Sunday, November 8, 2009

Loyalty

(Read Ruth 1:1-18)

When Elimelech and his sons die, Naomi is left with practically nothing. Her husband and her sons were her security, her protection, her fortune. I say practically nothing because she was left with two daughter-in-laws. But really, that’s just added pressure. Now, there are three women who are lacking security, protection and fortune. That’s how it was in those days.

Naomi decides to head back to Judah, where she is from, but she encourages her daughter-in-laws, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house…The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband” (Ruth 1:8-9). Naomi is telling them to return home and find new husbands to take care of them. Orpah wants this for herself, and she returns to her mother’s house in Moab. Ruth, on the other hand, chooses to remain with Naomi. She puts Naomi’s well-being before her own. Or maybe Ruth believes that her well-being is intertwined with Naomi’s well-being.

For the moment anyway, the truth is, Naomi is not doing well at all. She could use Ruth’s support. Naomi feels abandoned by her husband, her sons and God. “It has been far more bitter for me than for you,” she says, “because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.”

I have great compassion for Naomi. The word "compassion" means to suffer with. Think of her heart-break. She is a widow. She has lost not one, but two children. She is living in a foreign land.

As I was thinking about Naomi’s suffering and trying to enter into her story, I couldn’t help but think of so many others who are suffering right now. The families of the 13 victims who were killed at Fort Hood. My friend’s mother who has lung cancer, and to make matters worse, fell and fractured her hip a few days ago. Now, she has to have surgery. All the adults, and especially the children, who have swine flu and are in the hospital.

People are sick, not just in body, but also in mind and heart and spirit. You have to be sick somehow to go on a shooting spree and hurt so many people.

Just think about our church family, and how many people need prayer, and for all the different reasons. The world needs a lot of love and healing right now. What can we do? How can we love and heal each other?

I think Ruth shows us a way that we can make a difference in each other’s lives. Those of us who are healthy and well need to stick by those of us who are hurting and sick. May a renewed sense of loyalty rise up among God's people.

Lately, I have been talking a lot about your future, saying things like: God has a plan for you, a vision for your life. Continually you are being encouraged, invited to join together with God in the process of your own healing and transformation so that you will mature spiritually and spread the love and light of Christ in this world.

Today, in light of Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi, I would like to suggest that the unfolding of your future is intertwined with the unfolding of someone else’s future. It could be a friend or a total stranger. Most likely, it’s a member of your family. Whomever it is, consider that what your life might be about right now is helping someone else get through their life.

Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends” (John 15:13). To lay down one’s life for another could be referring to a soldier in the war or a martyr in the faith. Or it could be referring to you putting yourself second for someone that you love. It could mean scrapping your individual agenda and sticking with someone who needs someone to stick with them. That someone could be you. Greater love has no one than this, than to set aside your own life for your friend’s life.

It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s certainly not always fun for you, but it could mean all the difference in the world to someone who is suffering. And that is noble and a reason to live.

I know a woman named Beth with a great personality, filled with vim and vigor, filled with Spirit. She worked very hard in her life to become a principal at a school. Many years ago she was diagnosed with MS. She remained active and worked for a couple of years, but now she is to the point that she can’t leave the house very often and the wheel chair almost never. She struggles with a sense of purpose and feels isolated from the world.

But she’s got two things going for her that make life better, that make life worth living. A Yorkshire terrier named Tabitha with golden ears and a black button nose who doesn’t leave her side, and a husband named Peter who has become her companion and friend. As Beth tells the story, Peter wasn’t always her companion and friend. Earlier in their marriage, work, fishing and baseball were his priorities. But since Beth’s illness has progressed, Peter has taken an increasing interest in her as a person and in their relationship. They love to play Risk together, of all games. They rented and watched every movie that has won the Academy Award for Best Picture starting with the first, Wings, in 1927 all the way to Slumdog Millionaire in 2008.

Peter gets weary sometimes. He wishes they could travel more. He worries about Beth falling when she transfers. But he also knows that he’s not the one living with MS. He’s not the one who can’t walk anymore and whose mind gets fuzzy from the medications. In fact, Peter took up hiking as a way to thank God that his legs still work.

I respect Peter. I am proud of what he is doing with and for his wife. Not all husbands would. Not all wives or sons or daughters would.

In the Bible story we heard today, I respect Ruth as well. Even with uncertainty before her, even with a long life yet ahead of her, Ruth sticks with Naomi who is in a really difficult situation. She is loyal, faithful, steadfast. When Naomi tells Ruth to go her own way, Ruth says, “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” (Ruth 1:16-17).

What powerful words. What devotion.

I have never been in a dire situation like Beth’s or Naomi’s, but I have been through some rough times, and I know what it’s like to have people be there for me. It’s the most loving, comforting, reassuring feeling in the world. And I know that if I lost it all, my health, my direction, my financial security, my employment—there are people who would be there for me no matter what, who would pick me up if I fall, feed me if I’m hungry, house me if I’m homeless, cheer me on if I’m depressed.

I am incredibly grateful for those people in my life.

I pray that you have such people in your life.

And on top of that, I pray that we can be that person for someone else. That we can be the loyal ones, that we can be the ones to sacrifice our life for a period of time in order to make someone else’s life better.

When I was looking up the definition of the term loyal, the word faithful kept coming up. And so the last thing I want to say is that, no matter what side we are on, whether we need help or if we are giving help, we all can rely and get strength from a faithful God.

The testimony to God that is the Hebrew Scriptures uses the words “steadfast love” and “faithfulness” in reference to God upwards of 150 times. Whatever we go through, we know that God is on our side, bearing our pain with us, picking us up when we fall, carrying us when we cannot walk.

May we all rely upon the One who is eternally loyal, eternally faithful to us.
And may we be a reflection of the faithful One, laying down our lives for one another
in this world.

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