Believe, Love, Obey: Part I – Foundation

Prepare our hearts, O God, to accept your Word. Silence in us any voices but your own, so that we may hear your Word and also do it; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Matthew 7:24-27  Common English Bible (CEB)

Two foundations

24 “Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise builder who built a house on bedrock. 25  The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It didn’t fall because it was firmly set on bedrock. 26  But everybody who hears these words of mine and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built a house on sand. 27  The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It fell and was completely destroyed.”

Matthew 7:24-27 The Message

24-25 “These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundational words, words to build a life on. If you work these words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock. Rain poured down, the river flooded, a tornado hit—but nothing moved that house. It was fixed to the rock.

26-27 “But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don’t work them into your life, you are like a stupid carpenter who built his house on the sandy beach. When a storm rolled in and the waves came up, it collapsed like a house of cards.”

Believe, Love, Obey: Foundation

I’m so excited this morning to be sharing with you some of my experiences in England while I was journeying in the footsteps of John and Charles Wesley.  I had an amazing time, and it was a profound experience.  If you have been a Methodist for a while, you may know that John Wesley is considered the founding father of our denomination.  Charles Wesley, his brother, wrote over 6,000 hymns such as Love Divine, All Loves Excelling and Hark the Herald Angels Sing.  Many of his hymns are in our hymnal.  And Susanna Wesley, John and Charles’s mother is known as the mother of Methodism.  To me their lives are fascinating, and there is so much that we can learn about how they became disciples and how they shared the love of Jesus with others.  So hopefully, I will entertain you with a few crazy stories about this family.  And I hope, too that their stories will inspire you to “believe, love and obey.”

Over the next four weeks, I’m going to take you to the places we visited on the pilgrimage and talk about the importance of these places to the Wesleys and to Methodism.  Also, I’m going to ask you to think about how these themes apply in your life.  

The title of the sermon series “Believe, Love, Obey” comes from a symbol that John Wesley used.  If you will look on page one of the hymnal, you will see this seal.  It has John Wesley’s initials and the words: “believe, love, obey.”  This was the seal that John Wesley used during his last years, and I think it truly sums up Wesley’s views on what being a disciple of Jesus is all about – and those three words reflect in a simple way all that he had learned over his lifetime.  So, I title the series, “Believe, Love, Obey.”

Today, we are going to look at the foundation of John Wesley’s life and faith.  And applying this to our lives, we will think about how we can build a strong foundation of faith in Christ in our lives and in the lives of our children.  We are going to hear about some rains that fell, some floods that came and some winds that blew in the lives of the Wesley family.  But through it all, this family managed to build a strong foundation of faith.

Today, I want to take you to Epworth, England, and tell you some amazing stories about the childhood of John Wesley and about his family.  Epworth is the birthplace of John Wesley.  Samuel Wesley, John’s father, was a priest in the Church of England.  And it was this small, farming town of Epworth where Samuel Wesley was assigned. Today Epworth has about 3,000 people – about the size of Dover.  Epworth used to be a marshy area that actually became an island certain times of the year when the water was high.  And the king decided that he wanted to make the land around Epworth more productive, so the king hired some dyke builders from Denmark and they built a series of levees and drainage ditches that drained the land so that it could be used for farming.  In the process many people lost big parts of their land to the drainage system and to the king.  

Samuel Wesley’s support of the king and this drainage project caused Samuel to be unpopular with the local people, and believe it or not, they set fire to the rectory where the Wesley family lived in Epworth, not just once but twice.  It was during one of these fires in 1709 that little “John was saved by the neighbors forming a human ladder to pluck him out of his second-floor bedroom window, which later gave rise to the frequent use of the phrase, ‘Plucked as a brand out of the fire,’” Quoting Zecheriah 3:2.  (Heitzenrater, Richard, Wesley and the People Called Methodists, p. 29).  It was often said the John Wesley was saved from the fire for a special purpose for God.

Life was hard for the Wesleys at Epworth.  Samuel and Susanna had 19 children in 19 years and only 9 of them survived childhood.  John’s closest siblings were girls until his brother Charles was born, and so it’s easy to see how John Wesley’s acceptance of women in ministry and in leadership during the Methodist movement was inspired.  

As the priest for St. Andrew’s church in Epworth, there was not really a salary paid to Samuel; the family was dependent on the congregation to provide for the family’s needs.  If you weren’t popular with the congregation, you can imagine that might not go too well – your finances might not be good at all.  Two times, Samuel was thrown into debtor’s prison and had to ask the Bishop for money for his release.

