Thursday, November 21, 2013

Welcome, Everyone?

When I was the associate dean at Pacific School of Religion, I attended Epworth United Methodist Church in Berkeley. It was an odd thing to move from the pulpit to the pew and be a worshipper rather than a leader. It provided a perspective that I am grateful for, now that I have moved back to parish ministry.

I hadn't realized how hungry my soul was for spiritual nourishment, which was usually fulfilled within the first five minutes of worship, when the children came forward and sang, "Welcome, everyone, to the love of God!"

I was so grateful to be a part of a church that truly embraced these words. God's love was extended to a diverse congregation that included people of all races, ethnicities, abilities, sexual orientations and gender identities. Families of all sorts were welcomed to be a part of this faith family. And, after one glance around the sanctuary by the end of the song, all knew that they were embraced by the love of God.

This week was not a good news week for The United Methodist Church. Rev. Frank Schaefer, a member of the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference, was tried, convicted and sentenced for extending the love of God to his son. There is a cognitive dissonance that runs deep in that last sentence. One of the greatest joys of a parent is to see their child get married. That joy is heightened for clergy parents, who sometimes get the great honor of performing the ceremony. All that a parent has tried to convey about God's gift of love is wrapped up in that moment when their child says, "I do."

Welcome, everyone, to the love of God.

While most pastors would get a round of congratulations from their bishop and colleagues for officiating at their child's wedding, Rev. Schaeffer got slapped with a complaint which led to the trial, simply because his son happens to be gay.

The language the prosecution used this week has done nothing to extend the love of God and neighbor. In fact, fear has replaced love as the blessed tie that binds United Methodists together: the prosecution requested that the jury consider a penalty severe enough "so that other clergy fear breaking the covenant."

Any covenant that rests on fear instead of love deserves to be broken. Covenants--whether between two people bound together in marriage or clergy uniting to an Order--are always grounded in the love of God. The purpose of covenant is to help us remain rooted in this love and to help us express it in all that we do. Using fear as a way to force another to conform to a certain behavior has nothing to do with covenant and everything to do with abuse.

The prosecution and trial jury has made it clear: not everyone is welcome to the love of God. How can a church, which is founded on an understanding of the depth of grace and the wideness of God's mercy, live with this distortion of our theological heritage? 

I stand with thousands of other faithful United Methodists, who will continue to live into the fullness of a love-based covenant. I will continue to be a pastor to every member of my congregation, to help them experience and express God's love in their lives and relationships. I will marry couples who have found God's blessings in the love they share together. I will not allow fear to destroy covenantal love. 

Today, I am so grateful for the children who sang to me every Sunday at Epworth: Welcome, everyone, to the love of God. They remind me why this work and witness is so important.They give me strength for the journey. Let the children lead us again!

Welcome, everyone, to the love of God.