Keeping Covenant 4-27-14

After the excitement of Easter Sunday, we as a church continue to rejoice in the new birth we have received through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a “birth into hope,” as this reading this morning puts it. It is a birth into “an imperishable inheritance.” This gift of new life is incredibly good news for all God’s people, the news of salvation, liberation for us all.  Listen for the word of God for you this day:

I Peter 1:3-9 Praised be the Abba God of our Savior Jesus Christ, who with great mercy gave us new birth:  a birth into hope, which draws its life from the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead; a birth to an imperishable inheritance incapable of fading or defilement, which is kept in heaven for you who are guarded with God’s power through faith; a birth to a salvation which stands ready to be revealed in the last days. There is cause for rejoicing here.  You may, for a time, have to suffer the distress of many trials. But this is so that your faith, which is more precious than the passing splendor of fire-tried gold, may by it genuineness lead to praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ appears. Although you have never seen Christ, you love Christ; and without seeing, you still believe, and you rejoice with inexpressible joy touched with glory, because you are achieving faith’s goal—your salvation.

April 27, 2014

Keeping Covenant

Last Monday was my father’s birthday. He would have been 96 years old. I’ve been thinking a bit about what I’ve inherited from him. He blessed me in many ways. He paid for a good education for me. He moved our family to the block where our local United Methodist Church stood, a block and a half from the local elementary school – so that faith and education would be a short walk away.
At the end of his life he began to paint, and one of my inheritances from him is a picture that he painted, during what he called his Grandpa Moses period. Here’s a picture of that painting. Pretty nice, huh? Unfortunately, I did not inherit his artistic talent. But I know that inherited other gifts and talents from him for which I am eternally grateful.

Inheritances can raise some difficult feelings. People expect to inherit some gift or some money or something. When the inheritance comes, the siblings argue about who was meant to get what, or they can be disappointed when someone else receives a part they thought they would inherit.
Evidently, even back in the first century, people talked about these kinds of issues, and had feelings about their inheritance because our reading in I Peter talks about our inheritance from the death and new life of Jesus Christ. The author specifically says that our inheritance is imperishable, undefiled and unfading. He seems to be talking with some irony, claiming that silver and gold are more perishable than the blood of Jesus.
Every physical inheritance, you see, is perishable. But the kind of inheritance that we get that determines our character, our integrity, no one can take away. Even that kind of inheritance is more perishable that the gift the the Risen Christ gives- the imperishable gift of new life and liberation, forgiveness, salvation, eternal love.
I titled my sermon today, “Keeping Covenant” because I wanted to prepare us for Frank Schaefer’s visit next week. Rev. Schaefer was criticized by some of my brothers and sisters in the ministry for breaking his covenant with the United Methodist Church, for performing a same sex marriage for his son. It was clear when he was ordained an elder, most likely, that performing a wedding in this was not considered to be in bounds.
I know that was true for me when I was ordained in 1986. I had to decide if I could be ordained as a pastor of the church that I had grown up in, a church that was part of my inheritance from my father, a church that had just recently at that time begun to pass laws saying things like “Homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and saying that LGBT people could not be ordained.
I had to decide, as I assume Frank Schaefer had to decide if these rules that the church was passing would overrule the covenant that I had with my family and friends and with God. Could I be part of a church that was making these rules barring people from ministry who I knew were perfectly capable and qualified, discriminating against people on the basis of their sexual orientation which we had come to understand was a way that people were born, not a choice they had made. I had to decide if I was promising to keep the church the way it had been or help it become something new for a new generation that was part of the covenant.
These were real questions, even in 1986 when I was ordained. I tell you the truth though, it was not a really hard decision. I have agonized over it more since then, but at the time, I felt, rightly or wrongly, that the United Methodist Church was part of my blood, part of my inheritance, that this church that taught me about Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus’ forgiveness and Jesus’ love was where I belonged.
I felt, and I still do. a covenant with God to make the church reflect God’s love and God’s intention toward all God’s people. Clergy friends who argue with me that the promise I made when I was ordained meant that I have to uphold all the rules of the church, whether I agree with them or not, make sense to me, up to a point. We have a covenant with each other to uphold, and we can’t go breaking the rules any time we feel like it.
When we put Frank Schaefer on trial for doing that wedding for his son, I felt that we were doing the wrong thing as a church. I felt sure that Rev. Schaefer performed that wedding out of a sense of covenant with God and with his family that made him make a hard decision to challenge a rule of the church that he felt was unjust. He will talk about that decision next week, and also about his decision to take the full consequences of that decision.
When they asked him to take a month to discern God’s intention for him, I felt that he could legitimately say that he would do his best to uphold the Book of Discipline from that time forward and see what came of it. He could have continued his ministry in the United Methodist Church. His decision to challenge the church even more by declaring that he could not in good conscience promise that he would never do a same sex wedding again was a statement of integrity that pushed me to be more honest and direct about my position and my support for changing our Book of Discipline to reflect God’s love for all people regardless of their sexual orientation.
I’m hoping that I won’t have to face the kind of trial that Rev. Schaefer faced, but if I did, I hope that I would be as brave as he has been to stand by his covenant with God even when that conflicts with the rules of the church. The truth, though, is that I do not wish for the United Methodist Church to split. I am more concerned and grieved than I have ever been over the deep disagreement and divide in our church today.
I pray that we will find a way to allow all people who grew up in the church and have inherited the gifts of the teaching of the church to continue to be part of its ministries. I pray that we will work to develop a strong ethic around sexuality that upholds the value of covenantal relationships, that calls people to committed, loving, long term covenantal relationships. We have invited Frank Schaefer here to preach because he has shown an integrity which the church needs inside, not outside its doors. We need to find a way to live together and hold each other in love, celebrating and rejoicing in the new life we have received through the power and the love of Christ Jesus.

Responsive Hymn:  # 2084    Come, Let Us with Our Lord Arise