I’ve been thinking a lot about vows recently. Eighty-eight days and counting ’til Kerry and I get married. For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, ’til death do us part. They are terrifying promises.
They’re terrifying because I’ve seen the spectrum of better and worse, rich and poor, sickness and health. I know those things happen to all sorts of people. People enter into marriage not knowing what kind of future awaits them, and they promise to stay with each other through whatever hits the windshield as they race through the days appointed to them on this earth.
And it’s not that being single exempts anyone from the full range of possible futures, better or worse, it’s just that we don’t have to make promises to stick with ourselves. We’re already stuck with ourselves (and don’t we know it?). But in marriage we make a promise to stick with someone else, even when it would be far easier to go our separate ways.
I say all this knowing there are plenty of divorced people in the room, knowing that for some of you divorce saved your life, or your health. I say this knowing there are many who have been barred from making marriage promises in sanctuaries and court houses, and have until very recently felt locked out of the covenant of marriage. This isn’t a meditation on the sanctity of marriage, but on the weight of promises made in public, promises made to yourself and others. Promises made to God.
These promises terrify because they impose limits on the self for the sake of the greater whole. While it might be easier, less expensive, strategically advantageous to dissolve a covenant when the going gets rough, our promises keep us in place, working through the hard times, the worse, the poorer, the sickness, for the sake of the unit of community larger than any one person in it: the marriage, the family, the congregation, the body of Christ.
Four weeks ago we welcomed Ryan Coffee to a period of preparation for his baptism, just as generations of Christians have done going back to the time of the early church. A couple weeks ago Kerry and I had Ryan and Rachel over to our home to share a meal and talk about baptism in its scriptural and historical context. As we studied the ancient process of preparation for baptism — which involved three years of study and mentoring by older members of the community followed by an intense Lenten period of fasting and daily prayer all before a catechumen ever joined the congregation in receiving the Lord’s Supper — we recognized that our contemporary culture, including congregational life, just doesn’t support that kind of personal sacrifice in preparation for promise-making. We slip in and out of states of commitment, rather than preparing to make and keep covenants.
The models we do have for extensive preparation before making promises may be the work that doctors and lawyers do to prepare for vocations that require an oath. The lengthy process of preparation to practice law or medicine, the intense academic work paired with models of apprenticeship and supervised activity mean that by the time those professionals take their vows, they have already practiced self-sacrifice for the sake of the good of the whole, the guild of which they become a part, and the society that guild exists to serve.
Baptism is a vocation drenched in promises. In it we invite those who desire to live a Christian life to notice, name and resist all the forces in this world that rebel against the nature and character of God — to set themselves at odds with a world that privileges profit over people, that preaches scarcity in the midst of profligate abundance, that cultivates fear between people created to live in community. We ask them to do this knowing that it will cost them something, and that in some cases it may cost them everything. That’s right. In baptism we call one another to die, and to die over and over again, to patterns of life designed to support the individual at the expense of the community — except, in this case, we’re not balancing the needs of the one against the needs of the many, but the needs of the whole, the needs of all. A call to love not only our friends and our neighbors, but our enemies.
In the waters of baptism we say that the old self drowns, and that we die and rise with Christ. This is very much like what Jesus himself says in this morning’s gospel reading, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) The covenant we make in baptism is not just about letting go of the bad to embrace the good, but about a lifelong practice of learning to let go of that which we may individually value and cherish in order to support what is needed for the good of the whole.
For the last two years our Church Council has been reading and reflecting on a book by Peter Block titled Community: The Structures of Belonging as a way of thinking about how to strengthen and sustain our own community even as some of the structures that have supported our life together as a congregation for the last century begin to change. In the book he talks about the six conversations we need to have to build a trust-worthy community, conversations of invitation, possibility, ownership, dissent, commitment and gifts. At our Council meeting this past week we talked a lot about the commitment conversation. Block writes that “to be committed means you are willing to make a promise with no expectation of return; a promise void of barter and not conditional on another’s action. In the absence of this, you are constantly in the position of reacting to the choices of others. The cost of constantly reacting,” he writes, “is increased cynicism.”
As we continue to gather as a congregation in meetings like the one we’ll be having here in the sanctuary after worship, we need to keep having these six conversations with each other, we need to keep balancing conversations about invitation and possibility with conversations about ownership and commitment. We need to inquire of ourselves and one another how our Christian identity is a commitment and not a contract, how it is an invitation to die to ourselves, over and over, for the sake of the world. We need to ask what kinds of activities best support us in making those promises and keeping those promises, what patterns of gathering work best to remind us of who we are in light of God’s grace, a covenant of love that sees us in light of God’s irresistible future instead of our own irretrievable past. We need to wonder together what kind of tree might sprout from the seed planted in the earth that is us, the body of Christ, broken for the life of the world. What kind of difference we want to make in a world hungry for the fruit we might bear.
In light of all that God has committed to us, what will we commit to each other?