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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Never make a promise you can't keep

“Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” Mark 6:14-29
VI Pentecost – July 16, 2006 – The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
The Rev’d Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

You have often heard me quote my Grandmother over the past four plus years I have been with you. I can’t imagine any other person in my life having a greater impact on who I am today and how I try to live my life. One of my favorite pieces of her advice is: “Live your life as if everyone will know every detail because eventually, everyone will.”

She also taught me this: “It is better to keep silent and have people think you a fool than to open your mouth and prove them right.” I think about that every time I sit down to write a sermon. One of her aphorisms which has direct bearing on today’s scripture is this: “Never make a promise you are not absolutely certain you can keep.”

That was certainly a problem for Herod, wasn’t it? Herod liked John the Baptist. He liked to listen to him, even though when he heard him, he was very perplexed. Perhaps that had something to do with the fact that John the Baptist preached the truth. The particular truth that was perplexing to Herod is that John told him straight up that he had broken the law because he had married his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias – which seriously annoyed her. That made Herod a little more than uneasy, so he sent his men to arrest John. They bound him and threw him into jail.

Now, his wife Herodias wanted John dead – beheaded, in fact – but Herod protected him while he was in jail, knowing him to be a holy man. My grandmother used to say, “Opportunity is never a lengthy visitor.” Apparently Herodias knew this, too. She waited for Herod’s birthday banquet as the perfect opportunity to have her daughter, also named Herodias, dance for Herod and elicit from him a promise.

“Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it,” Herod solemnly swore to his daughter Herodius. After a consultation with her mother, Herodius said to her father, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” Consider the bind in which the King suddenly found himself. Scripture says that “the king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests he did not want to refuse her.” There are some promises that shouldn’t be made – especially open-ended ones.

My grandmother would say, “Never make a promise you are not absolutely certain you can keep.” These wise words, like many wise words, were no doubt forged in the crucible of painful experience. I suspect they were born in the presence of heartbreaking disappointment and bitter disillusionment as well as deep frustration. When she spoke these words, there was an unmistakable tone of sadness in my grandmother’s voice which I can hear even now as I call up my memory of her. I often wonder what experience – or experiences – gave shape and form to her elegant wisdom.

What is it that turns one person’s disappointment into retaliation and another’s into wisdom? What is it that caused Herodius to turn her bitter anger at John the Baptist into a vendetta that spread its poison to her own daughter, involving her in murder? What was it that prompted Herodius to connive and scheme such a cruel fate for her nemesis out of the enthusiastic, spontaneous generosity of her husband’s birthday festivities? What was it that caused my grandmother to become a mentor and a teacher for three generations of women in my family?

I recently saw the movie, WATER. If you haven’t seen it, you must. It is a story about colonial India in 1938, just before Gandhi’s rise to power, and how his deep wisdom challenged thousands of years of religious assumptions which had shaped culture and society and government. And, it is much, much more than that.

It is the story of Chuyia, a little girl who, in ancient Hindu custom, was married off at age eight to a man many years her senior. It was, to be sure, a financial arrangement, women being considered just slightly above cattle in worth, but lower, of course, than the sacred cow. Chuyia’s husband dies and, in accordance with religious custom, she is sent to atone for his untimely death by living the rest of her life in a house where Hindu widows must live out their lives in penitence.

Imagine! An eight year old girl, sentenced to a life of poverty, ignorance and mind numbing drudgery for her husband’s death – as if she had anything to do with it! But Chuyia’s feisty presence affects the lives of all the other residents, including a beautiful young widow, who falls in love with a Gandhian idealist. The telling of this story was such an embarrassment, such a threat to the status quo of some of the religious extremist groups in India that for five years, Deepa Mehta, the film maker, was threatened with arson and violence during the making of the film.

Yes, the story of young Chuyia and these widows is that powerful – and that dangerous. As my grandmother would say, “Live your life as if everyone will know every detail because eventually, everyone will.” Secrets can kill. Telling secrets dissolves their power to hurt and spurs healing, bringing change and transformation – which is why telling the truth of our stories is so dangerous to the status quo.

In many ways, WATER is the not-so-secret story about the promises and choices we make in our lives. Even when we seem to have had all of our choices taken from us. Even if we have surrendered our choices to fear – of what we have come to believe religion has promised or the tyranny of an unjust government, or even more commonly, in the unchallenged beliefs of a family system. It is the story of how powerful it is to make a choice for the good, and not give into despair, especially in the face of the evil of having had the choices of our basic humanity denied or unwillingly stripped of us.

It is the story of what happens to us when love is denied, and the perversions that are created when we make love a commodity. It is a complicated story, as complex as the human experience but told through, what is for many of us, the exotic lens of Indian culture and Hindu religion. And yet, we see it in this morning’s gospel story of ancient Jewish culture and religion. I hear traces of it in my grandmother’s voice in her Portuguese culture and Christian religion. Perhaps you know it, too, in someone’s life in this time and culture which has touched your own. Perhaps parts of your own story are in Chuyia’s story.

Somewhere, deep in the human psyche, it is a story we all know so well because it is part of a common, collective, unconscious knowledge. Somewhere, in the divine spark which quickens life in us all, there is an understanding of the promise of the dignity and worth of every human being. When that promise is broken, when the dignity and worth of a human being is not respected, is not cherished, we feel it deep in our soul. When that promise is claimed and lived into and out of, it is then that we soar to new heights of discovering the full potential and greatness of our simple, common humanity – no matter the limitations imposed on us, - or, those we impose on ourselves.

Somewhere, deep in the collective unconscious of the human enterprise, which crosses all cultures and time and religion, we understand that God never makes a promise to us that can not be kept. I think this is what perplexed Herod about John the Baptist. Indeed, this is what I suspect compelled Herod to keep his promise to his daughter, even though he knew it was wrong. The story of Herod is a cautionary tale which challenges our understandings about promises and choice.

I believe we know, in the intuitive places of our knowing, that God makes to each of us a promise of God’s constant and abiding presence – which allows someone like Amos, a simple “herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees” to make choices for the greatness of prophetic ministry. I believe we carry in the mystery of our souls the promise hidden deep in the words St. Paul writes to the ancient church in Ephesis, “God destined us for adoption as children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of God’s will, to the praise of God’s glorious grace that has been freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”

With these unspoken but profoundly known promises hidden deep in our hearts and minds and souls, we make choices with our lives – sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. By examining those choices we discover something author Fred Buechner calls “the way God speaks through the hieroglyphics of the things that happen to us.” It is in the midst of deciphering these hieroglyphics that we discover or uncover or recover our own wisdom. We come to understand, I believe, that even through tragedy and adversity – or perhaps because of it – God never makes a promise that can’t be kept. And so, in the simple wisdom my Grandmother taught, we strive to do the same. Amen.

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