Matthew T. Leaycraft*, Senior Sermon**
RCL - Service of Christian Unity in Commemoration of John and Charles Wesley - Wednesday 03 March 2010
* Matthew is a third year seminarian at Berkeley Divinity School. As part of his third year of study he is doing an internship at Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, participating in many Guesthouse-related ministries.
** A Senior Sermon is delivered at the end of a seminarian's studies as a sign of accomplishment in homiletics.
And he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them, ‘Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.'
And He Sent Them Out to Proclaim the Kingdom of God and to Heal.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Parting from my fellow Berkeley classmates and Canterbury Cathedral pilgrims a couple of weeks ago, I met my partner, Steve, in London for a short vacation. My now good friend, Diing, stayed with us for two nights. Our quarters were in Chelsea, a residential part of London characterized by a confidant and offhand elegance. The harmonious street-scape there speaks of an ordered and prosperous way of living which seems to assume that things have been, and always will be, just like this.
On Sunday we decided to go to Morning Prayer at the very beautiful Chelsea Old Church. An embodiment of English tradition, it had been the parish church of Sir Thomas Moore and the site of Henry VIII’s marriage to Jane Seymour.
The church was crowded with elegantly dressed, mostly elderly parishioners. There seemed no where to sit except a remote corner at the far back. But then I spotted an empty pew at the very front. Having lost patience with the false modesty that won’t take the forward seats even when there is no where else and you’re in the way, I led our threesome boldly up the aisle and sat down.
I was vaguely aware that our arrival and placement had caused a quiet stir. Three men arriving together fit no established relational category. The fact that two were white, highly suspect of being gay, and the third, a tall African, simply did not compute. I am sufficiently American to have found my self consciousness roused by the relentlessly upper class Englishness assembled around us.
I began to doubt my choice of seating. Perhaps it was presuming. My unease increased as Steve leaned over to say that the woman he had been chatting with was the wife of the Vicar. She was seated BEHIND us. Could it really be advisable, not to say polite, to have plunked ourselves down in the pew ahead of her?
Mid-way through the service my remaining confidence crumbled. I noticed that each of the beautifully embroidered kneelers before us bore some motto or heraldic device applicable to the Queen, and only the Queen. A lone example might simply reflect a royalist enthusiasm, but six in a row really left me in no doubt that we were irretrievably in the spotlit land of public faux pas. Inside a voice shouted a single word that can not be repeated here.
References to the Queen during the service seemed virtually continuous. I tried to enjoy the really beautiful experience while looking forward to a fast exit. I later learned that, indeed, that pew is reserved for the Queen or another member of her family should they decide to pop in on a Sunday at 10:30.
Finally, it was over. Thinking, OK, let’s get OUT of here, we found the way blocked by the smiling face of the Vicar’s wife who introduced herself as Suzy. As she continued her get acquainted chat, her husband came along, introducing himself with a self deprecating humor. The next thing we knew Suzy invited us to the vicarage and we found ourselves sipping tea before her family fire.
An hour later we felt we had all made a new friend. Subsequent emails confirmed the genuineness of this spontaneous and wide open gesture of meaningful contact. Here was hospitality of a very real kind. Now, it may not quite take the form you or I might extend and the circumstances are perhaps unlike our own, but we will never forget the welcome that church extended and would be at home there whenever we might return.
Radical hospitality. It’s almost cliche. But, what can it mean? The Gospel of Luke tells us, “He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom and to heal.” This is the true work of evangelism, to proclaim the kingdom and to heal. Tonight we celebrate the lives and ministry of John and Charles Wesley, who, among their multiple talents and capacities, were first and foremost evangelists for Christ bringing the kingdom and its profound healing to thousands.
Together they changed the face of the english speaking church and ushered in much of what we now take for granted as the context of contemporary Protestant worship. Through them the Anglican Church reached whole populations who otherwise were alienated from the good news. And, in America and worldwide, the Methodist Church has made the kingdom manifest for millions. The trajectory of their energy still reverberates as our being here tonight testifies.
For the Wesleys, proclaiming the kingdom was profoundly invitational, an invitation into the divine reality fully accessible in the here and now. The message was that God’s grace is present and available, no matter your state of life, or education, or past sins. For the Wesleys there were no barriers. There was nothing that made anyone categorically “other.”
While it is by no means my intention to unpack the Wesleys’ theology, John Wesley’s preaching and Charles Wesley's hymns powerfully evoke the unequivocal availability of God’s grace. John wrote:
How freely does God love the world! While we were sinners, ‘Christ died for the ungodly’ ... God spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all. And how freely with him does he give us all things! Verily, free grace is all in all! The grace or love of God, whence comes our salvation, is free in all, and free for all...It does not depend on any power or merit in man; no, not in any degree...It does not depend on his good tempers, or good desires, or good purposes and intentions; for all these flow from the free grace of God. (1)And Charles wrote in the hymn "Maker, In Whom We Live":
Incarnate Deity, let all the ransomed race render in thanks their lives to thee for thy redeeming grace. The grace to sinner showed ye heavenly choirs proclaim, and cry, “Salvation to our God, salvation to the Lamb!" (2)And they made their audience everyone who would listen.
