Presented at Trinity UMC, August 16, 2015
Scripture Reference: Ephesians 5:15-20
So be careful to live your life wisely, not foolishly. Take advantage of every opportunity because these are evil times. Because of this, don't be ignorant, but understand the Lord's will. Don't get drunk on wine, which produces depravity. Instead, be filled with the Spirit in the following ways: speak to each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; sing and make music to the Lord in your hearts; always give thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; and submit to each other out of respect for Christ.
What is a Methodist?
The first Methodists were those groups that followed John Wesley's methods for Christian living. John Wesley himself, and those early “classes” and “societies” he formed were part of the Anglican Church. Their desire was to renew the church and bring about a more faithful way of living as disciples of Christ. John and his brother Charles began preaching that God's love and forgiveness are free to everybody...not just the rich folks in the right churches. The religious establishment of the day had become very materialistic, seeing wealth as a sign of God's favor and poverty as a sign of God's rejection. The established church leaders started refusing to allow John and Charles to preach in their churches. They accused them of too much “enthusiasm.” So the Wesley's shared the Gospel message wherever they were welcome: in homes, in prisons and in religious society meetings.
John was initially reluctant to preach outdoors, thinking it almost a sin and against established church rules. When the minister of his home church at Epworth refused to let him speak, he stood on his father's tomb in the churchyard to tell the Good News. But he did more than preach. Wesley knew that without the support of a faith community, people would tend to fall back into old patterns of behavior. Wherever he preached, he formed small groups called classes. A class was made up of about 12 people and had a dedicated lay leader. These lay leaders had some training, but were not allowed to preach. However, they could teach and “expound” on scripture. The lay leaders included men and women, rich and poor. Methodist Societies were made up of several classes in the same area. These were not churches because his intention was not to form a new church, but to reform the Church of England. But because Wesley preached to the factory workers and the farm workers as well as factory and farm owners, many of the people that followed Wesley were poor. They were not welcome in the established churches.
These people who became Methodists were noticed because their lives had changed. They had more than just a momentary emotional experience. Whether rich or poor, they no longer wasted money on drinking, gambling and fancy clothes. They didn't steal. They worked hard and took care of their families. The great innovation that led to the success of the Methodist movement was the formation of classes in which the members held one another accountable for Christian living. Wesley formulated three simple rules for his Methodist societies: Do no harm, do good, and attend upon the ordinances of God. The first two sound pretty simple, but they are actually quite difficult to practice consistently. The third sounds complicated, but is actually quite simple and is the foundation of our faith action. Let's look at each one.
Rule 1: Do No Harm
This is easy to understand, but following it can be challenging. Wesley made a list of activities that could bring about harm that might sound quaint to us today. Many of his specific prohibitions, like not buying and selling on Sunday, had to do with economic injustice. Some had to do with our relationships with other people and some about our relationship with God. Even without a list, we can look at ourselves and ask, What harm am I doing? Is my action hurtful to some one? Is it harmful to my community? Does it waste resources? If we look deeply and honestly at ourselves and at the groups to which we belong, we are likely to find some unintended harms. It takes discipline and insight to live in today's world and do no harm. But isn't that the point of Christian discipleship?
How can we possibly live without doing harm? In his book “Three Simple Rules” Rueben Job makes several suggestions. One is that we can decide not to harm those with whom we disagree; to lay aside our weapons of conflict and intentionally try to find points of agreement. John Wesley says that when we love our neighbor, we will “work no evil” again them.
Wesley also saw the collective harm done by our social institutions. In his day the institution of slavery clearly caused harm and he preached and fought against it. In our day, if we ask who or what is being harmed, the answers are so overwhelming that we feel helpless to do anything: violence, war, racism, poverty, lack of access to basic medical care, hunger, climate change, harm to the environment. The list of harms goes on and it is hard to avoid being part of the problem in one area or another. Problems are complex with no easy answers. All we can do is be intentional about being part of the solution whenever possible.
In today's scripture, Paul reminds us to live our life wisely, not foolishly; to understand God's will; to avoid selfish or self-indulgent behavior; to be filled with the Spirit; and to submit to each other out of respect for our common love of Christ. Do No Harm.
Rule 2: Do Good
Wesley's second rule also seems simple on the surface. Most of us here think of ourselves as good people and we are. What does it really mean to do good? To do good requires seeing a need and taking action. It means not waiting to be asked to help. Often we are so focused on having our own needs met that we are blind to the needs of others. And it's pretty easy for those of us who live comfortably to confuse our desires with needs. For most of us here today basic needs – food, shelter, clothing – are taken for granted, but this is not always true for all of our neighbors. Seeing a need, and doing something about it is what Wesley was getting at.
Wesley is often quoted as saying. “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” Scholars are not certain that this is a direct quote, but it is consistent with his teaching. From Wesley's day forward, Methodism has been associated with good works such caring for the poor and disadvantaged. In her newly released book “Go Set a Watchman,” Harper Lee, a Methodist, described Methodists as being short on theology but long on good works. Wesley believed that through acts of mercy, we receive God's grace. He was clear that doing good was not a means of salvation, but our natural response to the gift of God's love and grace. In the letter of James in the New Testament Christians are reminded to be “doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Faith without action is dead.
So we are obligated as Christians to do good for those around us, in our immediate community. We can do that through our gifts to the church and to charitable organizations in the community, and by volunteering our time and talents to those organizations as well as our church. In a couple of weeks, folks from Trinity are partnering with a group from Central to have a “mini-VBS” Fun Day on Saturday morning August 29 in our parking lot. We can use more volunteers and we would love to have some cookies to give to the kids that come. Talk to Walter or me after the service if you want to be part of this activity. The day before, August 28, our UMW is hosting a group of senoir ladies from Wesley House in Knoxville for lunch and games. The purpose of these activities is to do good by sharing a spirit of love and friendship with our neighbors.
