Promises. We’ve heard a lot of them lately, haven’t we. “If I am elected, I promise…” “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office…” Congressional committees, “I do solemnly swear to tell the whole truth….” And then there are promises closer to home. “I, Carl, take thee, Elizabeth, and I do promise and covenant.” “Do you promise in dependence on God to rear this child? Our western civilization is built of promises, and its future always depends upon the quality and strength of all these promises. No less, in our personal lives, neighborhood, church, friendship circle, everything depends upon promises made and kept.
And promise-making and keeping have their origins in an old faith and culture, which made promises and pledges, covenant and commitment a way of life. The astounding thing about this old story is the role assigned to freely given choice, which after all is what an authentic promise is all about. The land of the Pharaoh, the powers of Mesopotamia, no less the tyrannies of today, never say, “Choose you this day.” They order and you obey or suffered the consequences. But here is Joshua, standing before his people on the edge of the Promised Land, saying, “Make up your own minds. As for me and my family…” The remarkable thing about Jesus is his refusal to compel, to coerce. “If you will hear my voice…if you would be healed…if anyone wants to be a follower of mine.” As if everything depends upon intelligent and free consent. Clearly our faith sees life as residing in promises freely made and faithfully lived.
But there is an enemy of such a view in contemporary culture. This is the pervasive view that real life consists not foremost in promises, freely given commitments. Life for the individual is rather centered on personal goals, personal needs, personal self-discovery, personal happiness before this business of promises. Often in our therapeutic society, the emotional life of the individual is seen as primary and the guide to how we should act. Long term commitments to place or person or purpose are seen as threats to individuality, constriction of needs, destructive of real life. Hence a growing lack of loyalty to the institutions of marriage and family, school and church, neighborhood and community. At least so Professor Hugh Heclo of Brookings Institution in Washington argues. He has written a new volume called Thinking Institutionally. Sound exciting? Well, in it he argues that we are not defined ultimately by what we ask of life. We are defined by what life asks of us. As we go through life, we travel through institutions. Each of these comes with certain rules and obligations that tell us how to do what we are supposed to do. It is in the process of absorbing the rules of the institutions we inhabit, that we truly become who we are.
He goes on to say, “New generations don’t invent institutional practices. These practices are passed down and evolve. So the institutionalist has a deep reverence for those who came before and built up the rules that he has temporarily taken delivery of. In taking delivery, institutionalists see themselves as debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed.
David Brooks, who calls our attention to Professor Heclo, wonders whether institutional thinking is not eroding, whether the lack of it has not bred cynicism and undermined habits of behavior. May West, of Broadway fame nailed this drift already a long time ago when she said, “I think marriage is a great institution, but who wants to live in an institution.”
In contrast to this increasing mood and attitude stands the word of Jesus that real life comes of commitments beyond comfort, the choosing a way and world in which we lose ourselves, learn to set aside our own needs at times. Jesus insists, “Live for yourself, your comfort, your security, your pleasure first, and, long term, you literally destroy your self.
For example, only promises freely given and fully lived create a sense of place. I don’t mean that we ought never to move. Demands of career and stages of life often require or at least encourage it. The question is whether we settle down and in, when we do move. Ahmed Bedawi, for over twenty years now a dear friend, lives in Nazareth where we spent some days again with him and his wife, Sohila and his son and five daughters. His family settled there out on the desert 150 years ago and he would never think of living anywhere else. He loves his community and people. Riding with him during our last visit and thinking of all the troubles of that land, I casually ask if he would ever like to move, say to America. He smiles and says, “No, my father taught me to love this town and its people. Iam happy to spend my whole life here.”
So to follow Jesus does not mean a life sitting loose to the responsibilities of place. Quite the contrary. He himself went deep rather than wide. It means commitment to place because without that it is exceedingly hard to know commitment to real people beyond one’s own agenda and ease, give oneself to real purposes there. I worry that the landscape of life in our time has become so shifting and transient that many people are bereft of real friends there to support and care in times of need as in times of celebration. It is a dangerous existence when a man finds himself feeling quite alone, no one in the larger world who cares.
One commentator describes the scene. “People like my parents lived in a real society, were members of a community, had a circle of friends that extended back through the years. A great many of these young apartment and condo couples do not live in a society and are not members of a community. They are young people eating and sleeping and trying to enjoy themselves, with no interest in or feeling of responsibility for a certain people and place. There is something thin, brittle, about their lives, lacking in richness, roots. They are more or less camping out.”
Thus, family is a creation of promises freely made and fully lived beyond our own ambitions and wanderings. There is a marvelous moment in Thornton Wilder’s play The Skin of Our Teeth when the character, Mrs. Antrobus, says to her husband, calmly, almost dramatically: “I didn’t marry you because you were perfect…I married you because you gave me a promise.” She takes off her ring and looks at it. “That promise made up for your faults. And the promise I gave you made up for mine.” Two imperfect people got married and it was the promise that made the marriage.
And so it always is. Marriage and family are not something we fall into. They are something we create between us out of promises, commitment before God and the neighbors. And without that unqualified promise, “for richer or poorer, fatter or thinner, healthier or sicker,” real marriage never happens. Not easy, sometimes not possible. We do find ourselves breaking promises at times when called for by prudent regard for others, or circumstances beyond our control, or human failure that intervenes and shatters a relationship. We don’t always succeed in keeping those daring and difficult words.
