Rev. Peg Bowman recently returned from a trip to the UK, where she attended a conference at Oxford and did research on John and Charles Wesley. The conference focused on the decline in church attendance and how to reverse it. Historically, upswings in attendance have coincided with increased Christian artistic endeavors that appeal emotionally. Rev. Bowman visited historic Methodist sites in Oxford and London. She encourages prayers for Christians in the UK as they face economic struggles and take in Ukrainian refugees. Rev. Bowman relates the conference insights to Jesus’ parable of the sower – we should keep spreading God’s word despite discouragement. She announces a new summer book club at the church and encourages outreach to immigrants.
The sermon shares insights from Rev. Bowman’s recent trip to the UK, including learning about past Methodist history and encouraging prayers for British Christians facing challenges today. She relates this to Jesus’ parable of the sower, encouraging persistence in spreading God’s word. Rev. Bowman also promotes church programs like the immigrant outreach book club to put these teachings into practice.
I’m going to be approaching today’s Gospel reading through the back door, so to speak, because I’ve been away for a while. I kind of need to do some catching up here first. I have a lot to share with you. First off, I do want to encourage you to consider joining the New Summer Book Club, which just started this past week but is still very much open to new members.
It is not too late to join. It’s a very, I think, a very touching story, and folks who are in it so far are really deeply into it already. Also the group is open to friends and neighbors and family, even out of town friends. I mean, the book club is online, so anybody, anywhere can attend.
Just send me email addresses and I will send out invitations. I know many of you are aware of My Heart for Our Newly Arrived Neighbors, which I chose the book, The House That Love Built, because it was written by a young woman who I think we can all relate to, someone whose heart is moved by current events, but who wasn’t quite sure what to do or where to start when it comes to serving God and helping others. And the book follows her experience as she discovers that she has rented an apartment across the street from Denver’s immigrant detention facility, a place where people are held while they are waiting for their immigration cases to come up in court. And she begins to see the needs.
She sees people who need to be visited, people who are being released who don’t know where to go next are often put out on the street with only what they arrived with– little money, very little English, no knowledge of how to get to where their families are. It’s an inspiring story, and I hope you’ll join us for that. So again, just send me your email, I’ll send you an invitation. The scripture for today from Matthew gives us the reasons why things like this are important.
We who love God need to be encouraged that our efforts in sharing God’s word and sharing God’s love with others are not wasted. We look around at the churches today, and what we see is mostly very discouraging. And the numbers are down, people are not sure what direction things are heading in. And scripture has two replies for this, our scripture for today.
In Matthew chapter 10, Jesus says that whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. And whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones will not lose their reward. And this truth applies to all believers everywhere. There are millions of people today around the world who are displaced from their homes, who are looking for food and shelter and safety.
And this is one of the reasons why the Living Stones ministry is so important and why our little pantries are so important. As we minister to the hungry and the homeless, we are ministering to Jesus. Secondly, the parable of the sower is not meant to be a way to judge our reactions or other people’s reactions to the gospel message. It is meant to be an encouragement for those of us who put time and effort into reaching out in Jesus’ name and sharing the word of God and the love of God with others.
It lets us know that the responses we get, for the most part, don’t depend on us. Our job is to toss the seed. Where it lands, we can’t predict. And if it takes root, that’s outside of our control.
We can be sure that there is good soil out there, and that some of the seeds will take root and flourish. So we keep on keeping on doing God’s will. We keep going. We keep tossing out the word.
And we pray God for a harvest. The fact that tossing seed has been particularly discouraging in recent years. And in fact, in America and Europe as well, church attendance is at its lowest point in decades, maybe even centuries, which makes us stop and ask some questions. Why is this happening? What’s wrong? What, if anything, are we missing? What, if anything, can we be doing differently? And some of you from time to time have spoken with me privately about the low attendance.
And for most of you, my answer has been something like this. Throughout church history, there have been ups and downs, peaks and valleys, in attendance and in effectiveness in the church. And we just happened to be living in one of those downhill slides, which is never any fun. But we can be confident that things will turn around at some point, because historically, they always have.
Which brings me to another thing I wanted to share with you today. And that is a little bit of the trip to the UK that I’ve just returned from. It’s where I’ve been for the past couple of weeks. The trip was not entirely a vacation.
