We can’t do everything but we can love. These words we read together at the beginning of the worship service unveil an important truth about our lives and our work as a beloved community. We can’t do everything, but there are things we can do, things that bring us closer to God, closer to one another and close to our true selves, our belovedness. John Wesley, the founder and spiritual father of United Methodists believed that what we can do is to covenant together, to structure our lives in simple yet profound ways which gave us both the insight and strength to love. So today, we will trace the steps of those early methodists, by examining a practice Wesley endorsed, of gathering in small groups and reading a covenant together. Each member was to then reflect with the others in their small group about how they were able to fulfill the promises they made to God to be faithful disciples. In a bit you will have an opportunity to sign the covenant wesley put forth, and then we celebrate the love feast, which was a ritual designed to be used in the covenant groups. First, let us examine line by line exactly the words used in the covenant.
1. CALLED into being.
We are all called into life with the love of God, and we are called beloved by God. The sacred voice of God calls us by name, and whispers into our hearts that we are beloved children with whom God is well pleased. Life is a gift of our creator, and we are filled with the breath of God, so we can then breath.
Empowered by the grace of God,
As I think about the grace of God, I am reminded that this grace is a free gift, or as John Wesley taught is preeminent, there before we even need it. As we were born, grace went before us even then. As we grow, we become aware of our brokenness, of the ways we have fallen short of the gift, but even then through grace we are empowered to keep on loving.
We covenant to dedicate ourselves to a life that exemplifies Christ and the gospel.
Each new day brings a fresh opportunity to live a life responding to the call of Christ. This portion of the covenant recognizes that once we have been called into being, and empowered by the grace of God, we naturally want to respond.
4.We offer our time, talents, abilities, and resources in obedience to the gospel,
You notice that we offer ourselves, we bring ourselves to God, God does not manipulate, or badger, or seduce us, we offer freely of our time talents, abilities and resources.
Acknowledging our dependence upon God's grace and the power of the Holy Spirit.
This week was a difficult week to get my tasks done. I made phone calls some that went unreturned even though I left messages, some that people assured me they would get back to me with the answers to my questions, and some I did not get to follow up on because I was waiting for information from someone else. I e-mailed people with questions, and have not received an e-mail. Preparing for this sermon was difficult because unlike the past few weeks, I did not sense the inspiration from God, as much as I asked for clarity. And, even my electronic calendar let me down, it alerted me to appointments that were already a day past, and completely forgot about the Evangelism meeting I was supposed to attend until after it was held. My phone voice mail kept key returned calls to itself until days later. I think it was the rain. Anyhow, in the middle of my imperfect week, I realized how dependent I am on God, that even when I fail, when things don’t go according to plan, it is God who powers my life.
6.We respect and accept all seekers and members, whose integrity and confidentiality we will uphold in all that we share. Respect means keeping conversations we have with others as a sacred trust. I don’t mean every conversation, because that would be difficult, but when we have a deeper than usual conversation, when we share from our souls, these are conversations that are important to honor. Our church is beginning a new year, with new people who serve on our various work areas, Trustees, Finance, Staff-Parish relations, church council, evangelism, preschool board, ___________. Each person who serves on these new committees has a responsibility to respect the integrity and confidentiality of those who are dealing with the deep issues. What would the life of our church be like if the finance committee disclosed the amounts each person gave? What if the Staff parish relations committee started to gossip about the conversations they had with the church staff during their year end evaluation, what if the trustees started to attack the integrity of the chairperson just because they disagreed on a issue? These would all be violations of respect and would only serve to pull the community apart. We need to treat the conversations with one another as sacred encounters, not to gossip or talk out of trying to put one another down.
7.We will seek/spend four hours in service with the poor of our community each month. We can spend a bit more or even a bit less, the point is to keep the poor among us in our vision. The bible is very clear, we need to remember that we are to care for the poor, the widow and the children in our society. I would also extend the definition of poor to mean more than the financial status of a person, poor can also mean poor in spirit according to the bible, those who have no spiritual development, those who are mentally or physically ill, those who are physically or emotionally challenged. There are many ways we can serve them, advocate for them, because as we serve them, we too will grow in our faith, seeing others as God sees us.
