Methodism: A Renewal Movement - Rev. William F. Meier

In this five-week sermon series, “Why Methodism?” we are exploring what is worth holding on to in our spiritual tradition as a new pathway is forged. It is a good question and worthy of our pondering.

Rev. Leah began the series looking at the “Marks of a Methodist,” but finding no check list; she said The United Methodist church is a broad tent that holds diverse theologies, cultures, worship styles and viewpoints. Rev. Lynda Ellis explored what Methodism views as its epistemology—how is that we know God and know God’s will—in the quadrilateral of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. She beautifully ran the topic of sexuality through this theological tool for us. Last week, Rev. Randy explored Methodism’s Tradition—its teaching and discernment—in its Social Principles. Next week, Rev. Ashley Hendley is batting clean-up, and since Leah already rounded the bases and made it home the most she can pull of is a grand slam, but that assumes I get a base hit today, so the pressure is on.

Today I’d like us to consider the value and practice of Methodism as a renewal movement. At critical points in history renewal movements are necessary. Randy reminded us of the Prophets of ancient Israel bringing about renewal in their call to return to justice from empty sacrifice. Jesus sought the renewal of his faith tradition, returning it to its core. Martin Luther and others sought renewal in the church on the Continent 500 years ago. Unfortunately, what often happens in these movements is that the old systems cannot hold the new wine of their own vineyard and a new religion or denomination is created. And in that process, the new group shapes its identity over against the old: “Well, we’re not them… Catholics, Jews…” fill in the blank, and in the process throw out key parts of identity and practice, and cause divisions that harm.

This leads to some tragic results. Atrocious results. Martin Luther sought to coarse correct the church from its corruption and reliance upon church authority and so threw the emphasis upon Scripture—Sola Scriptura…Scripture alone, ignoring the other authorities (of the quadrilateral), and not recognizing that the Bible is the product of the church.

Jesus’ followers, empowered by a whole new life and way of being in the world, set out to renew the Hebrew faith. Within a short time however, they sought their identity apart from the Jewish faith, to the point of blaming them for Jesus’ death and thus laying the groundwork for anti-Semitism in all parts of the church culminating in the atrocities of the ethnic-cleansing Crusades and Holocaust.

So, renewal movements seek to return an institution to its core passions and practices, and that is what John Wesley and others sought for the Anglican Catholic church. They saw a church that wasn’t engaged in the real (spiritual and physical) lives of England’s poor.

So why is it that the pendulum swings too far? Why do we throw out the baby with the bathwater in these renewal movements, and things go off the rails? (to mix three metaphors).

I think that it is the result of a basic way of seeing the world…the way our brains are programmed to see and think. Let me see if I can show it emerging in our own thoughts here today. A couple of years ago now, two of my grandsons, went to one of our church’s children’s activities. Upon getting home the older one, five-year-old Cameron, asked his mother, “Mommy, why is Marusha’s skin so dark?” “Well, Cam,” came the reply, “God makes us all different and beautiful in our own way, and we call that skin color ‘black.’” Cameron thought about it briefly and said, “Mommy… I wish I was black.” Younger Alec, four and a half, listening to this whole conversation said, “Mommy, I wish…I wish I was God.”

Upon hearing this story our minds immediately begin to cast Cameron as an angel and Alec as a devil. It is how our minds work. We look for differentiation, we seek to classify. But the truth is that Alec can be as tender-hearted and thoughtful as Cameron, and no doubt Cam has his moments of mischief too. But our minds divide up the world, reality, into either/or categories; black and white, good and bad, right and wrong, inside and outside, like and dislike. This is how we come into the world. It is what Cynthia Bourgeault calls the binary “egoic operating system.” Our brains are nearly hard-wired to find differences, to find subjects and objects, insides and out. She described how her “one-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter could already sing along with the Sesame Street jingle, ‘One of these things is not like the other,’ and pick out the cat from among three dogs.”

As humans, it is necessary for us to learn how to run this binary operating system and perceive the difference between a poisonous snake and a tree stick, a friend or a foe, right from wrong. But as with the story of Cameron, Marusha and Alec, the full truth isn’t so simple, and we need a larger way of seeing.

This dualistic, binary way of seeing is a lower level of functioning or perceiving, and normally we grow beyond this basic level of thinking. We always have it in operation within our brains, but we can transcend it, and function at higher levels, but when we are under a threat or stress, we often regress back into either/or, black and white thinking.

I think this tendency is why we throw out baby’s with bathwater and renewal movements go off the rails and we demonize part of what they were trying to reform. What is interesting is that the Methodist movement for the most part didn’t do that. John Wesley wanted to renew the Anglican Catholic Church and died a priest of the church. The Methodism movement didn’t demonize the church of England and form its identity apart from it or opposed to it. Early Methodists, while they met in small support and accountability groups and in larger Society gatherings—they also were expected to worship in the church. What is unique I think is that the Methodist renewal movement sought to keep a sense of tension with the polarities it walked.

It wasn’t either/or thinking, but sought to live out the following tensions:

Personal Holiness ……………..Social Holiness The Methodist movement was concerned with people’s spiritual welfare—the state of their souls. Did they have a life-giving relationship with God that brought about a wholeness? This included concern for destructive forces such as domestic violence, alcoholism, and mental illness, developing supportive small groups to deal with these. It was the forerunner of the A.A. model developed later by Methodists.