It was fun. I love the UK. But it was mostly what you might call a working holiday. I was attending a week-long conference at Oxford, along with church leaders from the UK and the US, including about five other pastors from the Pittsburgh area.
The focus of the conference was on that very downhill slide we’ve been talking about. The presenters of the conference agree that the downhill slide is an issue on both sides of the Atlantic. But they’re not content to just say, oh, there’s a problem, and leave it at that. The conference asked the question, looking out over the history of the church and the history of these up and down turns, how has the church dealt with downturns in the past? What actions have been effective at reversing a downtrend and bringing things back up again? Now, these are huge questions.
And during the week, as answers began to be presented to us at a rapid fire pace by some of the best minds, N.T. Wright, if any of you have ever heard of him and a few others. Anyway, so these folks, it was like, we all were saying, it’s like trying to drink water from a fire hose, you know, it’s just coming at you.
And I took notes furiously and I have not, I haven’t translated them into English yet. But, (laughs) most likely it will take me to the end of the summer to sort through all this stuff. But in the meantime, I can share with you a few first impressions. First off, I got– Oxford, OK? We were attending at one of the schools in Oxford.
I have never been to any place like Oxford on Earth. Everyone who’s ever been there says the same thing. Oxford is like the world’s biggest think tank. It’s like you feel it when you’re there.
You walk down the streets of the city, and you hear every language on the planet– Chinese and French and African languages and Middle Eastern languages and Ukrainian. I mean, it’s cool just to sit and just listen to the people talking as they walk down the street. Oxford is also a university town in a unique way. Oxford is basically a school of schools under one umbrella.
If you could imagine, if you wanted to make one school out of all the universities in Pittsburgh, If you took the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne and Carlo and Chatham and Robert Morris and jam them all into a space the size of the Golden Triangle downtown, toss in a few restaurants and reinstate the Coffmans, that’s what Oxford is like. All that brain power in one place in a space that’s small enough to walk from one end to the other in less than half an hour. So that’s the backdrop. Now getting to the original seminar, the one thing I wanted to mention– and this may not even be the most important thing, but just sort of jumped out at me as being doable– is that historically, whenever the church has gone from a downswing into an upswing, the upswing has always been accompanied by an upswing in Christian artistic endeavors.
As it turns out, and as we’ve been discovering In current events, politics and reasoned arguments and theological statements do not create positive change. Rather, it is the stories and songs and artwork that appeal to the public on an emotional or experiential level that has a much better chance of being heard and understood and getting past the sociopolitical filters. The artistic endeavors might include, but would not be limited to music, graphic arts, poetry, drawing, painting, fiction writing, gourmet cooking, embroidery, quilting, children’s art, kids are included in this, plays, movies, and even video games. To give just one example, in the mid 1900s, now the previous century, That sounds weird.
In the mid-1900s, which is when churchgoing started to go downhill in Europe– I mean, that trend didn’t hit us until a couple of decades later, but for them, it was around 1950– J.R.R. Tolkien and C.
S. Lewis wrote The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, respectively, both of which were fictional stories that assume a Christian worldview without mentioning faith directly. These stories captured the imaginations of generations, even if the public people reading the books were not fully aware of the biblical foundations. Tolkien and Lewis worked together.
They used to meet at a pub in Oxford called The Eagle and Child and just read each other what they were working on and sharpened each other a little bit. Tolkien and Lewis collaborated to create worlds in which the words of the Bible were taken as a given, not talked about, but assumed. And the writers began– readers began to catch the vision, even if they weren’t fully aware of the source at first. Now, I’ve been aware of this since I was a teenager, because I grew up reading these books.
What took me by surprise at the conference was that another upswing happened in the 1700s. And this one’s of particular interest to Methodists, because it includes the founding of our denomination. The beginning of Methodism was a response to a down curve. In the 1700s, Christian teaching in Great Britain, and to a lesser extent, but also here in the states– they weren’t states yet, but there we were– were being challenged from two different directions.
First, many churchgoers treated the church as a place to be seen, a place to dress up and wear their finest and impress people. And secondly, a quasi-religion called deism became a thing back then on both sides of the pond. Deism is a belief in a creator god who set the universe in motion according to natural laws and then left it to run on its own. Deism is not a Christian faith.
