Sermon for May 6, 2018. This continues the connection to the Church of the Resurrection’s stained glass window. This sermon focus’s on Francis Asbury, but also explains a personal decision effective July 1, 2018. The Methodist itineracy continues.
Searching through the images of the COR’s (Leawood, KS) stained glass window, I found Francis Asbury. Yes, the name is familiar to Methodists, but how does his story demonstrate how The Church moved forward?
As Methodists, we may think that our denomination is the first church that used the circuit riders, but the practice actually began much earlier. Consider even the Apostles who were commissioned by Jesus himself. Interestingly there is a parallel between the story of Philip and the Eunuch and a story of Francis Asbury meeting a freedman.
The story is in Acts 8:26-40 (NLT):
26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopianeunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”
30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.
31 “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
32 This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:
“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”[b]
34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
36 As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”  38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.
The Church grew because the Apostles took to the road sharing the Good News. Interesting that the Apostles were not first known as Circuit Riders, in fact, the title Circuit Rider is believed to begin with the Wesleyan movement.
An on-line article from the UMC’s General Commission on Archives and History, includes a brief summary of the development of the circuit riders:
John Wesley’s Methodist plan of multiplemeeting places called circuits required an itinerating force of preachers. A circuit was made up of two or more local churches (sometimes referred to as societies) in early Methodism. In American Methodism circuits were sometimes referred to as a “charge.” A pastor would be appointed to the charge by his bishop. During the course of a year he was expected to visit each church on the charge at least once, and possibly start some new ones. At the end of a year the pastors met with the bishop at annual conference, where they would often be appointed to new charges. A charge containing only one church was called a station. The traveling preachers responsible for caring for these societies, or local churches and stations, became known as circuit- riders, or sometimes saddlebag preachers. They traveled light, carrying their belongings and books in their saddlebags. Ranging far and wide through villages and wilderness, they preached daily or more often at any site available be it a log cabin, the local court house, a meeting house, or an outdoor forest setting. Unlike the pastors of settled denominations, these itinerating preachers were constantly on the move. Their assignment was often so large it might take them 5 or 6 weeks to cover the territory. [Accessed on May 2, 2018]
Francis Asbury, included in the stained glass window, is credited as the leader of the American Methodist Episcopal movement that grew through the work of the circuit riders. In the Wikipedia biography on Asbury, a meeting with a freedman, Henry “Black Harry” Hosier might compare to Philip’s meeting with the Ethopian Eunuch:
In 1780, he met the freedman Henry “Black Harry” Hosier, a meeting Asbury considered “providentially arranged”. Hosier served as his driver and guide and, though illiterate, memorized long passages of the Bible while Asbury read them aloud during their travels. He eventually became a famous preacher in his own right, the first African American to preach directly to a white congregation in the United States. [Accessed on May 2, 2018]
The Church grows through the efforts of those called to ministry whether in the pulpit or whether in the saddle. Asbury carried the Methodist movement into a growing denomination during the earliest years of this country’s existence following the Revolutionary War.
The circuit rider images have faded into our memories. These Christians answered a call into ministry that was filled with challenges as simple as where one might find food, clothing and shelter along the paths between settlements. The circuit rider’s lifestyle did not lend itself to establishing a home base or even a family. They made friends, but the work was so demanding that it frequently took a toll on the health.
In the GCAH article on circuit riders, the lifespan of circuit riders typically was no more than 30 years of age. Asbury came to the US at the age of 26, and he lived until 1816—71 years old. Of course, Asbury also became one of the American co-superintendents, now more akin to that of a Bishop, with Thomas Coke being the second one. (The Methodist publishing service Cokesbury is named for these two men.)
In the final paragraph of Asbury’s autobiographical flier (bulletin’s insert), one can see the numerical evidence of his work:
… in 1784, Asbury had 15,000 members and 83 preachers to shepherd. Thirty years later, he herded 212,000 members, 700 ordained pastors, and 2,000 lay preachers.
