A Pastoral Word on the Presidential Election…    

Greetings friends!

As the late hours of Tuesday night unfolded and paved the way toward Wednesday morning, the surprising news of an upset became a reality as Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the U.S. Presidential election. Of course, not all were surprised at the results, but based on what was being projected prior to the first polls closing, it appeared that Clinton had an 80% likelihood of winning the election and taking up residence in the White House. Instead, however, now President-elect Trump (as of this writing) secured 279 electoral votes to Secretary Clinton’s 228. (It appears, after Michigan, Arizona and New Hampshire are settled, the final tally will be Trump 308, Clinton 232.) The results have also indicated that for the second time in the lifetime of most of us, the candidate that had the higher popular vote lost the election. (Secretary Clinton has roughly 300,000 more votes overall than President-elect Trump; similarly, President George W. Bush won the electoral college while losing the popular vote to Al Gore in 2000.)

My message to the community of faith I pastor at Ellendale UMC is not about my personal feelings or opinions about the election results. What is undeniable is that we live in a land and are part of a people that are divided very deeply on a number of significant issues. Having only been a part of the electorate for now five presidential races, it is without question that this political season has been the most tense of my lifetime and it has unveiled some of the worst in our capacity to speak and do harm unto others. Based on things that were said and done during the campaigns, it is not surprising that many went to bed Tuesday or woke up Wednesday feeling a wide range of emotional responses, and for many, this feeling won’t just go away overnight. I could go into more detail about why this is and would be glad to do so at another time or in private conversation if you would like to follow up with me.

However, what I do want to speak to at this point is how I believe we as a people whose ultimate allegiance is to Jesus the Christ as the Sovereign over our lives and the created order, ought to begin to respond in moving forward. I think it comes down to the three simple rules of Methodism: 1. Do no harm; 2. Do good; 3. Practice the means of grace (or, as the late Bishop Reuben Job put it, ‘Stay in love with God.):

  1. Do no harm. Enough harm has been done in this election season. Hateful things were said by and about the candidates and also about the people who voted differently than you did. Understandably, then, a large number of people are deeply grieving about the results. Of course, there are many who are celebrating. Meanwhile, based on the rhetoric spewed over the last year or so – comments and actions that degraded others because of their sex, race, nationality, economic class, religious convictions, sexual orientation, education level… – many are sincerely afraid of what the future holds for them in our land and whether or not they are truly welcome to be a part of it. So…let us be a community of light that does not engage in that kind of behavior – no name-calling, no hate, no referring to others as “nasty” or “deplorable.” Every human being is made in the image of God.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” – John 1:5

  1. Do good. Please, please, please let us learn to love one another. Jesus said it quite simply, though it may be the hardest thing for us to do. “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you…’.” (Matthew 5:43-44). As contentious and negative as the campaigns were, I am encouraged by the tone and tenor of the manner in which Trump, Clinton, and also President Obama have charted the course and given us a gracious example thus far of “the peaceful transfer of power.” Coming together after this election will be difficult and for many, the grief and anger will take a long time to process. If you are angry or saddened by the results, that is okay. Feel free to speak your mind about it! If, on the other hand, you’re elated or satisfied with the result of the election, then I would encourage you to be gracious and understanding with those who are not. Again, the hateful words filled with racism, classism, sexism, etc. have left many wounded and afraid. Let us remember that God has always come to the side of those who are oppressed and that Jesus ministered at great length with the vulnerable, with those whose beliefs were different than his own, with people of all ethnicities and was gracious to all, while especially challenging the religious majority and those in power. Let us be instruments of peace and reconciliation, especially by modeling love and encouragement to the most vulnerable in our world.

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?” – Micah 6:8

  1. Practice the means of grace. Again, the late United Methodist Bishop Reuben Job rephrased John Wesley’s third rule (“attend upon all the ordinances of God”) to say, more memorably, “Stay in love with God.” But staying in love with God is not a mere sentimental expression to give you all the warm fuzzies…it is a call to action and involves doing things, practicing habits that center our hearts, minds, souls and strength on God! What does this mean? It means that we need to take part in things that God’s people do: pray, search/read/study the Scriptures, take part in the worshiping community of faith, partake of the sacrament when offered, build relationships with others in the community through discipleship and fellowship, show mercy to those left on the side of the road, practice hospitality… In other words, don’t retreat! We really are stronger together (no pun intended) when we unite in our allegiance to Jesus the Christ in worship, in love to God and to our neighbors (including our “enemies”), and in our witness by being the light of the world.