Deists believe in a distant god who is not active in the world. And therefore, deists do not believe in miracles or in resurrection, or in salvation, or in communication to or from God so they see no reason to pray, or to attend church. The famous deists of the 1700s included, but were not limited to, great thinkers like Isaac Newton and John Locke and Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, just to name a few. Now, it’s in this world and to this world, this skeptical and doubting world that John and Charles Wesley began their ministries.
It was this world they were responding to when they wrote and preached. It was for this world that John Wesley wrote tracts and wrote some of the first literature on first aid for the home, for the poor people. It was for this world that Wesley’s Holy Club, as they called it, which they began at Oxford, reached out and ministered to the poor and imprisoned. And it was for this world that Charles Wesley wrote his amazing collection of hymns that we still sing today.
Charles enlisted the help of his generation’s greatest musicians in setting his words to music. And Charles didn’t write the music. He wrote the words. And so he got his musician friends to put the tunes to the words.
And one of those friends happened to include George Frederick Handel. I did not know this. These two knew each other. I mean, you know– you’ve heard me before.
You know I love Messiah. That’s George Frederick Handel’s famous– hallelujah– right, OK. I didn’t know they knew each other. I didn’t know they collaborated.
There we are, OK? So Handel’s Messiah is another example of what this conference was talking about. Messiah, for us, is a very old-fashioned classical piece. But imagine in the 1700s how radical it was when it was first performed. Handel took scripture, the word of God, and turned it into a musical drama, which was verboten back then because you never took scripture out of church, only for use in worship, and singing scriptures in the concert halls in front of the general public in front of the rabble was considered sacrilege.
But the message of Handel’s Messiah, which was taken directly– all the words are directly from scripture– was irresistible to the people. The opening words, Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, says your God. And he continues on, Come to him, all you who labor, come to him, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. set these words to what was then contemporary music, and it touched lives, and it changed the world as they knew it.
As one of the presenters of the seminar said, Handel’s Messiah is a work of Christian apologetics. It comes right out. This is the gospel, and it’s very, very clear. It showed up the flaws in deism and reached people’s hearts with God’s word.
It’s a huge idea, huge idea. And I’m going to continue to unpack all this stuff over the coming months, probably years, a lot of stuff. But the other reason I went across the pond, as they say, was to do some research on the Wesleys, because I wanted to see if there was anything left of their ministries that a person can still feel and touch and look at and learn from today, taking into consider that John and Charles Wesley lived during most of the 1700s, which is the same time that the United States became a nation. When John and Charles were born, we were colonies.
And when they died, we were a country. So they lived through that whole passage of time. And I was thinking, I mean, here in the States, you can still go and see places where the Revolutionary War happened. You can go see and touch and see that stuff.
So is there anything left over that you can see and touch from the Wesley’s. And Oxford seemed like the logical place to start since they both went to school there. So that’s where I started. And of course, the Holy Club started at Oxford as well.
And the Methodists were first called Methodist at Oxford. So I went to see. And yes, there are, pleased to say, places that you can still see and go and touch, both in Oxford and in London. In Oxford, of course, the school the Wesley’s attended, Christ Church College, is still there.
In fact, I went to church there on Sunday. And Christchurch College, one of the buildings in that college– and remember, when you talk about a college at Oxford, that’s one school with many buildings within a larger school with many buildings. So Christchurch College, many buildings. One of the buildings at Christchurch College was used as the model for the dining hall in the Harry Potter movies.
So modern day connections here. So if you’ve seen the movies, you’ve seen what Christ Church College looks like, at least part of it. The chapel at Christ Church, where the Wesleys attended worship and preached their first sermons, is still there. The Christ Church College, where the Holy Club was founded, is still there.
The Wesleys and the Holy Club ministered to the poor. And back then in those days, Oxford was a walled city. There was a wall all around the thing. And at the north gate, the far gate, the opposite end of the city from Christ Church, There was a toll for people entering the city to buy and sell.
