Wesley’s Means of Grace: Works of Piety

February 12, 2017
by Rev. Melanie Homan

      LHUMC 2-12-2017 Sermon

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(RE) Discovering Grace Sermon Series

“Wesley’s Means of Grace: Works of Piety”

Rev. Melanie Homan

February 12, 2017

 

Matthew 6:5-18

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to God who is in secret; and God who sees in secret will reward you.

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for God knows what you need before you ask.

“Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Your will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts,

as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And do not bring us to the time of trial,

but rescue us from the evil one.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your God will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will God forgive your trespasses.

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by God who is in secret; and God who sees in secret will reward you.

Message

Grace, grace, grace.  “The love and mercy given to us by God because God wants us to have it, not because of anything we have done to earn it.” For the past month, that’s what we’ve been talking about.

Grace is this really important thing that we experience each and every day, and yet you can’t touch it, taste it, see it, feel it, or hold on to it. It just IS.  That makes it hard to know!  I offered the metaphor of a house with a door and a front porch to try to help us in that work of “knowing” grace…God’s love and mercy.

Wesley knew that grace was extremely important and that it was hard to know, so he talked about the means of grace. The means of grace are the things that we do – the concrete things we CAN touch, taste, see, feel, and hold on to – that help us know God’s love.

He split them into two groups. There are works of piety and works of mercy.  These are the things that we do in order to experience God’s grace in our lives.  Chris will dive into acts of mercy next week – those are actions – like feeding the hungry, visiting people in prison, caring for the sick, seeking justice, and addressing the needs of the poor.  Acts of mercy require us to love others in very practical ways, and through those actions, we experience God’s love for ourselves.  We become formed in the image of Christ through acts of mercy.

Acts of piety are those things we do to take care of our inner spiritual life. They include things like prayer, studying scripture, communion, fasting, and Christian community.   Some of these acts of piety are things we do on our own, as individuals, while others we do as a group.

These acts of piety were important to Wesley. Methodists were given their name because of their “method”.  There were a lot of Methods for praying and studying scripture, and such.  But, as important as praying and studying scripture were to Wesley – as much as he thought we should have communion EVERY SINGLE DAY as a way to experience God’s love – he didn’t want people to fall into the trap of only practicing acts of piety.  There were people who were doing just that – removing themselves from the world to develop their inner spiritual life.  They were called “quietists” because they were “quiet”, and he thought they were TOO quiet.

William Law was a mentor to him at the time, and Law wrote to Wesley that he must retire from all conversation for a month. “Neither write, nor read, nor debate anything with yourself.  Stop all the workings of your heart and mind, and stand all this month in prayer to God.  If your heart cannot give itself up in this manner to prayer, be fully assured you are an infidel.”[i]

Imagine that your mentor, the person you most admire, writes you a letter and says “Stop everything you are doing for a whole month and do nothing but pray. And if you can’t do it, you’re an infidel.”

Wesley couldn’t go along with this. He felt that, as people retreated from the world to pray, they were ABANDONING the world, whereas our purpose is to redeem and reform the world.[ii]  He worried that meditation could swallow up all of our time and actually destroy religion.[iii]

Love in action was important. Piety and mercy had to go together.  The inner spiritual life had to be paired with action.  He called it “social holiness”.   At the same time, you can do all the social justice you want – you can advocate for the poor and oppressed – but, if you aren’t pairing it with prayer and scripture and community…then you are also missing out on the fullness of God’s love.

We need both! So, I thought we’d practice some of the means of grace this morning – those things that help us experience God’s love, in a tangible way.

Prayer is one way we experience God’s love, and there isn’t just one way to pray. We have the example from Jesus of how to pray.  His disciples asked him and, instead of giving them a cryptic answer like he often did, he came right out and told them.  We pray this prayer every Sunday in worship.  It’s how Jesus taught us to pray.

