8/26/18: Making Promises, Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
Third in the series, Practicing Community
First Lesson: Ephesians 6:10-20
Second Lesson: Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
Rev. Scott Dickison
In her wonderful book, “Living Into Community,” which I’ll be drawing from in our current sermon series, Christine D. Pohl cites ethicist Lewis Smedes, who says: “If you have a ship you will not desert, if you have a people you will not forsake, if you have causes you will not abandon, then you are like God.”
We continue our study on the practices that make for authentic, Christian community this Sunday by examining what Pohl calls the practices of “promise making and promise keeping”—which taken together boil down to what we in the church call faithfulness.
Throughout the Bible we’re told that ours is a God who keeps promises, calling us into covenantal relationship. Covenant is the basis, the ground floor of our relationship with God, and in essence is a promise. Covenant is more than a contract, it has to do with matters of the heart. Biblical faith is built on this covenantal trust: trust that God will make good on God’s promises of presence and provision, and God’s trust in us that we will live lives worthy of the blessings we’re given. The remarkable thing about it, though, is that we’re told God is faithful to us even when we’re not always faithful to God or each other for that matter—a blessing we call grace. In fact, one way to view scripture on the whole is as a story, a testament, a witness to God’s faithfulness to us and our sometimes faithfulness to God, with grace covering it all in the end.
Faithfulness, or promise keeping, is essential to how we understand our relationship with God, but as people of faith, this covenantal relationship we have with God—built on love and trust and forgiveness and grace—is then meant to extend to each other—certainly within the church, but also in our everyday relationships. As “people of the promise,” we’re called to model the faithfulness and commitment we know in God in our lives together as God’s people. And when it comes down to it, promises are at the heart of communal life—Christian or otherwise. As Pohl puts it, “Promises provide the internal framework for every relationship and every community—they function like the ‘hidden supports in a well-built house.’”
We need promises to live. Human life is defined by our inability to know the future or control the future. Our lives are unpredictable and uncertain, and can change in an instant. The promises we make—to others, to God, even to ourselves—give us a degree of stability.They ground us, the tether us to a community, to a system of beliefs; they give us a framework from which to live. “The history of the human race,” as someone put it, “as well as the story of any one life might be told in terms of commitments…At the heart of any individual’s story…lies the tale of her or his commitments—wise or foolish, sustained or broken, fragmented or integrated into one whole.”
As individuals we’re defined by our commitments: our affiliations, our relationships, in whom and what we put our trust, be it spouses or families, political candidates or parties, sports teams, churches or other institutions. And communities are defined by our shared commitments. Promises—large and small—that we make with each other. Things as basic as agreeing to drive on the right side of the street to paying our taxes to keeping our neighborhoods clean and safe. To more weighty commitments like participating in civic life—even having difficult conversations on millage rates, pension plans, libraries, and the social services—all conversations that spring from the commitments we share or don’t share as a community.
The church, too, exists only and in so far as we make and keep certain commitments to each other. Things as simple as agreeing to share a meal and run programs for youth and children on Wednesday nights, to showing up to choir practice, or even agreeing to show up at 11 o’clock on Sundays for worship—something I never take for granted, by the way. Fred Craddock, the great teacher of preachers, wrote once, “Preach like they almost didn't come.”
Of course, the commitments get weightier. Things like committing to pray for each other. Committing to celebrate with each other in times of good fortune, and walk with each other through dark valleys—to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep,” as Paul puts it in Romans. Committing to forgive each other, to be open to repentance and restoration. To give generously of our finances. To raise each other’s children in the faith—something we promise to do here at baby dedications. “We will receive this child into our church family to love and nurture. We will seek to provide her and her parents with opportunities for worship and spiritual growth, that she may discover her many gifts and how to use them according to God’s great dream for her life”—that’s the commitment we make. Of course, the parent makes promises too, accepting the call to nurture her in the faith. But then you say, we say: “We, too, will share in her growth, for she belongs to us as well.” Think about that.
And of course, the promise upon which all these others rest is the promise we make in baptism. Baptism is probably the most powerful, visceral symbol we have of promise making in the church. Baptism is a promise, or really many promises. It’s a promise God makes with us that we are beloved, and when we “pass through the waters” God will be with us. It’s a promise we make with God that we will do our best to live into this belovedness all our days. And it’s also a promise the church makes with the one being baptized, that we will do our part to support and encourage them as we all live into this belovedness together. Everything else we do here, all the other promises we make—spoken or unspoken—are bathed in those promises.
