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The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 9, 2012
The Old Testament: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Sermon: "A Promise That Keeps"
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
Watch the complete video of this service on our YouTube Channel
The Old Testament:
A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,
and favor is better than silver or gold.
The rich and the poor have this in common:
the LORD is the maker of them all.
Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,
and the rod of anger will fail.
Those who are generous are blessed,
for they share their bread with the poor.
Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
or crush the afflicted at the gate;
for the LORD pleads their cause
and despoils of life those who despoil them.
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
A Promise That Keeps
Promises! Promises! Promises! Our lives are full of promises. Promises to keep, promises to make, promises we make we can’t keep; promises made, promises broken, promises kept. We hold others to their promises. We fulfill our promises. Promises are all around us and we use that word in so many ways. Then too we have other words which express some aspect of promise: our appliances carry warrantees against faulty workmanship. Our pens and watches have guarantees for a long life. Then there is the word assurance. We receive assurances from all quarters all the time, such as the basic assurances of our society: assurances of readiness from the fire department, assurances of protection from the police and sheriff’s departments, assurances of skilled help from the medical profession. Then we have insurance for when assurance isn’t enough.
Our lives are surrounded by promises, as well as full of them. When we turn to the Scriptures we find that this pervasiveness of promises applies even to the spiritual life. In the Bible we find some 600 different promises. This morning, we deal with one of them in particular.
From the book of Proverbs, chapter 22, verse six, we find this promise, “Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.” Or as the old King James so famously put it, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” Is this promise really true? You and I know exceptions to it, certainly. Yet we also know so many cases where that early training has taken hold; if not right away, then eventually. I know that it has held true in several cases in my own family: one case in particular was my Aunt Estelle.
My Aunt Estelle, my Father’s sister, grew up in a home in which faith was taught and practiced. Yet in her late teens she moved away from those values. Marrying, establishing her own home, she took less and less thought for those teachings of her childhood. Her Brothers and sisters took great concern for her spiritual well-being. Despite appeals from them to return to the Faith, she continued to move further from that Faith. Actually, it was often because of some of those appeals that she continued to lock the door of her heart; to pile up more and more barriers against that door, lest she should open it again to that childhood faith. The tragedies of the untimely death of her husband and then both of her sons only hardened that resolve.
Being of the younger generation, I knew nothing of this sixty year struggle in Estelle’s heart when I first began to visit her regularly on my own. I had just graduated from seminary and had become the pastor of a small town congregation just ten miles away from her town. I had always been taught to freely discern my faith in all of my other uncles and aunts homes, so I had no reason to suspect that there was, in her home, a reason for caution. Knowing no reason not to, I approached her as a sister in the Family of God, as well as an aunt in my Father’s family. Not once over the next five years did I appeal to her to return the Faith. Not once did I tell her that she was a sinner in need of repentance and the grace of God. I simply acknowledged in her the dignity due a child of God.
No longer faced by an accusing representative of God’s judgment, Estelle’s conversations with me quickly became open and caring. So deep did our talks, even on theology, become, so searching Estelle’s questions, I never suspected a problem. As my pastorate there was nearing its end, and I was about to accept a call to the South Bay of Los Angeles, another aunt and an uncle, a sister and brother of Estelle’s called on me. They had been to visit Estelle after recent extended conversations they had had with her. They had stopped in to tell of how Estelle had returned to the Faith, how her heart was open, and how marvelous it was that I had been the one to get through. I was shocked, to say the least. But they explained.
Estelle had shared with them. She had come recently to remember a particularly happy time in her childhood; The most happy she had said. It was a time when she knew that God loved her; a time when she felt the acceptance granted to those of the family of God. It was that time when she was a regular student in Mrs. Hastings primary class in the Santa Paula Presbyterian Sunday School. The unknowing but open acceptance I had regarded her with had opened the door to the floods of cherished memory. The seed of faith planted by Mrs. Hastings 68 years before, had at last sprouted.
It is in part because of our trust in this promise of God that St. Thomas focuses on spiritual development, with a class for our children and youth, and a class for adults as well, on Sunday mornings. You see, we have made a promise in response to God’s promise. We renew it each time we baptize a child, or confirm a youth or adult. Here are the two questions whose answers renew the promise: of godparents and sponsors we ask, “Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?” Then of all of us we ask, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” Our sincere and heart-felt answer has always been, “We will, with God’s help.”
We show our commitment to that promise to those in our care, in part, in the open reception we give them in worship, and the warm welcome at the Altar; no matter what age, no matter how fidgety. We show our commitment in the classes we provide them, the caring of the people who teach them, and in the creativity of the curriculums we employ for them. Because of a promise given, we have a promise to keep.
It happened at Princeton Seminary. The great theologian, Karl Barth, had just finished his lecture to the students and Princeton community at large. The hall was packed with dignitaries and the press-corp. It may be hard to imagine such a thing as a “celebrity theologian” but Karl Barth was exactly that; the next day the papers and news-casts would be reporting on what was said this day. Hands went up around the hall; side to side and front to back asking questions of this great man.
Finally, one person asked, “Dr. Barth, of all of the discoveries you have ever made, which one was the greatest?” Of course it was a young seminary student who asked that question. I mean, only a brash, naïve, innocent would have been so bold as to ask what everyone else knew was impossible to answer; after all, how would such a great thinker possibly have just one most important discovery? Yet, brash as it was, Barth halted in his mental tracks to ponder it.
A hush fell over the crowd. Everyone strained to hear. One of the finest minds ever produced in the history of the Christian Church, ranking with St. Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther, was about to tell them of the single most important discovery he had ever made in the Faith.
Dr. Barth took his time, weighing his words carefully, in deep concentration. Going the unusual route for him of formulating his thoughts first in his native German, then seeking out just the right words in English, he slowly replied, “The greatest thing I have ever discovered I learned on my Mother’s knee. And it is this: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” A children’s Sunday School verse.
“Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray. “ (NRSV) Or, if you prefer, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. “ (KJV) Either way, that is a promise that keeps!