The Methodist Church is organized to do good beyond the reach our local community through our district and conference apportionments and giving to special mission initiatives. This year, churches in the Holston conference collectively gave over $150,000 to be used for children in poverty within the Holston Conference. In addition, almost $55,000 was collected through the Change for Children initiative and mission kits valued at more than $225,000 were sent to Africa. By contributing our small share we are participants in doing good at home and around the world.
Another aspect of doing good is working for the common good, when we put the interests of community or society ahead of our own. An example of this is practicing stewardship of the environment. When we intentionally use less of disposable goods, when we recycle, when we repair, reuse or repurpose things, we are promoting the common good of caring for the environment. These kinds of practices don't directly benefit ourselves or any individual, but indirectly benefit all of us.
We can think of dozens of way to practice doing good – visiting the sick, volunteering, serving civically, helping with church mission projects such as our annual sale. In fact, if we have eyes to see the needs right around us, we can easily be overwhelmed. I feel exhausted just thinking about it. There is so much to be done so what good is the little that I can do? Will it really make a difference? What if I get in over my head? What if all this do gooding conflicts with my other priorities and commitments (like going fishing)? These are some of the thoughts that might keep us from the regular practice of doing good.
In spite of of all of that, I think that the practice of intentionally doing good is good for the doer. It is a form of generosity of spirit. Did you see the article in the Echo this month about the benefits of giving. That was not just about giving money, but about giving of ourselves. When we do good for others, we reap benefits of well-being and health. Read the article.
The awareness that we are the recipient of the unmerited gift of God's grace is what enables us to do good and to keep on doing good.
Rule 3: Attend upon the ordinances of God
I started out with three simple rules. The first two are easy to understand, but may be difficult to practice. The third rule requires a little more explanation, but if practiced, actually enables us to sustain our commitment to do no harm and to do good. Wesley stated the third rules as “attend upon the ordinances of God.” The theologian Rueben Job states it as “staying in love with God.” They are both referring to practicing the spiritual disciplines that Wesley called the “means of grace.” These practices are prayer, bible study, communion, worship and fasting.
Wesley practiced a regular discipline of daily prayer, both private and in public. He used the written prayers of others as well as his own heartfelt expressions. He used external ques, such as the chiming of the hour, to remind him to pray. He knew that prayer is our primary connection to God. Prayer is a way of intentionally putting our mind on God so that we align ourselves with His purposes.
Reading scripture and really engaging our mind and hearts with it is another way we hear God speak to us. Find a translation of the Bible that you like, follow a reading or devotional guide such as the Upper Room, or make a plan of your own. The key is to open your heart and mind to God as you study scripture. God will not let you down.
Communion, the Lord's Supper, unites us as a community of God's people, sharing a common table, worshiping a loving God. It is a means by which we confess our sins, declare our need for God's love, and give thanks to God. Like prayer and bible study, communion is personal, but it is also a shared experience of receiving God's grace.
Today's scripture tells us to “be filled with the Spirit in the following ways: speak to each other with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs; sing and make music to the Lord in your hearts; always give thanks to God the Father for everything...” When we worship together and sing together we build unity in our community – unity that is grounded in the Holy Spirit and that lifts our sight and heart to God. As we know, the Wesley brothers put a lot of time and effort into composing and publishing hymns. Their hymns were a means of sharing the gospel story, of giving thanks to God, and of confessing our sins. Is it even possible to sing together in harmony without experiencing a unity of spirit? Singing together builds community. I am looking forward to our 5th Sunday of hymn singing two weeks from today.
Being part of a worshiping community keeps us connected to God in ways that go beyond the Sunday morning service. In a worshiping community we learn more about living out our Christian faith and we are empowered to do good works of justice and mercy in the world.
Three Simple Rules: you can write them on a post-it note and paste them on your mirror. 1: Do no harm. 2: Do good. 3: Practice spiritual disciplines. So simple. So hard. Rules 1 and 2 are about how we relate to one another in ways that show and share God's love. Rule 3 is about staying in touch with God's love so that we can be who God would have us be.
O God, Awaken us to your presence and help us to pay attention to the practices that keep us loving you. Keep us mindful of the ways these practices keep us in loving relationship with you and with each other as we strive to to do no harm and to do good. AMEN.
Loving God, You are so gracious to us. You prepare the way for us. You watch over us, ever ready to meet our need. You find us when we are lost, comfort us when we are broken, and rejoice with us when we are glad. We are glad today to be in your house and give thanks for your presence among us.
Still our hearts are heavy with the needs of those around us... the sick, the lonely, those who mourn, those who lack adequate food and shelter, victims of violence, war and natural disasters. Open our eyes that we may see the need and open our hearts that we may respond.
Keep safe those who are traveling. Travel with Pastor Robert so that his time away will refresh and renew his spirit. Likewise, refresh and renew the spirit of our church as we seek to find your will for us.
We confess that we do not always do the good that you would have us do, that we do the very things that we know we shouldn't do and that we neglect the very acts that bring us closer to you. Thank you for being there for us in spite of our shortcomings, for forgiving us even before we ask, and for providing through your Son the means of our salvation.
For all your acts of mercy and grace, we give Thanks, in the name of Jesus the Christ. AMEN.
Let us go forth, filled with the Spirit, giving thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. AMEN