I Have Seen the End and It Isn’t Pretty

I have seen the end and it isn’t pretty.

A couple of nights ago, I attended one of a handful of regional gatherings across the North Carolina Annual Conference.  These meetings, led by the Bishop and our General Conference delegates, were intended to outline the three proposals advanced by the Commission on a Way Forward.  Laity and clergy were both invited to attend.  Billed as a time for questions and answers, I hoped it would be a time of learning and sharing.  I was wrong.

I hadn’t been in my seat five minutes when someone raised their hand to speak on the most accurate definition of homosexuality.  It should (said this gentleman), according to any definition one might find, include the term sodomites.  If he said sodomite once he said it three more times.  To be honest, the meeting went downhill from there.

The Bishop did her best to keep order and maintain a sense of decorum.  However, it was clear those in attendance didn’t think much of the one church plan or changing the Book of Discipline to be more accommodating to all United Methodists.  Soon the same tired tropes emerged, homosexuality is the sin par excellence, Jesus didn’t talk about homosexuality because they still stoned sodomites in 1st century Palestine (so Jesus didn’t have to bring it up), and Methodists need to be more concerned about keeping people out of Hell.   I wasn’t sure if the man who mentioned stoning wasn’t still advocating taking people, as he said, “to the local rock pile”.   He was intentionally ambiguous.

There were also secondary complaints about the lack of information from the committee, annual conference, and those in charge.  To those who hear only bits and pieces of information or follow Rob Renfroe’s version of Methodism, these plans seem sudden and frightening.   Fear is the word which kept coming to mind.  Beyond the anger, misquoted Bible verses, and the outright bigotry I witnessed; this meeting contained a palpable sense of fear.

My sisters and brothers are scared.  Frightened people have difficulty being faithful disciples.  They are afraid of their neighbors, losing their church, the control they pretend to maintain over God’s kingdom, and the idea that God’s grace is bigger than they realized.  This isn’t simply homophobia.  Yes, that’s part of the equation.  It is theophobia, a fear of letting God be God. What happens if God demands we love people we’ve been inaccurately taught to despise?  God’s spiritual audacity and expansive moral grandeur is frightening to those who image of God is one of wrath and punishment.

The meeting I attended is a microcosm of events occurring around United Methodism.  In fact, I’m betting this gathering was kind of a dress rehearsal for the special General Conference.  The same hurtful words, self righteous speeches, and stereotypes will be thrown around the convention floor in St. Louis.  It will be as wrong and as hurtful there as it was this week.

There’s free speech and there’s hate speech.  What I heard in this meeting bordered on hate speech.  It made me sick to my stomach and ashamed to be sitting in a United Methodist Church.  By the time our gathering finished, I couldn’t wait to leave the building.  I felt confused, angry, and disappointed.  I know people can be mean.  I realize even when we clean up and go to church, we feel like we can say ugly, vile, and reprehensible things about people God created because we “do it in Christian love” or “tradition”.   I’m not naive or ignorant.  However, I’m always surprised (a bit) when I see in person.   A Methodism that is rude, discriminatory, and cloaked in judgmental self-righteousness isn’t the church I know and love.   If that makes me less of a Christian (or United Methodist), I guess we can get adjoining rooms in Hell.

The great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote about the idea of “God needing us” for God’s very existence.  I’m not one to usually argue with Heschel, however, after what I saw this week, it looks like God could do just fine if we weren’t figuring out ways to put up roadblocks to inclusivity and border walls around the Kingdom of Heaven.  When we’re like this, God doesn’t need us.  Before we’re going to be of any use to anyone, (LGBTQI United Methodists, the elderly, children, migrant families, Syrian refugees, or heroin addicts in our own community, etc.) we need more of God’s love.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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He Had Become Well-Known (Mark 6:14-29)

What happens when Jesus becomes known?  Notice how I’m asking this question.  It has nothing to do with us knowing Jesus.  I’m not asking if you know Jesus.  Instead, I want to look at the verse:  Jesus had become well-known.  When Jesus becomes well-known, what happens to the world?

I remain convinced that it is impossible to be indifferent about Jesus.  I realize some will argue with me on this point but frankly, I don’t care.  To quote C.S. Lewis, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.”

Whether we realize it or not, we’ve all formed an idea about who Jesus is and live our lives accordingly. For some, Jesus is who he says he is.  For others, they’ve made the gamble and rolled the dice; Jesus isn’t all that important.  Regardless of the decision we’ve reached, we’re at this point in our lives, because Jesus became well-known.  His stories, ideas, and reputation reached beyond Bethlehem, Judea, Nazareth, and Jerusalem.

