The Two Faces of Promise

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 09/21/2014

I don’t know about you, but I remember being much more viscerally, emotionally, and relationally affected by the whole world of promises when I was a child than I am now.

Maybe it’s a certain type of child who’s like this, but I remember many occasions of making firm promises with friends, almost vows.  I remember being mad at school or crying in my mom’s arms at home because one of my friends had promised something and they didn’t keep their promise.

Whether that promise was about being a best friend forever or attending a birthday party or getting a hold of that sky blue hand-me-down satin baseball jacket that was ever so appealing in the late 1970s – whatever it was, my young life was fairly filled with promising.  It was filled with myself and my friends and siblings making serious promises to each other, promises about things we often couldn’t even promise because we weren’t in charge of very much.  We learned about promising, and what it was for, and we learned how to deal with the consequences of promises broken both by ourselves and by those we trusted. 


Promises were a biggish part of my life back then.


It’s sort of ironic, because nowadays I think much less about promising, but the promises that I’ve made are so much more binding.  And I think that’s true for most of us.


We live in a rather particular part of the world where a great many of us make promises for our work.  I bet there are quite a few people in this room who have had to take an oath of office of some sort.  Whether you’re in the military or the police, or you work for the government or if you’re a lawyer or doctor or minister or one of several other fields, making a promise to protect, to keep, to do your best, is part of the job.  That’s a big, binding, grown up deal.


And then there is marriage, another area where we adults routinely make promises to another person.  Let’s think about those promises for a minute. 


The standard set of wedding promises, which we call vows, has us staying with this person for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, from this day forward, until death do us part. 


We say those things because we want to set an aspiration for ourselves going forward.  As my colleague Rev. Meg Riley writes, we make promises on a wedding day, not because it’s easy to keep them, but because it’s possible to keep them, and by making the promises, we steer our lives in the direction that we’re hoping to go. 


Not because it’s easy, but because it is possible.  Our promise to our spouse helps us steer our lives in the direction we hope to go with them.


Those wedding vows that we say, Meg Riley writes, become a covenant between married people, an agreement to not walk away, to stay in the conversation wherever it leads, understanding that it can and it will get really hard.  After all, if it didn’t get hard, we wouldn’t need to set ourselves a path by making promises.


Poet Wendell Berry wrote of marriage, “You do not know the road, you have committed yourself to a way.”  To which another colleague, Rev. Victoria Safford adds, “In making their promise, making their vow, giving their word, entering this holy covenant, [a couple describes] not what they [expect] or [need] to happen, but how they [intend] to walk, hand in hand...”


You can hear in these examples that marriage promises are more about hope and plans then they are about control or certainty.  There’s something about promising altogether that isn’t about absolutes, isn’t about guarantees, because who can really guarantee how life is going to turn out?  We can no more do that then my best friend Liz could have promised me her satiny baseball jacket.  When we’re making promises as adults, the best we can do is tell each other that we want to be a certain way, we want to go a certain way, and we want that so badly that we will try again and again to steer ourselves there. 


You know that Rumi song we sing here sometimes, Come, come whoever you are?  Come,yet again, come?  There’s another line in it that we don’t usually sing, that goes “though you’ve broken your vow a thousand times,” come, yet again, come.


Which brings us to another place where adult Unitarian Universalists are making promises, maybe without even knowing it, and that place is church.


Here’s Meg Riley again, talking about Unitarian Universalism:  “One of the ways that we [UUs] create spiritual or theological common ground is so simple it’s almost embarrassing: We agree to do so.  We make a commitment to each other to create a space that is held in common.” 


If you hang around Unitarian Universalism long enough, you’ll hear someone or other say that we are bound together by covenant and not by creed.  That’s the complicated way of saying exactly that almost embarrassing thing that Meg Riley says about us:  We create common ground, we create our church, not because we believe the same things, but by just agreeing to do so.  Creating common ground by agreeing to do so is what Unitarian Universalist churches do.  We covenant – that’s our promise – to live and act together along certain guidelines. We choose to do it.


Why do we choose to do it?  Why would people choose to create common ground with people they barely know, people they might not agree with or have much in common with, just because they can?


There are two definitions of the word promise, and we’ve only been talking about one, the verb where we promise to do something or act in a certain way.  But there’s also the definition of promise that means the potential for a better future – to have promise.  The noun Promise means the “indication of future excellence or achievement,” as tells me. 


Two definitions of the word -  to promise, and to have promise - but I’m here to say, maybe they’re really only one definition, because the exercise of the first leads directly to the second.  It is when we make promises that the promise of the future is assured.  That is what Unitarian Universalism believes.  When we promise, we guarantee the promise, the potential, and wwe move towards a better tomorrow.  We achieve by promising to do so.


The blogger I mentioned earlier, Bronwyn, says she feels “that our choices [our promises] should be rooted in a sense of connection – a sense of ourselves as an integral part of a greater whole. When we feel ourselves as part of wholeness, part of a greater physical and energetic reality, then the consequences of our actions are real, visceral, and clear… not at all abstract.” 


