Do Your Best...For God


II Timothy 2:15
Preached by Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
100th Anniversary Celebration of the Wesley Foundation
University of Illinois
October 13, 2013

To those who have residence in the church triumphant -- who surround us now in a great cloud of witnesses; to gifted alumni of the first Wesley Foundation recalling now the glories of the past while peering into the future with a faith that will not shrink, to students -- old and new -- engaged in the academic quest for knowledge and seeking wise direction for their lives, I greet you on one of the most high holy days of the first Wesley Foundation.

One hundred years ago -- Oct. 13, 1913 -- our forebears intiated a movement that transformed the lives of students, faculty of this university, America and other parts of the world. One hundred years ago, Methodists attending a state university began experiencing denominational efforts to care for their religious life as the University exposed them to academic freedom, intellectual ferment and life lessons in a multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-national, multi-religious environment. One hundred years ago, we learned afresh that the church ought to be anywhere the people of God gather. And so it happened. A new path over "the wall of separation between church and state" emerged. As a result, the church sought to give Caesar what belonged to Caesar, and to God what belonged to God.

This kind of spirit mirrors the sentiment in II Timothy 2:8-15. Paul is in prison. He cannot physically continue his ministry of bringing Christ to the Gentiles. So he writes Timothy. Issuing two letters from a Roman jail, Paul urges his mentee, protege, disciple and student  to keep the Christian movement alive. "Fight the good fight. Finish the course. Keep the faith." In essence, Paul admonishes Timothy, "DO YOUR BEST...FOR GOD."  Wesley Foundation, this is my word for today and the next 100 years" "DO YOUR BEST...FOR GOD."


Like all books in the New Testament, Paul's second letter to Timothy was rooted in a dream. God's dream came on the heels of a traumatic event on the Damascus Road. Paul's conversion experience resulted in his letting one dream go only to be replaced by another. A man who spent his time tearing down the church now agreed to build it up. More importantly, Paul was told to focus on a group of God's people who were different than himself, religiously and culturally.  Against great odds, Paul ably led the new movement until his activities were seriously curtailed by preemptive incarcerations. But Paul refused to let anything or anyone thwart or kill God's dream.  He passed it on to receptive persons everywhere. On the other hand, Brother Paul knew that God's dream had its best chance of life if he selected the best leadership to articulate the dream and carry it forth. Someone introduced Paul to Timothy on one of his missionary journeys. And Paul was impressed. Timothy was a man of faith. He believed all things were possible with God. And yet, Timothy's deep faith was not rooted in a vacuum. It lived first in his grandmother Lois and subsequently in his mother Eunice.

Passing on "the dream" made its way into the history book of the Wesley Foundation at Urbana.  James Chamberlain Baker, founder of the Wesley Foundation, mentioned a dreamer who set the stage for his creative work.  Lost in the glory of the Wesley Foundation movement, Williard Nathan Tobie's name and dream have been minimized. Opined Baker regarding Willard Nathan Tobie, "his compelling dream in the building of Trinity Chruch was that it might serve the students and faculty of the University. ...I pay my wholehearted tribute to him because of his prophetic vision and undefeatable purpose. Beyond question he belongs high on the list of those who have seen ... that a terrible nemesis that waits for any church which neglects its ministry to the universities..."

Tobie had a dream that a host of witnesses and Directors have made real for 100 years.  In passing, I was surfing the Internet on my Android tablet. After putting in the name of Willard Nathan Tobie, out came his name on A book entitled Studies in the Atonement by Willard Nathan Tobie is being sold for $15.19. The ad described it as an exact reproduction of a book published before 1923. "Is that the same dreamerthat saw in his mind's eye the first Wesley Foundation?" I asked myself. I know not; but God knows.

God's dream for the Gentiles and Willard Nathan Tobie's dream for students at the university reminded us of the power of dreams. So did America recently. The 50th anniversary celebration of the March on Washington compelled folk to gather, to remember, to pray and to ring bells. At its best, the March on Washington compelled this nation and the world to remember a King. "I have a dream..." A dream that dealt with bringing folk together. To serve students and faculty of the present age and the next 100 years, sons and daughters, old and young men of the Wesley Foundation will have to "prophesy, dream dreams and see visions" of new and ever changing days in the life of the Wesley Foundation's ministry. Fewer and fewer persons we serve on campus are raised in the church or know anything about it. Fewer and fewer students may see the value of fasting or the rite of Holy Communion. More and more students may see community peering into a screen viewing online worship or coversation in blogs, emails, text messages, Facebook or Twitter.