Here’s the problem we face, one that is not new to us:  there is a difference between being “well-known” and “understood”.  Jesus was and is extremely well-known.  King Herod knew of Jesus’ reputation.  There is a chaplain in congress who prays for members of the House and Senate each morning.  Blue collar fishermen were his disciples.  Everyone knew Jesus.  His name was talked about it houses and synagogues up and down the country.  It is another matter altogether to understand what he’s doing.

When we confuse knowledge and understanding, we start to get into trouble.  Making decisions on what we’ve heard (rumors vs. fact, context vs. no context) instead of what we’ve seen or witnessed, distorts what people know and understand about Jesus.  It’s much like playing a game of telephone.    The message which shared at the beginning is rarely what’s received at the end.

Following the death of John the Baptist, Jesus is caught between the conundrum of knowledge and understanding.  This push and pull is essential to the Christian life.  It’s where Mark places us this morning.

John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and partner in ministry is dead.  Herod’s decision to marry his wife’s brother was more than John could stomach.   Arrested for questioning Herod’s ethics, it wasn’t long before his daughter helped Herod’s new wife gain the one gift not her registry:  John’s head.

John wasn’t Jesus.  At this time, John was the famous one.  Jesus was on the way up but he wasn’t John.  Now with John gone, what did people know about Jesus?  Who was this Jesus?

Herod seems to be confused.  “Didn’t I kill John?”  “You mean they’re related?”  “Are they same person?”  What did they think they know about Jesus?

Herod and his cronies knew “recycled news”.  Jesus couldn’t be someone new, different, or unique.   Jesus must be a figure from the ancient Israelite past returned to judge the iniquities of the present.  First of all, let’s say he’s the guy who just died, come back from the dead as a different person.  In other words, “we think we know Jesus is John the Baptist.”  If that can’t explain his teaching, preaching, or healing, let’s go back a little further.  Maybe Jesus is Elijah.  The think they know that he is the prophet Elijah who lived nine hundred years before the events Mark is describing in the 6th chapter.  If Jesus isn’t’ Elijah, he’s probably one of the ancient prophets.  The Old Testament is full of so many prophets, both major and minor, surely this Jesus, with his cryptic language of life, death, and healing must be one of those prophets.  Jesus is Hosea, Micah, Amos, or even Jeremiah.  Do you see the trend here?  Jesus must be anyone but Jesus.  We know what we’ve always known about religious matters, people, and ideas.  Jesus fits into none of our preconceptions.  A recycled faith, reapplied to the same concerns, has left what?  People like Herod; people know about religion (words, terms, history, and people) but understand nothing about being faithful to the God who made them.

Knowing Jesus is more than having the ability to point out similarities between Jesus and other religious figures in the Bible (or history).  You’re responding to your own religious past or your conscience.  If that’s all you know, you’re fighting the urge to remain indifferent to what’s happening in your soul.  Putting who or what you think Jesus is into boxes you can manage the same as knowing Jesus is uniquely Jesus.  I’m not a big fan of the excuse people use to not go to church that is, “I’m spiritual but not religious”.  There other kinds of people who are the exact opposite, “religious but not spiritual”.  I think both perspectives miss the uniqueness of Jesus.  If anything, now is the time that we need to be reminded God came to us from the bottom, the margins of society, in places forgotten and ignored by those who claimed religious traditions and self-serving spirituality as a way life.

One of the reasons we affirm our faith each Sunday is to remind us Jesus’ uniqueness.  The Apostles’ Creed is one of the ways we know Jesus.  Its words acknowledge the prophetic tradition of Old Testament while setting Jesus in his own story.   We know that he was unlike any other figure in human history.  That’s why we say together that he was, “born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate”.  He wasn’t, as much as Herod wants to believe, John the Baptist.  I think, it’s difficult, to be indifferent to Jesus’ unique story.  It’s hard to shrug your shoulders when told someone suffered on your behalf.  Saying “whatever” is difficult to do when you see children, taken from their parents and you hear Jesus’ words, “In so much that you have done this to the least of these, you have done it for me.”  You may disagree with Jesus.  He may make you angry.  You may hear him, “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” and say he’s right.  Church, let’s go and do.