The Wesleys were not what you would normally expect to find in a remote rural parish, either.  Samuel was well educated having a degree from Oxford.  Susanna was educated, too, but she was self-taught because women could not enroll in the university.  Education and training for the 9 Wesley children was very important to Susanna.  She is known for saying, “In order to form the minds of children, the first thing to be done is to conquer their will and bring them to an obedient temper.”  (Heitzenrater, p. 28).   

Susanna was ahead of her day in that she was very concerned that the girls be educated.  She insisted that the girls know how to read before they be taught to sew.  The children began their studies at age five, and attended class for six hours a day.  The day after their fifth birthday, their education began and they were expected to learn the whole alphabet on the very first day.  All her children except two mastered this and Susanna found it very backward that two of her children took a little longer to learn the alphabet.  The children learned Greek and Latin and had a well-rounded education, girls and boys alike.

 Susanna was in charge of the weekly religious education, too, and she began a weekly evening hour with each of the five or six children at home at any given time.  She would talk individually with each child every week about their spiritual development checking to make sure that they were advancing spiritually and that all was well with their souls.  

John Wesley’s foundation for study, scripture reading, and prayer was strongly influenced by his family and especially, his mother.  Learning about God was a discipline that occurred every day for the Wesley children.  

But not only did Susanna insist on the spiritual development of her children, Susanna was also very devoted to growing as a disciple herself.  Here is an outline of Susanna’s schedule for the day.  Rise at 7, one hour private prayer and journal writing, supervise the house, give orders for the day, family prayer, help Samuel educate the children, school hours 9-12 and 2-5, lunch with private devotions, family prayer at 6, dinner, private prayer, journal writing, Bible study, bed at 8.  

Imagine having 9 children to care for and educate, having 19 kids in 19 years, having money problems, no running water or electricity, and yet finding the ability to devote yourself to God in this way.  I really find Susanna to be an amazing woman, and it is no wonder that John Wesley developed a strong foundation in Christ!

Susanna Wesley was also very bold in her beliefs, and she was not afraid to speak up.  One interesting story about her boldness goes like this:

During a time when her husband was in London, defending a friend against charges of heresy, Samuel had appointed another minister, Mr. Inman, to bring the sermon at St. Andrews. The man’s sermons revolved solely around repaying debts, and apparently Mr. Inman owed many debts himself.  And as you can imagine, this didn’t go over very well.  The lack of diverse spiritual teaching caused Susanna to assemble her children in the kitchen on Sunday afternoons for family services. They would sing a psalm and then Susanna would read a sermon from either her husband’s or father’s sermon file followed by another psalm. The local people began to ask if they could attend.  It got so crowded in the house that the people sat outside and listened through the window.  At one point there were over two hundred people who would attend Susanna’s Sunday afternoon service while the Sunday morning service dwindled to nearly nothing.  

Mr. Inman wrote Samuel to complain about Susanna’s activities, and Samuel wrote to Susanna asking her to stop immediately.  Although women have been ordained in Methodist churches for more than 50 years now, at that time the idea of a woman having any part in a worship service – even in her own home – was unheard of.  However, Susanna forcefully stood up to her husband and wrote that he would be judged by God for his request of her to stop the services.  And Susanna declined to stop as she described how the meetings were a genuine and effective ministry to those who attended and that Mr. Inman was about the only one who‘d objected.  There is no evidence that Samuel Wesley ever wrote back to his wife, and the services continued.

This wasn’t the only time that she maintained her own convictions. For a period of six months Samuel left the family following a disagreement over the legitimacy of William of Orange (he in favor, she against.)  Susanna was pregnant at the time, but when he objected that she didn’t say “Amen” to his prayer regarding King William, she stood her ground and Samuel left.  Soon afterwards, King William died and Queen Anne came to the throne. When Susanna’s child was born, she named her Anne in honor of the Queen, and Samuel soon returned home.  Maybe because Susanna was now willing to say “amen” after his prayer for the monarch.  The next year John Wesley was born, and he is said to be the “fruit of reconciliation” between Samuel and Susanna.

