Beginning on Christmas Eve of 1784 and continuing for ten days, the Christmas Conference formed the Methodist Church in America. Methodist itinerant preachers had been ministering in the colonies since the 1760's. As priests in the Church of England, John and Charles Wesley traveled to Savannah, Georgia on October 14, 1735. John stayed for two years. The roots of Methodism run deep in America.
The Methodist Church was formed alongside the birth of this nation. The United Methodist General Conference, Council of Bishops, and Judicial Council are reflections of the Legislative Branch, Executive Branch, and Judicial Branch of the USA. Decisions in the Methodist Church are made after vigorous debate and legislative processes following Robert's Rules of Order. Every four years since that 1784 Christmas Conference the Methodist Church has met in General Conference to guide the direction of the church. There have been a few disruptions to this pattern, such as a worldwide pandemic. But, General Conference has usually coincided with the US National Elections. For these and many other reasons, the Methodist Church and the United States of America are uniquely intertwined. As citizens of this country, and as citizens of the Kingdom of God, we apply our faith to our policies. We aspire to live in a country that advocates for the poor and vulnerable. We continually try to look at our nation through the eyes of Christ and live, and vote, accordingly.
The Council of Bishops issued a letter yesterday encouraging people to engage in our democratic process. Perhaps they read my blog I wrote yesterday. :) Take a look at what they have written. Be loving. Be prayerful. Be thoughtful and kind.
People in our community and around the country have already begun to vote. Voting is an important part of our civic duty and calls on us to consider the character and policies of all candidates. Be prayerful as you cast your ballot. Seek ways to come together rather than be pulled apart no matter your political persuasion. 246 years ago and six days, John Wesley wrote this in his journal. May it guide us still today.
“October 6, 1774
I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them
1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy
2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against, and
3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.”
Last Sunday we gathered for worship in our cars in the parking lot so that we could celebrate Holy Communion. We were joined with new friends from La Nueva Esperanza UMC and felt the Holy Spirit moving on World Communion Sunday. Holy Communion has required us to be together. It has been church teaching that we are to be in one place to experience Christ in the breaking of the bread and lifting of the cup together. Bishop Bard reflects on the Means of Grace and encourages us in this challenging time to focus on grace. For, only by grace will we be able to find our way.
Bishop David Bard asserts that during this time of ongoing pandemic, “Such a moment asks that we think more deeply about the means of grace.” He shares about online communion.
BISHOP DAVID BARD
Grace. Paul, in Ephesians, writes, “for by grace you have been saved through faith.” While not all Christian theologians center the idea of grace in their thinking, John Wesley, to whom we United Methodists trace our beginnings, thought and wrote extensively and profoundly about grace. For Wesley, God’s grace, God’s gracious love for us and toward us, is at work in our lives even before we are aware of it, always beckoning to us to enter into a relationship with God that will change us, that will transform us in love. God’s grace beckons, and God’s grace transforms.
While God’s grace is a gift, Wesley wondered if there were ways we could place ourselves in the way of grace, put ourselves in positions where we were more likely to experience God’s grace and its transforming power. In other words, Wesley wondered if there were genuine “means of grace.”
In his sermon of that title, “The Means of Grace,” Wesley argued that there were. “The chief of these means are prayer, whether in secret of with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures; (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon); and receiving the Lord’s Supper. … And these we believe to be ordained of God, as the ordinary channels of conveying his grace to the souls of men [and women].”
In his General Rules for Methodist Societies (found in our Book of Discipline, ¶104), Wesley expanded his list of the ordinances of God: the public worship of God; the ministry of the Word, either read or expounded; the Supper of the Lord; family and private prayer; searching the Scriptures; fasting or abstinence. As United Methodists, we believe in two sacraments, baptism and communion, which adds another to the list on the means of grace, baptism. In other of his writings, Wesley would also add “Christian Conference” to his list of the means of grace. “Are we convinced how important and how difficult it is to order our conversation right? Is it always in grace? Seasoned with salt? Meet to minister grace to the hearers? Do we not converse too long at a time? Is not an hour at a time commonly enough? Would it not be well to plan our conversation beforehand? To pray before and after it?”