My point is this:  you can’t ride the fence with Jesus.  He deserves a response.  See him for who he is, what he says, and what he does.  Agree or disagree but don’t ignore him.  There’s too much good Jesus, embodied in his followers, can do in a fragile world.  Ignoring what we know about Jesus is a statement in its own right.  To embrace indifference toward Jesus, for most people, is a tacit admission that we believe in nothing more than a convenient idol we use to explain the mysteries of life.

Acknowledging Jesus’ uniqueness doesn’t hurt, it only helps.  Nothing that Jesus touches leaves his presence worse off.    Everything is better for being in and around Jesus.  You know the saying, “A rising tide lifts all boats”.

For whatever reason, what you’ve heard of Jesus or understand about God isn’t moving you one way or the other.  It may be that Christianity has gotten in the way.  Sometimes in our zeal, we turn people off from the thing we’re supposed to love most.

That’s OK.  I want to apologize, on behalf of the church, for making the well-known Jesus less knowable, angry, judgmental, or rude.  I’m sorry.  For the moment, let the church, allow me, and those around you respond anew.  We will sing for you.  We will pray with and for you.  We will say the Creed.

Indeed, Jesus is well-known.  He is who he is.  Let’s point people toward what we know; the unique nature of the loving Son of God who dwells in the least known and overlooked corners of our world.    Let’s talk about the Good News for all people. Where the darkness, may we bring light.  Where there fear, may we carry hope.  Where there is hurtful indifference, may we share Christ made real.

Richard Lowell Bryant

 

A New Testament Look at Immigration: Texts and Topics

1) Revelation 3:20 – Jesus is knocking at our door. Jesus comes in many forms, some obvious and others less noticeable. Nonetheless, Jesus ends up on our doorstep, the borders to our home, and at the frontiers of our nation. Do we ignore the knock? Do we drain our compassion dry to eventually proclaim, “This is not Jesus”?   Wouldn’t it be easier to open the door?  We know who it is.

2) Matthew 8:20 – Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. Even beyond the story of being a refugee after his birth Jesus remains the ultimate stranger in a strange land. Nowhere is home, despite being creator of the Universe. Where else can Jesus go?  Receiving the undocumented, homeless Jesus is our responsibility.  Our role isn’t to ask, “Why can’t a carpenter build his own house?”

3) Romans 12:13 – Paul reminds the Roman community to, “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” Unlike the Old Testament scriptures reminding the Israelites to care for foreigners because “they were once slaves in Egypt”, Paul gives no word of explanation.  It doesn’t matter that your ancestors were slaves.  Now, as people of faith, hospitality is something we all do. The justifications of the past are no longer relevant. Paul writes to the Romans, “Do the right thing.” Christians care for the saints living among us, no matter where our journeys began.

4) Timothy 1:8 – Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. Paul is also telling Timothy that there are illegitimate uses of the law (religious, judicial, and political). Paul’s sampling of legitimate uses of the law does not include welcoming strangers, refugees, or asylum seekers in the wider community.

5) Hebrews 13:12 – Therefore Jesus suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. Jesus didn’t suffer and die in the well-defined borders of a modern nation state. Held in the detention centers of Roman Palestine, Jesus died on a physical and spiritual border. As a common criminal with no rights, Jesus could not be tried by laws protecting those “inside “the city gate. Salvation, as we read Hebrews, happens on the border, somewhere between our idea of civilization and the coming Kingdom of God. The writer of Hebrews says it’s what happened outside the gates that defined the future of Christianity. It’s past the gates, within the fences, and among the camps where we will encounter the resurrected Christ.  Let us go to him.

Richard Lowell Bryant

My God is undocumented,
He arrived,
Illegally, unwanted, and unknown,
Across the border of heaven and Earth,
With no identification, family, or job,
A permanent refugee,
From a genocidal king,
Forever being sought,
By greedy statisticians in Rome,
Living hand to mouth,
Among the poorest of the poor,
With no fish, no one would eat,
With no money, no taxes got paid,
with no money, no prayers got said,
with no documents you were as good as dead,
My God is undocumented,
living on the margins,
of fishing villages,
and textile towns,
crossing over,
to the other side
of the big bad lake,
to the undocumented side,
He’s moving today,
From your Capernaum,
To today’s Decapolis,
And back again,
To meet the undocumented,
Unloved, chained-up, people,
On the other side,
People like us,
Our undocumented God,
Our God who arrived without papers,
Illegally, against Roman law,
And no family at all,
With dubious lineage,
And no photo id,
Who died on the cross,
For you and me,
My God is undocumented.

