Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
When Dr. Harrell Beck, my Old Testament professor, said, “Covenant,” he always clearly enunciated all three syllables. “Cov-e-nant.”
Holding the lectern with both hands, he would rise up on tiptoe to emphasize the importance of the word.
I don’t know whether I would love that passage in Genesis as well if it were not for Dr. Beck.
The LORD calls to Abram.
“Leave” everything that is familiar and comfortable and safe, and go.
“To the land that I will show you.”
With Harrell Beck, a lecture was also a sermon.
God always calls us into the future. It is always unknown. It is always both terrifying and full of possibility.
Just before our United Methodist General Conference met in Portland, Oregon, Bishop Scott J. Jones, who presides over the Great Plains Annual Conference, published an essay in the online journal, Ministry Matters, about the importance of keeping our clergy covenant.
He begins by saying that during the last few months he has had “multiple invitations to break my vows.” And then he explains that, “Many people have suggested that, in the name of protesting against perceived injustice, I should disobey the discipline of The United Methodist Church and violate the sacred promises I have made at two key points in my life — ordination as an elder and consecration as a bishop.”
“I decline those invitations,” says the bishop, “I will keep my promises. I will be faithful to God’s calling on my life as a leader in our church.”
He is talking about his refusal to officiate at a same sex wedding, or to condone clergy who do. And he speaks of the treatment of LGBTQ persons in the church as a “perceived injustice.”
This is not surprising. Two years ago Bishop Scott told the clergy of the Great Plains Conference that he had been asked what he would do if 100 clergy were to conduct same gender weddings, he said that he would first suspend all 100 clergy and then there would be 100 clergy trials. And he said that he would do this even though he knew that each trial would cost $100,000.
If a bishop is willing to spend ten million dollars ($10,000,000!) on trials you can assume that he or she is pretty serious about maintaining discipline.
I do not doubt that the bishop sincerely believes what he is saying. And I commend him for the way he speaks about those on the other side of this issue. “I deeply respect and love many people who disagree about key issues in the life of our church” he writes. “They are friends and colleagues.”
Apart from my disagreement with him in terms of this issue. I also disagree with him about the nature of the covenant we share.
His final paragraph illustrates our differences:
“When people justify their actions as ‘civil disobedience,’ they are misusing language. It is not disobedience against the government. It is ecclesial disobedience. They are violating the rules of a church they have freely joined when other, similar churches offer acceptable ways of pursuing their calling. If I ever get to the point where I cannot in good conscience obey the key aspects of our discipline — and I pray such a day never happens — it will be time to surrender my credentials as a United Methodist bishop and elder and find some other way to follow Christ.”
We agree that it’s not civil disobedience. I’m not sure who is using that language. And yes, it is ecclesial disobedience.
The next sentence is where we part ways: “They are violating the rules of a church they have freely joined when other, similar churches offer acceptable ways of pursuing their calling.”
Yes, it is “a church they have freely joined.”
And that is precisely the point. In my ordination (and earlier, in my confirmation) I freely joined a church.
I joined a church. I did not join the Book of Discipline.
I freely professed my general agreement with and affirmation of our United Methodist doctrine and polity. And I agreed to uphold the discipline (not the same as the Book of Discipline) of the church. But as the children’s hymn says, “the church is a people.” That’s what I joined.
I joined Harrell Beck, and Paul Deats, and Walter Muelder. G. Bromley Oxnam and Henry Hitt Crane. Harold Bosley, E. Stanley Jones, Georgia Harkness, and Ralph Sockman. And in our corner of the world, I joined Dale White and Gil Caldwell, and Bill Ziegler, Evelyn Burns, Jane Cary Peck, and Bobby McClain, and so many others. When I was ordained the pastors were almost all men, but I joined a church made up of wonderful human beings. The great Methodist preacher Halford Luccock called that church an “Endless Line of Splendor.”
Our covenant, like Abraham’s covenant, is with God. But it is lived out with real people here and now. And across time with that great “cloud of witnesses.”
A church is more than the people who have joined it. We need order and we need discipline, and we need a common theology. We need a common covenant.
But in our current situation, the covenant has been reduced to the Book of Discipline, and the Discipline has been reduced to a rule book.
And the rule book has been reduced to the rules that exclude LGBTQ folks.
That’s not my idea of a covenant. Or a church.