(Sermon by Lori Erickson at New Song Episcopal Church in Coralville, Iowa, on March 17, 2019)
To see the Bible readings that this sermon refers to: Readings for Second Sunday in Lent
I was tempted this morning to preach about St. Patrick, both because today is St. Patrick’s Day and because there’s so much to like about him. Any saint associated with beer has a lot going for him, right out of the gate.
But then I kept coming back to that weird story that we heard this morning from Genesis, the one about Abram (this was before he became Abraham) and the sacrificed animals. In the story, God promises Abram that he will have more descendants than there are stars in the sky, even though he’s an old man and he’s married to the equally old Sarah. How can this be?
Then God does something equally puzzling. He tells Abram to get a bunch of animals, cut them in half, and arrange them in two lines. When night falls, Abram falls asleep, and in the darkness a smoking fire pot and flaming torch pass between the bodies, an action that’s somehow connected to God making a covenant with Abram.
Now one of the things I respect about the Bible is that its editors didn’t cut out the really peculiar stuff—and this story is indeed peculiar. And when I started digging into what it means, I decided to leave St. Patrick behind, reluctantly, and concentrate on these verses instead. Because this story, as odd as it is, is one of the most significant in the Hebrew scriptures, and it has more implications than we might realize for us today.
So what in the world was God doing? It turns out that if you were hearing this story in the Middle East thousands of years ago, you’d know exactly what God was doing. He was making a really important, super serious promise, because this ritual with the dead animals was what people did to show that they REALLY, REALLY mean to keep the promise they’re making. Think about it—you’re sacrificing a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon. Those animals don’t come cheap. And in this ritual you’re enacting what will happen to you if you break your oath: if you do so, you’ll be the one who’s torn in two with your guts hanging out.
In short, this is a very important promise God is making. And we know it’s God who’s doing so because as he passes by the animals he takes the form of fire, which symbolizes his glory. This is a foreshadowing of the pillar of fire that will later lead the Israelites through the desert.
Biblical scholars point out a curious thing about this ceremony—Abram doesn’t walk through the rows of dead animals. Only God does. Which means that God is making that serious promise, that covenant, all on his own. In this oath, he promises to care for Abram and his descendants forever. He no doubt realizes that Abram is going to screw up again and again, and his descendants are going to screw up again and again. But God won’t. He will remain faithful to them.
And this is why we get those beautiful words from Psalm 27, which we also heard this morning:
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear?
the Lord is the strength of my life;
of whom then shall I be afraid?
God keeps the promise he made to Abraham. And in the rest of the Bible, God makes many other promises as well. These are what the Christian faith is built upon.
Our lives are full of promises too. Some of them are small, and some large. We make promises when we get married or sign a legal contract. We make promises to our kids to help them pay for college and to our friends to be there for them when things get tough. We make promises to causes we support, including making a financial pledge to our church in the fall and promising to vote for a particular political candidate in elections.
What promises, truly serious promises, have you made in your life? And how many of those promises have you broken?
If you’ve never broken a serious promise or vow, well, all I can say is good for you. Enjoy that feeling, because it’s probably not going to last. That’s because sooner or later, all of us fail to live up to our own ideals, despite our best intentions.
All of this makes me think of a TED talk I listened to recently by a man named Alex Sheen. In 2012, Alex lost his father to lung cancer. At his funeral, he delivered a eulogy that he titled, “Because I said I would.” In it he talked about how his dad wasn’t famous, wasn’t rich, and didn’t achieve things that the rest of the world paid any attention to. But he was a man of his word. If he made a promise, he kept it. If his dad said he was going to be at Alex’s soccer game at 6 pm, for example, he would be there. Says Alex in his TED talk: “You can pretend to care. But you can’t pretend to show up.”
At the end of his speech, Alex handed out cards to the other people at the funeral. Printed in one corner were these words: “Because I said I would.” He encouraged them to write down a promise on the card, something important that they needed help in achieving, and then give that card to someone they trusted with these words, “I’m going to fulfill that promise. I’m going to earn this card back.” And then after they got it back, they were to keep the card as a reminder that they’re a person who keeps their promises.
Alex put up a post on social media talking about his father and the eulogy, and made an offer that he would send ten of these promise cards, free of charge, to anyone who wanted them. Well, that post soon went viral. And today, seven years later, Alex has sent more than ten million promise cards to more than 150 countries. The non-profit he ended up creating, which is called Because I said I would, works in a wide variety of ways to better humanity through promises made and kept.
Here are a few of the promise cards that people have sent to Alex:
- I will sleep in my own bed. (That one was from a four-year-old.)
- I will always fight heroin.
- I will donate a kidney to my brother.
- And from a woman whose husband had died: I will clear space in my house, my heart, and my life so that love can enter my life again.
So what do these two stories, the story of that weird ritual in Genesis and Alex Sheen’s promise cards, have to say to us? Well, for one thing, it’s pretty clear from the success of Alex’s initiative that people today are hungry for a message about the power of integrity. We want to live in a society where people make and keep their promises. We want to trust our political and religious leaders, our bosses, our family members, and our friends. Living in a high-trust society is one of the best foundations for happiness, much more important than how much wealth a society has.
Both stories are also testimonies to the power of enacting a promise. Even something as simple as writing a promise down on a card and handing it to someone else for safe keeping makes a difference. It’s why when we get married, we have witnesses. When we baptize a baby, the congregation is there to see what we’re promising. And that’s why that oath that God made to Abraham was so powerful (though I’m not recommending that we adopt that ritual as a custom, especially the vegetarians and vegans among us).
I think this theme of promises made and kept is deeply linked to the season of Lent. This is a time when we are supposed to examine our lives. In this season, we’re called upon to look at the promises we’ve made, the promises we’ve kept, and the promises we’ve broken. And this is a season to repent, which is another way of saying we need to find ways to repair the brokenness we’ve helped create.
Of course, there’s no assurance that keeping a promise will lead to success in this world. Just look at today’s Gospel reading for proof of that: in it Jesus reminds us that Jerusalem always kills the prophets who are sent to help it. Truth telling and promise keeping don’t mean that the world is going to treat you well—in fact, it’s often just the opposite.
But standing in your truth, even when the rest of the world rejects you, means that you can live with integrity. It may not make you happy. It may not solve your problems. It may not make you friends. But when you do so, you create an opening in the world that allows more of the light to shine through.
So even if you’ve broken promises, healing is possible. The message of Lent—and the message of Easter—is that we get the chance to begin again. The Sufi poet Rumi, writing eight centuries ago, said this better than anyone else I know:
“Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.
Come, yet again, come, come.”