September 11, 2014

Honestly

Preached 9/11/11 at John Street Church in NYC.

Honestly, I was in a foul mood for the better part of the last week.

Honestly, this didn’t really surprise anybody who knows me very well.

Never a fan of August and its Dog Days, there was a time in my life when simply thinking about flipping the calendar to September helped me escape the worst of the summer’s heat. After all, the ninth month would bring a change of seasons, breezes that carried autumn’s first chill, football, and—before I met Laura—the potential for a back-to-school romance. There was a time when I loved September, but for many years now I’ve endured August with the knowledge that some of the most challenging and emotional days of the year were near.

September’s first bright and cloudless morning now carries so much more than the announcement of fall’s arrival. Sad memories now fill the air on those days, on days like these.

Honestly, ten years ago this very moment I was kneeling at the altar of Grace United Methodist Church in Putnam Valley, New York, alone, in tears, and terrified on a bright and cloudless September morning.

A day to remember, each of us carries unique memories of September 11, 2001. Where were you when you found out? Did you live in New York when it happened? Did you work downtown? Did you lose a friend or a member of your family? We’ve all asked and have been asked these questions through the years, and the answers we’ve given and heard to them have left an indelible mark on our hearts and in our souls.

Of course, these answers have also raised more questions. Since September 11, 2001 we’ve asked countless questions of God, our government, our neighbors, and ourselves. In prayer, we’ve wondered why this happened and asked for a measure of healing mercy. Of politicians, we’ve asked what they intend to do to disrupt the terrorist networks that prey on innocent people around the world. In our communities we’ve wondered what we can do to honor the emergency first responders of whose daily sacrifices we have become more keenly aware. In our homes, churches, offices, and the places we go to be with our friends we’ve also wondered about and, at times, have fiercely debated questions about the First Amendment, war, torture, national security, and personal liberties.

In ten years, many questions have given shape to our lives.

A similar period of intense questioning gave rise to the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament.

Ecclesiastes is, I believe, best understood as a book of questions, especially the questions that get asked when life’s old answers no longer satisfy and leave the people wanting.

Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer?

What’s the point in doing the right thing if it gives some cheater a leg up on us anyway?

Why should we bother?

Why should I believe?

Something within the book’s protagonist, a man named Qoheleth or The Teacher, drives him to find answers to questions like these. Did a restless spirit or a crisis of faith stir this up within his heart? We don’t know, but whatever set him in motion, the Teacher wanted to find his life’s rest on a solid, steadfast foundation.

His questions carried more weight than trite superficial answers could bear.

“Don’t question, just work hard,” somebody told him.

“Don’t worry, just pray,” said another.

“Forget all of it,” said still a third. “If hard workers and pious people suffer just like their lazy and uninspired neighbors, you might as well just do whatever you want.”

“If this is the best advice people have to give,” Qoheleth wondered, “what’s the point?”

“Vanity of vanities,” he declared. “All in vanity and a chasing after wind.”

Qoheleth’s persistent questions and consistent dissatisfaction with the answers he was given makes his story one of the Bible’s most difficult to understand. Given the way most believers treat Ecclesiastes—placing it along side Leviticus and Revelation on the list of books they’d like the preacher to talk about when they’re out of town—we can assume that the crowd would slowly shift to the other side of the room whenever the Teacher made his entrance.

“Give it a rest, Qoheleth,” the unfortunate ones he engaged in conversation must have said. “We’ve moved on, why can’t you?”

This is a sermon for any of you for whom this day raises more questions than it provides answers, for the restless spirits in this place, for everyone who has grown weary of chasing after the wind, who yearns for a strong footing on a substantial foundation. To you, this day, I proclaim the Good News that any question honestly asked is a means for God’s grace to enter our lives.

To honestly ask—to ask without agenda, to give voice to the mysteries and uncertainties perceived in our spirits—is to pursue truth, and the promise of our Lord is that the truth is holy. Specifically, Jesus said that if you continue in his word—a word spoken by prophets, apostles, and Qoheleth, too—“you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

The catalytic reaction between the truth and freedom shoots sparks throughout the Scripture. It’s present in every rebuke Jesus brought down on the hypocrites who used pious words to further their own ungodly agendas. It’s there in Mary’s Easter proclamation that regardless of what happened on the cross Friday afternoon, on Sunday morning she had seen the risen and living Lord. It lights up so many of those moments in the Gospel that enlighten and guide us.

Nicodemus honestly admitted that he had no idea what Jesus was talking about, so Jesus told him the truth about how much God loved the world.

The woman at the well was honest about why she had to fetch water in the middle of the day, so Jesus told her the truth that even if her neighbors judged her as a tramp, he had come to her with the promise of living water and eternal life.

Peter honestly admitted that, regardless of the rumors to the contrary, he believed Jesus was indeed the long-expected anointed one of God, so Jesus told him the truth that, with Peter’s help, his Church would stand forever on this good confession.