“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” – Matthew 5:16

Now as we seek to put some pieces back together in witnessing the fragility and brokenness of our nation, let us keep our intention on these – avoiding harm, doing good, practicing grace – and ask for God to work through and far beyond our efforts, for healing can only come through God’s grace. We used this prayer of confession in our post-election communion service and I find it a fitting note on which to end my message to you:

Lord Jesus Christ, you are the way of peace. Come into the brokenness of our lives and our land with your healing love. Help us to be willing to bow before you in true repentance, and to bow to one another in real forgiveness. By the fire of your Holy Spirit, melt our hard hearts and consume the pride and prejudice which separate us. Fill us, O Lord, with your perfect love, which casts out our fear, and bind us together in that unity which you share with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

-from The United Methodist Book of Worship #482

three-simple-rules-parkerumc-dot-org

Photo credit – parkerumc.org

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Offer Them Christ

Primary text: Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

(A Sermon preached on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost – Year B – World Communion Sunday, 2015 – Jackson First UMC; Jackson, TN)

Have you ever just failed something miserably? Perhaps you went into some project with the highest of expectations of how successful and fruit-bearing it would be. Then perhaps at the very start, or perhaps a few months into the process chaos ensued and you were losing your grip and the desired outcome became far out of reach. You ever felt like a failure? Well, you’re not alone.

When John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was in his early 30s, he set out from England to the colony of Georgia with a grand vision of converting the Native Americans and establishing a grand movement that would spread from Savannah throughout the land. On the trip, however, he realized his own need for depending on God’s grace through a series of unfortunate events. He fell in love with a lady named Sophia Hopkey in Georgia, but he didn’t make a move quickly enough and she got tired of waiting on him so she married someone another man, William Williamson. (Seriously, William’s parents? You couldn’t get any more creative than “William Williamson”?) Well, Wesley got jealous and for reasons to minute to go into detail in this setting, Wesley used his pastoral authority and refused to offer them Holy Communion on the next occasion of their attendance at worship. The husband sued him, some reports say that he challenged Wesley to a duel, and a warrant was put out for his arrest. The trial ended in mistrial but by then the trust in Wesley’s leadership had declined and it became clear he needed to leave. To put it in our terms: it was time for the S/PPRC to inform the bishop they desired a move. If Wesley had a twitter account, he would’ve tweeted out: “Gotta get Georgia off my mind. #MissionFailed” (See what I did there? h/t Ray Charles.) So he went back home to England and never came back. That was in the mid 1730’s.

Fast forward about fifty years. Wesley had matured a lot over those years. The Methodist movement had really taken off, both in England and in the colonies that were now becoming the United States. The Revolutionary War was coming to an end and many ordained clergy were returning to England and this was going to leave many, many Methodists in America with no access to the sacraments. Wesley knew that he couldn’t go back to America. He was over 80 years old and loyal to the crown. But he was a pastor and saw the American Methodists as sheep without a shepherd. So he ordained Thomas Coke with the purpose to go to America and ordain and commission Francis Asbury, a Methodist preacher in America, to be the superintendent, or presiding elder, and begin a new denomination. Wesley was in his 80’s and as he was saying goodbye to Thomas Coke on the boat heading to America, Wesley said the famous words, which were his last to Thomas Coke: “Offer them Christ!”

John Wesley, sending Thomas Coke to America in 1784, saying, "Offer them Christ!" (Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/giveawayboy/5091781104)

John Wesley, sending Thomas Coke to America in 1784, saying, “Offer them Christ!” (Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/giveawayboy/5091781104)

Offer them Christ! Fast forward about 230 years: the movement had become an institution and established roots across the globe and throughout America, including where we are in the Memphis Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. Under the leadership of our current bishop, Bill McAlilly and the Nashville Area Strategic Mapping Team, a mission statement for our conference was revealed last year after a year-long process of discernment, prayer and conversation on many levels. The mission statement that was the fruit of those efforts was adopted at Annual Conference in 2014 reads thusly: “The mission of the Memphis Annual Conference is to discover, equip, connect and send lay and clergy leaders who shape congregations that OFFER JESUS CHRIST TO A HURTING WORLD, one neighborhood at a time.” That is, our mission is to be the church, then, that follows Wesley’s call: “Offer them Christ!” How are we living up to that?

