Recalling The Past, Preparing For Future

Recalling The Past, Preparing For Future

11/21/2016

BY JOANNE UTLEY
Editor, The Vision

“Two hundred fifty years ago, cousins Barbara Heck and Philip Embury invited all who would listen to turn away from sin and to experience the heart warming and sanctifying power of God’s grace.

We receive that invitation anew tonight and open ourselves to God’s wondrous and all-excelling love.”

With these words began the October 12 worship service celebrating the 250th anniversary of the oldest Methodist congregation in the United States, John Street United Methodist Church. The church, now tucked amid the looming structures of New York City’s Financial District and just blocks from the new Freedom Tower, had its beginnings through the insistence of Heck and the preaching of Embury to a small group in his home. The cousins were Irish Methodists who had immigrated to New York in 1760.

Rev. Jason Radmacher, who has led the John St. congregation for the last 13 years, welcomed the gathering and greeted guest preacher, Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton.

“I don’t take this opportunity lightly . . . I am caught up in the history and the simplicity of this place,” said Bickerton. The bishop, who traditionally has traveled with ordination classes from the Western Pennsylvania Conference to Wesley landmarks in England, also had the opportunity to preach during a 200th anniversary celebration of Thomas Coke’s birth in Wales.

Bickerton told the gathering that although we were celebrating the Methodists who have come before, Jesus always encouraged his disciples to look forward.

“There’s a reason that windshields are larger than rear view mirrors,” he exclaimed. “Where are you looking? Who are you focusing on? . . . You need to look around and understand your context.”

He noted that John Wesley probably struggled with the same issues. Wesley was not comfortable preaching in the fields; he enjoyed the view in the rear view mirror.

“God pushed John Wesley out of his comfort zone,” Bickerton said. “There was more Methodist history to be made than what was in the rear view mirror.”

And so Methodism has enjoyed periods of fruitfulness as well as times of great tension. But anniversaries prompt questions, especially as “we struggle in a rapidly changing culture,” Bickerton said as he recalled a seminar in which UM theologian Leonard Sweet questioned whether the church of Jesus Christ – and more specifically the United Methodist Church – would be a part of ministry in the 21st Century.

“Every day is a gift through the grace of God. We have the opportunity to grace someone every day,” the bishop said. “But there’s no guarantee that we can spread that message with vibrancy, purpose and joy unless we put ourselves in the hand of God.

“We need to look ahead and not just behind,” said Bickerton. “Our focus needs to be on what God’s children need.”

The bishop added that God has always empowered the reluctant and promised to walk with them.

“There is one guarantee – that God is ready to use us to be a blessing in the world,” said Bickerton. And as Jesus might instruct: “Go therefore, look in the windshield and remember that I am with you until the end of the age.”

The communion liturgy which followed recalled biblical forebearers like Abraham, Deborah and David, in addition to some of the other early saints of N.Y. Methodism –Thomas Webb, Peter Williams, and Fanny Crosby.

Soloist Michael James Leslie, accompanied by Rolf Barnes on piano, offered two powerful songs of witness, “I Found the Answer” and “We Fall Down.”

The evening came to a close with a reception in the church’s Wesley Chapel Museum.

For more information about the church, please go to their web site. Or to find resources about early Methodism, go to the Commission on Archives and History’s page on the NYAC web site.