Almost & Altogether…


This is the first in a four part sermon series, intended to take a rather lighthearted look at our Wesleyan Heritage, and what it means to be a Methodist. This sermon introduces, through Buddy the Elf, Sheriff Taylor, and John Wesley what is meant by the term “almost Christian”. It also touches upon a relatively colorful history of John Wesley, that seems to not get it is fair share of pulpit time. I delivered this sermon on June 23rd, 2013.

This morning, I would like to introduce you to three men, and with a bit of my trademarked irreverence, along with a true respect for all three, I hope to introduce to one of the most foundational concepts of Methodism, and one of the core teachings of John Wesley.

As Such, the first man I would like to introduce you to is John Wesley. Born 1703 in Epworth England and died 88 years later in London; Wesley is – of course celebrated as the founder of Methodism.

wesley by Ron Hill

(Sketch by Ron Hill)

The Second Man in our trio; is Sheriff Andy Taylor, of the sleepy little town called Mayberry North Carolina.

andy1

A widower, Andy is raising his son Opie with the help of his spinster aunt; Aunt Bea. Along with his bumbling sidekick Barney Fife, he is the face of law and order, and down south common sense for Mayberry.

The final Man to be recognized as we begin, has a special place of honor in our home. Mind you, its not as great as Wesley’s but its there. Each June, and throughout the Christmas season, this man is a constant companion in our house. Buddy the Elf. For those of you who don’t know the story of Buddy, as an infant he sneaks into Santa’s bag and is raised as an elf in the North Pole.

MCDELFF EC015

These three men, form the foundation of our sermon message this morning, and hopefully you walk away never forgetting it. As we begin this rather strange trip, I want to begin with Buddy.

Like I said, we first meet Buddy the elf, as Santa is making his Christmas Eve trek around the world. Along the way, he stops at an orphanage and an infant boy sneaks into the magic bag of gifts. When they realize that the boy has stowed away and is an orphan, one particular elf; Pappa Elf – who was so busy making toys that he never slowed down long enough to have a family of his own – decides to adopt the elf…er… child.

As time passes, it seems that the only one who doesn’t realize that Buddy is not a true elf, is buddy himself. One day, frustrated with his miserable production rates of etch-a-sketches, he hears another elf comment about his true identity as a human being. Shortly there after, he also learns that his real father is on the naughty list. In that moment, he decides that he must begin a trek that will take him the seven levels of the Candy Cane forest, through the sea of swirly twirly gum drops, the Lincoln Tunnel, and eventually to a reunion with his father. It is not only a search for his father, but a search for his true identity.

I wont give away too much of the plot of this great, epic adventure,… You will need to see the movie yourself; What I can tell you is that Buddy was raised as elf, dressed as an elf, acted as an elf, and even thought like an elf, but in that moment with the etch-a-sketch, he realized that he wasn’t quite an elf. He was an almost elf. Trying to fit in with the rest of the elves wasn’t working, so he searches for that place he truly belongs. Yet, once in the Big Apple he realizes that he is neither fully elf, nor fully everyday person. The Almost Elf, and the Almost Everyday person leads towards heart break.

Now let us turn to the next man in our trio; John Wesley.

Every day church goers know the great stories of this man; the 40,000 sermons preached, the masses of people who responded, the preaching of social Justice as an expression of our faith, thriftiness, and the miles upon miles ridden on horseback,…but for the most part one of his biggest journeys – a journey through knuckleheadeness – is virtually forgotten.

The real truth is that for the longest time, John Wesley was not on the path towards being remembered… Rather he was on the trail of being lynched.

In the way of some back story for those who may not know the details, John Wesley was from an incredible brilliant family. His brothers and sisters were all brilliant; one sister was able to read and retell the entire new testament by the age of six; in greek. His brother Charles was a poet second to none, and wrote over 6000 hymns in his lifetime. Charles’ hymns weren’t 4 stanza hymns that fit nicely in a hymn book either, we are talking 18 to 20 verse hymns.

Anyways, John and his brother Charles go to Oxford, where they form a really cool fraternity like club; called the Oxford Holy Club. Each week they meet and they talk about their souls, their faith journey, and their walks over the last few days. While there, they are ridiculed and insulted. Along the way and because of their methodical and thrifty approach to their faith journey they get the nickname “Methodists”

Eventually, John is ordained in the Church of England, and becomes a professor at Oxford. All this time though, he keeps considering grander and grander adventures, and eventually feels compelled to travel to the American Colonies to preach to the Indians. Eventually he boards a ship and heads to Georgia with his brother Charles, who he also roped into this adventure.

