for their female and elderly relations.
Loyalty, then, was in the system but the story of Ruth is a tale of loyalty going beyond the system. Nothing was said about daughters in law being required to care for mothers in law or of foreign women providing for Israelites. Even Boaz, who was kind to Ruth and Naomi, was under no legal obligation because he was not the nearest male relative. There was another who was closer but who did not come forward. This is a tale of spontaneous rather than obligatory loyalty, which makes it both a heartening and a very powerful story.

It is heartening in the way that any tale of human kindness in a time of trouble warms our hearts. Ruth, Naomi and Boaz were living in a society which was hugely racist, appallingly sexist, constantly on the edge of war, threatening to collapse into anarchy, living in fear of famine- all reasons to behave selfishly or destructively- yet they chose to be kind.
I hope that in our time of reflection, you were able to think of some kindness which warmed your heart during a dark time.

Humanity can be truly great. The story of Ruth is just one of thousands of tales demonstrating that loyalty is a virtue which, whilst supporting the communities already in our lives, can also take us far beyond them. You can be loyal to your own country yet also loyal to your own basic humanity by being kind to those of other races. You can be loyal to your family but also loyal to those members of the human family who have no-one to care for them. And when loyalty to your own family or nation demands that you become cruel, prejudiced, or dismissive of those outside these circles, you can notice, and you can choose to override a loyalty which has become destructive.

For loyalty is a complex virtue. It can become a blind obedience to constricting relationships, which then makes it very dangerous. But, if expanded into loyalty to humanity as whole, including our own humanity, it can move mountains of hatred, fear, prejudice, guilt and revenge. That has to be good news.

Ruth, remember, had nothing. She had lost her husband, she had left her own family, she had gone to live in a foreign land with a woman who also had nothing. But Ruth could still offer loyalty, demonstrating that no-one is ever so destitute or so vulnerable that they cannot be kind. This goes a long way to restoring our faith in ourselves and in the human race. So yes, it is a heartening story.

But more than this, it contains a powerful message about the nature of God himself. Tucked in at the end of the book is a short genealogy, stating that the child of Ruth and Boaz was named Obed. And Obed was the father of Jesse who was the father of David, that is King David, remembered and revered as the greatest and most godly King Israel ever had.
Fast forward to the start of the Gospel of Matthew and you find another genealogy, including Ruth, Boaz, their line to King David, then a direct line of descent from David to Jesus Christ.

So what? Well, given that, in Jewish tradition, it was your race (being born a Jew) which made you a child of God, deserving of God’s loyalty, these genealogies are saying something different. Ruth gained her part in God’s kingdom through her loyal, self-sacrificing love, not through her birth. Which surely means that love and loyalty are the nature of God himself coming alive in us, no matter what our race or culture.
This is confirmed by Jesus Christ being included in that family tree. We call Jesus the “Son of God,” the fullness of God himself in a human life. And not only is he shown to be physically descended from Ruth and Boaz but his whole life and ministry were about proving to us the loving, loyal, self-sacrificing nature of God. It all fits together.

Love was and always will be the supreme redeeming power in a dark and difficult life. We all get things wrong. We all suffer from living in a world which can be cruel. We are all in danger of getting sucked into ways that are destructive. And only love, love that never gives up, love that goes far beyond the call of duty, can ultimately save us. Which is why Jesus gave up his life to redeem us from darkness and destruction; to reconcile us to the God whom we frequently abandon but who never abandons us; to the God whose loyalty is not bounded by rules or dependent on our reciprocation but is everlasting. This is the God we worship and the faith we proclaim. It is not just about kindness but about our ultimate salvation.

What does that mean then, for us, right now, where we are?
I spoke of how we train our children in loyalty because we believe, quite rightly, in community. But loyalty is not always easy to maintain when you are living through difficult times and you are in danger of losing your trust in life, in others and in yourself. I mean, right now when we look at the future, we can feel terrified. What is going to happen to the world? To the UK? To the NHS? To the church? To us? We are in such a mess.
And, as I see it, it is only a belief in our ultimate redemption that will enable loyalty to grow.
Serious mental health issues, post-traumatic stress, violence and abuse are stirred up by a loss of belief in redemption. Feeling that there is no hope for the world or for the human race. Both our bodies and our minds crumple at the prospect and we just do not want to know.

But if we believe in loyalty as the essential nature of God rather than simply as a virtue which we may or may not be able to create in ourselves, then we do not lose hope. We maintain our loyalties to family, church, nation, world, humanity because we trust that our loyalty will count for something in the end.

It is noticeable that neither Ruth nor Boaz nor Naomi deliberately set out to make history. They simply saw an opportunity to show love and loyalty; took that opportunity, believing that it was the right thing to do and the rest, as they say, is history. When Jesus was asked about the law, (and that law at the time had 613 individual statutes- most of them perfectly good) he pointed out that in the end it is all about love: love for God, love for each other, love for yourself. Hold onto that and, even in a difficult and complex situation, and everything else will fall into place, including the strength to make it happen.

It is the 31st October and I have not mentioned Halloween…. We don’t celebrate it in the Christian church, do we, but we do sometimes celebrate the Festival of All Saints, which is tomorrow, 1st November.

I accept that there is a lot about Halloween which is humorous and harmless enough but, to me, it is ultimately highlighting darkness, destruction and death. It is all about that which terrifies and deceives us. There is no hope in the festival of Halloween.

Whereas the festival of All Saints is about hope: hope that there is light stronger than darkness, life stronger than death and love which can redeem our lives and our world. It is a celebration of lives which remained loyal to God and to faith no matter what happened. It is about what the Bible calls that “great cloud of witnesses” to God’s loyalty, and who now remain loyal to God’s people here, to inspire and strengthen us as we move forward into the unknown. And that to me is well worth celebrating….
So, in this hope, let us remain loyal to God, loyal to one another and loyal to God’s kingdom in our world.