Loyalty (Sermon 4 in Series: Pathways to Personal Fulfillment)


I.

When I do an internet search about loyalty, I get more results related to dogs than to humans such as this comment from actor, Dick Van Patten:

The only honest reaction and true loyalty we get is from our animals. Once they’re your friends, you can do no wrong.

Being a serious dog lover, it will be difficult for me today to constrain myself from concentrating on canine loyalty, but I will certainly do my level best to keep the loyalty about which I want us to think centered on humans.  I’ll begin with something Ann Landers wrote–and, by the way, Dr. Phil on his best day will never give advice as sound and practical as Ann Landers’ advice.

Love is friendship that has caught fire. It is quiet understanding, mutual confidence, sharing and forgiving. It is loyalty through good and bad times. It settles for less than perfection and makes allowances for human weaknesses.

Because of the strictness of most marriage vows, plenty of couples believe that one foul-up is grounds for divorce, especially if the foul-up is related to the matter of loyalty.  Indeed, loyalty is a key issue in a healthy, trusting relationship, and to tarnish it or break it altogether are serious breeches, not in any way to be taken lightly by the partner who has been disloyal or the partner who, while practicing loyalty with great care and intention, gets the news that her or his beloved has fallen short in that regard.  Some rush off to divorce court in a hot minute; others believe that responding to an act of disloyalty by saying, “I’m gonna fix this so that I don’t have to be loyal to you any more either,” is, although provoked, an act of disloyalty itself.

I hear folks bemoaning the ease of getting a divorce these days; well, that depends on where you are or where you’re willing to travel.  I didn’t find getting a divorce either easy or cheap, but, of course, I’m not bitter!  In ancient Israel, a man–not a woman–could divorce one of his several wives by speaking aloud three times, “I divorce you,” in response to any weighty failure or any little slip up.  For example, let’s say the wife whose duty it was to prepare the family meals, fell into the horrible habit of burning the breakfast pita, becoming preoccupied with other tasks and leaving the pita over the fire flat out too long.  Why should a hardworking husband have to put with such careless behavior?  Many of them didn’t.  They’d say, “I divorce you,” three times, and that formally ended the marriage; the ex-wife had to move back in with family, or, absent that option, was out on the streets.

A number of Indigenous American were matriarchal, and the women in the lead in family units could do to their husbands a Native version of what men in ancient Israel could do to their wives.  The practice in many tribes was for a wife who’d had it with her husband to leave his moccasins outside the longhouse or wigwam, and if he came home and found those moccasins waiting outside for him, he knew that the marriage was over.  The woman of the house had spoken, albeit without words, and former hubby was out; there was nothing to discuss.  Add that to your list of “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” as Simon and Garfunkel sang it:

You just slip out the back, Jack.

Make a new plan, Stan.

You don’t need to be coy, Roy.

Just get yourself free!

As you heard earlier, Ann Landers, the great advice columnist, wrote that loyalty deals with what is less than perfect.  There’s often no fun and games to confronting an expression of disloyalty; sometimes the offended party is angry, sometimes frustrated, sometimes crushed, but she or he, according to Ms. Landers, makes allowance for human weakness.

Let us not think of relational loyalty only in terms of marital or relational sexual fidelity for those who have agreed to that in the commitments they make to each other.  The traditional wedding vows, which many couples including Episcopal couples don’t realize go back to the first Book of Common Prayer in the Anglican tradition dated 1522, ask couples to promise to cleave to each other in good times and bad times with these now very familiar words.  Do you take such and so to be your wife or husband, as the case may be…

…to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part?

You have undoubtedly seen such loyalty at work many times in your life, as we have seen it work right here in Silverside Church several poignant times.  Probably for reasons of the power of love growing across the years much more than because of the vows themselves, we have seen spouses sticking with their beloved in the worst situations of declining health imaginable.  Nita Balderston’s Dad, Dr. Bill Pritchard, was a saint, a hero, and an example in that regard.  His loyalty to his wife over years of her struggles of completely debilitating illnesses was astounding to behold; yet for him, soft-spoken gentleman that he is, he was only doing what love led him to do.  The love that Bill and Kathy shared is a story that needs to be told far and wide–not to praise Bill, for indeed that is not the reward he sought in his extraordinary attentiveness to Kathy, but to teach others about the extremes to which true loyalty will take us.  Pointing out one person around here as exemplary doesn’t mean we’ve lacked others who also were heroines and heroes to their spouses and partners when the going got as bad as the going can get.

