Our Legacy – The Methodists

1 John 3: 7-18

Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.

For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

Sermon Text

Nothing ever ends with the death of its founder. John Wesley lived a long life, born three years into the 1700s and dying nine years short of 1800. 88 years on the Earth saw him traveling across the Atlantic to bring the word of God to the colonies, but he would flee his own mistakes back to England. There he would find his faith reawakened and send forth ministers all throughout Britain and Ireland, sending still more to begin societies in the American colonies. He mourned the American Revolution and recognized that he could no longer be the head of a movement that did not acknowledge the Crown. He sent two ministers to lead in the colonies, Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury, who were both made bishops of a new Church. This new denomination would grow up alongside the United States, and it would call itself the Methodist Episcopal Church.

This Church is when what we call “Methodists,” truly began to exist. Before this, to be a Methodist was to be part of the Church of England committed to being a better Christian through the Societies. Now, it meant being a part of a church that – while very similar in worship style to the Anglicans – was distinct in the communion it called its own. However, this new Methodist Communion had failed to learn something from its mother church, it failed to learn that when a split like this happens, everyone is not going to agree that the right steps were taken. Some other groups began to form out of and alongside the Methodist Episcopal Church.

The problems that led to the schisms that marked the Early Methodists probably sound familiar to us. There were some people that thought too much power was invested in the bishops, then only two people, and so they wanted to strike out and reaffirm congregational, democratic governance. These were the Methodist Protestants, some of the first to leave. The other denominations that formed were based in the big issue of the time, the evil of slavery.

The Methodist Church was abolitionist from its beginning. John Wesley devoted a lot of time and money to fighting against slavery in the British Empire. During the American revolution, he and other ministers wrote letters pointing out that the American call to be liberated from taxation was not compelling unless they also fought for the liberty of enslaved peoples. Wesley’s treatises on slavery are beautiful examples of how, no matter how far back we go, there were people who were able to look at the world around them and see that something was broken. There is no excuse for historical figures found in saying, “That’s just how things were,” as long as even a single voice spoke out in protest.

The Methodist Episcopal Church was willing to bend on this issue, allowing slavery in cases where slaves could not be legally freed. This included allowing slavery as long as the slaves were “manumitted.” In other words, as long as you planned to free them eventually, you could hold slaves in the Methodist Church, the exception being bishops who could not own any. This allowed for a huge loophole, one seen in the life of Henry Foxall, the Methodist industrialist who made canons for the Revolutionary Army. He would buy slaves, manumit them, and then when their term was up buy more slaves. While this did lead to people being freed – eventually – it also fed the slave trade and perpetuated its evil.[1]

Early on, those disgusted by Methodist accommodation of slavery left. The failure to integrate congregations led to black parishioners sitting in raised galleries while the whites sat in directly in front of the chancel. Black members were served communion last and those who were enslaved were preached to from slave gospels that were edited to exclude any mention of God freeing the Oppressed. Because of this, the minister Richard Allen left and formed his own denomination – the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a place where black believers could be treated with respect. Another group the Free Methodist Church, were abolitionists who opposed slavery and who resented the introduction of pew rent into the Church.

Finally, a major split occurred when the Methodist Episcopal Church appointed a slave holder to the office of Bishop. As you will remember there was only one unalienable rule with the Methodist concessions, and that was that Bishops were not to be slavers. This conflict led to a split in the Church that foretold a much darker chapter for America. The Methodist Episcopal Church, North and South had formed. One group supported slavery and the other opposed it. The Northern Church was not free of evil either. In the North, they supported the Colonization movement, believing that Whites and Blacks could not live together, they wished to support the formation of Liberia and to send them “back where they came from.” No one was willing to truly create an integrated Church like Wesley had once dreamed of.

The Civil War came, fought over the same issue that had divided Methodism. More denominations spun off of both sides of the Methodist Episcopal Church, until finally the Methodists – North, South, and Protestant – sat down and formed one Church together. In 1939, almost one hundred years after they split, a new Methodist Church was formed. It is that Church’s liturgy, published the year they came together, that we have been using today. Slavery was no longer an issue, and Liberia was no longer a popular option, so some of the key issues separating the Church were gone. Unfortunately, they all agreed on one thing – segregation – and created a conference just for people of color, the central Conference, a term we still use today for any church not in the United States.

This is a messy history that is only made messier when the Methodist Church joins with another to form what we now call the United Methodist Church. The story of how we come to sit in a Church with a cross and flame emblazoned on its side is not an easy one, and we are not even done talking about all its constituent parts! History has a way of showing us things we would rather not admit, things like how our modern problems go much deeper than last week.

Today, in many Methodist churches, the story of John Wesley hearing a Moravian preacher read Luther’s preface to the book of Romans will be read as people celebrate our Wesleyan Heritage. I think that that is a beautiful way to spend a Heritage Sunday. I think that it is no less beautiful, no less holy, to sit here as we just have, and see that the word “Methodist,” is a tangled mess of good and bad and could-have and should-haves. We are the inheritors of one of the greatest theological traditions there is, and we are the bearers of a legacy tainted with blood and sin and shame.

