Sermon Sept 20
James: "Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom."
Last Sunday we were talking about promises: what are the promises that define your life – what are the promises that you have made to yourself, or your spouse, your children, your parents, your community, your God?
In the wisdom of the Church, we say that it is a good and life-giving thing to periodically review the promises that we have made. The promises of our lives are like the tires on our cars: it’s a good idea to inspect them once in a while, before they blow out while we’re driving down the highway at 70 mph.
Sometimes we outgrow the promises we’ve made and we need to recognize that. When my son was born I held him in my arms and looked into those miraculous eyes and made a sacred promise to him: that I would never let anything or anyone hurt him. Then one day he learned to walk, and the next day he learned to run - full tilt into the corner of our dining room table. I realized how impossible that promise was; but I still tried. By the time he was old enough to make his own decisions I was still trying – still trying to protect him from anything that would hurt him – until I realized that no one grows up who has never been hurt.
I needed to re-evaluate that sacred promise I made to him.
So what about our promises to God?
65 years ago, on a cold winter night in France during the Battle of the Bulge, my dad was huddled in a foxhole, shivering with cold and terror while artillery shells rained down around him. Death was as close as his breath; he could taste it on his teeth. He began to pray as he never had before; desperately, deeply, as if his life depended on it; and he found himself promising God that if he ever got through this war alive, he would become a doctor and dedicate his life to saving others.
This became a sacred promise that was to shape the rest of his life.
Once when I was a little boy I asked my mom, "What does daddy do all day?" She didn’t say, “He’s a doctor.” Instead, this very fierce look came over her, and she said, “He saves lives. Every day, he saves lives.” This made quite an impression on me.
That sacred promise that my dad made defined the rest of his life. It set the bar for the level of excellence that he would strive toward. It called him out of himself, from being a cocky, self-centered and smart-alecky kid into a deeply disciplined and caring man. Every day for the rest of his working life he rose before dawn, and got home long after sunset, and was often called back to the hospital in the middle of the night; and he never once complained - because he knew he was one of the lucky ones. He had survived the war - and he had found a purpose for his life. He had found a way to give back to God just a little bit of what God had given him.
But he didn’t accomplish this on his own. By making that promise to God, he enlisted God’s support; God met him half-way; God helped him keep his promise – because it was a sacred promise. That's the nature of a sacred promise - God meets you half-way.
In the letter of James this morning, we hear these words of advice: "Submit yourselves therefore to God… Draw near to God; and he will draw near to you."
When we make a sacred promise to God, we take a step toward God; and God takes a step toward us. We never make it alone; God is making it with us; as we draw near to God, God draws near to us.
What are the sacred promises of your life?
I have to confess I have never been able to understand people who have never made a sacred promise; whose lives are not guided by a sacred promise. To me they are like a tent without tent poles – what holds them up? What sustains them? What gives their life structure? Without tent poles, a tent is just a formless mass of nylon lying on the ground. But with the right tent poles, our lives take shape; our lives become the lives that God intended.
Now, I suppose you could make a tent without tent poles - with just the stuff you might find lying around – sticks or branches or what not – but they won’t fit us; they won’t stretch us. Truly sacred promises, like tent poles, are made exactly to fit the tent. When we make the right sacred promise to God, our lives expand to their maximum capacity. And our lives become a shelter for others.
Some of us raise ordinary promises to the level of the sacred - we promise to be good according to some Sunday School notion of the good: we promise not to stand out, not to ask too many questions; not to ask too much of anyone: we promise to make money: we promise to obey someone else’s promise that we never fully believed in.
When we do that our lives become tents with tent poles that are too short - our tent sags, blows in the wind, falls down often, never reaches its full height: leaks in the rain. Our promises are too small; we have been living too much for ourselves; we are not stretched to our true proportions.
Instead we lie awake at night listening to the water dripping through our walls, haunted by the question: is this it? Is this all there is? We get up in the morning and we notice in the clear light of day the tent sagging even more, despite our best efforts, and we feel gravity pulling us down into a resigned accommodation. Because we have not made a promise worthy of our life in God.
Even when things seem perfect we are haunted by the knowledge that perfect isn't good enough. We remember the old TV commercial: old friends gathered around a dinner table somewhere in Maine; lobsters steaming on a plate; beer glasses cold and full to the brim, laughter and love flowing; and someone says, "Here's to good friends - it doesn't get any better than this," and they clink their glasses and you think, "Really? Is that it?" Because as good as it is, it feels like there's still something missing. It isn't enough.
And the next day our tent just sags a little more.
And life goes on; our sacred promises become like stars dimmed by the lights of the city; our life as it was meant to be becomes a fragile memory: something impossible and theoretical, like a faded sketch that has been lost.
What is to be done?
And now at this point in the sermon I have to beg your indulgence because it might feel like I've stretched this tent pole analogy just about as far as possible but I'm going to take it just a little further:
What is to be done? Easy - we just write away to the manufacturer - we place an order for new tent poles - new sacred promises to give our lives structure. We pray to the Creator that the sustaining purpose of our lives will be revealed to use before we die; and that we will have the courage to let that promise define the remainder of our days.
But as we write that letter to the manufacturer, we realize we will have to enclose a check. We will have to decide, How much are these tent poles worth to us?
And we hear the voice of Jesus: “How about your whole life?”
“For what does it profit us if we gain our life, and lose our soul? For those who would save their lives will lose it, and those who lose their lives for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, shall gain it.”
We write away to the manufacturer for those new tent poles; but if we put in a check for a dollar, or five, or any amount that looks like we have not considered what these tent poles are worth to us, our check will be returned uncashed.
Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.
When we're at church around stewardship season and someone suggests that we give to the church proportionally; that the visible and real extension of our promise - our pledge - to God might begin to bear some relationship to the value of our life: if, instead, we respond to that invitation by becoming smaller, or cynical, or worse, by saying to ourselves, "Well what's in it for me?" – then I suggest we are pitching our tent with sticks.
Your tent is better than that – your tent is bigger than that.
On the bottom of page 304 and the top of page 305 of our prayer books [and listed below], we find five tent poles, if you will; five sacred promises that, when made seriously and prayerfully, give our lives structure and purpose. These are promises that are God’s way of drawing closer to us, as we draw closer to God. I’d like us to take a moment to look at them. And as we go through them, I’d like you to ask yourself two questions: Which of these five promises seem like the easiest for me to keep, and which would be the most difficult?
“Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?”
“Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”
“Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”
“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”
[Discussion follows - congregation breaks into pairs - what some people identify as the most difficult, others identify as the easiest; we realize that as we live together in community, we can honor all of these promises collectively, and with joy.]
Pray that we may find the sacred purpose that God has for us; pray that God will provide us with the strength and courage to hold up our end of our promises to God and to one another; pray that in all things, we will find our completion in Christ.