I’m not sure when I preside over an exchange of vows at a wedding these days that the couple gets what they are vowing to each other with the words they say to each other, whether I or they prepared the vows.  Not so many couples whom I marry these days choose the old Anglican vows, but many of the modern variations say nearly the same thing:  “I will never leave you or forsake you regardless of how tough the going gets.  When you are at your worst or most helpless point, I will remain by your side, and when you can’t do what you once were able to do, my love for you will be as strong as ever.”  Again, I’m often uncertain of the degree to which some couples understand such a promise.  I get the feeling that they’re promising to go to the 24 hour pharmacy at 2 am to buy some Thera-flu and ginger ale for a sick spouse two or three times in a lifetime if that’s absolutely necessary.

I performed a lovely wedding last night at the Delaware Art Museum, and the couple either wrote or borrowed the vows they asked me to preside over:

I love you. You are my best friend.
Today I give myself to you in marriage.
I promise to encourage and inspire you, to laugh with you,
and to comfort you in times of sorrow and struggle.
I promise to love you in good times and in bad,
when life seems easy and when it seems hard,
when our love is simple and when it is an effort.
I promise to cherish you and always to hold you in highest regard.
These things I give to you today and all the days of our lives.

Nice, meaningful vows.

I was moved by the vows Jenn and Dave Forgac chose for their wedding:

I choose you to be my spouse,

to be by your side through our life’s journey together.

You are my best friend.

You are my dearest love.

You are the one with whom I wish to spend my life.

I vow to you today, 

in the presence of our family and friends,

to dedicate myself to our marriage,

our friendship, and our love.

I promise to cherish, to honor, and to respect you,

to comfort and encourage you when we are healthy,

and when we must endure sickness,

when we are filled with the joy of success

and when we are burdened with sorrows.

I promise to love you without condition for all the days of my life.

This is loyalty.

 

II.

Loyalty, naturally, needs to be functional in many other areas of life beyond intimate relationships that are supposed to be committed relationships.  There are other relationships that call for our loyalty, and there are institutions, communities, and causes to which we must be loyal.

There are several powerful stories of loyalty, as well as disloyalty, in both Hebrew and Christian scripture.  A stunning story of loyalty in Hebrew scripture is the story of Ruth and Naomi.  My guess is that it’s one of the most well known of all the “big” stories in Hebrew scripture.

During the time of the Judges who ruled over the tribes of Israel before there were kings, a famine fell upon Israel and had a negative impact on all citizens in and around Bethlehem, among other places.  The writer of the book of Ruth, however, focuses on a single family in the midst of the tragedy:  wife and husband, Naomi and Elimelech, and their boys, Mahlon and Chilion.  There was no “right away” to respond to the crisis; each person had to do her or his best to care of self and family.  The Elimelech family made the decision to move temporarily, they assumed, to another country, a nearby country called Moab.

To add tragedy to tragedy, beloved husband and father Elimelech dies after which there is doubt or about whether or not the family will return to Israel.  While pondering the possibilities, the sons marry two Moabite women.  Mahlon, likely the firstborn son, marries Moabite Ruth, and the baby of the family, Chilion, marries Moabite Orpah–not to be confused with Oprah.

Famine.  Death of the beloved family patriarch, Elimelech.  Now for a third round of tragedy.  For completely unexplained reasons, both of Naomi’s sons died at the same time; we’d have to think accident or attack from someone who didn’t like Israelites.  The grief in that family was overwhelming:  three sudden widows, all childless; one of them, Naomi, a foreigner in the land where she was living.  The wails of grief and mourning often filled the night skies around where they tried to sleep.

From a pragmatic point of view, each one needed to be attached to a man to be safe and to be able to function in either Moab or Israel.  Mother-in-law, Naomi, decides that her best bet is to get back to Bethlehem where she might find a male relative who’d invite her into his household.  Naomi assumes that her widowed daughters-in-law will stay in Moab, return to their respective father’s homes, go through a decent period of mourning, and finally seek marital opportunities again with the full realization that most men who married wanted virgins.

What we presume is a scene of separation, where three women will go their separate ways, Naomi clarifies that she is going to Bethlehem, and she directs Ruth and Orpah to return to their families right there in Moab.  Orpah, though reluctantly, does what her mother-in-law tells her is best for her.  That leaves Naomi and Ruth to say their goodbyes; perhaps, there was a little more closeness between them as Ruth had been married to Naomi’s firstborn son who was the star in that culture in any lineup of offspring.   Prepared for a last goodbye hug and kiss, Naomi is shocked when Ruth refuses to take her advice as Orpah had done, and the words spoken by Ruth to Naomi in that instant have been remembered in vivid detail by Jews and later by Christians, adopting Hebrew scripture as foundational to their own.  Says Naomi’s fiercely loyal remaining daughter-in-law, Ruth:

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. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!

