Promises, in a Larger Context

A homily for a wedding at All Souls on July 14, 2012. The scripture readings are Song of Solomon 2:10-13; 8: 6-7; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, and John 15:9-1
If I asked you to think about some of the promises you have made, what would they be? 
Kids makes promises “for ever and ever” as blood brothers, or “blood sisters.” A finger is pricked, mixed with saliva, and the deal is sealed.  Playground infatuations result in promises that “one day we will get married,”  and every once in a while, that actually happens.  

I made a promise to the good people at Honda, when I bought my car.  People sign promissory notes.  And often, that’s the way promises go.  They are a kind of contract.  Promises get set down on paper. 

But there are other promises. 

A young person who is bright or kind or generous is said to be “promising.”  In other words, the promise hasn’t yet been realized.  It’s on the way.  It’s a one-day kind of thing. 

Whenever a child is baptized, the parents and godparents make promises on the child’s behalf.  In our tradition, this is what baptism means—it’s not so much about the particular person naming his or her faith (that happens at confirmation, or really, throughout life),but it’s about the parents, making promises.  The godparents make promises.  The community of faith makes promises. 

As the Episcopal Church thinks and prays its way into new prayers and orders of worship for marriage and wonders what words to use to describe marriage, we’ve again and again looked at the ritual and liturgy for Holy Baptism as the model for marriage. 

This means that rather than marriage being based on the exchange of property, one man giving his possession to another, marriage is increasingly (and I think, rightly) being understood as an exchange of promises similar to those we make at baptism. 
This means that what happens today is larger than Jessica and Ryan.  They make promises to each other, but we also make promises to them.  These promises are open-ended.  The promises at marriage are not like a contract that lays out all its terms and tries to allow for every possible circumstance in the future.  Instead, the promises are made “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death.” 

Those are some big promises– so big that it’s tempting to write into them escape clauses and footnotes and special circumstances.  But there is no “full disclosure” for such promises, because we don’t know what the future brings.  A promise is made in good faith, in deep faith, even in shaky faith, but in faith that God will give us what we need to fulfill the promises we make. 

One theologian has said about promises:

A promise is a declaration which announces the coming of a reality that does not yet exist. Thus promise sets man’s heart on a future history in which the fulfilling of the promise is to be expected. If it is a case of a divine promise, then that indicates that the expected future does not have to develop within the framework of the possibilities inherent in the present, but arises from that which is possible to the God of the promise. This can also be something which by the standard of present experience appears impossible.  (J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope).

A promise comes to us from the future.  It belongs to God and we move into it. 

Jessica and Ryan, today you make some big promises.  Know that you don’t make them alone, nor do you alone have the power to fulfill them.  The promises are part of God’s promise to you, and God is ever-faithful, ever-loving, ever-present. 

God loves you more than you can possibly imagine. 

God will be with you no matter what.

I promise.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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