By Any Other Name…

John Wilkinson 
Pastor, Third Presbyterian Church, Rochester, NY

Joshua 24: 1-3a, 14-25

Faster than you can say Harmon Killebrew, the Covenant Network of Presbyterians is eleven years old. I am privileged, and a little undone, to have been part of that story from the beginning. The initial stages of this morning’s conversation may have a slight insider feel to them, but I hope there is some value in that, that the eventual broadening of the conversation takes it beyond mere nostalgia and into something useful.

Admitting no little bias, what I can say now eleven years later is that we have sought to be a faithful voice, a faithful voice to a part of a denominational family, to a whole denominational family, a denominational family whose teaching and practice of ordination based on understandings of human sexuality has been deeply flawed, and whose vision and mission have needed renewal based on the commitments and values we have shared with the larger family.

How faithfully we have done that is still an open question, I suppose, and really a matter of perspective. We have sought to be many things.

A bridge, making friends, building relationships, in all directions, when those to the left of us have thought we’ve not moved quickly enough, nor firmly enough, when those to the right of us have articulated fundamental disagreements and insisted we’ve been just plain wrong.

Or an oasis, a place where individuals and congregations can take their concerns when they’ve not been sure where to do that. Some of the most powerful moments we’ve experienced have been at the ecclesiastical trade show called General Assembly, at our exhibit booth, when a lonely minister in a part of the country where the words “gay” and “lesbian” aren’t easily uttered has said thank you to us, a kind of surrogate presbytery or seminary alumni association or clergy support group.

Or a window, to use one of Calvin’s favorite images, through which we might see a bit more clearly how things might be, see a different kind of church, the church we can see from here, with a different kind of future.

But we didn’t name ourselves after a bridge or an oasis or a window. My memories are fuzzy on this, but I don’t remember us spending a lot of time on our name. No marketing firm. No focus groups.

I do believe that our name has been a kind of statement of faith, a theological affirmation – covenant – and an ecclesiastical one – network – reflecting no dichotomy, but rather the heart of Presbyterianism, the inextricably linked nature of belief and behavior, theology and governance, who we are and how we are, a “covenant network.”

We actually gave ourselves three names: the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. We won’t consider our family name, Presbyterians, this morning, and will focus on the first two in reverse order.

First our middle name. Food Network, Cartoon Network. Our trendiness is breathtaking. Other terms were taken and “network” is a much hipper word than “fellowship.”

In some sense, we are not quite a network. We’ve no secret handshake or membership card. In fact, we’ve sometimes been vexed by organizational issues: money, structure, decision-making. But because we’ve been something like a temporary arrangement, a movement and ongoing conversation, rather than an institution, “network” ended up being a good word.

And more so, it speaks to the connectionalism of the Presbyterian family, with all its messy complexity, always the body even when the network is down.

And it has been suggestive. If we live in a cocooning, “bowling alone” world, the church is not much different, and so connecting has been an alternative vision, an antidote to brokenness and division in church and culture.

That’s why we’ve tried to do more than simply talk to ourselves, but sought to build relationships to the left and right, to see each other’s face. It is easier not to, of course.  But it is better, better strategically, politically, certainly theologically.

We are the body of Christ, Paul tells us, and individually members of it. Anything that mitigates that vision – in any direction – restricts opportunities for building up the body and narrows opportunity for evangelical witness and spiritual development.

In fact, and again I will admit a particular bias, that may just have been what that “whacked-out” Theological Task Force was suggesting. Be a real network, church, and true. Connect and re-connect. Talk with one another after all these years of talking at one another or beyond one another, for the sake of the body of Christ and the mission of the church.

Some of us have taken the ordination vows of the Presbyterian Church; others here might some day, we pray. My favorite vow was the one about “energy, intelligence, imagination and love.” I had an elder once ask me if 3 out of 4 were acceptable. I said that it depended on which one!

My new favorite vow, after living with it for some years, speaks of “furthering the peace, unity and purity of the church.” Notice that it says furthering, not achieving.