“Our connections to others,” Bronwyn writes, “and to our greater community, the cords that run between us all, are our lifelines. Communication, love, livelihood, friendship, personal validation, support and sustenance of all kinds run through these cords. A promise creates or strengthens our connections to others. It creates and strengthens the cords of connection.”


Promises strengthen the cords of connection between us.


I believe we each came to church because at the root of ourselves, we wanted to feel more connected.  Connected to what, that varies between us.  We might long to be more connected to Life itself, to what really matters.  We might wish we knew ourselves better, or took ourselves more seriously.  We might be lonely, and are looking for a community of people we can rely on and really know.


No matter what we came here looking to connect with, I think the pursuit of connection is the root of why we’re here.


But we’re new at this, and we think we’ll connect just by showing up here and liking it until we magically feel connected and like we belong.  That’s kind of like thinking that the marriage will last as long as each of us thinks the other is cute.


Unitarian Universalism teaches that we feel connected when we start making commitments and promises to each other, not when we merely like it here.  A promise creates or strengthens our connections to others, to ourselves.


Which promise did you make yourself, earlier in the service this morning?  What promises have you found yourself making to others since you’ve been a part of Sugarloaf?  What promises remain to be made?


Sugarloaf has an explicit covenant, a covenant of good relations that we use in our interactions with each other.  If you’ve attended one of our membership meetings, or been in one of our congregational meetings, you’ve read or heard about it, at least in part.  Our SCUU Covenant is an important set of promises that the members of Sugarloaf have made about how we want to be with one another.  We’ve gotten quite good through the years at behaving according to the covenant and, when we don’t, reminding ourselves and each other about it, so we can get back on track.


The covenant of good relations is important and I hope it will continue to remain a living document among us, but those promises are not the promises I want to focus on today, either in the sermon or in our congregational meeting after church today. 


I want us instead to get back to our original covenant with each other, our original promise to each other that Meg Riley talks about.  We have made a commitment to each other to create a space that is held in common.  We have promised each other that we will be a church.  This is the almost-embarrassingly simple core of who we are, and it’s the one thing we cannot live without.  Church happens because we agree to make it happen.


Today we may vote to stay here at this address, or leave.  In the future, we may vote to commit ourselves to a cause, or commit ourselves to some other cause.  We might decide to have more professional ministry, or more volunteer opportunities. We might decide to have one sort of religious education, or another. There are whole worlds of options out there for us as a connected people, and I have no doubt that we will take advantage of many of them.  We have so much promise, we here at Sugarloaf, so much excellence and achievement that is yet to be, that stems from all the excellence and achievement that is already here. 


But there is something that we have to promise up front in order to see any of our promise realized.  We have to promise to stick with each other and be the church, even when the church isn’t always going the direction we’d prefer.


That means that we keep on coming to church as regularly as possible, especially on Sunday mornings when the real connections are made in worship and in religious education.  Coming here often is how we strengthen those life giving bonds and fulfill the promise we’ve made to create a common space for each other.  So that’s the first promise we make to each other here:  We show up.


And our second promise to be a church means that we will be unlikely to resign our membership or abandon our participation here, even when we disagree with the direction that the majority of the people have picked.  Like in a marriage, our covenant with each other acknowledges that we don’t walk away, that we stay in the conversation wherever it leads, knowing that it can and will get hard, sometimes. 


So that’s the second promise:  We stay.


Sugarloaf will be made out of those of us who show up and who stay.  In fact, it already is.


Our covenant with each other in church means we walk together.  Rev. Safford describes it in this typical UU way: “We will walk together with each other toward the lives we mean to lead, toward the world we mean to have a hand in shaping, the world of compassion, equity, freedom, joy, and gratitude.”  That’s nice.


But writer and artist Brian Andreas says it this way: “Say Yes. Whatever it is, say yes with your whole heart & simple as it sounds that’s all the excuse life needs to grab you by the hands and start to dance.”


When we come to church, we are already saying yes. We are saying we are committing to being here with and for each other.  We already say yes to church as soon as we pull into the parking place.  You are all already saying yes right now, whether you know it or not.  Now may the holy dance begin.


We will have many opportunities over the next few months to say yes to all sorts of things.  What will you continue to say yes to?  What new things will you say yes to?  With all the hope and faith in the world that we will feel life grab us by the hands and start to dance, I want us to say “YES.”  Amen.



These folks contributed mightily to this sermon:

Rev. Victoria Safford, “Bound in Covenant.”


Rev. Meg Riley, “From Your Minister.” Quest Newsletter, Church of the Larger Fellowship, Sept. 2014.


Bronwyn, “How to Make and Keep a Promise to Yourself.”


What Does It Mean to Be a People of Promise? Soul Matters Circle Packet, September 2014.