Our current situation has put a strain on the practice of the ordinary means of grace. Gathering together was suspended in the interest of public health due to the coronavirus pandemic. As we have begun to gather again, we understand that this same concern for public health, the common good, and the well-being of others requires that we maintain distance, wear masks, avoid some typical ways of connecting, and be cautious about singing. We continue to struggle with communion during this time, and I will write more about that in a moment. At a time when we need means of grace, of connecting more deeply with God’s profound love, our ordinary means have sometimes been absent and indeed have been changed. Such a moment asks that we think more deeply about the means of grace.
A few years ago, Bishop Rueben Job refreshed our thinking about John Wesley’s General Rules for Methodist Societies in his brief but powerful book, Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living. In doing so, Job also offered fresh thinking about the means of grace. Job re-worked Wesley’s general rules into “three simple rules”: do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God. This last rule is another way of discussing the means of grace, and Bishop Job wrote: “This simple rule will be constructed differently for each of us because each of us is unique. But there are some common elements for all of us, such as a daily time of prayer; reflections upon and study of Scripture; regular participation in the life of a Christian community, including weekly worship and regular participation in the Lord’s supper; doing some act of goodness or mercy; and taking opportunities to share with and learn from others who also seek to follow the way of Jesus.” (p. 55-56)
“During this pandemic and the changes it will bring to our life together in the church, we need fresh thinking about the means of grace.”
During this pandemic and the changes it will bring to our life together in the church, we need fresh thinking about the means of grace. I look forward to the time when gathering together in worship in person becomes unproblematic. Even then, however, we will want to continue to offer opportunities to connect with people for worship on-line. Given the differing schedules in people’s lives, electronically connecting in worship needs to be provided as a means of grace. We will want to continue to consider how we might make e-worship meaningful and grace-filled. The same could be said for Bible study groups and other small groups for learning, prayer, and support.
We need to keep thinking in new ways about communion. As I’ve made clear, The United Methodist Church officially discourages the practice of on-line communion, believing that it inadequately represents the tangible, bodily, and communal elements central to the sacrament. I have also written that we are followers of Jesus, who challenged traditions and rules when they seemed to stand in the way of grace. We are followers of Jesus in the stream of John Wesley, who took to the fields to preach and ordained Thomas Coke. So, I recognize extraordinary times invite extensions of grace that might not be needed in ordinary times. The longer this pandemic stretches on, the longer we need to be cautious about in-person gatherings, the more profound become the arguments for sharing in communion in new ways. If we are going to offer communion by way of the internet, how might we make it as incarnational and communal as possible? For instance, delivering elements to people seems more communal and incarnational than mailing them out or just asking people to find what they have, though the latter practices may have their place. And if we begin to think about on-line worship as a means of grace, might we have to think more thoroughly and deeply about a permanent change in our stance on on-line communion?
If we want to think in fresh ways about means of grace, let’s consider adding some possibilities. As Bishop Job suggested, there are means of grace beyond those we believe common to all who practice Christian spirituality. Allow me to offer some possibilities that seem particularly important during this challenging time.
Self-care is a means of grace desperately needed in this stressful time as we navigate new ways of working, educating, parenting, and staying healthy. Take time to engage in activities that bring delight that feeds your soul, that allows you to savor the moment, that enable you to simply to be in the presence of God. I need to walk or ride my bicycle. I need to find time to listen to music, and maybe sway a little with it. I need to read things not directly related to my role as a bishop or the daily news – novels, stories, poetry. I need to watch movies. I need to connect with family.
In this time of grief and loss, where many are grieving the loss of family or friends, where we all are grieving the loss of familiar activities, where we grieve the persistence of racism in our society, lament could be a means of grace. Read the Psalms, and you will find that giving voice to our pain and anguish and our deep desire for a newer world often lead into the praise of God, into the acknowledgment of God’s grace, goodness, and God’s steadfast love.
Finally, let me suggest that extending Christian conversation into the public sphere might be a means of grace. Bishop Job offers that doing good is itself a means of grace. In one sense, all three simple rules are means of grace – do no harm, do good, stay in love with God. When we avoid harm and do good, we not only give grace, but we receive it as well. Our hearts and souls are further shaped by goodness and love. Extending Christian conversation into the public sphere is doing good. What if more of our civic conversations, particularly in this polarized election season, were seasoned with salt and intended to minister grace to the hearers? Voting itself is an extension of public conversation in a political democracy. I suggest that voting, too, is a means of grace – a time when we make a statement that is part of the on-going conversation that is democracy, a time when we seek to do no harm and do good.
