Our Legacy: The Wesleys (Final Version)

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.

Sermon Text

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.[1] 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.”[2] 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:


[1] 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

[2] John Wesley’s Journal, April 2, 1739.

Our Legacy: The Wesleys (Initial Version)

1 John 2: 1-14

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.

Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word that you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.

I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven on account of his name. I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young people, because you have conquered the evil one. I write to you, children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young people, because you are strong and the word of God abides in you and you have overcome the evil one.

Sermon Text

Last week we talked about the way that the Anglican Church formed out of a history of conflict. Calvinists fighting Arminians, Catholics fighting Protestants, and all manner of disputes in between. Sometimes we talk today about how unbelievable the division in the United States seems to be, but I do not think that it is exceptional when compared to history as a whole. While there are plenty of reasons we should work against the disunity which has become the norm in our society, we are not the first country to find itself divided on important matters, nor will we be the last. Yet, as a divided people, and a divided Church, the way that we chase after Unity cannot be a hollow mandate of compliance, but a real commitment to one another’s good.

The Epistle of John, which is walking beside us as we look at our Wesleyan heritage, tells us that when we come into faith we learn how wonderful it is to have an advocate working on our behalf. Jesus Christ, from his birth to his ministry to his death and even beyond his resurrection has worked to save our souls. In birth he became like us, in life he showed us what we could be, in death he freed us, and in resurrection Christ transforms us to be the glory of his Father in Heaven. This glory is manifested in commitment to Christ’s commands in the world, and those commands are restated again and again throughout the New Testament with one chief governing principle – that we love one another.

As simple as that seems, and as trite as we make it, there is nothing in the life of faith that is not rooted in love. Love for God and love for one another. I often find that if I do anything out of love for God, it naturally manifests as love for my neighbor, there is no separation in those two commands. When we love one another, we discover what it means to love God, and God’s love toward us shines upon us and reveals the truth we might have otherwise missed. There is, as a wise man once said, no holiness but social holiness, no goodness without love for each other.

The founder of the Methodist movement 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.

The Wesley’s offer many messages to the Church today. Firstly, John was committed to true Unity in the faith. When he began creating small groups and Methodist “societies,” he did so as part of the Church of England rather than a separate part of it. Like our Davis Bible Class, the Methodist societies were people committed to meeting and studying scripture, to serving together, and to praying together, but that identity never made them distinct from the Church they were a part of. John was born and baptized and Anglican, and he died an Anglican, and if he had his way we would be standing here today.

I do not think that we would be any happier as Anglicans, nor am I elevating Anglican theology above all others as I talk to you today. However, John’s commitment to pursuing work where God was leading him, while staying part of his Mother Church, is a lesson we can all benefit from. In your Heart, you may want to do ministries that you do not see happening in North View, or maybe in our denomination. What if I told you that that ministry might just be a valid call upon your life? What if the thing bubbling up inside you was lifted up and affirmed? We can be doing different things in the same spaces, as our purposes remain aligned. Maybe we should see Church, both this one and the wider association of all houses of worship, in the same way.

Secondly, the Wesley’s show that the community we form together is the real foundation of the Church. Christ establishes us as a group of people together so that we can support one another. Those early societies grew as much as they did, not just because they grew out of Anglicanism, but because they spent all their time in service and study and prayer. The money that the Methodists gave under John Wesley would total in the millions today, and John often oversaw how it was spent. Despite millions of dollars crossing his hands, he died with only about  $20 to his name. He never dipped into the pot, he spent his own money to fund the ministries he started, and that ethic bled through into all he did.

Thirdly, I think that we see in the movement begun by John and Charles a move of the Spirit to see the Church come together more tightly with other believers. The differences in the Wesley household growing up prepared John for what life would be like later on. When he befriended George Whitefield, the greatest orator to ever grace Colonial America, the two began a life together defined by fighting. They would come together, drift apart, write public letters insulting each other, but ultimately they would always reconcile. Both men wanted the other to preach their funerals, and at the end of the day only one of them won that battle out, John outliving George.

