by Rev. Chris Jorgensen
at Urban Abbey on the road - at Curb Appeal Salon & Spa
July 24, 2016
Well, friends, I think John Wesley would be pretty proud of us today. We’re not letting some small problem like having no air conditioning in our usual worship space stop us from gathering and singing and praying together. And especially I think he’d be happy about me preaching in a beauty salon – and not just because he had fabulous hair.
But early on in his career, he might not have been quite so encouraging of this. Or of worshipping in a coffee shop for that matter. As Debra has been telling you these last couple of weeks, Wesley is known for starting this Methodist movement – so named by its critics because they found Wesley and his followers pretty hilariously uptight about how they pursued holiness. And I have to admit I laughed out loud when I read about John’s instructions for daily prayerful self-examination for the members of his “Holy Club” at Oxford University. Methodist historian Richard Heitzenrater, who wrote “the” biography on Wesley that everyone seems to read in seminary, wrote that Wesley insisted that one should evaluate themselves regarding certain virtues on certain days of the week. And I quote:
“love of God (Sunday), love of neighbor (Monday), humility (Tuesday), mortification and self-denial (Wednesday and Friday), resignation and meekness (Thursday), and Thanksgiving (Saturday)” (Heitzenrater, Loc. 994)
I like how we get to think about mortification and self-denial twice.
Wesley was a man who loved order. After his time at Oxford, he traveled to the American colony of Georgia, and he wrote in his journal that he was practically distraught about disorderly settlers who dared not publish their marriages as instructed. He laments: “O discipline! Where art thou to be found? Not in England, or (as yet), in America” (Heitzenrater, Loc. 1351). Notice the “as yet” in that sentence. Wesley was going to whip those Georgians into shape.
But, as Debra told you last week, in America, Wesley pretty much fails at his mission. And he’s at a very low point when he gets mixed up with the Moravians and their heart-centered, faith-focused religion. He becomes convinced that salvation happens through an intense experience of God’s love and mercy, and so when he returns to England, he starts preaching this idea in pulpits he has visited before. This was an enthusiastic kind of preaching that challenged the orderly middle-way of the Church of England. And it caused him to be barred from preaching in some churches. Heitzenrater reports that even his brother Charles and his old Oxford friends tried to intervene: He writes, when “the list of barred pulpits began to grow more rapidly…[they] tried to convince Wesley that he needed to control his zeal, leave off [extemporaneous] preaching, curb his ‘vehement emphasis,’ and even cut his hair” (Heitzenrater, Loc. 1518).
But Wesley with his long hair was now on a mission. He believed the Church of England desperately needed a revival that could only happen through the Methodist movement in which religiosity no longer meant the same families sitting properly in the same pew each week. It meant bringing in more and more new people for the sake of the gospel. Another Methodist preacher of the time, George Whitefield, was having grand success with field preaching, that is, preaching outside the church. Wesley’s first response to this was predictable. On March 29, 1739, he wrote this in his journal:
“I could scarcely reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields…I had been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.”
But just a couple of days later, he noted that when you look at the scriptures, well, Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount was a pretty fine example of field preaching and by Monday, April 2, he wrote this:
“At four in the afternoon, I submitted to be more vile and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining to the city, to about three thousand people.”
Wesley was all in for the field preaching because it was effective. That congregation of 3,000 was about average for the crowds he drew. He preached wherever he could be heard – whether it meant standing on the stairs of a building in a town square, or even standing on a raised grave in a church yard. If he wasn’t allowed in the churches, he was going to preach in the streets.
Just like Paul describes becoming all things to all people in our scripture today, Wesley met people where they were at. And his field preaching was a gateway for them to join the Methodist bands, classes, and societies where people found their hearts turned toward God and their lives transformed. Even Charles Wesley, also at first dubious, got in on the field preaching when he saw how well it worked.
Of course, not everybody was happy about it. Heitzenrater writes, “local clergy, quite naturally, looked upon these activities of the visiting clergy as unwarranted if not illegal incursions into the parish life of the city” (Heitzenrater, Loc. 1939) John didn’t care. He saw that the churches were not trying to reach those outside their doors, and he was certain God had called him to do something about it.
No, he didn’t care about making authorities angry – in the church or in the university. Besides these field preaching incursions, a few years later, John also paid one last visit to Oxford University to preach at St. Mary’s chapel in 1744. In his sermon, he blasted the university for its lack of true Christianity. About this, Heitzenrater writes:
“He found not one real Christian among the heads of colleges, he felt the general character of the fellows ranged from ‘peevishness’ to ‘proverbial uselessness,’ and he described the younger students, for the most part, ‘a generation of triflers.’ He summarized with one of his most memorable aphorisms: ‘Without love, all learning is but splendid ignorance.’” (Loc. 2827).
And after that scathing sermon, John knew that he was not going to be invited back to speak again. Perhaps not unlike Ted Cruz at the Republican National Convention. But John didn’t care. He wrote in his journal, “I preached, I suppose for the last time, at St. Mary’s. Be it so. I am now clear of the blood of these men. I have fully delivered my own soul.” (Journals, August 24, 1744).
And with that, John had fully closed the door on the possibility of him being an academic or a parish priest. He was all in with the Methodist revival. The extensive rules that he outlined for his preachers and for his societies show that he still held on to his own methodical personality, but he was willing to stretch himself, challenge authorities, and buck convention if it meant more people would know the love and grace of God.
Like John Wesley, I believe that God is calling all of us out of our comfort zones so that we too might share the good news of God’s saving and renewing grace with the world. Like Wesley, we are called to meet people where they are for the sake of showing them this: that there is a God beyond themselves who created them all of creation and called it good. That although we humans are bent toward all sorts of self-destruction, and we judge and exclude each other at every turn, God declares us beloved and forgiven, and that this same God is in us and with us and we can grow more and more in Her likeness in every moment. And when we backslide and fall short, as Wesley knows we are all likely to do, God empowers us to try again. And in this knowledge, we are free to risk everything to love others in boundless and world-transforming ways.
Maybe you will share the gospel in words. Maybe you will share it in actions. And you might feel a little bit vile sharing a gospel of love in a world that values power and teaches us to fear our neighbor and our enemies, instead of love our neighbor and our enemies.
It might be hard. It might be embarrassing. But it just might mean everything to that one person whose heart is opened to God’s presence because of your witness. And it might mean everything when you find your heart is opened as well.
May we have the courage to be bold and vulnerable.
May it be so.
Source: Heitzenrater, R. P. (2013). Wesley and the people called Methodists [Kindle Edition]. Nashville: Abingdon Press.