Monday, July 25, 2016

Submit to Be More Vile

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.

Monday, July 18, 2016

No Holiness but Social Holiness

Sermon by Rev. Debra McKnight
Preached at Urban Abbey July 17, 2016


John Wesley’s Preface to the text: Hymns and Sacred Poems published in 1739

Directly opposite to this is the gospel of Christ.  Solitary religion is not to be found there. “Holy solitaries” is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness. “Faith working by love” is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection. “This commandment have we from Christ, that he who loveth God love his brother also;” and that we manifest our love“ by doing good unto all men, especially to them that are of the household of faith.” And in truth, whosoever loveth his brethren not in word only, but as Christ loved him, cannot but be “zealous of good works.” He feels in his soul a burning, restless desire, of spending and being spent for them.

John Wesley’s The Character of a Methodist

A Methodist is a Christian, not in name only, but in heart and in life.  A Methodist is inwardly and outwardly conformed to the will of God as revealed in the written Word.  They think, speak, and live according to the method laid down in the revelation of Jesus Christ.  Their soul is renewed after the image of God, in righteousness and in all true holiness.  And having the mind that was in Christ they so walk as Christ also walked.

Ephesians 2:8-10
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Ephesians 4: 15-16
But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.


When you look at our United Methodist hymnal, there are standard sections and titles that you would find in any hymnal…like Communion, Thanksgiving, Praise, Easter, Lent, Advent or Christmas.  But in our hymnal there is this very particular section called Social Holiness.  It follows personal holiness.  It is a phrase right out of the heart of our tradition.  John Wesley is quoted again and again by Methodist nerds the world over, “there is no holiness but social holiness.”  This quote comes from the preface to a hymnal the Methodist Societies published in 1739, which I think puts it in a particular context, the context of worship and spiritual practices.   Wesley names this social holiness and highlights Paul’s writings to the Ephesians, saying we are part of a larger body.  Paul again and again names the connectivity of our faithfulness.  We are parts of a body, we are different and we are all needed for the whole to function.  Faith doesn’t make room for solo artists.  A solo Christian, no matter how self-actualized, humble, smart, gifted and compassionate does not stand much of a chance in the face of the brokenness of the world.  A solo Christian is like a finger without a hand, or a leg without a body.  Faith is connective, not solitary or isolated.  There are no solo artists in faith, we are a band (you decide if we are a marching band or a rock band or what ever kind of band).  

In this section of social holiness you will find hymns that lament the broken world, hymns that name how some go to bed hungry or cry out homeless in the streets, hymns that honor the prophets voices and call us to be instruments of peace, hymns that can or should make those of us with privilege, be it born out of our race, class, religion, gender, nationality or any other elements of our social fabric that can set a limit or offer unmerited authority.  Charles Wesley wrote hymns that name the violence of his day and we can look around in our day and see their application in our own streets.  It would be easy to look at this section of the hymnal and conclude that social holiness is the same as saying social justice.  It would be easy to look at Wesley’s own life and see the work of his faith through the lens of the words ‘social justice’ as we apply them widely in our own culture.

John Wesley and his family knew about poverty.  His own father spent time in a debtors prison.  Wesley’s government estimated that more than half of the general population lived in poverty (Kimbrough).  This means more than half of the people were treated as expendable, often targeted for prison and execution.  While there were ‘Relief Acts’ passed through the British government, the Wesley brothers and their Methodist Societies were connected to systems of injustice and confronted by the violence of poverty in every facet of life.  And they respond.  When in ministry in Bristol, John sees the violence and money of slavery first hand and he becomes an advocate for change.  He sees the mistreatment of laborers, young and old.  The Wesley brothers and the Methodist societies create schools for children, they preach at the coal mines, they set up what we would call microloans for people to develop new ways of supporting themselves and their families.  They set up medical clinics and write guides for physical self-care that give the best medical knowledge of the day to the people that could not have afforded it otherwise.  John and Charles carried the stories and struggles of the poor with them.

They preached sermons that seemed harsh because they were not afraid to offend the rich.  When preaching to the wealthy, they offer scriptures like “You brood of vipers” that were pointed and direct.  You can imagine this didn’t go over well.  One English Gentleman suggested Wesley should have preached that kind of sermon to people in the poor house… you know where they need it.  Wesley responded, he would have preached ‘behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,’ to the poor.   Wesley believed the rich and their greed created poverty.  He was not afraid to tell them that.  While some might have blamed the idleness of the ‘have not’s’ Wesley saw three things as the cause of poverty in England… distilling, taxes and luxury.  He urged for personal and legal restraints to keep thousands of people from starving (Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodist, 253).  Wesley asked everyone for money to make an immediate impact in the lives of people.  Everyone in his societies were expected to contribute a penny a week (which may now be about $1.66 a week depending on the “accuracy” of various online calculators).  Rich or poor — everyone gave.  One Methodist left remarking that Wesley was “charitable to an extreme.”  Ironically, this man had been one of the recipients of a microloan from the Methodist Societies and as he experienced success by the worlds standards he began questioning Wesley’s generosity and departed.

