On one of my first days here at First Congregational, I spent some time wandering around the building. This isn’t an old building, and you all have been very tidy, but one thing all churches have is a collection of… stuff. If you’re remembering back to last week, I’ve never been to a church that’s as bad as the House on the Rock. But still. There’s stuff. And I kind of wanted to see what stuff we had.
We have occasional pieces of old furniture. We have books and games and toys. We have combination tape and cd players in almost every room. It’s not much, but there’s stuff.
If we had an older building — one where I could walk through attics and basements and poke my head into closets and nooks — then I’m sure I would find old computers and reel-to-reel tape recorders and slides and Christmas pageant costumes and banners and tons of other stuff.
But if I could walk through this church — or any church — in a different, more spiritual way, I would find something other than stuff. I would find piles and piles — roomfuls — of promises.
We are Christians. We are a promising people.
A lot of you have, at some point, stood in front of friends and families and promised someone that you would love and cherish them from that day forward, for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, until death parted you.
And a few weeks ago, the Magill’s stood up here. They promised, by the grace of God to follow Jesus Christ and resist evil and show love, and to teach Kaelyn so that she might profess Christ as her Lord and savior. And we promised to support and love and care for Kaelyn.
Last week, we made promises to the Jamaica mission trip team. Next week you will make promises with and to me. Next year, we will make promises with and to our confirmands. We have piles of promises. We are Christians. We are a promising people.
And, because we have so many promises, they can feel light. But if you’ve ever had to break a promise — not just forget that you made it, but break it — you know that they’re not. Promises are heavy things. They can weigh us down. They are important. They are dangerous.
Today’s reading from Mark is about a promise. And it’s a bit of a flashback, and it will help if we have a little more context… if we turn that flashback into a montage of flashbacks.
Herod the Great was the king of Judea around the time that Jesus was born. Now, he wasn’t an independent king. Judea wasn’t an independent kingdom. He was the king of Judea with the permission of the Roman Empire. And, at Christmastime, we tell the story of wise men visiting Mary and Joseph and Jesus, and Joseph having a dream where an angel warns him that Herod is planning to kill Jesus, and the holy family should run away to Egypt. Herod the Great kills all the children in and around Bethlehem who are two years old and younger.
And the holy family doesn’t come back home until the Herod the Great dies.
Now, when Herod the Great dies, the Romans divide his kingdom among several of his children, three sons and a daughter: Herod, the other Herod, the other other Herod, and Salome.
Meanwhile, Jesus grows up. He meets John the Baptist. He’s baptized. He goes into the wilderness. He returns to civilization. He begins his ministry. His name starts to get around.
And John is still working… for a while.
One of Herod the Great’s sons, Herod Antipas, had fallen in love with his brother, Herod Phillips’s, wife, Herodias. And Herodias falls for him. And Herod Antipas divorces his wife and marries Herodias. And not only is Herodias Herod Antipas’s brother’s wife, she’s Herod Antipas’s niece. And John is against that sort of thing. And he says so.
Herod Antipas has John thrown in prison. And Herodias wants John killed. But Herod is afraid to kill John, because he knows that John is a holy man.
Now, it’s Herod’s birthday. And his daughter comes in and dances and everyone is impressed. So Herod says, “Whatever you want, I’ll give it to you. Even half my kingdom.” And his daughter, coached by her mother, asks for John’s head. And Herod, knowing that he made a promise in front of his guests, gives it to her.
Time passes. Jesus is getting famous. His name reaches Herod Antipas. And people around him are asking, “Who is this man?”
Some are saying he’s the prophet Elijah, who never died, but was taken into heaven while he was still alive. And some are saying he’s another prophet like the prophets of old. And Herod Antipas is saying that it’s John the Baptist, back from the dead.
And it’s hard to tell if Herod is wistful or afraid. But I suspect he knows that something is coming. Something is happening. The world that he thought he knew is changing. And it’s all because he kept a promise he should never have made. “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
There is a disorder called ‘scrupulosity’. It’s characterized by a pathological worry that we’re not living up to our religious duties. If you watch The Simpsons, scrupulosity is Ned Flanders calling Rev. Lovejoy, worried that he’s coveting his own wife; or that he’s meek, but could probably stand to be meeker.
And I think Herod is experiencing his own bout of scrupulosity here. He made a promise. And because people saw him make that promise, he felt like he had to keep it; even though he knew that it would be terrible if he did. And now, hearing about Jesus, he is afraid that his promise has come back to haunt him.
We are Christians. We are a promising people. And we can find ourselves in a situation like the one Herod Antipas is in. Not the same situation, I hope; but a similar one. In a world where we never forget that we made a promise — or in a world where we feel like we can never break a promise or let go of one — well… we wouldn’t just keep our promises, our promises would keep us, too.
But we aren’t just a promising people. We are a covenanted people. We remember that when we come together at this table; this table hosts a feats that is both simple and luxurious.
On those days we remember that on the night he was betrayed, Jesus ate together with this disciples. We remember that he took the bread and blessed it and broke it and shared it, saying, “This is my body, broken for you.” We remember that after dinner, he took the cup and blessed it and shared it, saying, “This is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you.”
We remember that we are a covenanted people: that God has made a promise to us, and that we have made promises to God. But covenants aren’t just promises. They are promises with room for grace. They are a promises that can be broken… and that can be put back together again.
There is a Japanese practice — an art, really — called kintsugi. It’s a method of fixing broken ceramics with a special lacquer that’s mixed with gold or silver or platinum. It makes the repair very visible. As soon as you see the piece, you know that it has been broken and that it has been repaired. It is not what it was before. It is different… and it is whole… and it is beautiful.
Any given mug or vase or plate will, eventually, break. And, it we really care about it, we can put it back together again. Different and whole and beautiful. Different and whole and beautiful because it has been broken. Different and whole and beautiful because it has been put back together again.
Covenants are the same way. Eventually, we break them. Sometimes, we put little chips in them, or hairline cracks. Sometimes, we knock big chunks out of them, or split them right in half.
We fail to love and cherish as we should. Especially when things are for worse.
We fail to resist evil. We wander off to find where demons dwell. And we leave others to do the same.
We fail to trust those who have left on a mission and come back to return to us as leaders who can show us new ways to make the world a more merciful place.
And Herod failed because he kept his promise. He didn’t make room for the grace to save a life, to say to his daughter, “I know I said ‘anything’, but I didn’t mean that I would do something evil.”
There’s another sermon about when we need to break promises. It’s a brilliant sermon. It’s a classic of homiletics. Maybe I’ll preach it sometimes. But it’s not this sermon.
We fail to keep those piles and piles — roomfuls — of promises that we’ve made. But… we can repent. We can return to those promises with grace, and put them back together again. God can come to them with a grace that is brighter than gold or silver or platinum, and put them back together again. And, by the grace of God, they can be different and whole and beautiful.
That is the beauty of the Christian covenant. We can always return to it.
And when we return to it, God does more than repair the covenant. God repairs us. With gold and silver and platinum… and love and hope and grace. God makes us different… and whole… and beautiful. Not because we have never been broken, but because we have.
There are going to be times when we cannot keep the promises we’ve made. There are going to be times when we need to hold our promises lightly. And I’m not saying that’s okay; I’m saying that’s life. That among the piles and piles of promises we have in this church and in our homes and in our lives, there will be some that are broken. And we will be broken with them… at least a little bit.
But there is joy. Because we can bring our broken promises — and we can bring our broken selves — to this place. And God will bring a sacred lacquer and a healing balm, and painstakingly repair us, making us different and whole and beautiful. Thanks be to God!