These powerful, though poetic, words established a life bond between the two women.  It’s confusing that Ruth’s words to her mother-in-law, Naomi, have been turned, in modern times, into a wedding song–presumably as words a bride or a groom would sing to each other.  That’s so much of a stretch it just can’t happen.  It is not a wedding song at all.  It’s a song of loyalty sung with intensity during a time of profound grief.  “I lost my father-in-law, my brother-in-law, and my husband, but I will NOT lose my mother-in-law.  Wherever you are for the rest of your life, that’s where I also will be, and one day we will meet up again the land of the dead.”

I often hear daughters-in-law and their brand new mothers-in-law expressing precisely these kinds of words and emotions to each other as soon as the wedding reception begins.  You’d be surprised at what all I do hear behind the scenes at weddings!  My lips, however, are sealed…until I write my book.

Back to ancient times.  Ruth leaves Moab behind, but not alone.  She is traveling with her mother-in-law to Bethlehem.  The two women make their way to Bethlehem.  Ruth will be the loyal daughter-in-law and friend to Naomi she says she will be.

What loyal people are you thinking of in your world, even as we have this ancient story before us?  Or what importance do you place on loyalty as a quality in your relationships?

Someone asked Harry Potter’s creator, J. K. Rowling, what she thought were the most important qualities in a friend.  She answered with two words:  “tolerance” and “loyalty.”

British writing genius G. K. Chesterton said:  “We are all in the same boat in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.”

One of the writers of the book of Proverbs collecting her or his laundry list of truisms and choice pieces of advice, right in the middle of a collection of seemingly unrelated tidbits tosses this one in:  “What is desirable in a person is loyalty.”

There’s a book titled The Soldier’s Guide, published by the U. S. Army, and it has behaviors with which soldiers have been charged over time; among those are charges to every soldier to be loyal to nation, commanding officers, and comrades in peace time and in war time.  Not favoring war, but recognizing, nonetheless, that many soldiers do put their lives on the line for the well-being of others, the following except gave me pause.

The warrior ethos concerns character, shaping who you are and what you do.  It is linked toArmy values such as personal courage, loyalty to comrades, and dedication to duty.  Both loyalty and duty involve putting your life on the line, even when there’s little chance of survival, for the good of a cause larger than yourself.  That’s the clearest example of selfless service.  Soldiers never give up on their comrades, and they never compromise on doing their duty.  Integrity underlies the character of the Army as well.  The warrior ethos requires unrelenting and consistent determination to do what is right and to do it with pride, both in war and military operations other than war.  Understanding what is right requires respect for both your comrades and other people involved in complex arenas like peace operations and nation assistance.  In such situations, decisions to use lethal or non-lethal force severely test judgment and discipline.  In every circumstance, soldiers turn the personal warrior ethos into a collective commitment to win with honor….Loyalty to fellow soldiers is critical for generating confidence and trust.  Loyalty to one’s leaders and fellow soldiers is the most vital resource a unit has.  

 

III.

When the grossly misunderstood book of Revelation was written toward the end of the first Christian century, the Christians were under such attack by the dangerous megalomaniac of an Emperor, Domitian, that many expected that they and their loved ones might easily not live through another day.  In such a time of tension and threat, some of the Christians did what Domitian demanded even though it meant seeming to renounce their commitment to the way of life Jesus’ teaching had outlined for those who wanted to honor God.

The whole book or drama of Revelation is, in a sense, about the inevitable connection between loyalty and longevity.  A relationship will be short lived unless loyalty is a part of that relationship.  A nation will not survive for an extended period of time unless the bulk of its citizens are loyal to its principles.  An institution will not survive unless its constituents remain loyal to it; the church is no exception; a church, after all, is people, not a building, and if the people who are the church become disloyal to the reasons and causes for which that church stands, that church will fail.

To tie this to the book of Revelation, in what we designate as chapters two and three, there are letters written to seven churches according to what John the Seer sees in his amazing and amazingly complex vision.  Presumably the Risen Jesus is writing the letters to key churches, but in the book of Revelation one always has to look for symbolism FIRST and maybe exclusively.  The number seven is a symbol for divine plus human completeness.  These seven churches represented any church and all churches.  And Jesus doesn’t write literal letters to churches.  The corpus, though, of what he taught becomes, in a sense, a continuing letter to every church in every age trying to live according to his message and how his teachings framed God for us.