And Methodists were concerned with people’s physical welfare, opening the first free medical clinic in London, working with debt reforms so that people don’t end up in jail furthering their troubles. Slavery, labor, education, health, land reforms… the list goes on. These two, personal and social are intimately tied, and the church needs to hold them both as values.

Faith……………………………Good Works Our salvation, our wholeness and completeness, is the result of God’s work. Our responsibility is to have faith, that manifests itself in doing good.

East……………………………..West Wesley was thoroughly steeped in the western enlightenment of England, yet he broadened his theological scope to honor and include eastern orthodox thinking into his beliefs. Like those in the east, he felt the goal of the Christian life is what he called “perfection,” by that he really meant was to be complete in our ability to love.

Heart…………….………….Intellect Wesley was known to be a great preacher and was accused of “enthusiasm.” He was barred from nearly every Anglican pulpit he preached in because he riled up the people so it disturbed the powers that be. He knew that faith must involve the heart and emotions—yet, he insisted his preachers seek education, himself an Oxford graduate and teacher. The full powers of our critical minds must be honored by utilizing it in all things.

Evangelical……………….Sacramental The heart and drive to reach people with the Good News led Wesley to travel 44,000 miles on horseback or carriage—preach two to three times a day, in factories, coal mines, street corners and fields. And he partook of communion nearly every day and encouraged his followers to the same.

Freewill………………………….Prevenient Grace Unlike many Calvinistic thinkers, Wesley insisted that we have freewill and we do have a role to play in our salvation—a consent to give, and a life-long spiritual growth in Sanctification: becoming more holy…more whole. At the same time he spoke about God’s Grace being at work in our hearts and lives long before we recognize it or say yes to it.

Experiential …………Action Oriented Wesley honored our inner experience as Christians—our deep knowing of the Holy Spirit, having his own heart strangely warmed. And at the same time, the focus is to be acting in the world…doing all the good we can.

This is not a complete list of the polarities, and maybe polarities is the wrong word for it because these are not opposites, but you can get a sense of this way of being. Robert Capon once said that a heresy is to buy into one side of a polarity, and I think he’s right: law without Grace; freedom without responsibility; love without discipline. The Methodist movement, at its best, holds these things in balance and in the tension is born new ways of being in the world.

Now, granted, not all things are genuine polarities that need to be kept in tension. There is such a thing as right and wrong and some things shouldn’t be compromised—like coffee and ice. It is just wrong. But these polarities provide fertile ground and open space for the Holy Spirit to work in the world and in our lives.

As we ponder the future, I believe the church needs to hold true to these tensions, these polarities. The church needs them to see deeper and act more effectively. The world needs the church to model mature seeing and balanced, healthy practices.

There is a deeper way of seeing and being in the world. I think that is what Jesus was saying at the beginning of his ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news.” The Greek word for “repent” here is Metanoia, and it literally means to go beyond the mind…to perceive in a whole new way.

Now, more than ever, we need a deeper way of seeing and being that can unify. We need a spiritual maturity and practice that helps us see the complexity, options, the whole picture, and respond to it with love, justice and grace.

The church and the world need a “Yes, and” approach. In improvisational comedy, the key to keeping the gag going and fun is just that: yes, and. One person begins a story, sets the scene and characters, then then another runs with the next part. “Yes” is accepting what the initial story is about, and the “and” is the quirky direction that the next person adds to it before passing it on to develop in stranger, funnier ways.

A while back my wife and I watched a documentary film called “The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man.” It was a wonderful view of this funny-man who gently inserts himself into people’s lives in unexpected and joy inducing ways.

From showing up uninvited at a random house party, finding his way into the kitchen and then washing the dishes, then slipping away unnoticed…to taking over bartending duties in a neighborhood bar and pouring whatever was nearest to him (not what they ordered). He crashed a party and joined an all-girls band by playing the tambourine; joined an adult kick-ball game in a city park; walked up behind someone in the men’s restroom standing at the urinal, covering their eyes with his hands and whispering “No one will ever believe you.”

Bill Murray enjoys living in the moment. He shows up to life without pushing himself or his agenda. He’s open to life and joy and the next moment, saying “yes” to it, and adds something more. The ordinary people he surprises are left with a wondrous memory and an elevated sense of joy and awareness of life’s preciousness. Yes, and…

I know it is the preacher in me, but I thought of Jesus as I watched that film (occupational hazard I guess). In much the same way apparently, wherever Jesus went, he was able to bring something of life, joy, wholeness, new-beginnings, grace, surprise to people’s lives that made them alive all the more.

Imagine if the Methodist movement could embrace the “Yes, and,” and offer the gift of a deeper way of seeing and believing that is comfortable in a big tent of tolerance for differences, seeing the beauty of diversity—finding a unity in Christ.

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Imagine if the Methodist movement could show the whole of Christianity that God’s will is not just packaged in prescriptions found in an infallible Bible, nor only in church teaching, but discovered in the disciplined interchange of Scripture, church teaching and discernment, the fullness of our highest thinking, and the depths of our own experience, within a created universe that also speaks of God.

Imagine if the Methodist movement took seriously its own teaching in the Social Principles and worked all the harder to bring about social holiness and justice while equipping and inspiring everyone to also honor their own personal holiness and wholeness.

Perhaps then the whole world would glimpse the joy, surprise, grace, that Jesus talked about when he announced that the Kingdom of God is at hand.