James Baker said as much as he reflected on the work and witness of his successor, Dr. Paul Burt. "...the term foundation has justified itself as the work at Urbana has gone new things have been dreamed and done" (p. 65). To do your best for this Wesley Foundation, brother Dan King Crede, you've got to keep dreaming God-inspired dreams that effectively serve God's poeple in this campus ministry. Proverbs 13:12 is right -- "Hope deferred makes the heart sick; but a dream fulfilled is a tree of life."


Not long ago, this Wesley Foundation posted an ad for a new Associate Director. Interviews resulted in the selection of the Rev. Julie Dowler. Then, the Board requested that the Bishop appoint Dowler to this position. I did. And you have put her to work. In so doing, the Wesley Foundation engaged in a practice ancient and modern, sacred and secular, that is, the selection of leadership. On leadership, especially gifted leadership, the present and future of numerous human enterprises hang in the balance. Said differently, every Bishop and Cabinet knows that appointing the right pastor to a church significantly increases the chances that ministry at a given church will flourish and grow like seed in fertile soil.

Your first Director devoted a chapter in his book on this very subject. It is entitled The First Wesley Foundation. Baker served 21 years and Burt 31. Each man brought his unique ideas to his work. But each Director kept the main thing the main thing. They focused on strengthening the religious life of students and faculty. Looking back, James Baker labeled Dr. Burt's selection as his successor "providential" or a God thing. The Personnel Committee selected an outsider. He lived in New York. He had little or no contact with the Wesley Foundation. Reflecting on Dr. Burt's tenure of 31 years, Baker detailed how he sensed God's providence in his successor.

Burt was "well trained, open-minded, forward-looking, socially-aware, (a dyed-in-the-wool Methodist), a good preacher and a young man." People heard him gladly.  Another observation moved me. "His pastoral prayers have been as central and as powerful as his sermons," remarked Bishop Baker. "Perhaps these prayers have been the most important part of his ministry." A powerful ministry led by a man of prayer. If that be true, such leadership pleased God.

The Apostle Paul had no Personnel Committee, HR Department or newspaper ads devoted to selecting his successor. Finding another leader to fulfill God's dream for the Gentiles seemed like looking for a needle in a haystack. But Paul got it done. His labels of Timothy mirrored the kind of portrait Baker drew of Burt. It was providential. First of all, Timothy was a scholar and a teacher. He earned a reputation as an expert on the Septuagint, the Hebrew Scriptures in Greek. Out of the classroom,Timothy had great expertise in building churches, faith development, conflict management, visioning sessions for the future and a pastoral heart. Timothy earned these compliments from Paul. Paul had a pastoral heart, an entrepreneurial spirit and was a Greek and Hebrew scholar second to none. According to Paul, Timothy possessed the skills of a great teacher, a true workman, student, disciple of Jesus Christ, effective writer and speaker.

Personally, Paul spoke of Timothy as "my child" or "my true child in the faith." Virtually every book that Paul wrote in the New Testament, he listed Timothy as co-author. Best of all, Paul made this claim about Timothy's work in his letter to the Philippians, "I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned about your welfare" (Philippians 2:20). Given this resume, the Personnel Committee could hire Timothy ot lead the Wesley Foundation any day.

John Wesley, our founder, reminded me of a historical dynamic in campus ministry and ministry in general. Top down or bottom up, campus ministry can be successfully established. It may be said that Oxford University  was the first site of a primitive version of the Wesley Foundation. It had no denominational impetus, funding or facility. Nor did it have the backing of the University. I'm talking about the Oxford University-based Holy Club founded in 1729 -- 284 years ago. It was created "of, by and for students" as a way to care for their religious life. And John Wesley functioned as the heartbeat of that movement. Members of the Holy Club met for prayer and Bible study. Holy Communion and fasting were included in their spiritual practices. Beyond the campus, they visited debtors and convicted felons in Castle Prison and the city jail in Northgate. Poor families received food baskets and their children personal tutors. Of course, the Holy Club gathered in small groups to study and help one another with their own academic work. The Holy Club must be labeled a grass roots movement. We'd call it campus ministry.

Lest we deify Wesley's devotion to ministry, the spiritual practices of the Holy Club never claimed him every moment on campus. At 17, John Wesley entered Christ Church College in 1720. Four years later, Wesley graduated, no Holy Club. He was 21 years old and the year was 1724.  Two years later, at age 23, John became a big man on the campus of Lincoln College, Oxford University in 1726. Wesley received a prestigious fellowship as a scholar. A Lincoln Fellow, he was. His fellowship provided room and board, students were to teach and a yearly stipend would be provided for life as long as he never married. No Holy Club mentioned. 