What does all this have to do with Hebrews? Well, let’s rewind and go back to the first century and ask what is going on in the opening parts of Hebrews. This is one of the beautiful poetic passages in the New Testament that speaks to the supremacy of Christ. Here the author of Hebrews speaks of how Christ is superior to all that has gone before and is superior even to the angels. Then there is this clear allusion to the psalms as the author quotes Psalm 8, which reflects on the magnificence of creation and ponders on how amazing it is that God esteems humanity so highly even given the vast expanse of the universe and how small we are in comparison to it all. But then the writer of Hebrews turns the psalm on its head when applying it to Christ. While the psalm wonders soaring heights, Hebrews voices amazement over surprising depths. Ponder the depths of the exalted Son, who is supreme over all, nonetheless stooped to a status ‘lower than the angels,’ to be joined to the lowliness of the human condition. As Tom Long, preaching professor at Candler School of Theology at Emory, notes, “Hebrews does not wish to argue that Jesus…came just to the edge of human life and dipped his little toe into the pool of suffering. Rather, he wants to claim that, for a brief moment in time, the eternal and exalted Son purposefully and redemptively plummeted to the depths of human suffering and weakness.”

The author of Hebrews is well-acquainted with the brokenness of the world. He or she would have read the headlines that doom our newspapers, that run across the ticker on the bottom on the screen, that fill the trending topics of bad news on twitter, and said – Here is a world that is hurting and broken: a hole in the ozone and a fragile created order – offer it the Christ who according to Scripture is the One through Whom the creation came into being; the torn fabric of a society that is stripped of grace and bent on death as innocent people get senselessly slaughtered from a college campus in Oregon to the streets of Jackson – offer them Christ who offers a peace to a world at war; a people spreading destruction in the non-redemptive act of putting someone to death as though “an eye for an eye” demonstrates the justice of a forgiving God – offer them the Christ who is rich in mercy and came to give life; bodies are plagued by cancer that advances and is so aggressive as to bring bones to break – offer them Christ who heals; the broken places of the human heart and fractured relationships – offer them Christ who reconciled us to God and one another! This world and our lives are broken. Chaos reigns, it seems. But, Hebrews reminds us that if we would see Jesus…that he entered the chaos and lived among the brokenness and took it all on, all the way to death, then maybe we too would see that resurrection is on the other side of this, that we might cling to the hope that Christ brings us, his brothers and sisters, to glory.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face – [a face that was scarred and crowned with a wreath of thorns piercing his head];

And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace. – [but the path to glory goes through Calvary. What depths of love!]

The world is broken. This town, this neighborhood is broken. Our lives are broken. Christ entered our brokenness. Offer the Christ who heals to the world who hurts, for Christ brings us, the children of God, to glory.

Offer them Christ! But do not miss this: before you can offer them Christ, you must receive Christ. Receive Christ in your life. Receive Christ in the bread & wine; in his body & blood. Receive Christ in the holy meal, the holy mystery. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

At Jackson First UMC, we are in the midst of a four-week sermon series on a Wesleyan understanding of grace. The basic pattern we’ve followed is to go in the order of: 1. Prevenient grace (or “preventing grace” as John Wesley termed it); 2. Justifying grace; 3. Sanctifying grace; 4. Glorifying grace (or as we are calling it “Triumphant grace”). When Dan and I met to talk about what our plans were for this series, I must admit that I was tempted to ask if I could preach the sermons on prevenient and sanctifying grace. Our Wesleyan understanding of these modes of grace is part of what makes us distinct from other traditions within the whole Church, which is why I would have loved to unpack these for our congregation, but as the schedule began to unfold it seemed to fit better for me to preach on the other modes of grace: justification and glorification.

