Love never fails to change us

On Monday, I used this pair of scissors and cut the ribbon on one of the tiny homes at the Village at Glencliff. I felt a holy rush like I was elevating the offering plates or communion loaf to God for the first time. A priest links the people to God, and so, with these golden scissors, represented you, my Belmont friends, we blessed a space for people without housing to recover after being hospitalized. Bobby Watts of the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council thanked the people of the Methodist Church, especially Glencliff, sharing how the Village at Glencliff is the first medical respite village in the United States! It felt like a Methodist family reunion as so many of my favorite Methodist people were there. Still, in the midst of the congratulatory greetings, Gairdt’s’ quiches, and the jazz quartet’s joyous arrangements, Pastor Ingrid McIntyre reminded us that this beautiful kin-dom vision also faced stiff opposition and uphill battles.  Social and religious adaptation is hard, but Love compels us to apply our faith afresh in each new season. 

“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of humans willing to be co-workers with God.” Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letters from a Birmingham jail 

This summer, as lectionary cycle B passes through Ephesians, the editors skip over the story of the church struggling to learn something new. In the passages that precede our lesson, the Ephesian writer reminds us that Paul was beaten and imprisoned for bringing “the good news about the immeasurable riches of Christ to the Gentiles.” Riots broke out as Paul sought to fully include those once unwelcome due to their uncircumcised status. The writer speaking for Paul says, “God showed me God’s secret plan in a revelation…. Earlier generations didn’t know this hidden plan that God has now revealed…God sent me to reveal the secret plan that had been hidden since the beginning of time, God’s purpose is now to show… the many different varieties of God’s wisdom through the church…In Christ we have bold confidence… so I ask you not to become discouraged by what I’m suffering.”  Religious change is hard! Some Christian folks can’t handle the idea that God might show us something new, but praise God the Spirit still speaks. Let us not forget how the Methodist Church South defended slavery with Bible passages like Ephesians 6:2 or Titus 2:9.  Today, parts of the church cite scriptures to continue denying women full clergy rights!  It is unsettling to think God might teach us something new, but God has shown us new things from Abraham to Moses, Elijah to Mary, Jesus to Paul, John Wesley to Dr. King. The Spirit still speaks!

John and Charles Wesley did not hire a PR firm to select the name Methodist. Methodist was an eighteenth century burn whereby critics ridiculed the Wesleys strict adherence to spiritual disciplines. As John and Charles Wesley advocated for social and spiritual change, they received push back, encountering accusations, beatings and riots. The Methodists built a free school for poor children before building the first chapel. They published 453 educational works including many books promoting literacy. Meeting houses often served a dual purpose as orphanages, housing for widows, and kitchens for the hungry. Methodist chapels were often empowerment centers, helping people find work or learn trades. They only reserved the chancel for singular sacred use. Imagine rolling our pews out and placing looms and spinning wheels in our sanctuary! The early Methodists considered full employment as sacred as pew cushions. Wesley opened perhaps the first free medical clinic in England in London in 1746 and a second in 1747 in Bristol, and then divided London in 46 districts and trained lay persons to visit the sick in each of these districts. Wesley published books like Dr. Tissot’s “Advice on Respect to Health” knowing many could not afford a doctor.  

Wesley was attacked on many theological fronts. Church folks frowned on the Methodist for open air preaching in town squares or as coal miners congregated at shift changes. The church did not like Wesley’s encouraging all kinds of people to attend church and often did not welcome commoners in worship. The bishops railed against Wesley for using unordained lay pastors to lead church meetings and roundly condemned Wesley for ordaining Coke and Asbury as bishops to America. They thought the Methodists were too enthusiastic, too common, and too loud when they sang. Wesley was too blunt about the use of money, fair wages, the evils of slavery, and problems poor people faced. The church went bonkers when Wesley appointed Mary Bosanquet and Sarah Crosby to the office of “exhorter” or preacher. They accused Wesley of dividing the church, preaching outside the bounds of the parish system, talking too much about the inward witness of the Spirit.  Social and religious change is hard, but Love compels us to look around and see how to apply the good news to a new moment. 

John and Charles Wesley were spiritual innovators in producing a prodigious amount of contemporary music. Charles was a contemporary music artist writing over 6,000 hymns, only 57 remain in our present UM hymnal. He wrote music for common people and drew new people into church. 