Our scripture today separates out the world into two categories. There are the children of God who do what is right and the children of the Devil, who do what is evil. We are known by our fruits, and those who are unable to love one another prove above all else that they are not fit for the kingdom they are called to be in. We are defined as being with God or against God by whether we can understand that being loving, that doing what is right, is worth more than any fight that we might have as one part of the Church against the other.

Many of the schisms we highlighted today were important, sometimes people left for legitimate reasons. The Free Methodists and the Methodist Protestants saw that we were going astray in accepting slavery, they were right to fight against it, and while I am against schism of any kind, they may have even been justified in dusting off their sandals and leaving the larger church to its own devices. Yet, the main thing that caused people to leave, again and again and again, was that the Church was unable to do what was right, and instead chose to do what had always been done. They accepted the past that the world had a chance to leave behind, rather than the future that was laid out before them. Rather than the progress of abandoning past misgivings, they were embracing the past as something sacred above all else.

In our modern world the specter of slavery is all around us. Though some people want to deny it, having our foundation of a country dependent upon forced labor and the denial of human rights has made it hard to escape those legal and societal mindsets. Even beyond discussions of race, we are ready as a people to throw other people into the wheels of industry as long as it makes our products cheap and our pockets a bit more full. We don’t care if a fast food worker needs three jobs to sustain their family, because that McDouble costs a dollar fifty now, and if we raise their salary it might cost a dollar seventy-five instead. We don’t want our appliances to cost what they really should, because then they’d be luxury goods, so we let businesses pay pennies to children in foreign countries so our smart phones can be affordable, even as those children starve and suffer and die to bring us the latest and greatest thing-we-already-own.

In the more specific discussion of race, I do not have to tell you that we have not yet figured out how to atone for the sins of the past. There are those who rightly point out that we were not there two hundred years ago to have an impact on slavery, but we are alive now, can make a difference now, are we doing anything? We wish to believe we live in a free and equal society, but so did slave-owners, so did governors standing on the steps of schools shouting, “Segregation now, segregation forever!” We all want to be heroes, but are we willing to do the work to make the world a better, more equitable place? I hope so, or else the Church will continue to lose its witness time and time again.

We saw last week an example of how passive resistance to things like racism are simply not enough. A killer, motivated by the conspiracy that non-whites are being shipped in to replace the white population of the United States, entered a Supermarket and killed ten people. We can talk all we want about how “Lone gunmen,” are beyond our control, but they almost always have the same motivations. Either they hate women or they hate people of color. We might say we have nothing to do with this, but we are part of the environment – online and otherwise, that allows this kind of thing to fester and grow.

We may not advocate the killing of people of color, but we openly act like its unreasonable to have multiple languages available when we call our bank’s national branch. We can pretend we’re egalitarian, but when women lay accusations at the feet of men in power, we suddenly trust politicians and actors to tell the truth. We may not have memorized the fourteen words, but we openly express our discomfort that the places we visit are browner than they used to be. It may all seem disconnected, but it all comes back to this, a willingness to let even one tenant of white supremacy stand unopposed – inevitably allowing the rest to grow up in its shadow. It might not fully take root in our own hearts, but it will in the hearts of someone, and that someone will do unspeakable things in the name of an ideology we tacitly endorse with our silence.

Today we struggle with issues of human dignity, who is really allowed to be who they are in a church? Is it only white people? We say quickly, no, but do we fully believe that? Is it gay people? Now we start couching our acceptance with all kinds of conditions, but why onl for this, and why so very strongly? Underneath the surface of any conflict are a thousand, thousand more little bits and bobs of disagreement and struggle. The truth is, that we are not a denomination for whom this is new, nor a tradition who has not had these kinds of fights before.

The lesson I hope we take today is a complex one. When we look at our history as Methodists, we see a million things that mark us as Children of God. We did a lot of good work to bring equity into the world, to clothe the naked and feed the hungry and to tear down unjust systems. Yet we also tolerated and perpetuated evils, we failed to lead the way of righteousness and therefore might have given a great many people the impression that we were children of another entity altogether. In our own lives, in this congregations shared life, I’m sure we could say the same. No one is wholly good or wholly bad, not just yet, and no church is either.

Thanks be to Christ Jesus, who gave himself up for us that we might be better. That we might as individuals and as a Church have a chance to change the trajectory we are on, to do more good and to love more intensely. Praise God from whom all blessings flow, and who most of all has given us the gift of second chances, the gift of another go round, the gift of transforming our hearts, and therefore the world around us. Thank God I’m a Methodist standing in this pulpit today, and thank God he forgives abundantly, the sins of a Methodist like me. – Amen.

[1] Jane Donovan. “ “ in Henry Foxall: Methodist, Industrialist, American (Nashville, Tennessee: New Room Books. 2017)

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