And if people didn’t have enough money to pay the toll, they would be tossed into the poorhouse until they came up with it, which, of course, is really difficult to do if you’re sitting in a poorhouse. The poorhouse was a sort of a quasi-jail inside the walls of the city gate. And a remnant of that still stands and can be visited. Oddly enough, the one door into that wall also became the back wall of a church.
They built a church attached on– so you have to go into the sanctuary and then go turn and– and you can find the wall into what used to be the jail there. This is one of the places where the Wesley’s Holy Club ministered to people, was in that jail. Related to that is the city’s prison itself. The prison is much closer to their school.
It’s like about a 10-minute walk. The prison was originally built to be a castle back in the 1,000s. But by the 1,400, it had deteriorated. And by the 1,600s, it had become a prison.
And the prison was finally closed in 1996, almost 1,000 years old, and has been turned into a tourist attraction, which includes a hotel if you’ve got the guts to stay there. [LAUGHS] Anyway, this was one of the primary places where John and Charles and the Holy Club members concentrated their efforts when they were ministering to the least of these. Back in their day, being in debt could land you in prison. And members of the Holy Club made it their job to visit the debtors and other felons who were imprisoned there, to help them in any way they could, to bring food, to bring money where possible, and of course, to bring God’s word and bring the sacraments.
Also in the city of Oxford, you can still see the preaching hall where John Wesley first preached the Methodist message. And catty-corner to that, the Wesley Memorial Church, which still ministers to the people of Oxford to this day. I brought home some brochures from that church. And they’re spread down on the table down in the fellowship hall.
Check them out on the way out and just take a look at what our sister church is doing over in Oxford these days. It’s really, I thought, pretty cool. They’re doing really well. As for London, the church where John Wesley was converted– you’ve all heard the story of how his heart was strangely warmed.
Unfortunately, that building no longer stands. There is a pub there now. But there is a church across the street from where it was, from the same period, that has taken up the job of telling the story. And that church is currently being remodeled, so I couldn’t go in.
But it looks like an interesting place once it’s done. The other place of interest in London was Wesley Chapel, which is the central hub of the Methodist Church in the UK. And John Wesley’s house, which is right next door to it. And I have, again, some brochures and some photos of that downstairs.
The house I found particularly interesting. It was, I think, pretty much what you would expect– simple, comfortable, and packed with lots of books. And he always had a guest room available for visiting preachers. So those are some of the things you can see in London.
But there’s not as much there as I was hoping for. But having said all that, as scripture says, like cold water to a weary soul, is good news from a distant land. And that much I can bring you today. I want to tell you, I want to share with you, that our Christian brothers and sisters in England, whatever their denomination, care about us very much and are very much aware of our lives and they are praying for us.
They know about the smoke fire and the fires in Canada and how difficult that is for people with breathing problems. They know about the issues and difficulties we face as a nation. They know we’re going through some tough times right now. And they care about us, even if they still tease us by calling us the colonies.
They are praying for us. And I want to ask your prayers for them as well. The people of the UK have been receiving many, many refugees from the war in Ukraine. They have a long history of being very generous to refugees, especially during war times.
They are also struggling economically after having left the European Union. You all heard about Brexit, I think, last year. Many of them are very unhappy about that decision. And one of the reasons, and one of my friends told me, is that some of the grocery stores are actually rationing some foods, particularly vegetables, because produce– they used to get their produce from Spain, and they can’t do that anymore.
And the stuff that they usually eat is– I mean, it’s not– they grow their own, but it’s not harvestable yet. It’s like ours now. It’s just starting to come in. So they’ve had a lot of rapid changes in political leadership.
So they have a lot on their plates, too. So do remember our British cousins in prayer. So having said all these things and considering the words of Jesus about scattering the seed, Let’s go to the Lord in prayer. Lord, thank you for the opportunities you give us to learn about you and bear witness to you.
Thank you for your encouragement and inspiration. Thank you for our British cousins, and we ask your rich blessing on their families. We pray that you will lead us to ways that we can welcome strangers in your name, lead us to ways that we can share our faith with or without words, lead us to ways that we can catch the vision the Wesley’s taught and carry it forward into the next generation. We pray for our churches, Lord.
We pray that people who are seeking truth and justice and welcome will find you here. And we pray all of this for the glory and honor of your name. Amen..