How easy it would have been for any of these to swallow their question, to remain deaf to the truth—to not expose themselves in the way that honesty required?

How easy it is for you and me to succumb to the same temptation.

That’s why we need to be honest today—honest in worship, honest with each other, honest with ourselves. With our memories, with our worries, with our fears, we are still free to bring our questions before God this day, and in doing so we aim to accomplish a holy task—to accept Saint Paul’s counsel, to examine and test ourselves so that God may perfectly and wonderfully fashion faith in our midst.

Pursuing answers to the questions we carry within our hearts may lead us down a path as challenging as the one Qoheleth traveled. However, in honest confession and Holy Communion, in praise and thanksgiving, in prayer and in passing Christ’s peace, I truly believe that all of us can find strength for today and for journey before us. I honestly do.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

March 17, 2014

The Irish and America's Oldest Methodist Congregation


When John Wesley received news of Methodist developments in Ireland in summer 1747, he immediately set sail for Dublin. This was the first of twenty-one trips Wesley made to the Emerald Isle during his ministry. Upon reaching his destination, a growing society of several hundred members greeted Wesley, the work of a handful of lay preachers who, though not directly connected to Wesley, considered themselves part of his movement nonetheless.

Robert Swindell was one of the first Methodist lay preachers in Ireland. Swindell, who began preaching in 1741, brought Methodism to the city of Limerick in southwest Ireland on Saint Patrick’s Day 1749. By May of that year his ministry in the River Shannon port town had aroused one angry mob, great interest from many listeners, and one Methodist class.

Thomas Walsh was among the people listening to Swindell on Saint Patrick’s Day. Only nineteen years old, Walsh had recently left the Catholic Church in which he was raised in order to join the Anglican Church of Ireland. Still thirsting for a deeper religious experience, he eagerly welcomed Methodist preachers when they came to Newmarket where he lived in September 1749. At that time, Walsh joined the local Methodist society.

John Wesley visited the Methodist preachers and classes in County Limerick in 1750. Eager to meet the esteemed religious leader, Walsh seized his opportunity to speak with Wesley about his desire to enter the preaching ministry.
Of their meeting, Walsh remembered,

I opened my mind to that man of God, the Rev. Mr. John Wesley, I spoke my thoughts freely and without disguise, desiring his advice on the occasion, which he sweetly and humbly gave me; adding withal, that I might write to him afterwards. I did so, giving him a brief account of my conversion to God, and of what I experienced in my soul concerning preaching.
Wesley’s responded by giving Walsh his first Methodist appointment.

My dear Brother—It is hard to judge what God has called you to do until trial is made. Therefore, when you have an opportunity, you may go to Shronil, and spend two or three days with the people there. Speak to them in Irish.

Walsh did as Wesley instructed and showed great promise in Shronil—a nearby community in which preachers had already established a Methodist society. Walsh quickly earned a reputation as one of most effective Irish preachers in the movement and demonstrated an ability to communicate effectively with Protestants and Catholics alike. He also had a gift for languages and was able to speak English and Irish fluently as well as being educated in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.

One of the people most responsible for Walsh’s education was his teacher, Peter Guier. Guier taught at a school in Ballingrane where Walsh was a student as a child. There, in addition to learning languages, Walsh also became familiar with the unique community of which his teacher and many classmates were members—the Irish Palatines—the community to which he would return in 1752 with a Gospel message of grace and holiness.

Methodism and the Irish Palatines

The Irish Palatines were Germans—their name derived from the region in southwest Germany from which they immigrated in 1709. Driven from their homeland by the coldest winter on record, the Irish Palatines were the remnant of 13,000 refugees whom England’s Queen Anne granted passage to London. Of that original group, some returned to the continent and others continued on to the American colonies. The British government, however, resettled approximately 3,000 Protestant Palatines to Ireland in order to counter the indigenous Catholic population.

Despite the monarch’s favor the Palatines faced great hardships in Ireland. Housed on small parcels of land on Protestant owned estates scattered throughout the countryside, they were unable to stay in contact with their countrymen. Since the Palatines spoke German and their new neighbors spoke Irish, they also had a terrible time assimilating. Many Palatines found this cultural isolation unlivable and returned to Dublin or England.

Palatines who settled near Limerick on the estate of Sir Thomas Southwell, however, had a different experience. Their numbers were large, 130 families, which allowed them to create their own community and institutions. Each family received eight to twelve acres of farmland and had their annual rent subsidized by the government. The government also provided each family with a musket, ammunition, and a loan for purchasing needed supplies. In addition to this aid package, Southwell provided the Palatines with material for building their homes.