What has stood out to me from my very subjective, perhaps armchair theologian’s perspective is that many of us in the Wesleyan theological tradition have sought to distance ourselves from the Reformed tradition to such a degree that we miss out on the mode of grace that was so central to many movements of the Reformation, including the Wesleyan revival within the Church of England – justification. It is pretty well-documented that the Methodist movement exponentially grew because of several significant factors, but these two are among the top: 1. John Wesley’s ‘submitting to be more vile’ by preaching in the open air, outside the walls of the church buildings; 2. Wesley’s realization in the late 1730’s that salvation comes by faith. At the heart of this was his assertion that God justifies the “ungodly…the sinner” and not the one who first makes oneself pure via sanctification. Says Wesley, “Does then the Good Shepherd seek and save only those that are found already? No. He seeks and saves that which is lost. He pardons those who need his pardoning mercy.”

cross sideview

Could it be that the common practical error put forth in modern Wesleyan circles is not that we put sanctification prior to justification but that we bypass the latter altogether? The subtle transition seems to move from prevenient grace directly to sanctification without ever highlighting our need to confess our sin and hear the beautiful declaration of the promise of our absolution. As I said in the sermon, which I’m humbled was picked up by A Wesleyan Accent, “The problem is that in narrative terms, this is like going straight from the beautiful message of Christmas directly to the empty tomb. But in the midst of that we have a bloody, torturous cross that bears an Innocent Redeemer who cries at the hour of his execution a piercing word – ‘Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing’.”

For more, check out the text of my sermon here. Or you can watch the 11:00am traditional worship service in which I preached it here.

Is it worth listening to someone who has no experience in the subject matter about which they’re talking?

This past Sunday, I preached a sermon about the healthy upbringing of children and shared a few directions that John Wesley had to say about the education of children in a sermon he wrote in his later years. The question above entered my mind as I prepared the sermon and some have pressed me on the matter as well given that John Wesley never had children of his own. In addition, his well-documented failure of a love life add fuel to the desire to simply ignore much, if not all, of what he had to say about family life.

Given the facts of Wesley’s lack of (fruitful) experiences in these areas of life, it’s likely wise to at least take what he had to say with a grain…or a pillar…of salt, but somewhere amidst the bathwater there might be a baby worth redeeming. John Wesley, while admittedly having abysmal family experiences in his adulthood, was raised by a remarkable mother in Susannah Wesley, who also raised his younger brother Charles. By all appearances, Charles had a rather healthy marriage, rarely traveled away from home after getting married, and did have children of his own, unlike John. The reality, it seems to me, is that John’s “family” as an adult was the Methodist movement itself. He valued the nurture of Methodists at home and abroad more than anything. Why else would he continue to travel to see them even in into his upper 80s?  This is not to excuse the hot mess John contributed to his failed marriage at home, but to acknowledge the reality of where his heart, mind, and hands were fixed.

So while his advice on the education/raising of children is certainly not perfect nor does it come from years of proven success, perhaps there are some bits of wisdom from John that are quite valuable and can be implemented in the home and in the church as we find ways to share God’s grace with children.

Here are some of the best suggestions from John that I thought worth sharing:

  • “From the first dawn of [a child’s] reason continually inculcate, God is in this and every place. God made you, and me, and the earth, and the sun, and the moon, and everything. And everything is his; heaven, and earth, and all that is therein.”
  • “With regard to the management of your children, steadily keep the reins in your own hands.” (He said this in the context of telling parents to not let the grandparents of the children manage the children, which I think he probably overstated. That said, it is vital to take ownership in your child’s development and not leave the task for someone else to do.
  • “From their very infancy sow the seeds of justice in their hearts, and train them up in the exactest practice of it.”
  • “In the morning, in the evening, and all the day beside, press upon all your children, ‘to walk in love, as Christ also loved us, and gave himself for us;’ to mind that one point, ‘God is love, and he that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God, and God in him’.”

Some of the other things John said in his sermons on the raising of children sound quite harsh or outdated to the modern ear and mind. To hear a couple of examples (and to hear what else I said on the matter of nurturing children), you can view one of the services at Jackson FUMC.

