A woman told me, during a conversation several years ago, about her marriage, then entering its fourth decade. With humor, she recounted some of the trials she and her husband had weathered, including some that might have torpedoed other relationships.
Seeing an unspoken question on my face, she asked me, “Do you want to know how we’ve made it this long?” “Sure,” I told her. “It’s simple,” she said, “Before we even said, ‘I do,’ we made a promise to each other. No matter what, we would stay together.” She laughed and went on. “I also promised my husband that if he ever made me miserable, because of my commitment to him, I’d spend a lifetime making him miserable in return.”
She meant that last part as a joke, you should know. But the takeaway from my conversation with that woman was that the commitments, the promises, she and her husband made at the beginning of their relationship is part of why they remained together.
Now, we all know that not all marriages stay together. Things like infidelity, abuse, or other things can tear marriages apart. But in an age when people end their marriages on the flimsiest of pretexts, that woman’s words to me were telling. This couple decided at the outset that no matter how rocky things got, divorce was not an option.
Whether stated explicitly or simply believed internally, all relationships—marriages, friendships, or those between parents and children—are built on commitments or promises to hang in there together. Those two words—commitment, promise—really help to define the word that is the focal point of tonight’s worship, the first essential ingredient in good relationships: covenant
Covenant isn’t often included in the lexicon of the world outside the Church. (Sometimes, I think that we ought to hand visitors to our churches dictionaries so that they can understand the strange words we Christians use.) But covenant is a fundamental concept for we Christians…and for anyone who wants to have healthy relationships.
It won’t surprise you that as we develop a few thoughts about covenants and the part they can play in keeping our relationships together and strong, we have to start with God.
One reason for that is that God is the inventor of covenants. The God you and I know in Jesus Christ makes and keeps promises. A few examples:
- God promised Adam and Eve promised protection from the elements after they fell into sin.
- God promised to protect Cain from murder after Cain killed his own brother, Abel.
- God promised never to destroy the earth by water after He sent the great flood in response to human sin.
- God promised to make a great nation from the descendants of a couple who shouldn’t have even been able to produce children, Abraham and Sarah.
- The Ten Commandments begin, as all you good Catechism students will no doubt remember, not with God’s commands of His people, Israel, but with a promise: “I am the Lord, your God!”
- God promised that one day, He would send a Savior Who would give His life on a cross and rise from the dead in order to offer forgiveness and everlasting life to all with faith in Him.
- After this Savior rose from the dead and before He ascended into heaven, He made another promise: “I am with you always…I will never leave you or forsake you…”
“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’"In Jesus Christ, the baby born at Bethlehem, we see in flesh and blood, evidence that God keeps the promises God makes! “No matter what,” God tells us in His promises—His covenants for both His Old and New Testament peoples, “divorce is not an option. You may choose to walk away from Me. But I will never walk away from you!”
In the resilient toughness of God’s covenant promises to the human race, we see an important key to making all of our relationships work, making promises, making commitments to tough it out no matter what.
But, of course, there’s a problem with promises. I once read the story of a young man living in 19th-century England. As you know, that was what's called the Victorian Era. It was a time when young men were expected to write love poems or flowery letters to their girlfriends. So, this young man tried to write a love letter to his fiancé.
“I would cross the widest ocean for you,” he told her, “I would climb the highest mountain, walk through the greatest desert. I would do anything for you.” After that set of commitments, he added a PS: “I’ll be over tonight, if it doesn’t rain.”
Our promises are only as good as our willingness or our ability to follow through on them. And follow through on our good intentions isn’t generally a strong suit of we human beings. I don’t know about you, but I can so identify with the apostle Paul, when he writes in Romans: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.“
Among the things I’ve done that I hate, more often than I care to remember, is hurt my relationships with friends, colleagues, neighbors, and others by my failure to love others as God has loved me, to forgive others as God has forgiven me.
I should know better. More importantly, I should live better, in part because I’ve been the beneficiary of such great examples of people who live out their covenants, their promises, of love and concern for others.
Back in 1984, I graduated from seminary in May and still didn’t have a call to my first parish by August 11, the date on which Ann (then expecting our daughter, Sarah), Philip, and I had to be out of seminary housing.
My folks still had two teenagers living at home. Ann’s mother had just been through a divorce and was living in a tiny apartment. We couldn’t move in with family, then.
On top of that, my only financial contribution to our family came from what I made working part-time as a janitor. Ann, who I had torn away from a decent-paying position with the Greater Columbus Arts Council, so that I could do my seminary internship in Michigan, was working as a low-level coordinator with the special events office of Lazarus Department Store. We couldn’t even afford an apartment.
That’s when my friend Tom called me. Tom had just been through a divorce himself. It was a time when it would have been easy and understandable for Tom to be turned in on himself, licking his wounds. But Tom knew the jam I was in and asked if Ann, Phil, and I would like to move into his house with him.
Over a decade before, Tom and I had become friends. But then, he lived out the promise of friendship in a way that I could hardly fathom.
If you asked Tom how he was able to do that, you would eventually come to the real reason for his tough covenant love: Jesus Christ is his Lord and Savior. When Christ lives in you, you find it possible to walk the talk of loving relationships.
Of course, it isn’t just with friends that we’re called to love as we’ve been loved. For several decades now, Pastor Mike Slaughter has challenged the people of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church, located near Tipp City, Ohio, to adopt an impoverished family, usually from inner city Dayton. “Whatever you spend at your house for birthdays and Christmases,” he tells them, “spend the same amount on your adopted family.”
I’ve heard Slaughter talk about how hard that was for him initially, even after he'd convinced people in his church that it was the thing to do. But for decades now, the church’s members have been adopting families. The congregation has swollen to thousands of members precisely because of its commitment to living out covenants of love in Christ's Name.
The other day, Ann pointed me to an article in the most recent issue of Woman’s Day that, in part, profiled a woman who had been among the church's adoptees a few years back. She was a single mom finding it tough to make ends meet. But a giving family from her church helped get her through, and more than materially. Today, she’s an active member of the congregation herself. A few Christmases back, she heard Pastor Slaughter say that the congregation should send a million-dollars to help the refugees from the genocide in the Darfur region of the African nation of Sudan. He suggested that each household add to what they were already giving to attain the goal. “I could never do that,” this woman told herself. But at that moment, her young son leaned over and whispered to her, “We ought to do that.” And that’s exactly what they did!
God's #1 ingredient for relationships is covenant, giving and living the promise to love as we’ve been loved and not only our friends, neighbors, co-workers, spouses, children, parents, and classmates, but also all of the people Jesus was born to save: the whole world.
During this Advent season, let’s pray that the God Who long ago made a covenant to send a Savior, a branch of David Who would give His righteousness to all who turn from sin and follow Him, will give us the courage, tenacity, and openness to make and keep our own covenants of love for others.