Wesley’s social holiness called for justice but social justice may not give the fullness of its meaning.   Working for justice is sacred work and a means of grace. But this is only one of the various means of grace.  Reading scripture, praying, fasting, being in a small group and taking communion, and being in worship…these are all means of grace.  They are part of a personal transformation that doesn’t happen in solitude or isolation.  Wesley’s faith is social and communal just as our Trinitarian God.

God is communal in God’s own nature.  God, the source, parent, father, mother is rather linked to the Prevenient Grace Wesley saw as present all around….grace is seeded within.  It is the spark that longs for the spark of God around us.  Justifying grace, the kind of grace where hearts are strangely warmed or people feel so transformed they can only describe it as being born again.  This is an awaking, an experience.  Richard Rohr describes it as a moment when you feel big and small at once.  This grace comes out of the Lutheran voices that urged Wesley to see grace as a gift that can not be earned.  It is like the Son, the incarnate God found in Christ, that lives and breathes, laughs and struggles so we can open our eyes to a way of living and dying.  But Wesley will not stop here.  He brings all of his experience to the table in Sanctifying Grace, the work of the Holy Spirit that keeps working within us and around us and through us.  This is the grace that comes with practice.  The grace that moves us from our tendencies of selfishness and destruction into the image of God.  This is where the means of grace come to life and move us to perfection.  That is right…Wesley believed we should strive for perfection.   If  we don’t have this big goal then what is the purpose.  Social justice is fueled by a social faith rooted in a social God.  That’s social holiness.

This theology, the fine balance of what might have been conflicting theologies woven together often got Wesley into arguments.  He believed too much in works…like the church of Rome, which didn’t go over well with a lot of folks, folks like his grandparents that might have been more Puritan in their theology.  Some questioned his belief in justification experience.  Some thought he was an enthusiast which was a label no one was enthusiastic about, at least not any of the good thinking people.  Some argued he was disrupting the Church of England.  Some felt he was charitable to an extreme or perhaps his directness confronted them and they just were unable to deal with it.  He argued perfection and grace, not predestination where God picks some winners and some losers.  Some thought they had reached perfection and Wesley had to tell them, “try again.”  Wesley was in constant discussion with people that differed from him and he stayed as connected as he could in all these disagreements, agreements, struggles, differences and hopes.

At the end of the day, salvation was not one moment of justification.  It was a life shaped by the communal God in a communal faith by the means of grace.  Salvation, right here, right now fueled his work.  Perhaps it can continue to fuel and re-fuel ours.  See - we can join Wesley in uncomfortable places.  We can read the old hymns and see the violence of war.  We can read the old prayers and see the misuse of power, privilege, money and might.  We have a social faith, a social holiness and a social God.  We gather in small groups to check in with our souls and to ask hard questions.  Brokenness looks different than the slave ships in Bristol’s harbor or children in need of schools in Kingswood or laborers without rights.  Maybe.  We look out on our world and we are painfully aware of brokenness.    We look out and see the victims of gun violence, some children, some civilians in other countries, some in military uniforms, some in service, some teachers, some spouses, some law enforcement; all sacred and tragically killed.  We look at the brokenness and we see people in power and authority abuse their work.  Church leaders preaching hate and crucifying LGBTQIA people with their words.  We see the news of healthcare professionals, law enforcement officers, and political leaders abuse their power when they are called to heal, protect and serve.  We look at our world and we see refugees rejected and immigrant families broken in two.  It is so overwhelming that the easy solution is to complain about those people or just check out.  But the gift is we are part of a social faith.  Holy is communal and we don’t carry it alone.  Sometimes when we have a little more to give; we give a little more.  Sometimes when we need a little support, courage and resilience; we have folks that can support us.  This is social holiness, we are not alone.  Thanks be to God.


Other articles to read
John A. Newton from Methodist History, 42:1 (October 2003)

Kimbrough, s. T., Jr. Radical Grace: Justice for the Poor and Marginal- ized—Charles Wesleys Views for the Twenty-First Century. Eugene, OR Cascade Books,2 0 5 4 ل .3ل pages. ISBN-13: 978-1-62032-143-0.