In order for the church to work properly we need to keep these promises we make with each other. But in order for us to simply be a church, we need to make these promises in the first place. Keeping promises is of course important, but community is defined not first of all by the keeping of promises, but by the making of promises.Craig Dykstra, a theologian and educator writes this about families, but it’s true for any community and certainly the church. He says,
It’s not the failure to keep promises, in and of itself, that destroys family. Such failure happens in every family and can be expected. Family can remain family in the midst of unfulfilled promises. What destroys family is the collapse of promise-making. It’s when the very making of promises is no longer believed and believed in that families die.”
And even talking about this puts a pit in your stomach, doesn’t it? We’ve all known some level of disappointment and pain caused by the failure of others to keep their promises. And most of us probably know something of the shame of not keeping promises ourselves. Some of us may even know something of the numbness of a relationship that’s so broken that promises are no longer expected or desired or even worth making.
Community—be it family or a civic community and certainly a church—exists only where promises are made. Where there are no promises, no commitment, there can be no community. It’s what Joshua knew when he stood there before the people after they had entered the Promised Land, “Before we go any further we need to decide a few things. We need to decide which whom we will serve: the gods of our ancestors who kept us in bondage, or the God who has delivered u this far. As for me and my house, he famously said, we will serve the Lord.” And the people agreed, and they began to put down their roots there in the land God had promised them. Of course they would fail on these promises repeatedly. But what made them a people in the first place and what kept them a people in the long run were not the promises they kept, but the promises they made together.
And as with most of these practices of community we’ll discuss, promise making and keeping are becoming more and more countercultural. We live in a commitment-averse society. We don’t like writing our name down for things. We keep our affiliations at a minimum. We value keeping our options open, and the detached utilitarian approach is often assumed as the highest good. Or sometimes we move too far to the other side and take on too many commitments. We have a hard time saying no. We don’t want to disappoint, we want to do good things, and help and volunteer—we want to say, “yes,” and so we over-promise and spread ourselves too thin until we’re no longer able to keep all these commitments we’ve made—and I’m as guilty as anyone.
And it’s also true that there are valid reasons to break promises—or better: with every promise there are conditions that invalidate the promise, and removing oneself from the promise is the good and right thing to do. I’m thinking especially of situations of abuse. Some relationships need to end, period. Those promises aren’t broken by the people who leave.
So the practice of good, healthy, authentic community is not simply the making and keeping of promises, but the thoughtfulmaking and keeping of the rightpromises.
And this is difficult. They’re practices that taken over the long haul are much harder than they seem—they require discipline and patience and often courage. But more than anything, making and keeping promises well requires community. Not just someone to direct our commitments, but someone around us to support us in our commitments. We need support. We need help. He need affirmation that we’re doing the right thing in keeping our commitments, hard and draining as it may be. And from time to time, we need conversation partners to hold us accountable when we don’t. And there are even times when we need trusted friends whom we know love us and want the best for us to let us know when we need to move on from a promise or a commitment, however painful that may be.
In this is the paradox of it all, or maybe the mystery: that community depends on making and keeping promises, but making and keeping promises depends on community.
We can’t do either on our own.
Doing church well requires that we keep the promises we make. But simply being the church requires that we make promises in the first place. And looking around, our world is in need of good models of both.
I’ve thought for a while now that one of the great gifts the church has to offer the world in this current moment of fractured community and identity is simply a place to belong. To be valued and loved and accepted—and I still think that’s true.
But I’ve come to wonder if that’s enough. Belonging may be where we begin, but ultimately the church can offer something more: a place to commit. A place to make and keep promises. A place to carve out meaning and substance in our life. A place and a people to ground us, to give us a framework from which we can live and grow.
A people to help us keep the promises we make, but even before that, a people to help us make promises in the first place.
I wonder if this is what the church has to offer the world today: a place to belong and a people to make promises. It may not sound like much, but when it comes down to it, isn’t this where love begins? Amen.
Christine D. Pohl, Living Into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us, 62. Her entire section on making and keeping promises informs this sermon, 61-108
Margaret Farley, quoted in Pohl, 63
As quoted in Pohl, 70