         It seems that Susanna Wesley’s boldness in standing up for her convictions may have rubbed off on John Wesley – perhaps her example provided a strong foundation for John’s faith.  I want to show you one more important sight from Epworth – and to me this picture represents John Wesley’s courage and boldness in preaching the gospel.  This is a photo of Samuel Wesley’s grave – he is buried at St. Andrews church where he ministered for years and where the Wesley children were baptized, worshipped and no doubt listened to their father’s sermons.  The reason this grave site is important to me, is that John Wesley stood upon his father’s grave and preached to 3,000 people one day.  You see, John Wesley grew up to become a priest in the Church of England just like his father, Samuel.  But John Wesley felt that the Church of England was just about dead.  He felt that the church needed to be revived, and that the church needed to return to its foundations, including the disciplined study of Scripture, and the regular observance of Holy Communion.  The Church of England was only celebrating Communion once or twice a year, and Wesley believed communion was an important sacrament that helped build disciples.  He had all kinds of ideas that were considered radical and revolutionary—these were ideas that upset the religious leaders of his day.  They labeled John Wesley an “enthusiast” which is a derogatory word meaning a religious fanatic.                                              

  John Wesley traveled from place to place preaching, and when he was invited into churches his ideas were so radical that he was often asked not to return.  People threw tomatoes and onions at him.  A few times people beat him up.  When he built his first preaching house, he made sure there was a back exit from behind the pulpit so that the Methodist preachers could escape quickly if they needed to.  

And this disapproval is what happened one day at St. Andrews church – his home church.  He was not allowed to preach at the church that he had grown up in.  And so he boldly announced that there was a place that belonged to him, and he would not be swayed from preaching the word of God.  And so he stood atop Samuel’s grave and preached to 3,000 people.

Here is what John Wesley wrote in his journal on Sunday, June 6, 1742:

A little before the service began I went to Mr. Romley, the curate, and offered to assist him either by preaching or reading prayers.  But he did not care to accept of my assistance.  The church was exceeding full in the afternoon, a rumour being spread that I was to preach.  But the sermon on ‘Quench not the Spirit’ was not suitable to the expectation of many of the hearers. Mr. Romley told them one of the most dangerous ways of quenching the Spirit was by enthusiasm, and enlarged on the character of an enthusiast in a very florid and oratorical manner.  After sermon John Taylor stood in the churchyard and gave notice as the people were coming out, “Mr. Wesley not being permitted to preach in the church, designs to preach here at 6 o’clock.”

Accordingly at six I came, and found such a congregation as I believe Epworth never saw before.  I stood near the east end of the church, upon my father’s tombstone, and cried, “The kingdom of heaven is not meats and drinks, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.

Susanna must have been proud of her son John, that day.

Looking back 300 years at the struggles of the Wesleys and reading the scripture from Matthew reveals three characteristics that provide a firm foundation for our own faith.

First — perseverance.  Life was hard in the 1700s.  The book of Matthew talks about the rains and floods and tornadoes of life that can wash away all that we hold dear unless we build a strong foundation in Christ.  The Wesleys faced fires, and marital strife, the loss of 10 children, debtor’s prison!  But they persevered.  Samuel Wesley didn’t move to another church when his congregation burned his house.  They rebuilt, twice.  Can you imagine the grief of the loss of so many children?  I can’t even imagine living without electricity and running water.  Perseverance – never giving up.

And perhaps the reason that they could persevere, perhaps the reason they could survive the storms that came was the devotion that they had to God.  Second – devotion.  The family was intentional about becoming closer to God.  The adults in the family had their own daily devotional habits designed to help them draw closer to God, and they gave their children this same foundation.  Through this regular pattern of devotion to God, the family came to believe and love and obey God – they learned their true purpose in life was to serve God and to enjoy being in God’s presence regardless of the storms they faced in their lives.

And third – boldness.  Susanna Wesley provided her family with the example of doing whatever it took to boldly walk in God’s will.  Susanna was not afraid to lead others to Christ, even when this was not acceptable for women.  John Wesley was not afraid to preach on his father’s grave when he was refused the pulpit in his home church.  Perseverance and devotion to God certainly led to a fire for God in the hearts of the Wesleys,  And that fire was boldly displayed for all to see.

So what?  What do the lives of some people who lived a long time ago, in a land far away have to do with us?  

Well, personally, I could ask for nothing more in my life, than to give my children the qualities of perseverance, devotion to God and boldness to do God’s work in the world.  That is a firm foundation! So I think it is an inspiration and an example of how others have become disciples.

And I hope, too, that you will think about your foundation of faith – how did you get where you are today in your walk with Christ?  And — how can we encourage others in building a firm foundation?  How can we be examples for others?  How can we build up our children?  How can we help the children of this church develop a rock solid foundation that will help them survive the storms that they are certain to face?  How can we put our faith into action?

Jesus said: listen to my words and then do them!  He said:

24 “Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise builder who built a house on bedrock. 25  The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It didn’t fall because it was firmly set on bedrock. 26  But everybody who hears these words of mine and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built a house on sand. 27  The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It fell and was completely destroyed.”

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen

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