Let us Preach: “Living into the Mystery”

Date: May 27, 2018
Text: Romans 8:12-17
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean

Note for those reading this online: Although I am certain that the quotes this morning can be found in the complete works of John Wesley, I relied heavily on “The Methodist Defense of Women in Ministry: A Documentary History” by Paul Chilcote (Cascade Books, 2017). Unlike most of my digital books, my Kindle version did not have easy access to page numbers to reference.

To begin this message, I would like to share a quote from John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, and chiefly considered the primary founder of Methodism. He wrote these words on February 25, 1774 in a letter.

“If you speak only faintly and indirectly, none will be offended and none profited. But if you speak out, although some will probably be angry, yet others will soon find the power of God unto salvation.” (John Wesley to Martha Chapman on February 25, 1774)

I would like to teach on our tradition as a people this Sunday morning. We are gathered here on Trinity Sunday. Today is a Sunday where we celebrate that God is our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. We gather to celebrate that God is our divine Parent, our Brother, and our Advocate. We gather in the belief that God is in our midst in a very Trinitarian sense. God exists in a Trinity—three in one. God is the One who brought all things into being. God is incarnated in the person of Christ, our Redeemer. God is also our Advocate and our Counselor. God is present in our lives in the Holy Spirit.

God’s ongoing role in our lives through the Holy Spirit has had a direct impact on the history and nature of Christianity. God’s work in and through the church has taken on surprising and strange forms over the nearly twenty centuries we have been a growing and evolving church. God calls, God invites, and God has prodded us to live in strange ways.

Consider the words of Paul to the Roman church which we have shared this morning. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” Again, Paul writes: “It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”

We are a church who claims to be joint heirs with Christ. We claim that God’s Spirit witnesses to our place in God’s family as heirs. As we gather on this Sunday when we claim the Trinitarian nature of God, we are reasserting a big claim—a monumentally large claim. Some would say that it is insane to claim that the God of the universe would draw us in, bring us into the family, and adopt us into an inheritance far beyond what we deserve.

We need to be clear on what Paul is saying before we understand how it affects our tradition. What Paul describes is not our being adopted into the family of God reluctantly. What Paul is saying is that we are given a place in the family that becomes through God’s own work both imperishable and unbreakable. What Paul is saying is that we have a place in the inheritance that will not be removed. What Paul is saying is that we have become inextricably connected with the divine God who is our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Sustainer. When we say that we are the children of God, we are not using empty words. We are the children of God for God has made us a part of the family.

In our history, our legacy, and our tradition, this adoption changes the way that we approach the world. Did you ever stop to think about how this belief affects worship? In a few minutes we will have time for prayer and we will come before God. Some of us will ask for healing. Others of us will give thanks for something good. Some of us will ask God to help us be better spouses or parents. We will all come before God and some of us will make big requests. The boldness to come before God ties into this legacy of adoption.

Think about it for a moment. If you were hungry and without food, you might walk into a restaurant and ask for something to eat even though you could not pay. Would you be surprised if you were turned down? No. The restaurant employee or owner is not “running a charity!” They have a business to run! Some of us might ask anyway, but there’s an understanding that we might be lucky to have a cold sandwich that’s going stale.

Think about the reality of what we do in worship. We come before God and we ask the big things. We ask for God to be present in the lives of the suffering with a certain level of expectation. Will God say yes? Maybe. I do not know if this is the moment God says “Yes,” “No,” or “Not yet.” What I do know is this: A lot of us will make a big ask. Where do we get off asking God for help with employment, health, relationships, or a thousand and one things a lot bigger than a stale cold sandwich? Where do we get the audacity to make these requests? Where do we get the nerve?

I think we understand at a subconscious level that Paul is right. We have been invited into the family. I might not have enough to feed a thousand strangers if they show up at my house on a Sunday afternoon, but I can tell you that I will feed my children. My children are family and I do my best to always provide for my family. Worship is one of those places where our understanding takes on solidity. We ask because we are a part of the family. We pray because we believe God will listen. We speak to God because we believe that God will listen longer than we do when we hear a robo-caller ring us on the phone. We speak because we believe that God intrinsically hears us.

The belief that God has brought us into the family has a deeper impact than simply the way we go about Sunday worship. When Paul writes about having a spirit that is free of slavery and fear, we are invited to consider life in a different way. We are called to look at ourselves as heirs of God. Sometimes that means taking bold and radical steps including ignoring what the world tells us we should say, do, or be in the life. Sometimes listening to that Spirit means standing against what the church says we should say, do, or be in this life. Sometimes, we are called in our adoption to be bold, brave, and beautiful.