8.We will balance the time we devote to church, work, family, and friends — including our own spiritual and recreational lives. It is important for us to have a good balance in our life, to keep healthy. I have a tendency to neglect some of my friends when I get too busy. And some of my friends tend to neglect me when they get too busy. This week I made an appointment with a friend of mine that I have been trying to spend some time with. We finally set a time because the strategy of just getting together when we both had time was not working. It is the same with us, we need to schedule a healthy balance between working, play, family, friends, and our faith.
9.We will actively work for justice in our community, nation, and the world. Martin Luther King Jr, is only one example of the ability of love to change lives. Dr. King was convinced that the answer to overcoming injustice was to use the power of love to motivate us to look for ways of overcoming injustice because if we love, we see the suffering of others, and desire to overcome it in whatever ways we can. Love instead of fear leads to safer communities, better living for all, and less of us versus them mentality.
10. We will regularly attend worship, unless prevented. I know this sounds like a simple thing, but the fact is that there is much that competes for our attention. In Southern California there is a plethora of activities we could participate in with the time we spend in worship. Work, sports, cultural events, recreation, museums, or just staying in bed instead of braving the weather, all of these compete for our time and commitment. And the point is that as important it is to have balance, we cannot neglect worship. It is the way we stay connected to God, and to the needs of others.
11. We will share in Holy Communion (or a Love Feast) as part of our weekly meeting. Wesley believed in the weekly, and even daily participation in the holy meal. He thought this essential in spiritual practice. Henry Nouwen compares the actions of taking the bread and cup, blessing them, breaking and giving these gifts how our lives are to be used by God to feed the needs of the world. I believe in the power of this sacrament, and know I have been fed in these last few weeks as we celebrate Holy Communion, and hope there are some of you who would like to gather each week and continue this celebration as a weekly event. I would like to have as many as we can be in a covenant group and go through these steps with one another so we can be a healthier church. A love feast was instituted by wesley as a way of groups remembering the sacrament of Holy Communion, when covenant groups did not have a clergy in them.
We will seek to practice daily the presence of God through unceasing prayer.
We are seekers, always looking to God for the path, always trusting in God to lead us and those we love. Unceasing prayer does not mean being on our knees 24-7 but it does mean having an ongoing conversation with God.
13.We will have a regular daily devotional time.
This could mean in the morning, or before we go to bed, it might be 5 minutes or an hour, the key is to have a regular daily devotional time, one that we would miss if we did not reflect and pray.
14.We hereby make our commitment, trusting in the grace of God to give us the will and the strength to keep this covenant. As Paul writes to the Corinthians; there should be no division, keeping this covenant is the way to unity, together we work on our faith, confessing our sins, looking to each other for strength and inspiration of how to live, always bringing glory to God in whatever we do.
This week I heard the story of a 57 year old woman who was divorced after 28 years of marriage, and who lost her son to suicide at age 21. Her son was the kind of person who talked to everyone, “Everyone?” she said to him once, “Yes everyone, that way I won’t miss someone I need to know”. So, after she cried for months after his death, she finally realized she had two choices, to live with a bag of rocks or celebrate his life. So she adapted her son’s philosophy of talking to others, anyone and everyone she wanted.
It was also a realization that she wanted to connect to others now, more than ever. Her son has lost his way, and she still does not know what drove him to suicide. But her making connections keeps him alive in her heart, his death had made her sit up and take notice, and is in the game now making connections to others.
We have been given a great gift, this life of ours, to open this gift and to appreciate all its complexities means giving ourselves to God, and to one another. It is not always a big bowl of cherries, sometimes we get only pits, yet sharing our love in always, in all ways is exactly how we should act as God’s beloved.