Some of the Christians during Emperor Domitian’s bloody reign of terror were renouncing their faith, or as I said earlier, at least they seemed to be doing that.  The ongoing word of encouragement in the book of Revelation is “loyalty.”  Don’t give up.  Don’t give in.  Stand fast.  Be loyal to what you know; this matters much more than Domitian ever will.

Here’s one of those famous letters written to the seven churches in the book of Revelation.  The one I’m reading here is the letter to the church at Smyrna, and I don’t mean Delaware!

And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life: “I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.”

So the first item of importance in this and all seven of these letters is that each one is written to the angel of that specific church.  Instead of thinking that each had a winged being flying around the church, playing a harp while offering some kind of protection, think pastor; think the pastor of that church.  After all, pastors are angels, aren’t they?  Aren’t we?  The word “angel” should be translated “messenger” in many contexts for clarity, and, by the way, that’s its most basic meaning and how it is used most frequently Christian scripture; not exclusively.  Indeed, the New Testament has winged beings here and there such as those who filled the skies and sang at Jesus’ birth and those who, according to the book of Revelation, attend God in God’s abode.  Here, though.  “angel” should be translated “messenger” as the writer is clearly referring to the pastor of the church.  The next time I need to win an argument around here, I’m going to use this to my advantage; I’m going to remind you that I am God’s angel, and would you dare to try to argue down an angel of God?  Brent would.  Else might, but would you?!?

One of the most important characteristics about the content of this letter and the content of the whole of the book of Revelation for that matter is that safety and security are not promised those who remain faithful to the cause.  Even the loyal might be thrown into prison.  Even the loyal might be sent to Domitian’s executioners.  “I beg your pardon; I never promised you a rose garden!”

Loyalty is its own reward.  We don’t force ourselves to be loyal to this or that just to win awards or prizes; well, we might do that, but it won’t work in the long run, not with any of life’s big issues.

There are two very strong synonyms for “loyalty” in the passage.  “Be faithful unto death.”  That is ultimate loyalty.  Again, the writer doesn’t say, “If you are faithful, you will be protected from Domitian’s evil.”  No, ma’am.  No, sir.  This is one of the ironies of walking the way of Jesus, which is supposed to be at the heart of the Christian movement.  Absolute loyalty might well cost you your life; that’s the thanks Jesus got for his loyalty.  Prosperity preachers who tell you otherwise are ignoring the clear facts about why Jesus died, and they are out and out lying to get a crowd or a contribution.

“Conquer” is the other powerful synonym for “be loyal.”  To outsiders, historians for example, being tossed to the lions by Domitian’s henchmen looks like a big win for Domitian, but that’s not necessarily true at all.  If the person being tossed to the lions is in that position because she or he remained loyal to the cause for which she or he lived, then the lions are taking out someone who leaves this world with dignity and principles in tact.  That brave martyr did not give in to evil, did not let evil win out, did not give evil the last word.  She or he conquered because nothing in this world, not even the ire and cruelty of the most powerful man on the face of the earth at that time, could make the person of faith renounce her or his core beliefs.

The person or the nation or the institution remaining loyal to higher principles and ideals, will be much happier and more content than the safer counterpart who bases life and existence on disloyalty.  Those who are disloyal to what they once embraced or pretended to embrace may last longer temporally speaking than those who are loyal to their causes, but they last as empty shells, beautiful to look at perhaps but decaying on the inside.  This is precisely the accusation Jesus made against the Pharisees; their loyalty was to their religion and to the keeping of religious rules.  Jesus stunned them and angered them by saying, “You can’t be loyal to God if any human-made institution–even a religious institution–eclipses the clear concerns of faithful people.”

Jesus said that the Pharisees who tried to be loyal to a list could look mighty good; they could look as shiny and clean as the limestone tombs in the cemeteries after their annual cleanings.  Don’t be fooled by the spotless exterior, though, Jesus said.  Inside each of those tombs, which represent the Pharisees, is death and decay.

Loyalty to God is always demonstrated and, thus, proven if need be by the degree to which we care for those who can’t care for themselves.

  • This week that might have meant being at the side of a largely non-communicative, somewhat combative Martha Brown who after being the winner in bout after bout with cancer may have taken a knock-out punch by the devious disease hiding in the darkness just waiting to strike her in a time, a rare time, of significant inner weakness.
  • This week, loyalty to the God about whom Jesus spoke might have had us gathered outside the Georgia prison where Troy Davis was eventually put to death despite protests from around the world about proven prosecutorial weak spots.  If we couldn’t be there, at least we could have spoken out as did President Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu to name only two of thousands upon thousands to whom the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles turned a deaf ear.

Often, loyalty isn’t very glamorous is it?

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