We all of us fall short, we all of us sin. We all want to scratch and fight at one another. Yet, God is good enough to show us the way we ought to be. That way is the way of love, and that love manifests in us being willing to serve one another. It manifests in us standing beside one another in hard times. It manifests us in putting our identity as a Church together, over the idea of us as a saint alone. The holiness we chase is a holiness lived together, let us take one another by the hand and run this race well as we only can together. – Amen.

A second version of this sermon was written and preached following the writing of this draft. It can be found here:

Our Legacy – The Anglicans

1 John 1

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

Sermon Text

This Methodist Heritage Month we are going to be looking at the major denominations that have come together or split apart to form the United Methodist Church that we live in today. Now, very easily this could become a series of boring history lectures given from a pulpit for no real purpose other than to fill our heads and maybe help us win at some very specific bar trivia nights. So let me lay out the particular reason I think we need this kind of reflection now more than ever. Some of you might not know this, but United Methodism has been having some trouble over the last few decades. From the moment the EUB and the UMC merged in 1968, there has been a building up of all kinds of conflict, culminating in the dreaded business that has begun today.

A new denomination has formed, the Global Methodist Church, and it has for several years now, in the form of influence from the Wesleyan Covenant Association and its related movements, been pushing for churches to leave United Methodism and join them. I do not know how many churches across the world will actually join in with this denomination but having read their founding documents I do not think that a change of the sign outside a church will make much a difference. Other than changing the way the church is run to look more like what it did thirty years ago, this movement is a lot of fuss and trouble just to regress to the past.

I will be upfront in saying I was called to be a United Methodist and I don’t see God changing that trajectory in my life. I’ll be more upfront and say that I think the creation of a new denomination, without the careful deliberation of a general conference and without collaboration, only invites more fighting and conflict. We are called to be one Church together, and it is an absolute travesty that we would rather pick up our ball and go home than figure out how to do that. Especially when the only posted goal of those leaving is to be less inclusive.

My goal this month is to walk through our history as a denomination, and to tell the stories of each of our predecessors, because those stories are important. They remind us that the issues we face today are not new or different in anyway from what people faced long ago. We have always been people, we have always been the Church, and when people meet together in the Church, struggle is bound to ensue. So today we are going to begin our journey of understanding our past so that we can begin to dream of what our future might be, and we do that by joining together in the liturgy and the history of the Anglican church.

The Anglican Church was born out of a time of great uncertainty in the British Isles and the larger world. In mainland Europe, a monk turned Bible Scholar had recently made a stink about the Catholic Church’s failure to reform on several immediate issues. Bishops were in charge of too much land to be useful, money was being accrued for building projects rather than to help people, and a lack of Biblical literacy led to a stratification of piety between the rich and the poor, the clergy and the laity. All in all, there were problems that needed fixed. The current Pope, Leo X, was not pleased with this monk named Martin Luther, and so he excommunicated him for his trouble.

Luther became popular among certain monarchs in Europe because he allowed them to make a clean break from the Vatican. While the Holy Roman Empire kept Catholicism as the dominate power on the Continent, many of its constituent kingdoms were working to separate themselves from Catholic influence. For reasons that were as political as they were religious, the Church experienced its second major schism – the Protestant Reformation had begun.

England was ruled by a devout Catholic, and that kept any Protestantism from taking hold for some time. King Henry VIII was deeply religious and had married a Spanish princess known for her own piety. With the leadership of his Lord High Chancellor, St. Thomas More, it seemed that little could encroach upon this Catholic bastion floating in the Atlantic. Of course, we know this would not remain true forever. Henry fell in love with a young woman, Anne Boleyn, a woman with protestant leanings. Add to this a fear that he had entered his first marriage wrongfully and a desire to see himself rid of Vatican taxes, and the stage was set for Henry to follow the example of other monarchs of his time. This culminated in Henry forming the Church of England, placing himself as the chief authority of it, and furthering shattering Western Christianity.