First Awakening service (sermon starts about 40 minutes in):

Traditional Worship service (sermon starts about 33 minutes in):

On the whole, it is worth considering that John Wesley’s aim was to spread the emphasis of sanctifying grace throughout his lifetime. I believe that when taken in this context, we have some valuable lessons to learn from the founder of our movement because these suggestions lend themselves to the following of the great commandments: “love God with all your heart, mind, soul, might” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” And in the nurture of children, we adults (parents, teachers, mentors, all people in the church) have a role to play in this. As Wesley reminded us: “Let it be carefully remembered all this time, that God, not man, is the physician of souls…that ‘it is God who worketh in us, both to will and to do of his good pleasure.’ But it is generally God’s pleasure to work by his creatures; to help man by man. God honors [humans] to be, in this sense, ‘workers together with him’.”

Let us join in that great work!

As some of you who read my blog are aware, not long ago I was a PhD student at Nazarene Theological College (accredited by The University of Manchester) in the United Kingdom. I wrote about the decision to step back from that pursuit in this post from August of 2012. What I didn’t share in that post but what has become clear since then is that there has been a transition in my research interests of a Wesleyan doctrine of the atonement from an historical quest to more of an investigation of the doctrine and its implication for the contemporary audience. In other words, I’ve been drawn to wrestle with this question: “What would a Wesleyan theology of the atonement look like in the church?” I think this transition has been quite natural given the shift in my vocational path from the classroom to the pulpit.

Several people in the churches I am serving have been made aware of this shift and of my continued interest in the subject. So when a couple from Liberty UMC went with Carrie and me to the opening weekend of the Generative Leadership Academy, and we were challenged to do some sort of Lenten project, they asked me about the possibility of my leading a study on the atonement during the Lenten season. It seemed like an ideal time to talk about such a topic. Lent is about the journey to the cross. Jesus’ sacrificial death there is at the heart of what we mean when we talk about the atonement. Sure, let’s do this! In my mind (and in my saved files) I had a structure in mind for how the study might go if we broke it up into a weekly study, so we began making plans on making this idea a reality.

We talked about the nature of Lent, how it is a season of ‘fasting’ for 40 days, excepting Sundays which are days when most observers of Lent are encouraged or at least permitted to ‘break’ their fast (otherwise the fast is 46 days, in total). And as you can easily discern, the meaning of the word that describes our first meal of the day is derived from this very sort of practice (break-fast). So we thought an ideal pairing would be to have a breakfast meal before each session of the study. The trouble is, however, that Sunday morning breakfasts at Liberty UMC are not feasible as the first worship service I lead is at the other church to which I am appointed, Post Oak UMC. So we talked about other days when a breakfast meal would provide an opportunity for people to participate in the study. That’s how we arrived at Saturdays, when most people are off work, and we wouldn’t have to make it too early (we’re set to begin at 9:30am each week).

I’m really excited about this study and it seems to have garnered a good deal of interest from lots of people in the church as the sign-up list has grown over the weeks that we have announced it, and I’m aware of neighboring churches advertising it and that we’ll have outside participation as well. My hope is that we as United Methodists can discover how this central doctrine to our faith is related to the rest of it and how the atonement in Christ can be seen as the shape of how God’s grace is made known in the world and in our lives.

Image created by the folks at memphis-umc.net

Image created by the folks at memphis-umc.net

So if you are anywhere near Camden and have an interest in the doctrine of the atonement can be seen through the lens of Wesleyan/United Methodist way of being a follower of the Christ, or if you just like to eat breakfast with other people, I encourage you to join us on Saturdays in Lent at Liberty UMC at 9:30am. The first breakfast (March 8) will begin in the Wrather auditorium, which will require your entrance through the sanctuary. (We’ll have signs and people pointing the way.) The remaining breakfasts will be served in the fellowship hall. All of the sessions for the study itself will be in the sanctuary. Come and join us! (If you’re not able to join us, I plan on sharing highlights here when possible.) The address for Liberty UMC: 3135 Highway 69A, Camden, TN 38320.

May God guide us in our quest this Lenten season as we journey to the cross!

Yesterday was the homecoming & memorial day service for Liberty UMC. Below is the script from which I shared.

Scripture text – 2 Corinthians 3:16-17

“…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty…”

I sat down and read a lot about the history of Liberty UMC this week and have found myself chuckling at some stories, scratching my head at others, wondering about some of the missing details, and weeping tears of empathy at those confessing deep pain and loss. In a world of brokenness like ours, any story worth telling will be filled with the message of redemption that is brought through pain.