To whom are we not to preach it?, John (Wesley) asked. The poor? Nay, they have a peculiar right to have the gospel preached to them. The unlearned? No. God hath revealed these things unto unlearned and ignorant men from the beginning. The young? By no means... The sinners? Least of all. He came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (3)The two brothers are such extraordinary historical figures we don’t entirely see them in their human dimension. We perhaps now take for granted the degree of personal commitment, certain faith, and genuine love that alone could motivate and sustain such a potent and fearless ministry.
Luke quotes Jesus, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money - not even an extra tunic.” Such utterly fearless invitation to the kingdom can rely on nothing external. No material possession. No assumption. No expectation. Nothing. You step out on your own relying solely on Christ, boldly in humble faith. You have nothing to offer but what God gives you. Your life in Christ is all in all. This is the offering of true invitation.
Not kindness, or mere welcome, though it is those things. But, something so much more. Your God given self is all you have and in humble reliance your extend yourself, pouring yourself out for others. Through the spirit alone you become the kingdom, yours is the hospitality of the kingdom. The Wesley’s did this on a gigantic scale. But so did every itinerant Methodist preacher riding from parish to parish in early 19th century rural America.
In my case I know that without such a gift I would never have found my way to Christ. It was a Methodist minister, YDS alumnus and Trustee, Steve Bauman, who helped me find my way. Study and worship and community all helped. But, it was Steve’s deep founded faith and personal courage that enabled him to extend himself to me in such a complete loving openness and acceptance -- even when I had trouble fully accepting myself -- that led me dimly to perceive the reality and presence of the kingdom of God.
Nothing can teach you that in a way that lives within except it be through an offering of love. The invitation so complete, there are no barriers. The Christ in you meets the Christ in the other. In that awakening the world breaks open and at long last you see. And, once you have a taste of the divine that meets you, longing for longing, you step forward ever to meet it. The real ground of being, a joy in love so sweet, it takes your breath away. It’s all you want. It’s all you need. Invitation is the opening of the door that makes real transformation possible.
The Sunday following my encounter at Chelsea Old Church I found myself sitting alone in a pew of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, a small parish located in the very heart of the South Bronx. This inner city church community faces extreme challenges. Having some first hand experience with this part of the Bronx, I know these issues can quite literally be those of life and death.
I was there as part of a Berkeley class project. While I waited for my classmates I couldn’t help wondering what the reaction would be to us, the white Yalie visitors. Feeling out of place, questioning our purpose, and half wishing I hadn’t come, a young African American woman appeared at my side. Smiling, her hand extended, she said, “Hi, my name is Tina. What’s yours? Welcome to St. Margaret’s!”
She seemed to have no knowledge of why I was there. I was just any stranger. She expressed not the least bit of wonder that a middle aged white guy in a blazer had appeared out of nowhere. We chatted and laughed together for some time. Her object was a joyous and genuine welcome and greeting. She made me feel part of the place and in union with her and everyone there. I entered fully into a worship experience in many aspects quite different from that to which I am accustomed.
Suzy and Tina in their different ways and contexts offered more than a simple welcome. It went deeper. Theirs was an outer expression of an inner truth that the kingdom is wide open. Barriers of custom, expectation, identity, what have you, were not overlooked, but understood, and as such rendered irrelevant. They left everything behind taking nothing for the journey. They acted in freedom extending themselves as themselves fully, unreservedly in the fearless zone of love. On that basis and that alone the kingdom of God was proclaimed through them.
As we contemplate ministry, be it through ordination or in some other context, it is good to reflect on the work of a church leader like Steve Bauman whose wide open, unqualified love made the way possible for a tentative seeker. And unforgettable is the prodigious outpouring of word and song of John and Charles Wesley whose embrace excluded no one and so ushered in a new era in the proclamation of the kingdom of God.
Let us bless all those who make their lives a living invitation to knowledge and love of God and grant us all the courage and perfect freedom to be like them, an outpouring of God’s love made manifest in the world through his grace.
1. Albert C. Outler & Richard P. Heitzenrater, ed., John Wesley's Sermons, An Anthology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991), 50.
2. The United Methodist Hymnal, (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), Hymn 88.
3. Albert C. Outler & Richard P. Heitzenrater, ed., John Wesley's Sermons, An Anthology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991), 46.