–Richard Bryant

Reflection on 75 Years of Church

Over the past weekend, the congregation I serve celebrated its 75th anniversary.  Here are some of my thoughts.

Jesus didn’t know the term “church”.  In the first decades after the resurrection, a word came to be used to describe the followers of Christ who lived and met in community.  Jesus, the man at the center of this movement, worked long before the faithful accepted words to describe who they were and where they met.   To the first disciples, to label themselves as anything other than a “follower of Jesus” made no sense.  It is not how they viewed the world.

Jesus’ “church” was the back roads, hills, and valleys of Galilee.  Long before John Wesley said, “The world is my parish”, Jesus abandoned the synagogues and took his message on the road.  In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is expelled from the synagogue where he was raised and taught to fear the Lord.  As you or I would put it, he is in his “home church”.  His homecoming sermon did not go well.  Jesus was rejected and nearly killed in the place where he went to Vacation Torah School, Sabbath School, and learned to read the Bible.  Mark says, “They were repulsed by him”.  Who is repulsed by Jesus teachings?  The people who knew him, loved him, and claimed to have his best interest at heart.   Take note.  The people who ought to know Jesus best are the ones angered with him the most.

The people of Nazareth embraced two distinct ideas. God’s presence was to be found in a building.  People weren’t especially sacred.  To be deemed holy in a holy building required one to jump through numerous hoops.   Secondly, faith was something you could own.  Like an inheritance, it was a possession you claimed and could be squandered.  Belief was passed down like property.

How could a carpenter’s child, the son of a teenage mother (people still talked about the strange circumstances surrounding his birth), question their faith and religious inheritance?  This was their synagogue.  Jesus’ Nazareth friends and family believed Jesus had wasted his faith.  People get angry at people who waste things they regard as valuable.

For Jesus, structures weren’t vital to his mission.  The disciples, walking two by two with only walking sticks, no money, no bread, or bags became the closest thing to what we might call “church”.

What did it mean to be the “church” in the year 30?  Here’s the best answer to a flawed question:  it meant a way of life which most modern United Methodists wouldn’t accept.   The ability to embrace poverty while meeting the needs of the poorest in the Kingdom was a primary challenge.  Secondly, if there were obstacles (doctrinal, hierarchical) to hearing the Good News, Jesus removed them.  The church made reaching Jesus easier.

What does it mean to be a church or to call ourselves church in 2018?  The answer should be the same.  We are challenged to deny materialism and wealth “no votes” in our efforts to reach the most vulnerable members of the Kingdom.   It’s our calling to go out instead of waiting for people to come to us.  While we’re at work, let’s make it easier for people to see Christ at work in the world.   Instead of planting doctrinal, Disciplinary, and other stumbling block; are able to make it easier for those in our community to reach Jesus?

After seventy five years of uninterrupted history, given our identification as Methodists and people of this island; what does it mean to be the body of Christ on Ocracoke in 2018?

Churches are monuments, created to reflect ideas and aspirations of the world they surround. They evolve from the evolved.  Humanity’s need to worship a God or Gods has, for centuries, led people from sacred groves of trees to build and maintain holy buildings.  Despite our best intentions, when the grandest cathedral is finished or the simplest chapel completed; we’ve limited our vision.  Our view of the kingdom of God is bounded by the four walls of sacred space we claim as our own.  God keeps growing after we settle down.  Our challenge is to never be comfortable waiting for the outside world to find their way to our door.   We go to the world.

As with the first disciples, we are sent to engage with Jesus’ message and to embody his values as our own.  Our commitment to this church (not solely to the church as a building or birthright) but as an idea will be what keeps the United Methodist Church alive and vibrant.

The church is not a building nor is it simply the people.  Church is more than a holy noun.  Instead, the church is an idea we hold in common (like democracy).  Transcending the barriers of time, the church is present in all ages, spaces, places, and peoples.  We are not our monuments.  Were the church the sum total of our flesh and blood, stone and mortar, wood and nails; the church would have died over two thousand years ago.  Instead, we are the resurrection made real and the recognition of the Holy Spirit in the lives of one another.   We are more than we realize.

The church is an intangible reality found inside each of us and it is also present when we gather as a community.  We are unable to see what makes “church, church”.  However, this indefinable quality gives us words to pray, songs to sing, and a faith in which to believe.  It is the realization of the kingdom of God, the tiniest glimpse of the reality Jesus promised, at least that’s what it should be.