We can pray alone. We can pray in groups.  We can pray before meals.  We can pray in the car.  We can pray in silence.  We’ve already prayed this morning, but we’re going to pray some more.   We’ve already prayed with words, so we’re going to pray with images.

I’d invite you to close your eyes, to settle your mind as best you can, (and don’t worry, you aren’t an infidel if your mind wanders). Let images of people you know, or images you’ve seen from the world’s news this past week, come into your mind.  As they do, lift them into the light of God’s love.  If you just aren’t having any images come to mind when you close your eyes, then you can take a look at some concrete images on the screen and you can pray through them.

Oh God, we offer all of the thoughts and concerns and joys of our hearts, entrusting them to your care.

And let everyone say, “AMEN”.

Another one of the ways the grace of God approaches us is through the study of scripture.   We do that in worship together.  If you’ve ever been in a small group study, you’ve had a chance to learn more about scripture with other people.  If you haven’t, I’d encourage you to try out a new class we are starting today.  Ben Bomar is leading it, and it’s a class that will study scripture as we connect our faith to current events.

You can also study scripture on your own. You don’t even need a Bible anymore.  You can go online and find dozens of free Bible translations.  Lectio Divina is one way we can learn from scripture.  In Lectio Divina, we listen to the same scripture passage several times.  We’re going to try an abbreviated version of this.

We’ve already heard part of this passage already. I’m going to read it again and, this time, think about the one word that stands out to you:

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by God who is in secret; and God who sees in secret will reward you.”

Okay. Now, on the count of three, I want everyone to say out loud the one word that stood out to you.  1, 2, 3!  (Reward!)

You could do this in a small group, and everyone would have a chance to share the word that stood out to them…but not all at the same time.

I’m going to read the passage again and, this time, consider this question and how you would answer it: What is the purpose of fasting?

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by God who is in secret; and God who sees in secret will reward you.

What is the purpose of fasting? You don’t have to answer out loud, but how think about your answer.

Then finally, we could ask ourselves, “What is God calling me to do, be, or change because of this scripture passage?” How would you answer that question?

Here’s my answer. It came to me in a church meeting last week, when the question was asked, “If you have ever given something up for Lent, what was it?”  Giving something up for Lent is a method of fasting.  Sometimes people give something up in Lent, other times people add something to their routines during Lent.  The purpose is to draw us closer to God.

In the committee meeting, someone responded that, in their youth, one year they had decided to give up complaining for Lent. As soon as she said it, I thought, “That’s what I need to do this Lent!”  I need to fast from complaining.  I read the news each morning and begin my day by freaking out.  Then, I usually vent about it to someone.  Freaking out and venting doesn’t really make anything better!  So, I’ve decided I’m going to fast from complaining.  I really hope that it brings me some peace and clarity about the best ways to extend love into the world.

So, what will you do? What is God calling you to do, be, or change because of this scripture passage, or another scripture passage?  What might you give up, beyond meat and chocolate, this Lent?

We meet God every time we share in the sacrament of communion. We also meet God when we are together as a community.  Wesley called it Christian Conferencing.  We experience God’s love when we come together and share our lives together – the good, the bad, the ugly.  When we admit that our lives are not perfect and that they are often times messy, it’s the community around us that reminds us that it’s okay.  We come as we are, and are welcomed as we are, because we are a people who believe “that God always has more life to give and we are open to that gift.” (page 107).  Truly, the most concrete way that we experience God’s love and grace, is through the people around us.  We show up for one another and we help each other carry the burdens we bear.

Let us pray: Gracious and loving God, we give thanks for all of the means of grace…all of the ways that we experience your love.  In our prayers, in our study of scripture, in communion, in fasting, in coming together as a community, you keep showing up.  You keep extending your love to us.  And for that, we are forever grateful.  Amen!

[i] Runyon, Theodore, The New Creation: John Wesley’s Theology Today, Abingdon Press, 1998, page 108.

[ii] Runyon, page 112.

[iii] Runyon, page 113.