That vow is more than 200 years old, and without putting too fine a point on it, the peace and unity part relates to this notion of network. Certainly matters of sexuality and ordination are theological ones; though intertwined the church leap-frogged quickly to ecclesiology.  So for the sake of the church, we must say that G-6.0106b is bad theology and bad polity, and of course it needs to be gone.

It is at best: questionable biblically, untenable constitutionally, problematic theologically, harmful pastorally, and counter-productive ecclesiastically.

It is unenforceable and un-interpretable. It could not say what it wanted to say flat out, that no lesbian or gay people could be ordained; so the church concocted this mess, with undefined terms like “fidelity” and “chastity” and no clear way to apply or interpret.

It suggests that the God in whose image we are created did a less than competent job.

It suggests that the Christ in whose redemption we are embraced is less than an equal opportunity redeemer.

It suggests that the Spirit whose voice we seek to hear and whose Pentecostal activity transforms us all is somehow limited in its ability to do what it will.

And we know that’s just not so.

And so it does need to be gone; and on a deeper level, our teaching and practice about ordination and sexuality need to be reformed and transformed. That’s why this network exists, to press for that change. But we need to move deeper and broader than that, for this constitutional brokenness can only be remedied if the network is strong, in all directions, and if the new kind of conversations we are called to have about peace and unity are fortified with a compelling theological vision.

Hence our first name.

We are meeting this week within the bounds of the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area and the Synod of Lakes and Prairies. Two fairly self-evident designations. Sometimes we Presbyterians do that, but other times we slap theological concepts on our governing bodies. Grace. Hope. Trinity.

I have some new ones to suggest. How about the Synod of Double Predestination.
Or perhaps the Presbytery of Total Depravity. (I’ve been to those meetings, you are thinking to yourself!)

We have a Presbytery of New Covenant, in Texas, and a Synod of the Covenant. The Synod of the Covenant used to include Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky until they lopped Kentucky off, which seems a little ironic given the name.

Which is all to say that whether we, eleven years ago, thought through the full implications of our name, the notion of covenant has been a vital Presbyterian affirmation from our beginnings, and a most crucial entry point for our understanding of who God is and who we are called to be.

I recollect learning about covenant in Sunday school, where I mostly remember that it was somehow different than a contract. Contracts can be broken, I was taught. Covenants cannot.

From dimly recalled seminary days, I remember how central covenant was, and that the Hebrew term indicated that God “cut” a covenant, a physical act that represented the unbreakable nature of our relationship with God.

In God of Promise, Michael Horton writes that per its Old Testament roots, “a covenant is a relationship of ‘oaths and bonds’ and involves mutual, though not necessarily equal commitments.” [Page 10]

We get a taste of that as the book of Joshua concludes. Joshua’s time is done. He gathers the tribes together at Shechem. And speaking in God’s voice, he simply tells the story, the story of God, a people, a journey, a promise. This lectionary text skips a bunch of the story, but it’s all there.

At the other end is a divine “therefore.” “Therefore – serve God, follow God, reject the other gods and make a choice.”

I don’t know about you all, Joshua says, but we will serve this God. Us too, the people say, a bit eagerly. Not so fast, Joshua replies. This is serious business, no casual decision. You will experience no better God than this god, none more faithful, as you know. But you don’t mess with this God, either; if you do, there will be problems. But the people persist – this is the God we will serve. Then a little oath-taking and witnessing, a combination of legality and liturgy. And Joshua made a covenant.

Walter Brueggemann writes in Theology of the Old Testament that “the acknowledgement of Yahweh at the center of life requires a reordering of everything else – the meeting at Shechem is one of serious, even dangerous adjudication in order to decide the truth of competing gods…which will determine the internal shape of the community and determine the shape of the world.” [Pages 747-750]

The centrality of the covenant here, punctuated by this complex and solemn renewal ceremony, underscores the centrality of covenant across the biblical witness. But it wasn’t until the Reformation of the sixteenth century that it was developed theologically, and our Reformed forbears led the way.