The church has never been about one thing.*  The church, like the Kingdom, is everything.   If that idea is overwhelming, bigger than you imagined; then we’re headed in the right direction.

Richard Lowell Bryant

*At points in history when the church has been about one thing, bad things usually happen.

Before You Go Carting Out The Statues and Pet Fencing

Perhaps you’ve seen the images of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph imprisoned behind dog fencing in the front yard of an Indiana church?  The photographs have gone viral.  A visual protest against the government’s policy of separating the families of those requesting asylum, they are a stark reminder that the Holy Family were once refugees fleeing state persecution.  For those who view the pictures, they are intended to lead to the question, “If we detain and separate any refugee family, are we not, in fact, detaining Jesus Christ?”

This is an excellent question.  Despite the hokey statuary and fencing bought at Pet Smart, there are two points worth further examination.

In the name each of us, the United States of America is detaining the least of these, among whom Jesus may be found, in detention centers across the southwest.  Displays, like the one in Indiana will either reinforce the views held by half of the country or offend the other half.  Despite the veracity of scripture and the parallels between the life of Jesus and a Central American migrant, some will never appreciate the meaning of Jesus in a cage or dying on a cross.  This, however, isn’t art, to be “appreciated” or “ignored” like a Mark Rothko or a Jackson Pollock.

The cathedral’s leadership is making a theological pronouncement about who God is, what God cares about, and how God interacts with humanity.  Why is this message important?  Tell us.  Three dimensional theological statements demand to be interpreted and given context from out of the Good News which they arise.  Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in cage can never be left to speak for themselves.  Bread and wine, the ultimate statement of life defeating death, are never allowed to sit silently.  We speak words of thanksgiving and hope.  Joseph, Mary, and Jesus’ cage must be left with a door, a hole, a means of escape.  This is the apocalyptic gift, the eschatological reality hidden from sight but always in plain view when Jesus is involved.

Secondly, Christians are perennially placing Jesus in cages.  Sometimes these internment camps are our churches, our minds, or our selective readings of scripture.  As we recoil in horror at Jesus being locked up, we forget our own culpability in doing the same.  If Jesus questions our long held assumptions, beliefs, ideas about power, a committee’s decision, a conference’s actions; we will lock Jesus up faster than an immigrant asking for asylum while trying to cross the border.  Who is this Jesus to tell us how to run our church, our denomination, our family, or our lives?  If Jesus wants to be reunited with his family, he’ll need to stop messing with my conscious and those parables or unending love and grace.

Before you get ready to lock Jesus up on the front lawn of your church and call the newspapers to marvel at your activism, check and make sure Jesus is not locked up in your head, the back room of the church, or at your house.   If you’re keeping Jesus prisoner, you are as guilty as those who run detention centers.  Let Jesus out.  Find a way for the Good News to escape.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Have You Read This Stuff?

I read the Bible.  I re-read it when I earned my GED from Vacation Bible School.  Sometimes it scares the hell out of me.  Have you read these parts?

1. You shall not permit a female sorcerer to live. (Exodus 22:18)
This doesn’t give you permission to murder your neighbor, whether she’s into witchcraft or simply mean. The Bible is wrong on this one. You will go to real jail. Ignore it.  If you come to me and confess killing a witch I will turn you in to the sheriff.

2. When a man sells his daughter as a slave (Exodus 21:7) I’m going to stop right there. That’s human trafficking. Don’t sell you daughter into slavery. Ignore it.

3. Speak to Aaron and say: No one of you offspring throughout their generation s who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall drew near , one who is blind or a limb to long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf. Leviticus 22:17-18  Why are they against little people? There are people with broken legs in my church as I write.  This is not an acceptable position for a church. You will get sued.  People will leave and go elsewhere.  Moses, you are clueless.  It’s morally, ethically, and legally wrong. This part of the Bible is discriminatory and stupid. Ignore it.

4. Here’s the thing: you have to be careful when telling people what to read and what to ignore from the Bible.

5. Standing in plain sight, between killing witches and ideas about selling your daughters into human trafficking is this little gem:  You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 22:21) We have to be cautious when riding in on our Old Testament high horses. Aren’t we taking everything out of context, especially when it comes to Exodus? One inch to the left, or right (pun intended) and we all look like mental patients. If the world ever catches on to our contextual reading of these immigrant/alien texts, those in the Old Testament, our credibility might be shot.  It’s worth thinking about.