In a difficult time, when so much of our lives have been interrupted, when we turn on the news to hear about an on-going pandemic that has now directly affected even the president, to hear about floods and fires and hurricanes and abuses of power and peaceful protest to focus attention on injustices and purposeless rioting and looting, we need more grace in our lives. Our faith promises that God’s grace is abundantly present, and while we cannot guarantee just how it will come to us, there are certain things we can do to place ourselves more in its path. We call them means of grace.
Daily Lectionary Reading for Year A
The lectionary continues following the story of the law handed from God through Moses to the people. Do not forget. Do not get too comfortable. Do not get complacent. Do not be foolish and begin to believe it is you, and not God, who brings blessings. Do not live as though the law does not apply to you. Do not, I repeat, do not follow other gods, for our God is a jealous God. Do not put God to the test. Do not question whether God will provide; God has shown constant, steadfast love. Do not fail to tell your children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren what God has done. Do not stop worshiping. Do not let anything keep you from loving God and loving neighbor. If you want peace, do not disobey the commandments of God.
What happens when you have placed yourself ahead of God? When have individuals, communities, governments, etc. disobeyed God's commandments? What are the other gods we are warned against worshiping, and what does it mean that God is jealous? Who has told you the story of God's love to remind you that God is faithful and that you are precious?
Read this poem:
I am what others think about me
and I know that it's not true that
I am worthy of love
for I am sure
I'll never ever be enough
don't try to tell me how
I deserve to feel good in my own skin
every single day I choose to believe that
my worth and value depend on them
I don't want to live a lie by thinking
that I don't need to earn the love of others
I know deep down in my heart
my mistakes and failures define me
don't you try to tell me
I am unique and beautiful just the way I am
what others say about me
makes it impossible to believe in
all that I am
(Now read it backwards.)
Daily Lectionary Reading for Year A
Deuteronomy 5:22-6:3 continues the story of God giving to Moses the Ten Commandments, etched onto two stone tablets. God loves and cares for God's people and wants them to flourish. The commandments are intended to guide the people so that they can take care of themselves and one another. The commandments bring order to their community.
Since that time society has continued to add upon the law. The Mitzvot, or Jewish law and commandments given to Moses to guide everything from diet to worship would number 613. I was curious how many laws we have in the United States, and somewhat unsurprised that no one actually knows. Laws are continually changed, revised, rescinded, and passed making it nearly impossible to keep track of the total number of laws that are in effect at any given time. The best guess is that there are 3,000 criminal offenses. However, the person who led that study in the 1980's said, "You will have died and been resurrected three times..." and you still would not know how many laws are in place in the US.
Still, we try to follow where God leads us. It is good to regularly remember that we struggle. And so, today let us ask for and receive God's forgiveness and strive to live our lives with love and care for others.
God, we confess our day to day failure to be truly human. We confess that we often fail to love with all we have and are, often because we do not fully understand what loving means, often because we are afraid of risking ourselves. We cut ourselves off from each other and we build barriers. We confess that by silence and ill-considered word we have built up walls of prejudice. We confess that by selfishness and lack of sympathy we have stifled generosity and left little time for others. Holy Spirit, speak to us. Help us to receive your forgiveness and grow by your love. Come fill this moment and free us from sin. Amen.
Daily Lectionary Reading for Year A
There is so much in this morning's readings! Psalm 119 recounts that God's word brings hope, comfort, and life. "Your statutes have been my songs wherever I make my home. I remember your name in the night, O Lord, and keep your law. This blessing has fallen to me, for I have kept your precepts."
What is the law that guides the Psalmist? A portion of it is from Deuteronomy 5, the Ten Commandments. 1. You shall have no other gods, 2. You shall not worship idols, 3. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, 4. You shall observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, 5. You shall honor your father and your mother, 6. You shall not murder, 7. You shall not commit adultery, 8. You shall not steal, 9. You shall not bear false witness, 10. You shall not covet.
1 Peter represents Jesus as the cornerstone, the most important stone set when building. How does God's word help to give you a foundation to build upon in your life? In what ways do the Ten Commandments keep you focused on the moral and ethical imperative to live in community and relationship? Consider 1 Peter 2:10. With Jesus as your Cornerstone, can you relate to these words? Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.