Today, the United Methodist Church data services provides these figures:
|World UM||US||Africa, Asia & Europe|
Asbury and Coke answered God’s call to ministry and took John Wesley’s Methodist movement and created the American Methodist denomination that continues today as the United Methodist Church.
Today’s UMC congregations still remain in connection using the itinerant system of appointment. The itineracy, as defined on line by the UMC website, is a result of the circuit riders:
The system in The United Methodist Church by which pastors are appointed to their charges by the bishops. The pastors are under obligation to serve where appointed. The present form of the itineracy grew from the practice of Methodist pastors traveling widely throughout the church on circuits. Assigned to service by a bishop, they were not to remain with one particular congregation for any length of time.
I am convinced that the artist who selected the figures to include in the stained glass window consciously chose those who have answered God’s call to ministry and have continued the mission of The Church despite all the trials and tribulations that batters Christians. I am glad that he included Francis Asbury, because the history of our denomination grew from his work.
Wesley sat the bar for his followers:
“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”
These words are so engrained in my psyche that it is makes accepting my own efforts as adequate. Over the last three years, I have felt a pulling to do something else. I cannot define it. I can only say, I know there is something more that I am to do. The district superintendent has listened, questioned, and advised me. Two weeks ago, we met and he asked what I needed. His perception was that I was tired and needed rest.
The stained glass window has inspired much of my research and guided me through these past few months. The story of Teresa of Avila seemed to open a new awareness within me of my theology differently than any of the other stories. I felt a thrill and a hunger for more.
I have read I John over and over. I have turned to the gospel of John several times over the last month, and the pull to do something more continues to grow. I finally heard the DS say, “You are tired.”
Yes, I am tired. I am so mentally and spiritually tired that I cannot hear God’s direction. Therefore, I will not be taking an appointment at this time. I suspect I will need at least six months of rest, to read, to listen, and to pray about the next appointment—whether or not it is a pulpit or some other form of ministry.
From John’s first letter, I am focusing on knowing God as light, love, and life. I have more work to do; but to do it, I must rest. Please hear John’s words:
- I John 1:5-75 This is the message we heard from Jesus[a] and now declare to you: God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all. 6 So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness; we are not practicing the truth. 7 But if we are living in the light, as God is in the light, then we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin.
- 1 John 3:16 16 We know what real loveis because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters.
- 1 John 3:18 18 Dear children, let’s not merely say that we loveeach other; let us show the truth by our actions.
- 1 John 5:11-12 11 And this is what God has testified: He has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have God’s Son does not havelife.
When one completes the Course of Study, one of the final requirements is to write one’s own credo. I decided to review it because so much scripture that I have highlighted as support for my credo is located in the writings of John. I am hopeful that you will hear these words and recognize something about me:
I believe in the Triune God,
Father, the Creator;
Son, Jesus Christ the Teacher;
And the Holy Spirit, an ever-present ally.
As a believer.
I accept the responsibility to live a God-centered life.
I accept the responsibility to love this creation.
I accept the responsibility to love one another.
As a member of The Church, I believe
I need to do all that I can
For all that I can
In all the ways that I can.
Once called, always to serve. To serve in the pulpit and to join in community with each one of you is to love. Here in this sanctuary, I find light, I find love, and I find life.
As the next few weeks lead us to find new directions, I cannot wait to share more of the stories of The Church. We continue to grow together in fellowship, much as John concludes that first letter:
20 And we know that the Son of God has come, and he has given us understanding so that we can know the true God. And now we live in fellowship with the true God because we live in fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ. He is the only true God, and he is eternal life.
21 Dear children, keep away from anything that might take God’s place in your hearts
Concluding prayer (in unison):
Dear Loving Father,
You are the light, chasing away darkness.
You are love, binding your children together.
You are life, always and forever.
Guide us in turning on the light for others.
Guide us in loving one another.
Guide us in living for life eternal.
Help us to find ways to chase away sin’s darkness.
Help us to demonstrate love through our actions.
Help us to live life in full connection
through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. –Amen