Given the opportunity, the County Limerick Palatines flourished. They built homes and started farms—introducing new techniques, produce, and technology to region. They also formed their own local government and elected a burgomaster, or mayor. The Palatines, who were Calvinists and Lutherans in Germany, even found a spiritual home in the Church of Ireland thanks to a program sponsored by Queen Anne’s successor, George I, which insured that a German-speaking minister served their parish.

Ballingrane, the largest settlement on Southwell’s land, was the center of Methodist activity when Thomas Walsh took his message to the Palatines. While the Palatines certainly had some knowledge about the work of Methodist preachers in Limerick, Walsh was the first preacher to go directly to them. The dynamic relationship that emerged between the speaker and his audience yielded fast results. Palatines soon formed Methodist classes and societies and Philip Guier, Walsh’s former teacher, became a preacher and class leader.

With Methodism thriving there, Wesley returned to Limerick in 1752 to preside over the first Methodist Conference in Ireland. There were ten itinerating ministers on the island at that time including Walsh and Swindell. At Conference, Wesley also appointed Guier as a non-itinerating or local preacher to the Palatines.

Passionate about their work in Ireland, Wesley’s preachers continued to preach and organize classes following the Conference. Even in their zeal, however, they did not imagine that in 1752 two Irish Palatines joined the movement who were destined to take Methodism to America—cousins Philip Embury and Barbara Heck.

Image: The River Shannon in Co. Limerick
References: Available upon request

February 24, 2014

Greetings, Mr. President

I’m truly grateful to the Sons of the Revolution for their presence and participation in this service this morning. After 122 years, I’m so glad that their annual gathering in memory of George Washington, our nation’s first president, finally brings them to John Street Church. I’m also pleased to join with them in prayer over the names of their recently departed friends.

We welcome your society’s members, your friends, and family members to this place as we strive to welcome all who come into our lives.

We welcome you as Christ welcomes us.

On a day like this, it seems appropriate to look again to John Street Church’s history as a means of strengthening our discipleship in the here and now. To that end, I want to take this opportunity to consider the single chapter in our church’s story that intersects with the life of George Washington, the one example historians record in which leaders of the first Methodist church in America came face to face with the nation’s first president.

We begin, then, with a bit of history.

The revered hero of the American Revolution, George Washington easily won the first presidential election held under the auspices of the U.S. Constitution.

If you appreciate our country’s tradition of quadrennial elections and inaugural festivities, it’s worth noting that instead of our present routine of November elections and January inaugurations, in the beginning, voting started on December 15, ended on January 10, and took effect April 30, 1789 when Washington took the Oath of Office at Federal Hall on Wall Street.

If you’re a modern day political junkie, you might also find it interesting that Washington was the Electoral College’s unanimous choice—the only time that’s ever happened.

And if you’ve got a serious political addiction, I know that you’ll appreciate the fact that of all the states that had ratified the Constitution by the election, one state—our beloved New York—was so embroiled with in-house conflict and gridlock that none of its votes counted at all.

Washington’s well-earned popularity brought praise, congratulations, prayers, and best wishes from all corners of American life. Grateful citizens lined the route Washington took from his home in Virginia to Lower Manhattan. There were great celebrations wherever he stopped.

This is the context for the story that rightfully comes to our attention this morning.

About a month after Washington became president a delegation of Methodist leaders who were meeting here on John Street gained an audience with him. Like leaders of other faith communities, they brought Washington their thanks and the promise of their prayers.

“We promise you our fervent prayers to the throne of grace,” they pledged, following advice first given by the Apostle Paul to his protégé Timothy.

[We promise prayers] that God Almighty may endue you with all the graces and gifts of his Holy Spirit, that he may enable you to fill up your important station to his glory, the good of his Church, the happiness and prosperity of the United States, and the welfare of mankind.
Washington wrote back, too.
I return to you individually, and (through you) to your society collectively…my thanks…It shall be my endeavor to manifest the purity of my inclinations for promoting the happiness of mankind; as well as the sincerity of my desires to contribute whatever may be in my power towards preserving the civil and religious liberties of the American people.
These letters are truly wonderful documents. I believe the originals are in Washington’s papers, but they’ve been widely published so I’ll put a link to them online this week. (See bottom of this post.)

For our purposes in this service, though, I’m actually less concerned about the content of those letters than I am about the individuals who met the president that day.

Four people walked together from this place to Washington’s office. The four were the first two Methodist bishops (Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke), and two men who served as pastor of this church (Thomas Morrell and John Dickins).

Although the four had a lot in common (they all preached from the pulpit and received communion around the rail on display in our museum, for example) they held within their hearts a diversity of thought and opinion on the most hotly contested issue of their generation—the Revolution itself.

So at odds were some of these convictions that it’s not difficult to imagine them as enemies instead of as colleagues. However, their friendship and commitment to a greater and common good sets before us an example of faithfulness to which we should prayerfully aspire.

