"Love Sees No Obstacles"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 5/10/1998
John 13:31-35; Proverbs 31:10-31
If we knew with absolute certainty that God remains beside us every moment of our lives, there would be no obstacles preventing us from radiating that confidence. This morning, I want to give a name to the description of the woman found in Proverbs 31. Perhaps by the time I am finished, we will understand how one person, knowing who remained beside her every moment, could not only live vibrantly in the face of every obstacle, but also go on to give us a legacy that has deeply impressed our lives as United Methodists. This morning I want to tell you the story of Susannah Wesley.
Susannah was the 25th and last child of her family. Her father was an Anglican minister who always found himself challenging the current theological conclusions of his day. His thinking was way ahead of its time, but his bishop took a dim view of his insights. Susannah's father was moved from a wealthy parish to one of the poorest. And it was into this setting of poverty that Susannah was born.
To broaden our understanding of the conditions of Susannah's day, an 18th Century statesman named Shelburn proclaimed publicly "that women are domestic animals. It is a serious mistake to educate women because knowledge only makes them restless. The only kind of education they require, is how to sew, cook and do domestic chores." No one chafed at such words because they accurately reflected the prevailing attitude in the society. Susannah's father and mother gave her an excellent education nevertheless. She grew to be a bright and forthright woman.
Because Susannah's father was so controversial in his theological views, he often attracted seminary students to their home for discussions. One of those students was named Samuel Wesley. When Samuel met Susannah, he fell in love with her and it was not long thereafter that the two were married. Susannah became a minister's wife for 45 years, and then a minister's widow during the last seven years of her life.
Samuel took Susannah to Epworth, a parish that was unlike all others in England. Epworth was like Holland in some respects. The people tried unsuccessfully to drain the standing water but they failed. Basically, Epworth remained a cold swamp, dominated by unrelenting fog. The area was virtually cut off from the rest of civilization. There were no newspapers, no libraries, and no cultural stimulation. The mail came once a week. No one was educated. People lived there because that is where they happened to be born.
It was here that Susannah would have a baby every year for the first 20 years of their marriage. She had very difficult pregnancies and the birth of their first son Samuel, Jr., almost claimed her life. And because there was no medicine being practiced, Susannah and Samuel buried ten of their children in infancy or in their early childhood.
In spite of this, they managed to rear six extremely attractive daughters. The Wesley girls were so beautiful that everyone talked about them; but only one had a happy marriage. Susannah had educated them as she had been, but five of them married men of that community who were well conditioned as to "the role" of women. The five were physically and emotionally abused. In fact, while attempting to comfort a woman whose daughter was stillborn, Susannah once wrote, "Sometimes it is better to lose them in infancy than to suffer with them in their maturity."
The conditions of the Epworth parish were most challenging. It paid very little salary. What made
matters worse was that Samuel failed at everything. His people skills were nonexistent. He loved God and in his own way was faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ, but he exhibited no common sense. He tried so hard, but he only succeeded in angering people with his judgments and opinions about them.
As an example of how bitter the relationship between Samuel and his congregation had become, one night there was a riot in front of the parsonage. Samuel had gone to a religious convention. Believing that the Reverend was home, the crowd burned fires, beat on drums and shot their guns until dawn.
Susannah had just delivered a baby hours before. The baby was with a nurse across the street from the Wesley home. In the very early hours of the morning, the nurse had fallen into a deep sleep. Weary herself from being up all night, she rolled over on the infant and suffocated it. Here was Susannah, totally exhausted, up all night from the noise of the riot, a house full of children, her husband gone, and in came the nurse to put a dead baby into her arms.
Then there were the three fires in the Wesley home. It was the third fire in 1709 that has meant so much to Methodist lore. Little Hettie awakened to burning sticks falling on to her bed. She woke up everyone and there was immediate confusion. Once they gathered outside, Susannah counted the children and there was one missing. Suddenly someone spotted little Jackie, as he was known, up in the second story window. Samuel rushed toward the house, but it was so engulfed he could not enter. He knelt to pray for his son's soul while Susannah became busy organizing a rescue operation. She got strong men to stand on each other's shoulders. Jackie was snatched just seconds before the roof caved in. "God must have saved John for a purpose," she later wrote.
The Wesley family never recovered economically from that fire. Samuel's years of labor on his book went up in smoke. Susannah lost all her father's papers and sermons that had become most precious to her. Even years later, people coming to the rebuilt parsonage saw how partially furnished the home was and how poorly clad the children were.
For 45 years, this was the garden in which Susannah grew. Where was the joy? Where was the pleasure? Where was the happiness and the sense of personal fulfillment? And what was the purpose for all of these events? And yet, Susannah loved God more and more with each passing year. She knew who it was that remained beside her. She refused to make judgments about her experiences. Three times a day she set aside moments for prayer, Scripture reading and quiet.
Out of the swamps of Epworth grew this lovely, energy-filled woman. Now we are going to look at the fruits of her life. Susannah's father and mother had taught her self-worth. Think of how impossible such a task must have been! When a person is told all her life that she is a domestic animal and society reflects that image back to her, it is difficult not to believe it. She didn't believe it. Susannah had inherited a lot of her father's defiance of prevailing attitudes.
Once she wrote to her son, John, "It is a peculiar unhappiness in our family that your father and I differ on almost every subject." We can only imagine the tension that must have existed between the two. Samuel was a Tory who favored William of Orange. One night after Samuel had finished praying for the King, Susannah refused to say, "Amen." Samuel, as head of the household, was furious. He demanded that she say, "Amen," but she stood her ground, believing that William was a very self-serving King. Samuel said, "Very well, if we have two kings, we shall have two beds." Samuel left Susannah and the children for a year.
