Sermon Summary 2.20.22 "About Us..."
Sermon Summary 2.20.22 “About Us…”
I opened by talking a bit about how this week’s theme came together. As I was planning, I was in the midst of reading for Board of Ordained Ministry interviews in which candidates for ordination answer a series of questions and talk about how they’ve applied their theology in ministry. The interview week I was a part of 2 weeks ago is always a very intense and rewarding experience, affirming candidates and sometimes saying “not yet” to those who need to work on things a bit more, and occasionally “no” to those who may well be gifted and called but who are not Wesleyan in their theology.
We are also in the midst of a significant transition here at First - after serving for almost 15 years, our secretary Marla Gorman, is retiring. We have, in turn, hired Zandra Hood as our new secretary. Marla was a longtime member, but joined another denomination when she married. Zandra served as secretary another church, where she is still a member, for 15 years prior to joining our staff. We respect both of their paths and denominations - and it’s a good time to think about who we are.
Finally, we also just revamped our web site and added an “About us…” page that, very briefly, gives an overview of United Methodist history and beliefs and how we seek to live those out here at First. It went from a few bullet points to a sort of sermon and I thought - I should use that.
To begin unpacking all that - we looked at our text from Matthew 21. A man has 2 sons and asks them to work in the vineyard. This story evokes lots of others from the Old Testament and Jesus’ ministry - focusing us on what it means to be fruitful and obedient in our response to God. The first son says “no” but repents and goes and does as he was asked. The 2nd son says Yes… but then doesn’t follow through. In the context of Jesus’ dispute with Chief Priests and elders of the temple, there is a clear message that how we respond in both word and deed matters. This, for me, is a good summary of Wesleyan theology - we are responsible to - and able to respond to - the gift of God’s grace. We need our words and our actions to match.
Then we looked at the Apostles Creed - a basic statement of Christian faith - with each line being the resolution of some early debate in the church. One of the unique things about Methodism is that we didn’t start with a doctrinal statement or creed and, while we affirm the historic creeds, we recognize a “wide theology” that means we don’t all have to think alike. The emphasis is more on serving - living out our faith in all its variety, as we continue to learn and grow.
Wesley’s own life illustrates this. He was an Anglican Priest, but desperately unsure of his own faith. Seeking to earn God’s grace, he sought to convert the heathens in Georgia colony - envisioning winning large numbers of converts and building a church in the colony. On the way there, his ship encountered a storm with water flooding the cabins. Wesley noticed a group of German Moravian Pietist who, despite the storm, continued to praise God in song and prayer - not pleading, but praising, whatever would come. Wesley was amazed and wanted that kind of assurance.
They made it to Georgia, but Wesley was pretty much a failure. He won few if any native converts and spent most of his years in Georgia feuding with the local constable. Most notably, he was romantically involved with Sophia Hopkey, but wound up not marrying her, possibly on the advice of the Morovian leader. When she then married another man, Wesley became vindictive, even denying her Holy Communion! Sophia turns out to be the constable’s niece and things went from bad to worse for Wesley, with him eventually slinking back to England disgraced.
Once there, he continued to struggle until May 24th, 1730 when he wrote in his journal '“that evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Wesley was transformed. Suddenly his preaching was powerful and he began to attract crowds, preaching outdoors and with great fruitfulness, forming classes, bands and societies of people dedicated to growing their faith. He developed some “general rules” for those groups that can be summarized “Do No Harm, Do Good, and Stay in Love with God.” The emphasis of Methodism is on a lived faith that joins head and heart in service - growing in faith without insisting others share our exact understanding.
We then illustrated that with our reading from Philippians 2 - we are called to think and serve like Christ - with humility. I noted that normally when I preach on this passage, I focus on the hymn proclaiming Christ’s humanity and obedience, “even to death on a cross.” But this time I was drawn to the discussion of the name he was given. Often we want to insist that our own understanding of Jesus is what everyone should bow down to - but this passage proclaims a mystery. I got to thinking about names in the Bible - when Moses asks for God’s name he’s given not a proper noun but a verb - the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is “I Am who I Am” - a dynamic, living, active God! Similarly Jacob wrestles a man… a messenger of God… and comes away realizing he has encountered God face to face. When he asks a name he is denied. Yet he is transformed and in many ways healed from his past brokenness. Finally I shared some of the discussion of new names in Revelation - where both believers and Christ are given new names not yet revealed. It’s not about knowing or having power - it’s about living faith.
“Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.” (The Book of Discipline, 2016 ¶105). I explained this with a simplified version of a drawing I did in a seminary class, showing Scripture as primary and yet also emerging from tradition, personal and communal experiences, and the gift of reason. Our traditions and their differences help us grow and proclaim God’s glory - differences over things like how we celebrate communion emphasize different important truths - our open table celebrating God’s grace, while our neighbors practice emphasize God’s holiness and the shared community of understanding. We do not - to quote Wesley - have to think alike to love alike and our different emphasis can be seen to compliment one another rather than compete.
Individual and communal experiences shape our journey of faith and make it personal while the gift of reason drives us to question and seek answers even as we cannot ultimately understand God. You can find a deeper discussion of this on this blog entry.
Things got a bit confusing in the service when I then accidently closed out the slides and lost my train of thought, so we wrapped up noting that God is transcendent, beyond our understanding, but that we are also called to follow Christ - God who dwells with us. We walk in his footprints and follow the way he showed us. Here at First, we express that with this statement. “The mission of First UMC Fort Scott is: to share the good news of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and to exemplify the love of God by knowing Christ, growing in Christ, serving Christ and sharing Christ”
Blessings on your journey.