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Make Good Your Vows to the Most High

Susan Russel
Romans 4:13-18

"O God, from whom all good proceeds,

grant that by thy inspiration we may think those things that are right,

and by your merciful guiding may do them;

through Jesus Christ our Lord ..."

Words from the Collect of the Day for this Second Sunday after Pentecost. We are now launched into that long g-r-e-e-n season that stretches all the way to Advent: the twenty-something Sundays that make up the green season -- the growing season -- the teaching season of the church. A great way to begin that long season, as we focus on an essential piece: the call to not just THINK what is right -- the call to DO it.

A great way to begin a marriage: as Emily and Lewis ask for our prayers for the grace to always walk in love: with each other and with God.

I was describing our excitement about this morning's liturgy to a woman last week and she expressed a little confusion. "When I was brought up," she said "Sunday was for God -- we wouldn't have gotten to have a wedding on Sunday." And I thought ... what a shame! Of course "Sunday is for God" ... The commandment is "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy." Not "keep God safely contained in Sunday and don't let him leak into the rest of your life." And I can't think of a better way of keeping this Sabbath holy than by gathering as a community to celebrate the joy of this marriage with Lewis and Emily.

By choosing to celebrate their union in this way and at this time they are celebrating not just the miracle of the love that brought them together and unites them: they are celebrating their relationship with the God who made it all happen. And isn't it an occasion to celebrate when what God has in mind and what we think should happen work out so wonderfully. For those of us who know and love Emily and Lewis, this is a day of great rejoicing indeed: in sharing their joy we share as well a glimpse into the grace of God that has brought them to this place -- and we are enriched by it.

For marriage is indeed a sacrament: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Or at least, it can be. There is sometimes a wide gap between marriage as "an institution" and marriage as "a sacrament" -- in fact, it hasn't always BEEN a sacrament of the church ... but that's a subject for a Forum: not a wedding homily -- as much as I'm tempted! What makes it a sacrament is God's presence in the middle of it -- without that, it becomes empty ritual ... an exercise in "tradition" with no substance behind it ... a pale imitation of what we've gathered this morning to celebrate.

And so, how appropriate that our reading from Hosea, the prophet entreats the people to turn from empty ritual sacrifices back to God. "For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice," says the Lord. "The knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings." And you can hear the faithful responding to Hosea, "But we've always done it this way! What do you mean, no burnt offerings? My GRANDMOTHER donated that burnt-offering-altar ... it's a MEMORIAL!"

And yet, the message is as old as the Psalms -- this morning, Psalm 50 where God speaks with delicious irony to the people of Israel:

I will bear witness against you; for I am God, your God.

I do not accuse you because of your sacrifices; your offerings are ALWAYS before me,

[I love this part!]

If I were hungry, I would not tell YOU; for the whole world is mine and all that is in it.

Do you think I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?


Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving and make good your vows to the Most High.

Call upon me in the day of trouble; and I will deliver you, and you shall honor me.

It could be subtitled "The "Get-Over-Yourselves" Psalm" -- for the people had clearly slipped into that place where rather than offering sacrifice in thanksgiving for all God had done FOR them, they were using it as means to CONTROL God -- and, as a result, each other.

Again and again and AGAIN we hear the message: the Law came from God to show you how to walk in love ... but obeying the law and skipping the love part WILL GET YOU NO WHERE.

As Paul says to the Romans: "The promise to Abraham did not come through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. That is why it depend on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants -- not only to adherents of the law, but also to those who share the faith of Abraham."

And what was the faith of Abraham? "In hope, he believed against hope that he should become the father of many nations." And he did.

Have you ever "hoped against hope" for something? I remember well a time, about two years ago now, when I did precisely that. My dearest friend and I had had what my grandmother used to call "a falling out." Harsh words were exchanged -- feelings were hurt -- attempts at reconciliation were rebuffed: and then there was a long, awful, empty and chilling silence. It seemed that there was nothing I could do to "fix it" -- there was no hope of what had happened between us ever being redeemed. I could preach that nothing was beyond God's power to redeem -- but at some deep place in my wounded heart, I doubted that even God could fix this one.

A pretty lousy place to be.

And finally, I had nothing left but prayer. Not the "... and here's what I think you should do about this, God" kind of prayer -- remember, I was out of ideas on this one! Instead, it was a prayer of thanksgiving for how my life had been enriched by this friendship -- and a request that God stay with me in the loneliness of the estrangement. Eventually, I found some peace in that.

Months later, our secretary came back to my desk with the morning mail: and holding one envelope back until last, she dropped it onto the pile saying, "I've checked: it's not ticking!" ... and left my office. It was more than I had dared hope for -- more even, than I had been able to pray for. It was, of course, a letter from my friend -- saying, "let's put the past behind us: please be part of my life again." And if I ever for a second doubt the power of God to redeem absolutely anything, I take out that letter and read it again. A small but, for me, profound icon of God's abundant grace -- and the power of prayer.

We have in front of today two such icons: incarnations of God's abundant grace and redemptive love. Were there times when, like Abraham, they had to "believe against hope" that God's promise of life abundant meant them, too? You know there were. And if YOU ever need a mental "snapshot" to remind you what the transforming power of God's love looks like, take a look at these two this morning. And trust that God loves you just as much.

Lewis and Emily, there is a verse in the book of Ecclesiastes that says: "A rope made of three cords is hard to break" -- for the interwoven three strands provide a strength far greater than one or even two. Jesus worked his ministry like a rope made of three cords: himself, God and the disciples. In a moment, in the words of the marriage liturgy that you have chosen, you will respond to the call to be God's ministers to each other: and your marriage will be a rope made of three cords -- wife, husband and God. Thank you for your willingness to share this joyous moment with all of us. Thank you for helping to make our Sabbath truly holy. And now,


Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving

And make good your vows to the Most High.