Henry’s Church was essentially Catholic in all but its name and leadership. The ritual remained the same and Latin was still the primary language of scholars and priests. Henry would change some of these things before his death, but for the most part Anglican Christianity was just Catholicism sans-Pope. His daughter Mary would reinstate Catholicism in England, and her harsh treatment of the Protestants who had banished her and her mother led to her being dubbed “Bloody Mary,” by her enemies. Mary Tudor would eventually die, and her sister Elizabeth would assume the throne in her place. Elizabeth was not as hotheaded as her father or sister, and established the Anglican policy of the Via Media, “The Middle Path.”

This concept sought to walk between the ways of the Lutherans and the Calvinists on one side and the Catholics on the other. Over the course of just three monarchs, Christianity in Europe had become a lot more complicated. There were now the foundations of what would become Presbyterians, Puritans, Baptists, Quakers, and all other manner of sects mixing and mingling in England. A monarch who sided too quickly with one would face the wrath of others.

This policy had obvious problems. As we talked about when we looked at virtues – picking the middle option in any given conflict seldom makes anyone happy for long. Not having an opinion, or forming only moderate ones, can lead to a great deal of unrest. Elizabeth ruled over a fairly prosperous England and a vibrant Church, but her successors struggled. James I, one such descendant, was the first Scottish monarch to take the throne, ruling over a United Kingdom for the first time. James was seen as a quiet, thoughtful ruler, but was also controversial because of his various romantic affairs with men and women throughout the nobility. Nonetheless, he won a great many people over by commissioning a definitive English version of the Bible. The King James Bible, or the “Authorized Version,” as it is sometimes called, came together under his reign.

 Within a generation, the Anglican Church would crumble following a Puritan revolt. The Puritan government was brutal, but ultimately short lived. King Charles II took the throne back and re-established the monarchy. His rule would see the writing of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, a version of which is still used today, and a book whose Communion liturgy we are using for our eucharistic celebration. There was still plenty of disagreement among British Christians, with dozens of sects vying for political power under the larger umbrella of Anglicanism. Still, a path was set to find a more meaningful space where all these different groups could come together and worship, a more central Church that could really make a difference in people’s lives.

We’ll look next week at how John and Charles Wesley came to begin a revitalizing mission in the Anglican Church, but this week I want to talk about the lessons we can begin to take from this bit of history. I have gone over about two hundred years of stuff in just a few minutes, I simplified a lot and skipped over a little more, but I hope that we can see that our earliest direct ancestor in Christianity was a complicated, mixed bag of good and bad. From our origins in a man wanting a divorce, to the warring madness of the English Civil War.

Yet, Anglicanism has been willing to grapple with its missteps, and to try and change. It has survived to this day, not just in England but in the Episcopal communions around the world, precisely because it has embarked on the difficult self-reflection that allows for new growth. As our scripture reminds us, we all are sinners redeemed by Christ’s work on the cross. We all are equal in our need for Christ, and we all come together to worship that selfsame savior. For the Anglican Church that meant not the moderate view between extremes, but the views which were central to the faith. The Via Media, morphed over time to capture the essential nature of Christianity, not just its least offensive permutations.

Recently, in a meeting where discussions about the divides in the United Methodist Church were being held, someone suggested we strive to find a new Via Media. It is not easy to find a solution to our present disagreements that will make everyone happy. There is not an easy middle road on matters of human sexuality, for example, which is the issue many claim this most recent schism of ours is about. How can we be neutral when the question at hand is whether all people are worthy of love and respect and acceptance? I do believe in a church that allows people to have different perspectives on this sort of thing, but only to a point.

The reason that this issue is so strongly felt, is that it impacts the very essence of who a person is. I can disagree with someone’s politics and see them as reasoning differently than I can. When I disagree on something as large and as core to a person as their sexuality or their gender identity, then the stakes are often higher than just occasional arguments. The issue is a person’s human dignity. Disagreements are inevitable, but human dignity must be nonnegotiable. As we delve forward into our history, we’ll see when we as a Church failed in that mission time and time again. As we chase the Via Media together, let us not accept apathy or bigotry as moderate stances, but excel in love and excellence toward one another. – Amen.