Keeping the covenant is very important; and when we don’t it weakens the unity of the church. But the covenant is not always kept; and it causes pain to those who feel betrayed. The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church says that every United Methodist Church shall have a chartered fellowship of United Methodist Men (Paragraph 256.6). Some pastors and laypersons believe that they can break the covenant and not follow this part of the Discipline. They feel strongly that they should be free to break the covenant for the sake of their understanding of their local church’s call to ministry. This action weakens the work of the United Methodist Men and, some believe, also the future of the United Methodist Church.
We also break our covenant when we give lip service to open itinerancy, but then a church refuses to receive their next pastor, who happens to be a woman or someone from a different racial ethnicity or someone who speaks English as a second language. We break the covenant when we don’t make accommodations for persons with disabilities, who need accessible accommodation in order to participate in the life of the church. We United Methodists, through our General Conference, say that we are a church that will offer Holy Communion in our worship at least weekly, and every week a person seeking this means of grace should be able to find it at our worship service. But too often local-church tradition trumps the desires of the General Conference.
The Bible reminds us that the law kills, but the Spirit gives life. The course we are traveling where we pick and choose those parts of the Discipline we want to keep is problematic. People often get into trouble when they break church law. It is why Martin Luther was excommunicated, John Wesley was shut out of pulpits and Martin Boehm was dismissed from his church for shaking hands with Phillip William Otterbein. Diversity of opinion is never easy, but no matter what we personally believe, and I hope you believe passionately in what God has revealed to you, we are called to behave like the children of God. We should not call fire down from heaven on those with whom we disagree. We are to love the people with whom we disagree because we are on the same journey and that journey is to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
We are a divided church, but Christ calls us to unity. It was his last prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane and he knew the power of a united front as the church was born in the world. We need to get quiet before our God and listen and learn how to love each other like Christians in the face of our diversity. I am sorry that our United Methodist system of church trials forces us to harm each other and break one of the oldest tenets of our tradition: “Do no harm.” May we find ways of solving our differences in peace. May we keep the whole covenant, and the heart of that covenant is Love.