Of covenant, John Riggs writes in a fine book Baptism in the Reformed Tradition, the Reformed tradition has insisted “on the primary…activity of God, as God self-discloses as the one who is with us and for us and to whom we are called to loyalty out of thankfulness.” [Page 100]

That means, Michael Horton asserts, that “we were not just created and given a covenant; we were created as covenant creatures – partners, not in deity, to be sure, but in the drama that was about to unfold in history.” [Page 10]

In that biblical and theological light, then, human sexuality, S-E-X, becomes a covenantal discussion.

What we need, because of our understanding of covenant, is a Reformed sexual ethic, a faithful, effective, compelling sexual ethic, something more than one prohibitive sentence in the Book of Order.

The original committee called in 1958 to write a new confession for the church – what became the Confession of 1967 – drafted a superb social ethic based on a vision of reconciliation and focusing on three social challenges – warfare, poverty and racism.  They knew something was missing; they punted on sex to the revision committee, to give them something to do.

Their initial concern was overt cultural sexuality, what one committee member called “using women in bikinis to sell automobiles.” That sounds kind of quaint now, except consider 21st century commercialization of sexuality, the objectification of the body.  The issues broadened themselves – rising divorce rates, the prevalence and prominence of birth control.

So the committee wrote, and the church adopted, teaching about “anarchy in sexual relationships.” Whether they had our particular conversation in mind is unclear, but the trajectory is clear.

What would it look like if we took that teaching seriously now?  What would a real discussion of anarchy and order in sexual relationships, in committed relationships, in covenantal relationships look like? What would it look like if we added purity to peace and unity and discussed covenant in all of this, covenant of baptism, covenant of trust?

If the biblical tradition insists on this; if our theological heritage insists on this; if our church and culture cry out for it; mustn’t we explore covenant now in light of our conflicts, anticipating the church we are called to be?

And to do that, to fully explore the implications of covenant, will be to understand that Amendment B undermines and undercuts what we’ve affirmed across the centuries, and that the thing needs fixed.

I believe that the church I fell in love with, the church that sealed a covenant with me at my baptism (reaffirmed this rmoning), has focused too much energy wrongly.

Not that a discussion about sexuality is wrong. We have made the case, and we will keep making it. It is the hand we’ve been dealt in this era, the conversation for our time. It’s why we are here.

But can we not contemplate contradictions and sustain differences in the Presbyterian family without going off the deep end, and to be made stronger by them? Can we not witness to justice faithfully and tend to the wellness of the body at the same time? Can we not nurture the points of tension and balance – and even contradiction – in this gift of covenant?

  • The covenant with God, who keeps covenant with us…
  • The covenant with our LGBT sisters and brothers – the ones most directly affected by this broken covenant…
  • The covenant within our little part of the body and beyond, the broader network – even those who would oppose us…
  • The covenant with our baptism promises and our ordination vows…

Allow me two brief interpretive maneuvers.

I planned to quote Barack Obama’s extraordinary speech on race regardless of Tuesday’s outcome. In Philadelphia in March, he said,

“I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction…If we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges…that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.”

Might a covenanting, covenantal church overhear?

And might we overhear the rock band U2, loud noise to some, an oldies band to others, a strong voice to my generation? On the brink of schism, U2 wrote a song that has been interpreted to represent many things, including the reunification of East and West Germany and the healing of a father-son relationship. The song is called “One.”

“One love/ One blood/One life/ One life/ With each other/ Sisters/ Brothers/

“One life/ But we’re not the same/ We get to / Carry each other/ Carry each other…”

What’s in a name…Covenant Network. Something more, I pray, than a religious political party living within a denomination that is more than a voluntary association.

A network by any other name would build up the church, transform the church, that it become ever more generous and just.

A covenant by any other name would be that unbreakable promise and relationship.

Preparing for his death, Joshua places a stone against an oak tree to commemorate the covenant; he builds a covenant foundation.

As living stones, may every breath, every act, be of praise and justice, love and hope, and renew the covenant always, until the dawning of the perfect day.   Amen.

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