“I Plight Thee My Troth”
The Rev. Dr. J. Michael Solberg
February 5, 2012
Sometimes it slips our minds that the Bible is primarily made up of stories. From Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, through Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, most of the major prophets, and some of all the rest of the Old Testament, then through the gospels and Acts and on to Revelation, it’s all a bunch of stories. Why? Because stories are the best way to reveal someone’s character. It was true then, and it’s true now.
Think of Han Solo in the Star Wars movies, well at least in the first movie – Episode IV. At the beginning of the story Han Solo seems to be a shallow cad who is only interested in his own financial gain. At a critical time in the story, with the battle between the good guys and the bad guys looming, Han takes the payment for his work and gets away to safety as fast as he can. The battle begins, the good guys are losing, the hero Luke Skywalker is about to die, and swell the music, Han Solo comes swooping in with the Millennium Falcon, saves the hero, helps destroy the Death Star and propels the good guys on to victory.
It is only as that story unfolds that the true character of Han Solo is known. You could certainly write about Han’s character in a more descriptive way. You could say “Han was courageous and faithful to his friends,” but to really understand his character it is more helpful to tell the story: when the moment of truth came, and Han could have left with his fortune, instead he risked his life to help the good guys. When it comes to revealing character, stories beat description every time. In fact, when you are talking about real people in their real lives, you know little about someone’s character until the story unfolds. You can only say Han was courageous because when the moment of truth came he demonstrated courage.
And that’s why the Bible is full of stories. The goal of the Bible is to reveal the character of God. Because that is what we all really want to know. We don’t much care what God is. We don’t much care how there can be such a thing as God. What we really want to know, especially at the critical moments of our lives, is who is this God we say we believe in? What is God’s character? At the critical moment, can God be trusted? We only know the answer to that question through stories.
Imagine a children’s story about a family living in a thick forest that goes on for miles and miles. A brutal winter falls upon them, and in spite of good preparation, the fire wood is about to run out, and the family sure to freeze to death. So the father heads out in the terrible cold and snow to find more firewood to save his family. As the mother is huddled with the children at home, they fear that their father will be overcome by the elements and never return. What does the mother say to comfort the children? She tells stories. Remember the time this house caught on fire, and your father ran to the river over and over with a giant bucket and brought back enough water to put out the fire? Remember the time your brother broke his leg when he was alone and far from home and we didn’t know where, and your father followed his tracks for many, many hours, found your brother and carried him home so we could help him? Yes, your father can do this too, for he has done such things before.
That’s what this Psalm is like. It is not written by or for someone in a position of strength and certainty. It is not written for someone in complete control of their situation. It is not written for those of unwavering faith. It is written for those who wonder, for those doubt, for those who are vulnerable, for those who are not sure that God can be trusted. It recalls the stories of God, and is written for people like you and me.
When we think about the future of our congregation, what will become of us, will we survive, who will we be in the future? We are really asking, who is this God we say we believe in? And so we remember a story: Remember the time God built up Jerusalem and gathered the outcasts of Israel? Thus God will do again. When we feel we will never recover from a marriage that has fallen apart, or we are filled with dread when we see the xray that shows a strange mass on the lung - We are really asking, who is this God we say we believe in? And so we remember a story: Remember the time God healed up the brokenhearted and bound up their wounds? Thus God will do again. When we face a struggle of faith because it seems as if the how of science leaves no room for the why of God - We are really asking, who is this God we say we believe in? And so we remember a story: Remember that God created the stars and gave them their names. When we feel as if we are hopelessly at odds with the world in which we live, where it seems it is only the world’s power that matters, financial power, military power, social power, and we think this whole business about the power of love is just talk - We are really asking, who is this God we say we believe in? And so we remember a story: Remember that God has no delight in the strength of the horse, nor pleasure in the speed of runner; but God takes pleasure in those who fear God, in those who hope in God’s steadfast love. Thus God will do again.
Those last words of the psalm lead us on even further. For the stories of the Bible do not only address us at times of crisis and need. These stories are for the whole of our lives. God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being, so these stories are for the whole of our identity as people. And so we remember that the Bible is not simply made up of stories, but that the whole thing is together a story, the whole thing together reveals the character of God. And the last words of this Psalm give us words to talk about the character of God. In Hebrew, the word is “hesed.” In our translation the phrase is “steadfast love.” But using the word “love” does not capture the full meaning here - at least not if we think of the superficial version of “love” that will be celebrated next week on Valentine’s Day. Better than “steadfast love” would be “steadfast commitment” – or simply “loyalty. The meaning is similar to a marriage vow from the olden days – like in the old Book of Common Prayer, where the vows read: “I, bride, take thee, groom, to my lawful wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God's holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.” I plight thee my troth. Which basically means, “With unshakeable loyalty, I connect my fate to yours, we are in this together.” That vow reflected that marriage was not about feelings, but about commitment, each person pledging their commitment to the life-long well-being of another. A commitment which was the central measure of your character. A commitment that you would rather die than violate.
That’s what “hesed,” God’s “loyalty,” is all about. That’s the kind of God we believe in. And so in the end we tell the story that encompasses all of life. Remember when God came to earth in man named Jesus, and taught us, and challenged us, and loved us, and suffered because of us? Remember what God did then? Remember that the tomb was empty, and that God gave himself to us, to forgive us, to heal us, to nourish us, then, and now, and always. Here at this table, that is the story we remember - that in Jesus Christ God has said, I plight thee my troth, “With unshakeable loyalty, I connect my fate to yours, we are in this together.”
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.