But one story that stands out in particular is the story of the roof of the church catching on fire one cold Sunday in March of 1928 when Liberty was a wooden building. The details of how certain people went to great lengths to keep the fire and damage to a minimum are awe-inspiring in some parts and kind of comical at others. But I thought the closing reflection of the story said it well…

“Some members had thought it much too cold to walk to church on that day, but somehow before the fire was brought under control, the church yard was full of people and in those days, communications was limited to just a few battery operated phones. Someone made the remark, ‘Maybe we should set a fire to the roof every Sunday if it will draw a crowd this large’.”

Well, as I look out over this crowd I just might say, “Maybe we should have a homecoming & memorial day every Sunday if it will draw a crowd this large!” I really am not interested in setting the roof on fire.

“…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty…”

Have you ever just paused and thought about the name of this church? It’s really a great name. Liberty. What comes to your mind when you hear the word “liberty”?

I asked this question to F.W. and H.P., two of our most faithful members who are now home-bound or at the nursing home. Before sharing a story or two about their experience at the church, they both said the same word came to mind when they hear “liberty” and that word is freedom.

In fact freedom is the word that is used in most English translations of our passage this morning: “…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom…”

But what else comes to mind when you hear the word “liberty”? Perhaps the infamous Liberty Bell. What is the distinguishing mark of the Liberty Bell?

Liberty Bell (photo credit: wikipedia)

Liberty Bell (photo credit: wikipedia)

The crack in it, right? Of course, that mark can serve as a good reminder that what is required for liberty, or freedom, comes at a great cost and often leaves its scars. Even the resurrected body of Jesus still had the scars from the nails in his hands and feet as well as from the spear in his side.

Or maybe you’re a wordsmith and famous lines containing “liberty” are more likely to stand out. Like famous statement by Patrick Henry? “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!” Or perhaps what is found in the Declaration of Independence? “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

What other sounds or images of “liberty” come to mind for those of us living in the U.S.? Probably the Statue of Liberty. She really is a fine statue, but have you ever considered the irony, the contradiction, in the title? Think about it. A statue is something that is permanent, something fixed, something that is not living, that is, something that is not really “free” yet the word “liberty” itself means freedom. But as I pondered the apparent contradiction of that term, “Statue of Liberty” my mind was taken to some words offered by John Wesley.

Wesley wrote a collection of prayers for individuals, families, and children for morning and evening, each day of the week. His Thursday evening prayer for families begins this way: “O LORD our GOD, thy glory is above all our thoughts, and thy mercy is over all thy works. We are still living monuments of thy mercy; for you have not cut us off in our sins, but still give us a good hope, and strong consolation through grace. You have sent thy only Son into the world, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish in his sins, but have everlasting life.”

I like that. We are “…living monuments of God’s mercy…” or to put another way, “…living monuments of liberty…” I looked out over our cemetery this week and saw all the monuments identifying who is buried by each one. The stones and their engravings are there for our remembrance, that we may recall the faithfulness of God in the lives of our forefathers and foremothers. That is, we remember that God is faithful to bring liberty, or freedom, to God’s children. And as I looked over those monuments of God’s mercy, I realized that the act of remembering our past is an extremely important task for we who seek to follow Christ. Consider that in establishing the meal of the new covenant, Jesus said, “When you eat this bread and drink this cup, remember me.” Remembrance is a necessary act for Christians. For if we look or move toward the future without acknowledging God’s faithfulness in the past (and present), then we would be performing an exercise of futility.

This day, we remember and celebrate the liberty that God has wrought in the great work of our redemption in Christ. Liberty is at the heart of Jesus’ mission statement. In Jesus’ first sermon recorded in Luke (4:16ff.), he is reading from Isaiah in worship in the synagogue and he applies this statement to himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…”

“…to proclaim liberty to the captives…” That would be a great vision for a church, wouldn’t it? “…to proclaim liberty to the captives…”

Hobart & Hazel Hargis were one of four couples who had been married for over 50 years when a history of Liberty UMC was written in 1984 for the Bicentennial celebration of when the Methodist Episcopal Church was established, which was in 1784. For the bicentennial, each couple that had been married over 50 years was asked several questions about their married lives, what advice they would pass onto younger couples, etc. They were also asked what their biggest crisis was over the course of their marriage. To this question, Hobart & Hazel responded that theirs was the long illness of their baby and being able to finally hear its cry.