In 1729, and at age 26, Charles Wesley asked his brother John to join the Holy Club when he returned to campus for teaching duties. Under his leadership, the Holy Club flourished.  What's the point? Knowledge alone failed to meet the needs of students like John and Charles Wesley. They hungered for the "bread of life." If the ministry of the Holy Club is not a spitting image of one aspect of the work of the Wesley Foundation movement, I don't know what is. To do your best for God in selecting the right leadership, you need help. "From whence cometh our help? Our help cometh from the Lord who made heaven and earth" (Psalm 121:1-2).


What did Paul and Timothy do that turned out to be the best for God and humankind? How did the world become a better place?

  • Paul ceased terrorizing followers of the Way. No more breaking into their houses and carting them off to jail.
  • Paul and Timothy worked for the unity of the church. Circumcision was not supported as a membership requirement.
  • Paul and Timothy carried out a teaching ministry in and outside the church.
  • Paul shared his testimony of how God changed his life on teh Damascus Road.
  • Paul started a lot of churches and developed "principled, Christian leaders for the church and the world.  Gentiles were touched, transformed and helped by this good news of the gospel.

How about students under the care of the Wesley Foundation?

In 1949, the late Dr. Howard Thurman wrote a little book entitled Jesus and the Disinherited. One of his major insights has stayed with me night and day: "If the majority church wanted to be relevant to the 'disinherited' in their midst, a telling question must be answered," he said. "What does the gospel have to say to the man or woman who lives with their backs against the wall?" A question like that has challenged the very heart of campus ministry decade after decade -- What does the gospel have to say to students who live with their backs against the wall?

To be sure, college and university life can be a good life. I know.  Parents are not around. Wall-to-wall peers are everywhere, delighting both sight and imagination. Professors at the top of their craft evoke genuine admiration. On and off-campus activities come and go with hardly a moment to sample them. Given the freedom students feel entering college and the opportunities to make a gaggle of choices, they soon learn that the expectations from home, the school or University, plus the expectations they have of themselves have them against the wall, metaphorically speaking. If they need help and the Wesley Foundation sees itself as one resource for students, are you really prepared to help?

Some students today are Nones (not Nuns). One study says that one-third of Americans are Nones, ages 18 to 29. They pray but do not believe in God. Is any aspect of your ministry for them? They are in every student body.

So are the Millennials. Some of them are leaving the church. Millennials don't think we can handle tough faith questions without labeling them as heretics or "strange birds." Some of them think politics and arguments around human sexuality consume too much of our time. Rachel Held Evans, who wrote an article for CNN entitled, Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church, claims there is one ultimate bottom line: "We're leaving the church because we don't find Jesus there." What good news of the gospel can we share with the Nones and the Millennials?

Other students are wrestling with personal problems not denominational questions. For instance, what does the gospel have to say to these laments:

  • "I am struggling with my identity."
  • "No one really understands my faith crisis. I feel lost in this strange land. I'm from Korea."
  • "I'm down to my last $20."
  • "My parents got divorced; then my mother died."
  • "No one wants to date me."
  • "I lost my boyfriend."
  • "Please keep this a secret. I am with child." My parents don't know.
  • Competing academically with so many smart people is difficult.
  • Flunking out of school is a real possibility. How can I explain this failure and money wasted to my friends and family?
  • Can you keep a secret? I am in love with my Poli Sci professor. What should I do with these feelings?

I pose the question anew: "What good news of the gospel is available for students who live with their backs against the wall by they Nones, Millennials, regular United Methodists, or those that consider themselves students and nothing more?  Give of the best of your service. Love them as God's children. Offer and find them food, drink, clothes, medicine, friendship or visit if necessary. Be "genuinely concerned about their welfare." Pray that when you do all ou can, wherever you can, and as long as you can and it's not enough, you'll give it to God. For you will have done your best for God.


I had my annual conversation with one of my District Superintendents last week. Everything went well. Clergy and laity are responding well to her leadership. As our time ended, she said, "I'll see you Sunday." 

"Okay," I mumbled routinely.

Her next sentence jolted me, "I am a graduate of the first Wesley Foundation," she said. Her face beamed with joy as I sat back in my seat with mouth agape. "Wesley Foundation provided me with a lot of opportunities to lead, elected office among them. I held a lo of different offices such as President and Vice President. I worked under Paul Unger."

And then she added the "coup de grace" to my lack of knowledge. "And he is still my pastor," she said. 

I didn't know that the Wesley Foundation was at work in my Cabinet. Lord, have mercy!

The past, present and future of the first Wesley Foundation were embodied in her testimony. Your dream -- how you select leaders and do effective campus ministry -- lives on in leaders like her and hundreds of others. As I go to my seat, John Wesley's last words give perspective to our first 100 years. "The best of all is God is with us." May it be so for the next hundred!  Amen.