Up to this time, she had delivered 16 babies, so perhaps it was time for a rest! Samuel had a religious convention in London so that may have given him a reason to be away. But when Queen Anne ascended the throne, the two reconciled. The first child conceived after their reunion was little Jackie, who, of course, was John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.
Another example of her assertiveness came when Samuel was away at another convention. The Assistant Minister placed in charge of Epworth could only preach about money. Sunday after Sunday, every sermon was some new exposition about money. The congregation grew weary and started to dwindle in numbers.
Susannah, sensing what was happening during her husband's absence, began holding meetings in her kitchen. And within a few months, the numbers had grown to over 200. The Assistant Minister wrote Samuel about Susannah's activities. Samuel was furious and wrote a scorching letter ordering her to stop immediately, citing that it was inappropriate to hold meetings outside of the church, but even more so because she was a woman.
She picked up her pen and wrote Samuel a long letter discussing all the wonderful things that were happening. Then she said, "If you want me to stop these meetings, you are going to have to give me such an absolute command to stop that I will be absolved of all guilt when you and I stand before God during the final judgment." He did not respond.
Susannah was a teacher who spent 6 hours each day giving her children an education. Their three boys all became Oxford scholars and were published. Susannah had a method she used with each child, a discipline that produced consistent results. It was from this home environment that Charles and John found the seeds to produced a training program for Christians that their critics labeled "Methodism."
Susannah became a self-taught lay minister and theologian. She was responsible for lay preaching in the Methodist Church, without which the movement would have failed. As meeting houses were being established all over England and later in this country, there simply were not enough trained ministers to serve them.
Thomas Maxfield was the first lay preacher. When John Wesley heard what Thomas was doing, he returned immediately to put an end to the practice. Susannah said, "John, I am convinced that this man is called by God every bit as much as you are. Go listen to him before you make any rash judgments." John first listened to his mother rather than to Thomas Maxfield. Once convinced that his mother was correct, lay preachers became a permanent aspect of Methodism.
So, we were given little societies who met in the kitchen, the Methodist name, the disciplines for teaching others and lay preaching all because of the thoughtful faith of this one woman. However, her crowning jewel was her love. She loved her husband deeply. That remains a miracle that should stand by itself! She hurt for him all through his constant failures.
An example of this love became visible once Samuel completed the book that had been lost in the fire. He dedicated it to Queen Anne, received an audience with her and gave it to her. She remarked at how attractive the cover was and tossed it aside unopened. That was how his life's work was received. He was hurt, but Susannah was devastated for him. She once wrote, "He is not fit for the world's business, but where he goes I will go, and where he dies I will die, so be it to me." These beautiful words from the Book of Ruth described her love for Samuel.
But her love did not end there, it extended far beyond the reaches of their home. Susannah embraced the world! So far as she could, she kept herself informed. Where she found the time or developed the inclination to know about people she could never meet, is beyond the imaginations of most. When John Wesley said, "The world is my parish," he was again providing evidence of his mother's influence.
During their 45th year of marriage, Samuel fell off a carriage, lingered for several months and died. Susannah never recovered from his death. She moved to the Foundry, where she spent her last seven years. She had her grief compounded when her firstborn, Samuel, Jr., also died. John and Charles by this time were traveling hundreds of thousands of miles preaching, establishing meeting houses and writing thousands of hymns. She sent for the two of them and the rest of her remaining children so that she could announce that her end was near. Just before she lost the power to speak she said, "Children, as soon as I am released, sing a hymn of praise to God."
Susannah had discovered that all circumstances refine us when we remained convinced that God remains beside us every moment. Because Susannah never forgot that, she produced a love that transformed every obstacle into an opportunity to serve, an opportunity to bear witness to her faith. In so doing, she became the mother of Methodism.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
We come this morning celebrating your faithfulness to us. We come knowing that faith is trusting in what we cannot see. What a comfort it is to know that in our world of relativity and change, your love for us is constantly present. We cannot stray beyond your reach. Our lack of gratitude to you cannot disturb you. Our inability to understand life will not frustrate you. When we learn that our love for the values of this world only postpones the discovery of who we are, it inspires us to look forward to an awareness that is yet to come. Thank you for sending Jesus Christ, who has become the focus of that hope. May his spirit continue to inspire us in all circumstances, so that what you have given us might become more visible. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Always loving and every faithful God, this morning we come with so much thanksgiving in our hearts for your giving us such deep, rich, infinite spirits. You have given us the capacity to teach, to nurture, and to guide each other in ways that enhance the quality of our lives. Within each of us is an incredible treasure trove of yet to be discovered talents and abilities that we remain eager to find and use when our experiences define such an opportunity.
Out of our spirit of thanksgiving also grows our appreciation for the woman who carried us until we experienced life in this world. Today, we honor her in a special way, as our entire society pauses to recognize our collective gratitude for all the songs she sang to us, for the nights she stood vigil until the fever broke, for thoughts she impressed upon us, for the tears she shed when we were hurt, for the times she corrected us -- knowing how hard it is to recover character once it has been lost.
Lord God, may all of us learn to radiate the kind of love that does not count the cost, that does not think of itself as sacrificial, but goes on and on because this is who you created each of us to be. And we are grateful for your Son, Jesus Christ, who came among us to show us and to tell us this incredible truth. It is through his spirit that we now pray the words he taught us to say when we pray. . .