Not long ago the alarm went off here at the church, and I want to tell you my first thought. Since it had happened before, my first thought was to ignore it. I thought, “It’s probably nothing.” So, I continued to work. And then, all of a sudden, I remembered an article that I had read years ago, about the danger of ignoring alarms in buildings. It seems that many of us do that. We hear an alarm or receive some warning and our first thought is to ignore it. Many of us tend to immediately think that everything will be OK, that nothing bad is going to happen to us. That’s our default instinct; a psychological defense mechanism. But when it comes to things like fire alarms, and a lot of other warning signals, that instinctual attitude can lead to big trouble.
So, I guess one basic lesson today is, don’t be that person who ignores alarms. Fight through your instincts and get up and get out. That’s my safety advice, but I don’t think you came to church to hear just that. So, let me tell you that this same tendency can be at work in our spiritual lives as well. It is so easy for us to get wrapped up in our stressful, exciting, busy, and even purposeful lives, and become oblivious to the spiritual alarms that are going off all around us. Amid so many things we think we need to do or want to do, we can be blind to the one thing that we really need. John Wesley calls it “the recovery of the image of God,” That’s what we need. It is an inward transformation from arrogance to humility, from self-centeredness to a living in love for God and all of God’s creation.
In our spiritual lives, it is possible for us to get stuck in a fantasy world, believing that everything is OK, believing that we are free when, in fact, we are imprisoned by the likes of anger and greed and envy, believing that we are at peace, even “as the pit of hell opens its month to swallow us up,” to use an image from Wesley. The alarm is going off, and we often just don’t hear it.
And I’ve got to tell you. Religion can be an obstacle. When John Wesley was preaching, England was in the midst of a great change. It was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The world was changing from an agricultural focus to an industrial focus, from rural to urban. People were flocking into cities and the cities did not have the infrastructure or government processes to handle it. The pressing issues included poverty, disease, education, unsafe working conditions, child labor, sanitation, hunger, drugs and alcohol. Charles Dickens, who was writing at the same time, called this “the best of time, the worst of time.” And what was the attitude of the church? Well, since the church was primarily for those whose lives were more stable, to put it nicely, the people of the church tended to retreat, to lock themselves inside for nice comfortable bible studies and teas. Wesley drew upon an image that Jesus used to describe this, the image of a painted tomb, beautiful on the outside, all nice and clean, but full of dead bones on the inside.
The whole Methodist movement started as John Wesley and others took one hard step, and that step was from inside the church to outside. Wesley was awakened. He looked around and God called him, and many others, to do something. So, these first Methodists started to “methodically” set up systems and processes to make a different. Here’s one example. In a time when education was only for the elite, the Methodists believed that everyone deserved an education, so they set up schools. And since so many of the children they were trying to reach had to work 6 days a week, the only option left was Sunday. So, guess what these schools came to be called? Sunday School. It is the fore runner to our commitment to education for all. That’s one example of how our predecessors literally changed the world.
In the scripture, we heard the Apostle Paul say that we were once in darkness. We were lost. Wesley gives a long list to describe this condition – lost in profaneness, slandering, Sabbath-breaking, gluttony, drunkenness, revenge, injustice, extortion, self-centered egotism – the conditions, he says, that “spread over our land like a flood.” Once we were in this darkness, but now, as Paul says and Wesley echoes, “now in the Lord you are light.” Notice this, Paul says more than that we are called to shine a light. He says, “We are light.” We illuminate “all that is good and right and true.” That’s the description of those who are awake in the Lord.
Sisters and brothers, it is time for us to wake up. The great trumpet of the Lord is blowing, calling us to life, calling us to peace and to joy in the Holy Spirit, to holiness and happiness, indeed to heaven begun on earth. That’s at the heart of true religion. In the third sermon in Wesley’s standard sermons, which is the inspiration for our worship today, it is made clear that true religion is not rooted in anything “external to the heart,” in anything outside of a personal relationship with God. Doctrines, creeds, this building are all important. They are God-given resources for us to grow in faith, but they are not the focus. God wants us all to come to know his love, right here (heart). That’s what God wants for us. That’s what turns on the light that then empowers us to shine with love and peace and joy – in a world that is in such need of these life-giving blessings.
The story of the prodigal son is inspiring at many levels. Most of you know the story. I encourage all of you to read it again. It is found in Luke chapter 15. In this parable, we see a son leave home, with his inheritance, to live it up in the world. He ends up with a job feeding the pigs, who ate better than he was eating. And in the midst of his struggle, Jesus uses a great phrase, to describe what happened to him. Jesus says, “He came to himself.” He woke up. He remembered home. He remembered that he was loved. He said to himself, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son, treat me like one of your hired hands.” So, he headed home, and as the parable goes, “while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion and ran to him and put his arms around him and kissed him.”
That’s the kind of love that we all can know when we “come to ourselves,” when we “wake up.” Deep inside this truth dwells in you. Deep inside this truth is calling for you. To all who need to hear this word today, in whatever way that you need to hear it, “Sleeper awake! Rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you...” and through you. Amen