Aren’t better arguments made from the Beatitudes?  

Richard Lowell Bryant

July 4th Has Everything and Nothing To Do with Methodism

Before you take that empty seat on a float in the July 4th parade, I’d like to point out a few things.  The Declaration of Independence we’re remembering and the subsequent war which followed; John Wesley was against it.  Not only did he oppose the war (back in England) but so did most of the Methodist preachers in colonial America. Our Methodist ancestors were distrusted, seen as Tories or Tory sympathizers in the grand struggle for liberty against the British oppressors.  How can this be true?  Methodists are pillars of countless American communities, purveyors of pot lucks and yard sales; that’s not us.

It is true.  We were the people the Puritans warned you about.  Methodists were circuit riding anti-war radicals.  Unlike their Anglican colleagues, tied to a single parish, Methodists were suspect because they roamed the country side.  Who knows what propaganda they might spread?  Many of the Methodists were fresh of the boat.  Who could trust an English immigrant direct from the mother country, said many second and third generation “Americans”?  Methodists were victims of discrimination over immigration?  (You know what that means don’t you?  You really do have skin in the immigration debate and didn’t realize it.)

Methodists didn’t seem to keen on war or “oath taking”.  In this way they bore some resemblance to the Quakers.  Slaves could not take oaths.  Taking an oath and swearing allegiance to the revolution and the new government was considered a privilege all free born whites should readily embrace.  Not the Methodists.  This made all Methodists (especially the men) persons of questionable character.  In the all important mid-Atlantic colonies, vital to winning the revolution, the Methodists were viewed as an unstable, unreliable fifth column.

Here’s what they don’t tell you in Sunday School, Bible Studies, Sunday Mornings, or on the 4th of July:  Methodists were one of the most persecuted groups of the entire revolutionary period.  “Fined, imprisoned, beaten, and constantly threatened, Methodists – for both religious and military reasons Methodists were openly viewed as enemies of the (American) Revolution.”*  Methodists were one of the first targets of the nascent American state.  People hated us.

Francis Asbury believed his life to be in constant danger, not for spreading the gospel, but because he was a Methodist in revolutionary America.  Other preachers (lay and ordained) such as William Wrenn, Jonathan Forrest, and Joseph Hartley were jailed during the war.   Some were beaten to death and starved in custody.  Today, we would call these war crimes.  Tomorrow, will celebrate the event which put these men in jail with no questions asked.  The event, which we usually celebrate as “good” no questions asked.  Methodists went to jail to preach the Gospel inspite of American independence.  It makes me think twice about the meaning of July 4th.

Witnesses tell us that Hartley spoke through his cell window to those who would gather for worship.  His refusal to say an oath of allegiance and bear arms did not prevent him from preaching.  Jail has never held back the Christian message.

Methodists rubbed the revolution wrong in other ways.  The men, who wrote the Declaration of Independence and were so cautious about guaranteeing individual liberty to anyone but white people, were uncomfortable with men like Freeborn Garrettson.  Garrettson, and others, preached anti-slavery abolitionist sermons during the Revolutionary War.  In states like North and South Carolina, this was a direct challenge to the war effort.  Slave revolts could not be allowed to undermining the continental war effort.  Methodists were enemies of the nation.  From the earliest days of the war, Methodist preaching undermined the institution of slavery.  Colonial America believed it needed slavery while God preferred freedom for everyone.  Methodism’s message was dangerous.

Oh, for the days when it was dangerous to be a Methodist!

When peace came, memories were long and people didn’t forget.  The Methodists lingered and while no longer an obvious threat to national security, their values were seen to be incongruent with the dominant culture of the country forming around them.  They made few friends by warning that excessive wealth was a bar to salvation and condemning the culture of the landed gentry.

To paraphrase the old Virginia Slims commercials, “we’ve come a long way, baby”.  In the blink of an eye we became the Anglicans who despised us and the Baptists who arrested us.  Wow.  I don’t know Asbury’s original plan but I’m sure that wasn’t it.

So when you’re ready, I’ll be glad to talk any time about returning to the roots of Methodism in these United States of America.  Be prepared, some may call it treason.

So what are you celebrating on July 4th?  It has nothing to do with Methodism.   Yet, it defined who we were and the people we became.  I’m glad our ancestors had another point of view.

Richard Lowell Bryant

*Methodism and the Southern Mind, 1770–1810 Lyerly, Cynthia Lynn: New York: Oxford University Press