Among the four, Bishop Coke held the most conservative, or at least anti-revolutionary views. He always was and never sought to be anything other than a British citizen, coming to the States at the war’s end on assignment to serve the church.

On the other hand, Thomas Morrell was a major in New Jersey’s 4th regiment who fought under Washington’s command in places like Germantown and Brandywine.

Then there was Pastor Dickins. Educated in London, he immigrated before the war and married into a planter family in North Carolina that supported independence.

And finally, there was Asbury. He was a pacifist who refused commands from both sides of the war to sign loyalty oaths, so, for a while, everyone was mad it him.

One of King George’s faithful subjects, a soldier of the Revolution, a member of a Southern planter class family, a pacifist bishop—this was the Methodist entourage that President Washington received, a group whose members had been on different sides of one of the most important conflicts in human history, yet a group united in prayer for a new nation and its leader.

Now, isn’t there a lesson to be learned here by our generation?

When we’re told to look at the world through red or blue lenses, when we’re told over and over again that one’s political party should shape every decision from where or even if they will worship, to the television shows they watch, to the food they eat, doesn’t this chapter from our history speak to us?

Doesn’t it say, “Don’t believe these lies”?

Doesn’t it show us that friendship, the love of God, and the Gospel itself transcend the divisions we’re tempted to believe define us?

Doesn’t it say that reconciliation is possible and that the limitations of “us” and “them,” of “my side” and “your side,” will not bind the greater good of God?

Listen again to Saint Paul’s words.

I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Do you hear the generosity in the Apostle’s voice? Pray for everyone, for all in high positions, “so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.”

These are not the words of someone who’s worried about his side winning a news cycle or of giving his opponents too much credit.

Instead, this is the wise counsel of one who realizes that in Jesus Christ God has dealt so generously with us that our lives must overflow with a generous spirit toward others.

For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all…
On a day like this, then, it’s important for the Church to remember that our ultimate aim is never just to remember or recount the deeds of any man or company of men. Rather, we intend to do nothing less than renew the bond of love that unites us, a bond stronger than any force that might try to divide us. This is the bond of a Savior’s all excelling love, a Savior “who gave himself a ransom for all.”
This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
This is Good News for all people.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

The Address of the Bishops of the Methodist-Episcopal Church

NEW YORK, N.Y.

May 29, 1789 [Though this letter has been dated May 19, it must have been written on May 29 at the conference in New York.]

To the President of the United States

Sir:

We the bishops of the Methodist-Episcopal church, humbly beg leave, in the name of our society collectively in these United States, to express to you the warm feelings of our hearts, and our sincere congratulations, on your appointment to the presidentship of these states. We are conscious from the signal proofs you have already given, that you are a friend of mankind; and under this established idea, place as full a confidence to your wisdom and integrity, for the preservation of those civil and religious liberties which have been transmitted to us by the providence of GOD, and the glorious revolution, as we believe, ought to be reposed in man.

We have received the most grateful satisfaction, from the humble and entire dependence on the Great Governor of the universe which you have repeatedly expressed, acknowledging him the source of every blessing, and particularly of the most excellent constitution of these states, which is at present the admiration of the world, and may in future become its great exemplar for imitation: and hence we enjoy a holy expectation that you will always prove a faithful and impartial patron of genuine, vital religion-the grand end of our creation and present probationary existence. And we promise you our fervent prayers to the throne of grace, that GOD Almighty may endue you with all the graces and gifts of his Holy Spirit, that may enable you to fill up your important station to his glory, the good of his church, the happiness and prosperity of the United States, and the welfare of mankind.

Signed in behalf of the Methodist-Episcopal Church,

Thomas Coke

Francis Asbury

Washington papers. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Answer of George Washington to Asbury and Coke

NEW YORK, NEW YORK

May 29, 1789

To the Bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States

Gentlemen:

I return you individually, and through you to your Society collectively in the United States, my thanks for the demonstration of affection and the expression of joy offered in their behalf on my late appointment. It shall be my endeavor to manifest the purity of my inclinations for promoting the happiness of mankind, as well as the sincerity of my desires to contribute whatever may be in my power toward the civil and religious liberties of the American people. In pursuing this line of conduct, I hope, by the assistance of the Divine Providence, not altogether to disappoint the confidence which you have been pleased to repose in me.

It always affords me satisfaction when I find a concurrence of sentiment and practice between all conscientious men, in acknowledgements of homage to the great Governor of the universe, and in professions of support to a just civil government. After mentioning that I trust the people of every denomination who demean themselves as good citizens will have occasion to be convinced that I shall always strive to prove a faithful and impartial patron of genuine vital religion, I must assure you, in particular, that I take in the kindest part the promise you make of presenting your prayers to the throne of grace for me; and that I likewise implore the Divine benediction on yourselves and your religious community.

George Washington

Washington papers. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Reference Link: Wesley Center Online

Reference Link for Image: here