Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Its all about Covenant...

Trinity UMC - Waverly, IA
Being a fine brick and mortar church with a nice long aisle, we get phone calls from time to time from brides wanting to get married at Trinity UMC.  By now our Administrative Assistant, Mary, has it down to a science: "Pastor Deborah would be happy to talk with you about our wedding policies after worship some Sunday, when should I tell her to expect you?"  Half the time they never come.  And that's ok with me.  

It gets trickier when an out of town child or grandchild of a member calls to have their baby baptized the next family reunion weekend or holiday they are in town.  Even worse if its Grandma who calls to ask when they can get the baptism done.

In the United Methodist church we don't do private baptisms.  Baptism is a sacrament , a Holy Covenant between the parents, the Church and God.  The last thing I want to do is cause the congregation to perjure themselves because they can't live into the covenantal language that is integral to the service.  The congregation is asked: "Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life and include these persons now before you in your care?"  and the congregation then responds:
With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ.  We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God, and be found faithful in their service to others.  We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.
Eucharist at Trinity UMC
If a child is going to live outside of the community how can we live into this covenant?  Let alone the implications of turning the very Holy Spirit of God loose on a family that is not part of a worshiping community - that is if we believe that God is real, almighty and powerful...hmmmm.

Likewise, Holy Communion is a sacrament - and in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup we celebrate the New Covenant that is made through the mystery of faith; Christ has died, Christ has Risen, Christ will rise again!

I tend to agree with Phyllis Tickle, author of The Great Emergence, that we are in the midst of a huge shift in religion and religious institutions around the globe. I would encourage you to read her book and consider that this is a pattern that has been repeating for thousands of years.  Essentially, and I say this with fear and trembling, every 500 years there is an upheaval that occurs as we try to sort out to what/whom do we give authority.  The last such upheaval was around 1500.  So, here we are - surprise!

Luther helped us sort through the last upheaval, known as The Reformation.  When the dust settled the Church identified that our authority comes from Scripture.  Over the past 200 years or so  Solo Scriptura has been undermined and eroded by the Enlightenment and modernity - by science, psychology, the end of slavery, women's suffrage, the civil rights movement, divorce and now the LGBT debate.   At the Wild Goose Festival (as well as at other various speaking engagements) Tickle suggests that if we follow the normal pattern of change it will take us about 40-80 years to finally work through the three major questions facing this Great Emergence:  to what/whom do we give authority, what was/is the atonement all about and what is a person and personhood (when does personhood start - to help deal with issues surrounding biology and the medical field).  She mentioned another thing:  how essential it will be for us to reclaim an understanding of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and the divine dance that is inherent in their unity and communion with one another.

I have been thinking about this for a while, and I think that our authority must be grounded once again in Covenant.  I believe we need to reclaim the meaning and the importance of covenental language.  We pastors are good about throwing this word around, but I am not sure that we have 'unpacked' the meaning of Covenant very well.  A Covenant is more than a contract - because it is between God and God's people.  It is so important that at any big event, God (or God's prophet) runs through a whole list of things that God has done (which may seem redundant, but this is how Covenant works) for God's people, in God's people and through God's people to lay the framework for any shift or new way of looking at how God is working in and through God's people.  This reminder lays the ground work for how God's people are to live into the Covenant (or live up to their side of the bargain).

I think we must reclaim a sense of the importance of Covenant, which is based on scripture!  See Genesis when Noah and the critters survive the flood or when Abram is called by God, or when Abram is renamed Abraham, or when Moses brings down the 10 Commandments, or when Joshua takes over after Moses' death....the Old Testament covenant begins with; "I am the Lord your God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob..."  And when Jesus shares his last meal with his disciples, he re-wrote the script for the Passover meal saying; "this is the New Covenant in my blood...."

As I think about these important questions I am reminded of how difficult it is to live into a Covenant, which is why Jesus came in the first place, to teach us how to live into being God's people.  And the amazing thing is that it didn't matter to Jesus if you were a sinner or a saint, a Jew or a Gentile or even a Roman soldier each and every person was created in God's own image and so a person of great value and worth to the Kingdom of Heaven.  What mattered was faith and a willingness to love God and love one another, to enter into relationship or covenant with God.

As a United Methodist we acknowledge two sacraments: Baptism and Eucharist and then there are other means of grace that use covenant language as well:  Marriage, Ordination and Confirmation, anointing with oil/healing.  What if we were to call the church back to covenant language?  First we would have to acknowledge that words have meaning.  In this current climate of noise and words and information coming at us from every side, this would mean an intentionality and sensibility that may just be refreshing.  

Our Triune God has given us Covenant language for a reason.  I think our future demands a more careful look at our past and how God has worked in and through God's people and His good creation through Covenant.  God's postmodern prophets are starting to call us back to the basic, fundamentals of the faith.  Of course, we know what happens to many prophets...I fear it is not going to be pretty these next few decades as we sort things out.

Here is one way that the rubber meets the road for me.  If I am going to take Covenant seriously, I think its time that the church stop being an arm of the civil government when it comes to marriage.  I am all for blessing marriages in an appropriate worship service, but why should the church act as an agent for the civil government?  I, for one, am ready to get out of the wedding business, and get back to the work of building a relationship based on Covenant, the couple and the congregation that they worship with should be entering into this call to love and uphold one another in good times and in bad.  I think we'd have fewer marriages in trouble if we were truly vested and invested in lifting each other up.  But then again, that's just me.

Regardless, I pray that Covenant begins to have meaning again, that its not just ritual or pomp and circumstance, or something that gets done, but that by being drawn into the Covenant we are able to tap into the depth and breadth of God's love for his Good Creation and our proper response to love God with our whole heart, mind, soul and strength and to love one another as we love ourselves.  

I wish I had thought of this while I was at the Wild Goose Festival.  I would love to hear some thoughts from others who were there - does this perhaps mesh with some of the conversations that were going on?

in Christ, together,

1 comment:

  1. So I'll try this again...

    After studying Covenant for the DMin program last year, I've really begun to discover the power of the idea. There is a basic idea behind it: that of a sort of trading places in which the people involved are brought into a new family. It's similar but even deeper to adoption in the ancient world. And Christianity, at it's core, is adoption/covenant into the family of God (the family of the true Israel the way I read Romans...). And a marriage is the same thing - I'm completely in agreement with you about baptism and weddings! Let's regain the real understanding of what it means to be family together! And a more binding, more relational family than most of us have had growing up in 20th century America!
    The first time the word covenant is used is in the story of Noah - when God makes a covenant with all creation (or at least that's the way I read it). And it just gets better from there.
    'Cause I know you Deb, here are a couple of books for you: Kinship by Covenant by Scott Hahn (a RC scholar who's a little too pro-Catholic but really good anyway) and also When the Church was a Family by Scott Hellerman. Both really good!