“Remember the Vows”
“Remember the Vows”
Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4-6, 16-18
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
October 23, 2022
Ten years ago, I officiated at a wedding on Lake Lanier in Georgia. There was this long, wood bridge from the mainland to this large deck in the middle of the lake. Essentially, the wedding was on a little island floating on top of the water. Beautiful.
I have a coat and tie and very much look appropriate for the occasion. And we get going with the service, and I’m rolling along, a veteran of weddings that I am. And I’m nearing the end of the homily…
Earlier that day we did the rehearsal for the wedding. And during that time we talked about how the portion of the service right after my homily there would be time for the couple to share a couple paragraphs of special vows they have prepared for one another.
As we finish talking through that portion of the service, the bride gave me a copy of the words that she was going to read later that day. I thought that was strange – but she was and is a very organized person so I figured she just wants everyone to have a copy of everything.
Well, I finish my homily during the actual service.
“And now the couple is going to take a few moments to share special remarks they have written to one another and then declare their vows to one another.”
I start to back away. And the bride is staring at me.
And then it hits me. She has no pockets on her dress. I’m supposed to have that sheet with the words, and I don’t have it – it’s in my car located across that long, wood bridge.”
How I wanted to jump into that lake and swim so very far away… What is a wedding without vows?!
Have you ever shown up to the Main Event and forgotten to bring the most central thing?
And more times than perhaps we realize, is it possible to show up to the life of faith and forget the fundamental vows?
Paul writes this letter at a time when he can see the end of his life is drawing near.
And in this final portion of his letter he takes time to tell Timothy about the things that truly matter when the sun starts to set visibly, and ironically, a lot of the time, you can now see far more clearly when the sun is setting than when the sun is at high noon.
And Paul wants to have Timothy and the church remember the fundamental vows, the most important things – because as he explains in chapter 3 of this letter – there really are so many ways to show up to life and get pulled in dozens of other directions.
Paul talks about fighting a good fight, finishing a race, keeping the faith…but not because he is something amazing person who managed to keep doing the right thing…but, as he makes clear in verse 17 of our passage: In season and out of season… “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength.”
“As I look back on what really mattered, what happened in and through my life…it’s the gift of Jesus’s life and presence in me. Through me. Giving me a strength and love and wisdom for the good flight, the race, the faith.”
Which is to say, the main thing Paul is looking back and seeing is the vows that Jesus has kept for Paul.
• The vow to never leave him or forsake him.
• The vow to abide with him in sickness and in health.
• The vow to walk with him in times in times better and times worse, times joyful, times ashamed.
With all that we carry in our lives these days, all that is unfolding in the world, all the many reasons for worry and stress and concern… I wonder if it sometimes it feels like we are showing up at the main event called “life” and it’s really easy to forget the vows that hold us and lead us.
The promises of Jesus that are faithfully at work in our lives right this moment. Maybe sometimes we wonder, “how can we really know God is truly with us and for
us in all of this right now? How might we know the fundamental vow that holds us and so be reassured, strengthened, given courage to face it all? How might we know this truth deeply once more?
At the moment I realized I had forgotten the vows…I’m in a mental free-fall at this point standing on this island in the middle of the lake. And I start to mutter, “Oh…the vows are in my car.” And I look over at the 40-yard bridge across the lake. “Should I go get that?” She nods.
This was a sports-minded wedding party because a one guy a few rows back pipes up as he watches this dynamic and goes, “So we’re taking a time out?” “Yes…Time out. Two minutes. I will be right back.”
And I start running across that bridge in the heat of that late afternoon Georgia sun in my suit and dress shoes and as everyone watches me it feels like time goes into slow-motion. I am literally thinking with each step, “Don’t fall. Keep moving.”
You ever been on that bridge?
It’s called the bridge of vulnerability…and it is the way back to the fundamental vows.
Paul himself is writing in the face of his own death, abandoned by a number of friends and colleagues, having gone through considerable persecution, imprisoned… …he writes from a place of profound vulnerability.