Marriage and family, real family, is a thing of promises freely made and fully lived. Giving birth to a child is a biological act. Having children is a promise to them and God, a promise to give up a significant measure of our own self-centeredness and freedom in order that they may grow and live. But today too many are giving birth to children without promising, promising to embrace them, nurture them, train them, give them all they need to grow healthy and whole.
This is one meaning of baptism. Parents stand up here Sunday by Sunday and do what? They promise to be parents. As if they have any choice. But that is precisely the point. They do have a choice. And too many make the wrong choice. Let the kid manage on his own.
Parenting is a thing of promises, freely made and fully lived.
The late Irma Bombeck, as you recall one of my favorite theologians, catches the spirit of the promise of parenthood. “Raising a family wasn’t something I put on my resume, but I have to ask myself, would I apply for the same job again? It was hard work. It was a lot of crud detail. It was steady. Lord, it was steady. But in retrospect, no matter what deeds my life yielded…no matter how many books I had written marched in a row on a library shelf, no matter how many printed words of mine dangled under the magnets on refrigerator doors, I had done something rather extraordinary with my life as a mother. For three decades, I had been a matriarch of my own family, bonding them together, waiting for stragglers to grow up, catch up, or make up, mending verbal fences, adding a little glue for cohesion here, patching up a few harsh exchanges there, and daily dispensing a potion of loyalty to something bigger than all of us.
“My husband found me sitting in the living room and asked, “What are you doing sitting here alone in the dark?” “Thinking about this weekend.” “They’re good kids,” he said reassuringly as he sat beside me. I rested my head on his shoulder. The room was getting chilly. A car went by and its lights illuminated the room, then threw it again into darkness. I thought about the kids again and hoped with all my heart that they would someday aspire, as I did, to the dream of a family of their own…. and a living room that no one ever sat in.”
No less than family, are friendship and real community the product of promises freely made and fully lived. They call for the willingness to transcend ourselves in commitment to others. Church is a creation of promises freely made and fully lived toward one another. At least it was for the early church. It did not come ready-made with creeds and committees, cathedrals and curriculum. It was simple folk who, following the call of their Lord, said, “We’ll be here for one another,” and who kept their promise. Or we would not be here this morning.
And what did our forebears do when they hit these shores.
You can read the promise in stone in the west exit of the narthex at Kenilworth Union. The Mayflower compact, a covenant freely entered into, a promise they gave to one another, to be there for God and each other in a tough new land.
And this congregation exists because of promises twelve families made to each other one hundred and seventeen years ago, promises they kept, and the promises you make year in, year out and keep so faithfully, promises not just of financial support but of presence and participation, real gift of yourselves. By the way, I heard of a small church in the city that called the police to report the theft of pledges in the amount of $30,000…pledges.
But pledges are promises that make church possible. But it is the loyal crowd like you all who have made your promise to this very human fellowship, and who live it out year by year. It is you who make church possible. Not only for yourselves, but also for those who come here hurting and in need and for those who come after, our children and grandchildren.
A few winters ago, the weather was particularly severe in Minnesota. I have lived there and I know what it is like. According to a report in the Minneapolis Star- Tribune, the temperatures one Sunday were 20 to 35 below zero and the wind chill factor 50 below. Sunday morning attendance at Brooklyn United Methodist Church in the Minnepolis suburb of Brooklyn Park, was skimpy with one side of the church almost empty. It seems no one wanted to face the frigid, icy wind that whipped outside. But there, among the scattered worshippers who had braved the elements, was 88-year-old Goldie Schriber. She had driven to church that morning after picking up Anna Hamilton, who turned 100 in October. They sat with their 94-year-old frind, Fran Sparks, who met them as usual for the 9:00 a.m. service. The writer noted, “This is the kind of loyalty that has kept that church alive for 130 years.” And it is this kind of loyalty that keeps all churches alive. Each one of the five churches we served for over fifty years has had at its heart a sturdy band of promise keepers.
So life is a thing of promises, and the good news according to Jesus is this: in making and keeping promises we do finally learn the real life, the only life worth living. The late Lewis Smedes says it far better than I can. “To make a promise…and mean to keep it…is one of the most powerful moments in a person’s life. Imagine what life would be like if the best you could ever get from a friend or spouse were this: I’ll be there if I can, but don’t count on it. Without promises made and promises kept, we all go crazy and life together is a mess.
When you make a promise to another person, you reach out into an unpredictable future and make one thing predictable: you will be there. Even if being there costs you something, you will be there. With a single word of promise, you create an island of certainty in a raging sea of uncertainty.
Our lives together work right when we make promises we mean to keep. We need to learn again that cutting deals is not what makes life good. What makes life good is the power to make promises and keep the promises we make. When you make and keep a promise, you are as much like God as you will ever get to be.”
Indeed, we can only make our promises because of another promise we have learned, trust, God’s promise in this Jesus of Nazareth to be there for us and with us, granting us when we falter and fail the forgiveness and strength to get up and go on, knowing that he is with us always, even to the end of the world. “If anyone would follow me…” means above all that we do not walk alone.