As Members, We Covenant to Pray and Worship
The Discover Card people sent me a new credit card last month because the old one was expiring. I promptly called their 800-number, completed the activation process, cut up the old card and slipped the new one in my wallet.
On Monday the Discover Card people sent me a polite email. “Dear Friend, your account has been long inactive. Kindly make a charge by June or your account will be suspended for non-use.”
Clearly I’m a slacker, at least as far as the Discover Card people are concerned. I mean who keeps a credit card but never uses it? Me. I prefer my Visa Card. The Discover Card I keep on hand just in case. In case my Visa Card gets hacked. In case the minute I hit my Visa limit my big appliances go kaput and all have to be replaced immediately. In case. I keep my Discover Card in case.
Churches see their own versions of what Discover Card sees with me. Not around extending credit but with regard to membership.
Pastors regularly embarrass themselves by giving a hearty welcome to newcomers only to discover they aren’t new at all but have been on the rolls for ages; they just don’t attend.
Like me with my Discover Card, some folks retain their membership just in case—in case they have a funeral or a wedding or want to vote on a contentious or controversial issue at a congregational meeting.
Because churches aren’t credit card companies, those who have become inactive typically don’t get a message like the one I got from Discover Card. Churches don’t send out emails that say (very graciously of course) “Please participate in the life of church by August 18th or we will take that to mean you no longer consider yourselves members.”
Community Spirit has a long-standing practice of approaching membership as a 12-month commitment.
We arrived at this not because we want to keep top notch membership records or avoid awkward conversations but—and this is everything—because we recognize and affirm that membership is a living, breathing thing.
When we step forward at Pentecost to declare our intentions around membership for the coming year, what we will be doing is offering up a hearty “yes” to being in sacred relationship with one another. A big “count me in” that calls us, as with marriage, to make promises inspired by and grounded in love.
We didn’t invent this approach, of course. We are simply doing with one another what God has been doing with us from the beginning of our collective story with God. Entering into a relationship that is rooted in promise-making and promise-keeping.
Discover Card’s relationship with me is contractual. They agree do this for me if I’ll do that for them. And if I don’t do what is expected, then Discover Card can take decisive action. Legal action, even.
But church membership is not a contract. It’s not a quid pro quo arrangement, even if not everyone understands this right away.
Years ago I had a couple approach me about becoming members. “What’s in it for us if we join,” the husband asked.
“Well, practically speaking,” I explained, trying to swat away the image of a gleaming silver toaster that popped up when he asked his question, “when you become a member you get to vote at congregational meetings and can be elected to serve on a board or committee. But most everything you’ll receive by being a member is relational.” This wasn’t the answer he was looking for and he and his young family continued church shopping.
To become a church member is to enter into a covenant. And not the HOA kind.
Our kind of covenant is rooted in God’s loving initiative first with Noah, then Abraham and Sarah, then Moses and a newly-freed people, and on and on, all the way to the new covenant Jesus institutes at the Last Supper.
At heart, covenant making is promise making between God and God’s beloveds. These covenants always begin with a God says, as God says in Jeremiah, “I will be your God and you will be my people.”
This Wednesday night when we gather by Zoom, and then again in the two Wednesday night sessions that follow, we will be thinking together about this decidedly faith-related word “covenant,” what it calls forth in us, and how it might be that covenantal life can and does free us to live together with joy, meaning, and shared purpose.
My prayer is that by the time we arrive at Pentecost on May 23rd, this decidedly churchy word—covenant—will have a home not only in each of our minds but more importantly in our hearts. Because ultimately covenant is all about the heart, all about choosing to live together in mutually fulfilling, mutually accountable ways because God and God’s love has found us.
If the idea of covenant-making with a congregation is a stretch for you, think about what happens at a wedding.
At a wedding, two people come forward to make promises borne of love, promises they intend to keep and which, from time to time, will need to be mended because even our most earnest promises get dinged up and tattered over time.