All this theological, worship, and social change sparked resistance from church folks. Stirred on by an upset vicar, a mob attacked Wesley in October of 1743, dragging the Oxford Greek professor by his long flowing hair through the streets of Wednesbury. The next day, John shared with his brother Charles how he felt the care of guardian angels as some of the early martyrs.  John reported how only two blows from local ruffians actually struck him and that neither blow hurt.  Where John suggested guardian angels, Charles suggested that his brother might have escaped the mob blows due to John being short. Maybe Charles burn was just seeking to keep it real? The Wednesbury justice of the peace blamed the mob’s violent looting on the Methodist preachers “who go about raising routes and riots to the great damage of his Majesty‘s lead people and against the peace of our sovereign Lord the king.”  (Wesley and the People called Methodist, page 132) 278 years later, civil and church officials often blame those who speak out against injustice as the cause of the problem, when they are simply exposing the ugly systemic racism, oppressive classism, or endemic homophobia.   Church change is hard, but Love compels us to listen for where the Spirit is speaking in this moment!   

Decades ago during seminary, I read John Wesley’s “On Christian Perfection” for the first time. I filled the margins with snide remarks and sharp critiques. At my ordination, the bishop asked my ordination class Wesley’s first historic question, “Do you have faith in Christ?” The bishop then smiled and offered us a theological off-ramp saying there are many ways to understand Wesley’s next question, “Are you going on to perfection? Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? Are you earnestly striving after it?” As God’s Love and grace continues to liberate me from my past literalism, the idea of Christian perfection does not scare me so much. I am not worried over if Wesley is right or if I will be made perfect in love in this life, but to earnestly strive after love seems the only worthy goal for my life. Let us devote ourselves wholly to loving God and neighbor. Radical Love always unsettles the status quo So hear Wesley whose thoughts on Love!

Love is the fulfilling of the law- the end of the commandment. Love is not only the first

and great command, but all the commandments in one. Whatever is just, praiseworthy, pure, or an avenue for virtue, they are found in love. Love is perfection, glory, and happiness. Love is the royal law of heaven and earth. Perfect Love casts out all fear.   Love is the one perfect good that must be your one ultimate end… And loving God, we love our neighbours as ourselves, we love every human as we love our own soul. We love enemies, and yes, even the enemies of God. Love purifies our hearts from envy, malice, wrath, unkind temper, pride,and all things contrary to love. Love keeps the door of our lips. (But being made perfect in love) does not mean we are free from ignorance, mistakes, slowness of understanding, a (goofy) imagination, (bad theology), poor grammar, ungraceful pronunciation or a thousand nameless defects in conversation or behaviour. Indeed love itself may incline us to make more mistakes. Love and knowledge do not always go together.  (“We know in part! 1 Corinthians 13) Still, love is the highest gift of God: humble, gentle, patient love; all visions, revelations, manifestations of whatever, are little things compared to love. They are infinitely inferior to love. Let us all be thoroughly sensible of this, the heaven of heavens is love. There is nothing higher in religion; there is, in effect, nothing else; if you look for anything but more love, you are looking wide of the mark. Church change and theological adaptation stretch the wineskins of our mind. We may miss the mark, but Love is always a better error.  

Church change is hard.  No church likes to admit “we know in part!” (1 Corinthians13)  And so when Paul came with new ideas, God’s hidden inclusive plan, the church said, “we have never heard this… it must be wrong’. And so as with Jeremiah, Jesus, Magdalene, Wesley and King the church initially rejected Paul’s new interpretations.  But even as Paul pushes for inclusion and suffers for it, Paul does not forget that in Love is what matters. Indeed Love empowers us in the struggle. Paul prays:  “So I kneel before you, holy Creator. You recognize every tribe in heaven and on earth. And I pray that God will strengthen each of us in our inner selves, with the richness of God’s glorious Spirit. I ask that Christ might live in each of our hearts through faith, and that we might be rooted and grounded in love, so that each of us with all the saints might have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, and that we might know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge so that we might be filled with the fullness of God.” 

Love never fails to change us: to perfect us and bring about change! So perhaps when we struggle against evil, injustice  and oppression: when new insights unsettle the religious status quo, let us not forget that Wesley’s word’s “love is the highest gift of God: humble, gentle, patient love; all visions, revelations, manifestations of whatever, are little things compared to love. They are infinitely inferior to love. Let us all be thoroughly sensible of this, the heaven of heavens is love. There is nothing higher in religion; there is, in effect, nothing else; if you look for anything but more love, you are looking wide of the mark.” Amen

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