1 Corinthians 9:19-23
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
There’s an idea in the Methodist Church that we are to be “Connectional.” This means that every church is in constant communication with one another, that those churches communicate as a unit we call a district, and each district works together as a conference, and so on and so forth. This connectional mindset is meant to ensure that we band together to support everyone’s ministry, that we live out our lives in individual churches as disciples pursuing goodness together. It also means that we learn from the examples other provide to us of holy living, and change the way we are headed if it means that something better is on that new path we have been shown. But, I will come back to this idea after I tell you about the founder of the Methodist Movement we are a part of today.
This founder was a man named John Wesley, and he was a nervous wreck and all-around difficult person. His father and mother were members of two separate parties within the monarchy, and so were known for their fights. That same father spent many years in debtors’ prison while his children were young, missing some of the key moments he could have spent with them. All three of the Wesley sons became ministers, Samuel, John, and Charles. These three would take overwhelmingly different positions on matters of the faith, Samuel a quiet minister who made few waves, Charles a staunch advocate for the Church of England and amazing hymn writer, and John, the troublemaker and reformer.
John and Charles first practiced their ministry in the American Colonies, landing in the penal colony of Georgia, they ministered to the people of Savannah. Charles served as rector to a small island congregation and as a secretary to a prominent politician. Scandal from the politician and rumors from his congregation eventually led to him leaving Georgia as quickly as he could. John remained a while longer, forming many small groups devoted to helping the poor and studying scripture. He dreamed of converting the local Muscogee people but found out upon arrival that they were mostly Christian. He eventually fell in love but was unwilling to commit to marriage. His beau found another man who would marry her, and John responded as poorly as you might expect. He denied her and her fiancé communion, a public act suggesting they had sinned in a major way. John was soon chased out of town by her father.
John landed in England dejected, feeling as lost as he ever had. He finally found a group of Moravians, Bohemian’s committed to study of scripture and service to community, and began to learn from them. It was during a meeting with them that John felt his heart, “strangely warmed.” For the first time, John felt that even a screw up like him was worthy of God’s love, and that God did not love him in spite of those flaws, but because John simply was who John was.
Wesley would continue to have his highs and lows in life, but the occasional conflict never stopped him. He was a person who was hard to criticize, because he genuinely tried to do good in all things. He fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited prisoners, and tried to bring the complacent Church he lived in into the modern era with a Spirit of ministry in their hearts. John would die the most beloved man in London, living the better part of a century devoted to God and those around him. Books are written about this man’s life, his sermons, and his general teachings, so do not think I’ve captured it all at once here, but know that we follow his example as a disciple of Christ for a reason.
In particular, John was able to bring people together in a way few before or since have managed. He knew that we are social creatures, and that we have to work together to grow. I can only learn if someone teaches me something, and I can only become a better Christian if I am surrounded by a church full of people trying to do the same. “As iron sharpens iron,” so a church becomes more like Christ when they climb that steep hill of perfection together. John achieved this by creating “societies,” that were broken down into “classes,” that were broken down into bands. Members of one were members of each other group, identifying first as members of the class and then working down. These were not churches in themselves, but groups born out of churches where the more serious members would meet outside of Sunday service to study scripture and serve their community together.
Originally, these groups were made up of the people in the pews and not many other people. They organically came out of people who wanted more out of church meeting together and pursuing Godliness together. Wesley knew that this tendency existed, and so he formalized the process. These associations that were created then had a community beyond themselves constantly supporting them. The Methodist Movement was not born just from people getting together and studying scripture. It only began to truly become something bigger than loosely organized small groups when it turned its eyes outward.
Service had always been part of the Wesleyan movement – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting prisoners in prison. These acts of mercy were expected of every member, and as they went out and did this work they felt that they were growing to be more like God. Despite this service orientation, there was something missing from this early movement. While they went out and helped people, they were not going out to really know people. While I cannot say this in too general of terms, after all there are always those ahead of the curve, I would say that Wesley was at first interested in ministry to people rather than ministry with people.
A change happened in him when he listened to the nagging advice of a friend. George Whitefield, a loyal friend and sometimes intellectual enemy of John, was known for going out and preaching in the streets and in the coal fields. He had traveled to America several times and earned the admiration of people like Ben Franklin for the ability he had to entrance a crowd, and to preach loudly enough to be heard across several city blocks. This outdoor preaching was something that John was not willing to do for sometime, finally capitulating and finding, probably to his horror, that the Spirit was present outside of the safety of a pulpit.