God has certainly been on the receiving end of this plenty of times. In fact, one of the things I find most moving about the God we see in scripture is that whenever it was clear that God’s people needed help being in covenant with God and one another, God reshaped and retooled the covenant. Which is about as covenantal as it gets.
The covenanting we step forward do in God’s presence each year at Pentecost involves more than a head nod or a “heck yeah.” It entails some vow-making, some promise-stating.
What are those vows, those promises exactly? Our UCC Book of Worship includes some—promises to embrace and live out our shared Christian faith. And while there is absolutely nothing wrong with those promises, they’re also quite general. They imply practices and priorities but don’t bring them out into the open.
Which is why from day one almost, the good people of Community Spirit grappled with what our covenant expectations for one another would be. And after much conversation and more than a little prayer, we settled upon six covenant promises that taken together make for joyful, generative membership.
At the tip top of Community Spirit’s list of six commitments, six covenantal promises, is prayer. We promise to pray regularly for this church and its pastor. Following close behind is a second promise—a love-inspired commitment to worship with one another regularly.
Both of these promises serve to keep us continually grounded in God as we grow together in faith and love. Both of these promises—prayer and worship—speak to the reality that our life as a faith community rises up out of our rootedness in God.
Through prayer for the church and its pastor, as well as through our worship together, we say to God and one another: we are yours, O God. We belong to you and are bound to you and one another in love.
It sounds obvious to say that this church was not and is not our idea. That we are not the roots of this holy enterprise, not its vine, but instead are the branches.
Both prayer and worship call us back to our ultimate reality: we are planted in God, sustained by God, nourished and given life and purpose by the God who is, to borrow from the 20th century theologian Paul Tillich, the ground of our being.
If prayer and worship are primary to church membership, if they both serve to nourish and sustain us, if they both serve to bind us together in common purpose, both commitments also serve to mitigate against two kinds of blight that can affect churches and even, sometimes, kill them.
The first kind of blight is believing that the church is somehow an entity unto itself. The second form of blight that prayer and worship help keep in check is the dangerous notion that the church exists to meet each of our needs in precisely the way we wish them to be met.
“I am the Vine. You are the Branches,” Jesus reminds us this morning, inviting us into a way of being that is incredibly freeing and also appropriately humbling.
People enter into covenants of membership for the same reason people choose to get married—because they have been moved to make promises borne of love and hope. No, there’s nothing wrong with living together, just as there’s nothing wrong with being a friend of a church but never feeling moved to join.
The decision to commit, to covenant, is deeply personal and is meant to open onto juicy joy, not dry obligation.
Committing, covenanting is many things but one thing it’s not is a surrender of our particularity, our individuality. Branches though we each may be, each of us has distinctive qualities. I see this every time I pray for this church and meditate on the unique interests, gifts, and characteristics of those whom the Spirit has gathered here.
I am not the only one who has come to understand how our “branchy-ness” opens us to gladness and frees us to be ourselves. It’s front and center on the Covenant Promises Card that we use each year and which we will use again this Pentecost. It reads:
“I joyfully commit myself to the life and work of this church in the coming year. I understand that the way in which I live into this covenant is my journey.” And then what follows are the six covenant commitments that enable us—together—to bear fruit in a world hungry for compassion and justice.
“I am the Vine, you are the Branches,” Jesus says in John’s gospel. In other words, we’re in this together. In this together with one another, yes, but also with Christ, and the God who is our Source and Sustainer, the very ground of our being.
Let us pray:
O God, in you we live and breathe and have our being. Thank you for the gift of life, for the gift of sacred community, for the gift of being who we each are. And thank you, most especially, for your promises to each of us and to all of us, promises that anchor us as we seek to grow into the people you have created us to be.
Increase in us our love for you. Our love for one another. And make our joy complete as we grow together, make promises to one another, and become even more the faith community you have created us to be.