Along the way, the ship is almost destroyed in a storm. Waves blast the side of the ship and its tossed about wildly on the ocean. The crew and passengers are in full out panic, convinced that death is inevitable. That is except a group of rather oddly dressed passengers who don’t appear panicked at all. In fact,they ride out the storm singing hymns without a care in the world.The oddly dressed passengers belonged to a Christian sect called the Moravians.

During the storm, both brothers witness the calmness of their fellow passengers and are taken by it. The moment profoundly disturbs Wesley, who believes in that moment that something is lacking in his own faith. He starts to wish and long for that faith, and as he does he enters a long period of self doubt and questioning. He cant help but start asking about what they have, and how he can get it himself.

Anyways, he arrives in Georgia and sets up shop preaching to both the Indians and the colonists. Its not long though before his life becomes intertwined with that of a young, beautiful, 17 year old woman named Sophie Hopkey. She was said to be incredibly beautiful, and it is clear that John is instantly smitten. Some reports have it that there was a kiss that led to all heck breaking out. Whatever it was, Wesley is thrown into even further turmoil. He believes he loves her, but has made an oath to never marry. Sick of waiting, Sophie gives Wesley an ultimatum on marriage and perhaps hoping that jealousy would be a catalyst, tells John of anothers proposal. Wesley walks away. Sophie marries the other man. Wesley is heartbroken.

All of sudden he starts acting more like a heart broken suitor than a pastor. I would say that this is the beginning of the heights of his knuckleheadedness. In the ultimate lack of judgement, he puts her name on the outside of the church as one in the community ineligble to come and take communion. Although usually resevered from drunkards this was within the right of the minister of the time – but Sophie was not a drunkard. As a matter of fact, Sophie’s was a ward of her uncle, the local political boss and chief magistrate of Savannah.

He arrests Wesley, and calls for his imprisonment due to defamation of character. Although it was said that Sophie was just as heartbroken as John and for the remainder of her life, the scandal developed a life all its own. In the cover of darkness, and people with weapons on his tail, he is forced to escape and travels from Georgia to Boston, and several months later he boards a ship and heads home. He heads home a failure; Heartbroken, a failed pastor, and his faith on very wobbly ground.

Back in England, he starts to stumble again and again, and falls into what some say was a giant depression. This is the turning point of his entire ministry, and at that moment it could go either way. Then in the midst of that despair, on May 24th, 1738 (275 years ago this past May), he is invited to listen to someone who is performing a public reading of Martin Luther’s Preface to the Book of Romans, in a small public reading room on Aldersgate Street in London.

That night everything changed.

He wrote in his journal that his heart was strangely warmed…and he knew at that moment, that he was right with God… In that moment he was convicted that he was alright, that God loved even him, that he wasn’t alone, and that he was going to be okay.

Up until that very moment, Wesley described himself as an Almost Christian and it was Aldersgate, that began the process of moving him towards becoming the ‘Altogether Christian”. Wesley goes on to form the Wesleyan/Methodist church and perhaps has the most profound impact on faith since Martin Luther.

Towards the latter part of his life, Wesley – who was a prolific journaler and who had delivered somewhere close to 40,000 sermons – decided that he needed to organize what he considered his most important sermons…By order of importance… They were to become guides for others looking to understand what this movement was all about. The first sermon, No. 1: was entitled “Salvation by Faith”, which was pretty straight forward; we are saved by grace through faith. And No. 2, in his list of important sermons… “The Almost Christian” This sermon was written a few months after Aldersgate.

Like Buddy who spent his life dressing, looking, acting, speaking, working, and living as an elf; he wasn’t quite. Buddy was an ‘Almost Elf’. Wesley believed that at points, he too was dressing, looking, acting, speaking and living as a Christian, but wasn’t quite. He saw himself as an almost Christian.

There are certainly people in our day to days that fit the role of the almost Christian. There have been times I have filled that role personally, and even today I find myself –from time to time -acting in ways that could fit the bill.

The Almost Christian are not bad people. In fact they are the opposite. They are good, moral, and ethical individuals.They posses a strong moral compass. They don’t cheat eachother. They don’t lie.

They honestly care about others. When someone is hurting they want the hurt to go away, and work for it. The see those without food, and take it upon themselves to feed. If they see someone without clothes they clothe them. They are committed to social programs, food pantries, and give generously of time, treasure, and talent.

They work hard in their jobs. They take pride in supporting their families. They possess accountability. They act in honorable ways, and everytime the church doors are open they are there.

They know every hymn and every story. They man the yard sales. They give to the offering plate. They know your name. They make you feel at home.

Sounds good, right?