Wesley said that day that he had “submitted [himself] to become more vile.” I have fallen in love with this phrase over time. It is so visceral and honest about how he saw what he was doing. While the usage of the word was probably different in the 1700s than it is today, it is no less clear – John saw that he was becoming less prim and proper in doing what he was about to do. In more modern parlance, he was about to get his hands dirty, and like a gardener digging into the dirt, he found that the fruit of the Spirit flourished in the midst of his work beyond the walls of the Church.
I wrote a draft of this sermon that was far more general about John and what his ministry could teach us as the Church today, and I have uploaded that to my website for anyone who is interest to see. However, when I went and heard the bishop’s speak recently, the vision they had of the Spirit moving in our pews and pushing us out into the world awakened an old fire in my heart, a fire lit by the Spirit that calls out the same bittersweet phrase Wesley used so long ago. It said, “John, submit thyself to be more vile.” And I saw in that phrase, a mantra I have always longed to see fulfilled in myself, the real lesson which we must take as a Church if we wish to thrive and grow and do so much more than survive. We must give up civility in exchange for humanity.
I don’t mean that we should all be uncivil, in the sense of being mean, but that we need to stop being worried about looking a certain way or acting just so. We have standards and ways of doing things for a reason, safe sanctuaries exists to keep children safe, our charge conference programs and financial rules to keep church business transparent. However, beyond the things we do to keep people safe and keep our hands ethically clean, there are the ways we carry ourselves that exist only to set ourselves apart from the people around us, and not in a holy way.
As I look around this sanctuary, I see people who do not differ much from one another. Yet, we differ quite a bit from the people outside our door. If we took everyone who is in here, and sat down with all the people who walk up and down the alley behind the church on a daily basis, all those who walk in front of this church to pick up their kids, all those who go to the Kompak to buy groceries – would the people sitting across from us feel like they were like us or like we have somehow separated ourselves from them. If a backpacker came in off the street, smelling like they had slept rough and hauling around all their worldly goods on one should as they rode a bike around town, would they be welcomed into our pews – or would they feel they had to sit in the back away from judgmental eyes.
We all want to say yes, that no one would feel out of place if they came in our doors, but if that is so, then why do we not see more people coming in, sitting down, and giving the community we offer a try? I would say it is in part that we do not know our neighbors, we do not know the people of North View, except the ones who were here back when the glass factory was booming, before street signs were put up on the corners, and before the last farm was plowed over to build housing.
North View has changed, but has the composition of this Church? As our neighborhood has gotten poorer, have people with less felt comfortable sitting among us? Or do they see us as well-to-do people on a hill. Do we look at our new neighbors as potential new friends, or fret over what they might do to our property values? Out beyond this door is a city that has changed a lot from when many of you were children – neither for good or bad in many ways, but inescapably different than it once was. Have we changed to welcome those around us in? Are we willing to adapt to reflect the demographics around us? Can we dare submit ourselves to become more vile than we might think we really are.
The lesson that John Wesley really offers us is that we cannot ever see ourselves as apart from those around us. We are all given community to be together. Not just the rich with the rich, the poor with the poor, the middle class with the middle class. Not just white with white and black with black and latino with latino. We are all of us called to be one people together, distinct in our histories and traditions, but united in a love and a community that transcends and enraptures all of that. We area called to be all things to all people, but yet we so often to be fully ourselves for one another. We must go out and meet our neighbors, we must be friends with any and all people.
I hope that our church will see a shift to look more like our neighbors. I hope that we look less put together. I hope that anyone who comes in here would see people of all income brackets, all races, all political ideologies, education levels, and sexual orientations, living and loving and working together. Because a Church that is not willing to branch out, to learn about its neighbors and really invite them in to sit and stay a while, is a Church that will become an artifact of the past, rather than a bastion of the Kingdom. Submit to become more vile, whatever that means to you, and see God working through the hands you are willing to dirty. – Amen.
An earlier version of this sermon was written, but not preached. It is available at:
 National Humanities Center, 2009: nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds. As published in Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography: An Authoritative Text, eds. J. A. Leo Lemay & P. M. Zall (W. W. Norton & Co., 1986) Available at: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/becomingamer/ideas/text2/franklinwhitefield.pdf
 John Wesley’s Journal, April 2, 1739.