I’m unsure of exactly the nature of that illness as there were no further details of the story in what I read, but it sounds to me like the type of longing expectation to be fulfilled like one who has been captive to be set at liberty. Ever had a nightmare where you’re trying to cry for help but have no voice? Then when you wake up, there is this great sigh of relief…you’re free. This baby’s voice and health was seemingly held captive, but after a long struggle, was set free. That’s an image of liberty.

“…to proclaim liberty to the captives…” More recently, we’ve had people join the church in the past few years who in the past were held captive in various ways: by addictions, by debt, by guilt. And they have found a home in liberty, both in this church that bears the name and in the glorious liberty of knowing the freedom in Christ from being held in bondage.

“…to proclaim liberty to the captives…” I look out over this congregation and I see living monuments of God’s mercy and Christ’s great act of liberty. I see the Spirit of the Lord, that is the Spirit of Christ, and Paul says wherever that Spirit is, there is liberty. And we have been set at liberty, that is, we have been set free to join Christ’s great mission “…to proclaim liberty to the captives…” If God has been faithful thus far, imagine what greater things God has in store if we will but live into this mission of proclaiming liberty to the captives.

"...my chains fell off..." (photo credit: @chainsbroken on twitter.com)

“…my chains fell off…” (photo credit: @chainsbroken on twitter.com)

I close with an image of liberty that I have found quite powerful. My favorite hymn by Charles Wesley is ‘And Can It Be That I Should Gain’ which is #363 in our hymnal. It is filled with some of the greatest language describing God’s free(ing) grace. Verse 4 has long been my favorite and it goes like this:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

We had been locked in a dungeon, bound in darkness and sin. But when we allow Christ to shed light to pierce the darkness and to break those chains that have held us in bondage, then we will know what liberty truly means as we will be free to follow this Christ who has set us free.

Disclaimer: prepare for a little satire…

“Set yourself on fire (with enthusiasm) and people will come for miles to watch you burn.” – Someone other than John Wesley. You may have seen this line or something similar attributed to the Rev. Wesley but it is not something he ever wrote and the language sounds out of place for an 18th century Anglican clergyman, even one who was at times accused of being an “enthusiast.” Even though there is no evidence to show the co-founder of Methodism ever said such a statement, I think that I may have come across why this quote has been associated with the ecclesial traditions bearing the theology of the original Methodist.

This upcoming Sunday is the Homecoming/Memorial Day Service for Liberty United Methodist Church in Camden, Tennessee, which is one of the churches to which I am currently appointed as pastor.

Current picture of Liberty UMC in Camden, Tennessee.

Current picture of Liberty UMC in Camden, Tennessee.

And as this is my first year there, the tradition holds that I am to be the bearer of the homecoming message. So I’ve spent a good amount of time hearing and reading accounts from the history of Liberty UMC’s life up to this present day. Some parts are fuzzier than others, but the details in a story entitled “An Unusual Sunday at Liberty Methodist Church” are quite specific. You see on a cold Sunday morning in March of 1928, there was a fire that threatened to consume the old wooden church building. A person driving by the church noticed smoke coming from the building and announced, “The church is on fire!” There was an immediate commotion and a very risky and enthusiastic attempt by two brave men to put the fire out, which only threatened a portion of the ceiling. Their attempt was successful and the fire was extinguished, but by the time it had fizzled out, there was a very large crowd gathered outside the building, greatly exceeding the normal attendance for worship. The reflection I read says it all:

Some members had thought it much too cold to walk to church on that day, but somehow before the fire was brought under control, the church yard was full of people and in those days, communications was limited to just a few battery operated phones. Someone made the remark, “Maybe we should set a fire to the roof every Sunday if it will draw a crowd this large.”

So maybe it was more like advice to the church that says, “Set your(roof) on fire and people will come for miles to watch (it) burn.”

Nah…

The story is true though. Hope to see you Sunday!