It does, but its not where we want or need to be driving towards. Wesley pointed out that we need to be the “altogether” Christian. What is different?
The Altogether Christian possesses an all consuming love for God that fills their entire heart and soul. It’s a love that captures our imagination and changes us from the inside out. It’s a love that invades every inch of us – every single dark corner – and transforms us into new people. It’s a love that is so much more than just simply doing the right thing at the right time.

The altogether Christian, possesses this same transformative love for other people. It is a love that compels us to be different. It’s a love that changes our heart. It’s a love that often breaks it. It’s a radical, life altering love that takes you from the comfortable confines of our homes, offices, and churches…and calls us to find, identify, reach out for, and to carry our own crosses. It’s a love that gives everything, knowing that there is a possibility you could end up hurt. It’s a love that is given not because of what another is or isnt – or based upon our own values – but a love that is given simply because before you stands a child of God.

The altogether Christian knows that to Love God and neighbor isn’t some great moral achievement on their part, but rests solely in the conviction that results from Grace; the sure trust and confidence in the life, ministry, and message of Jesus. In the end, it is that trust, and that confidence that changes everything. It sheds light on the dark parts. It makes the old new. It creates a heart that is capable of love in the first place. It is in that trust and confidence we find the peace and promise of this place.

Truly, we all should long in our heart to be that altogether Christian, or we should be asking ourselves why we are here. If we are here for anything else, we are wasting our time. There are places outside these walls were you can find meaning, and a home, that wont ask for anything in return; and that certainly wont break your heart. Being a follower of God is hard – wonderfully, beautifully, radically, transformingly hard – and well worth it. Yet, if you simply want belonging or a place to carry out your routine, you will end up being disappointed with us.

If in your heart, that altogether place is where you long. It begins with making the decision. And this is where Sheriff Andy comes. Yet, instead of Andy, the point of his mention has more to do with one episode in particular; and episode entitled “Mr. McBeevee”.

As Andy, Aunt Bee, and Barney sat around the dinner table, eight-year-old Opie amused them with stories about a new friend, a magical man by the name of Mr. McBeevee. He had a shiny metal hat, made a jingling sound as he walked in the treetops, and can blow smoke from his ears.

At first they laughed at Opie’s imaginary friend, but his Pa became concerned as the stories grew a bit too wild, especially as he starts coming home with quarters and even an old hatchet. Andy decides it was time to put an end to the nonsense. Enough was enough.

Andy sends little Opie to his room, and joins him there later. Andy is determined to make the boy admit he had been making up these wild adventures.

For amount the scene turns and the television viewer is looking into the boys room from outside, and we see Opie and Andy framed in the window.

“Do I have too?” Opie asks obviously upset.

Insistent, Andy says he has too. He has to admit that his friend is imaginary,… that he made him up.

Opie begins: “Mr. McBeevee… Is…. Only… I cant Pa,… Mr. McBeevee isnt make believe he is real… and in that moment hits him with the real question… “Don’t you believe me pa?”

With tears running down Opie’s face… there is a gap of silence…

“Don’t you believe me, Pa?”

Andy eventually answers….

“Yes, I believe you”

Heading down stairs, Aunt Bea asks if Andy punished him.

“No,” Andy quietly said.

Barney was shocked at Andy’s failure to act. “Don’t tell me you believe in Mr. McBeevee!”

“No,” Andy replied, “but I do believe in Opie.”

Andy then drives out to the woods…and starts calling for the imaginary friend… Its then that he discovers that Mr. McBeevee is actually a hard-hatted telephone lineman with a belt full of jingling tools.

Andy had to make the decision to believe, trust, accept, and surrender all the garbage before he knew for sure.

That Aldersgate moment, that heart strangely warmed moment, that second of conviction and belief that changes you from the inside out, that moment that begins the journey from today’s almost Christian to tommorow’s altogether oen, begins with you making the decision.

It begins with believing that the gift is for you too. It begins with your decision to accept yourself as worthy and as a child of God, and to surrender everything else – in trust – to God…and reach out and grab that gift that has been there all along.

You might be saying its easier said than done. Maybe. When I said the same thing so long ago, the answer that over time came to me was simple; Just start.

We are going to close this message with a prayer. I have printed it on the back side of the bulleting. Its perfect in its simplicity. Its also one that I said each and every morning for what seemed like an eternity. It was how I started. I urge you to take the step… God will do the rest.

Let us pray:

Heavenly father, remind me – remind us – this day, that we are worthy. Remind us we are worthy of you love. Remind us we are far from perfect, nor do we have to be.

Help me to give to you all the baggage, all the brokenness, and all the hurt. Help me to surrender all that I am, all that I have, and all that I want to you.

For you will make me whole.

In your name we pray, thanks be to God Amen.

(A special thanks to Rev. Tim Dash for the “Buddy” Illustration)

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