In anticipation of the sermon this morning, I collected a series of quotes from the letters of John Wesley, the chief founder of Methodism. I want to share them with you and then, after you have heard them all, I will tell you who received these words. For reference, these quotes were written in 1773, 1774, and 1788. The most recent of these quotes was written 32 years before either the Methodists or Congregationalists began meeting in the hamlet of Maine. The first two predate the Declaration of Independence.

“I fear you are too idle. This will certainly bring condemnation. Up and be doing! Do not loiter. See that your talent rust not: rather let it gain ten more; and it will, if you use it.” (John Wesley to Eliza Bennis in April 1, 1773)

“If you speak only faintly and indirectly, none will be offended and none profited. But if you speak out, although some will probably be angry, yet others will soon find the power of God unto salvation.” (John Wesley to Martha Chapman on February 25, 1774)

“Whoever praises or dispraises, it is your part to go steadily on, speaking the truth in love.” (John Wesley to Sarah Mallet on August 2, 1788)

Who could the stiff, staid, often remarkably traditional John Wesley have been writing to in such a strange time? Could it be to the preachers in the Americas? John Wesley had been a preacher in Georgia and had opinions on the Americas, but that wasn’t the case. Was it to the preachers in another part of the British Isles? Well, some of the letters Wesley wrote were to preachers in Ireland, but that is not what makes these quotes exceptional.

The first quote, on not being idle but using one’s talents, along with the firm belief that God would grow those talents, was to Mrs. Eliza Bennis, a female preacher in Ireland who was sharing the Good News before the United States had declared independence. The second quote written by Wesley encouraging the listener to ignore anger and to speak boldly was to Mrs. Martha Chapman. The final exhortation to keep preaching steadily the truth in love was written to Sarah Mallet in 1788, which was a good thing, especially as the Manchester Conference of the Methodist Connexion freely stated the following a year before in 1787:

“We give the right hand of fellowship to Sarah Mallet and have no objection to her being a preacher in our Connexion so long as she preaches the Methodist doctrines and attends to our discipline.”

Let me be entirely clear. the Methodist Episcopal Church in the new world did not ordain women as equals into the ministry until 1956. The Evangelical United Brethren did not give clergy rights until 1889 when it ordained Ella Niswonger. The Methodist Protestant Church ordained Anna Howard Shaw in 1880. Sarah Mallet was welcomed as a preacher in Great Britain over a century before a woman would be welcomed into any of the branches of what would become the United Methodist Church. (source)

All of this took place before Antoinette Brown was ordained in South Butler, NY, as the first female minister in what would become the UCC in 1853. Now, we need to be clear. The Methodists in Great Britain were not ordaining folks as they existed within the Church of England and folks like Antoinette Brown were exceptional in the fact that she was fully ordained and fully educated as a graduate of Oberlin College. To a certain extent, comparing ordained ministry to the ministry of a circuit rider in Great Britain is like comparing apples and oranges, but in both cases it is absolutely clear. The growth of the call of the Spirit resulted in spiritual fruit-growing in the lives of women who were often dismissed and ignored by their society. These women responded to a higher calling that what their society would claim as their place and role.

Ponder what I am saying to you this morning. When God calls us into adoption, it is not a call to simply believe that we are simply okay with the Divine. We are called with boldness into a relationship with God which changes our relationship with the world. The Methodists were calling women preachers into ministry 133 years before the 19th Amendment gave white women the right to vote in the United States and 173 years before the Civil Rights movement worked to help all women in this nation have the right to freely vote. This bold, brave, and beautiful move was the direct result of God at work not only in the lives of those women preachers, but in the preachers, crowds, and advocates who supported their ministry.

The bravery which called women of the late 1700s out of the place where their society would have shackled them is a part of our legacy, our tradition, and our character. To look at the world around us and say “They do not want us to be who we are called to be” is not in our nature, our character, or our being. To be blown about by the winds of this world is not who we are meant to be in this life. We are called to adoption, to freedom, and to relationship with God.

When we ponder our own lives, our future, our dreams, and our hopes it is important to remember that we are called to be an adopted people. We are called to look beyond the words of our birth world into the world that is still being created and restored both in and around us. We are called to become the children of God and that calling affects who we are and how we live our lives. Let us pray…

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