And there – of all places – he sees clearly Jesus who has held him and does hold him.
And though we in this moment hardly know the same reality as Paul did …the same truth holds:
• It’s the times when life is cracking or falling apart,
• when our plan, our effort, our body is not working like we thought it would or should,
• when we really mess up (or they really mess up and we’re caught up in the mess)
• when we feel a brush with death itself…
…it’s the moments where we feel acutely our vulnerability in some way or another…
…That’s where we often see Jesus most clearly.
Vulnerability is the bridge back to vows that hold us.
And is that any surprise…
• given one of God’s central promises is to walk with us most especially in places like the Valley of the Shadow of Death?
• Given God’s promises that it is in our weakness that God’s power is made perfect?
• Given that it is by way of utter vulnerability (cross) that God draws us back to God’s love?
Any surprise that vulnerability is the bridge back to the person and promises of Jesus that hold us? If we are gathered here today and feel a real vulnerability, a real uncertainty, a real failure, a real fear…be assured, the ground you walk upon is a bridge back to the vows where we find a fresh assurance, strength, and courage.
And if that’s not you, we hardly need to wait for those acute moments.
Last Sunday afternoon the eight students in our confirmation class went on a hike alongside the San Gabriel River in San Gabriel Park (the cover of your bulletin is an actual picture from some of where we walked). And they were joined by their mentors who are members of this congregation and their parents.
We took about an hour…and we walked. Confirmands and their mentor took some time to talk about faith – what they are learning, what questions they have about the life of faith. Christianity. Parents and their child had some time to reflect together as well. We ended with about 15 minutes of group reflection alongside the river.
It was all so simple – walking. Talking.
But it was also honest talking. It was real conversations and real questions raised (One confirmand said to me on the walk, “If Jesus conquered death, why do we all fear death?”) It was heart-to-heart. Which is to say – it was vulnerable.
And I remember thinking to myself at the end of that hour…. “This is it. Walking by faith is not just a metaphor.”
There was such a sublime joy in letting these honest conversations happen and finding new depth of life with one another… and all the while walking along the river. This quiet, persistent reminder that God really is the abundant source of living water ever-moving in us, nourishing us, growing us – like those grand trees lining the river.
When’s the last time you had an honest conversation…and did you notice the river flowing?
There are a plenty of simple, everyday ways for us to see and feel and know – the vows of Jesus’ abiding love are at work. They flow alongside and underneath and through all of the time.
Two weeks after the wedding I received a thank you card in the mail from the bride and groom complete with a photo someone had snapped at just the moment when I and she and we all realized I didn’t have the vows. Now I remember the terror and dread of the moment.
You know what the camera captured?
The bride is keeled over in this full-of-life genuine burst of laughter (you can see this photo framed in my office here at the church).
Of all the people in the world to be deeply upset by my failing to keep my vow to be a minister who shows up and does a half-way decent job – it’s her. She laughed…
In Paul’s letter, yes, he remembers the vow of love and strength that has held in the good fight, the race…but also is dealing with the fact that a lot of people hurt him, abandoned him. He has good reason to be deeply upset, angry, hurt.
And did you catch what he said about them to Timothy? “At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them.”
The ones who hurt me, betrayed me, weren’t there for me…forgive them.
And that is the thing:
The more we return to and remember and fall up the steadfast vows of Jesus Christ which hold us and keep us and lead us…its not only that we receive a fresh comfort, a fresh strength.
It’s that those vows are like water that feed us and shape us such that the same love arises in us. The forgiving love comes through us. Even when we have every reason to be the one who is upset, aggrieved, wronged by others who have not kept their vow, the more often we cross that bridge back to God’s vows, God’s love – the more we respond with God’s kind of love.
The kind that declares from the cross: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
— Whether this day we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death or walking alongside the San Gabriel, Jesus is with us. And for us. And nourishing us.
May that vow give us the courage and compassion to make that same kind of love known through us – to all of God’s people, to all of God’s creation.
To God be the glory forever and ever. Amen.