Sermon from 6.26.11 “Three Simple Rules: An Epistle to Kewanna United Methodist Church”

Micah 6:6-8

6 With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? 8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

An Epistle to Kewanna

I had trouble deciding what I would preach on today. I had to decide what was essentially going to be my epistle to you. Paul wrote to the churches to which he was going and those which he had already been. Being that this is my last Sunday as your pastor, that circumstance calls for something different than the norm. There are plenty of different ways pastors choose to end their ministry at a particular church. I am going to look to this familiar passage from Micah for inspiration.

This passage points out three things which God looks for from the Christian. To do justice. To love kindness. To walk humbly with your God. That sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? It’s just three things. We can remember that. We can do that. At least that’s what we’ve been told we can do.

Think about some magazine covers you have seen lately. What are some of the headlines and stories you see? Five things every college student NEEDS to know before their first day. Seven foods YOU should eat to get your body ready for the beach. Ten ways your identity can be stolen NOW! Those in the media and marketing industries know that we will take any way we can to simplify or improve our lives. If it can be broken down into its basest elements, we like that. If you can put it in a list, that’s even better. If it is easier, more succinct and familiar to us, we feel we can handle it.

Our faith is like that, too. If we can pick up a book that promises to increase our faith and make us more devoted disciples, we may just run right out and get it. If there is someone teaching a faith that is simple, we might be inclined to pay attention.

There was a book that came out a few years ago called Three Simple Rules written by the United Methodist Bishop Ruben Job. It is a commentary on one of John Wesley’s teachings. It helps to simplify, for the Christian, the life which Jesus came to show us. The first is do no harm. The second is do good. The third is stay in love with God. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? It sounds like one of those article titles from above. It sounds like something that we might just want to check out.

We do this because living our faith–especially today–is hard. Learning about our faith is even harder. There are so many demands upon our time, attention and resources. Given the current economic situation most of us our facing, that just adds to the list of things that take precedent over our faith.

Last semester, my Christian history course covered all the early church fathers and their writings. Theologians, pastors and other interested parties look to these documents because these were the people who thought out and molded the theology by which the church lives today. The only problem with these things is they are pretty boring and daunting for the average reader. You have to WANT to read them, or at least be forced to read them for a grade.

I cannot sit down and read the work of a physicist. There are too many technical and field-specific things to know and understand. I haven’t tried, but I am sure that it would be pretty difficult for me to sit down and try to ingest a book written by Stephan Hawking. Conversely, I don’t think a physicist could sit down and read the works of Luther, Polycarp or Augustine and be much better off.

We love the faith. We love being Christians. We love Jesus. We just find the technical stuff a bit difficult to understand.

The good news through all of this is that we don’t need to trudge through systematic theology to be faithful. We don’t need to have read John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion to have a handle on what it means to be a Christian. Micah points to three things which are required of the faithful person. I would like this to be the lesson I leave with you.

The neat thing–for us as United Methodists–is that Wesley’s rules sync up pretty well with the word from the prophet Micah. Wesley’s first rule is do no harm, whereas Micah says do justice. Wesley’s second rule is do good, whereas Micah says to love kindness. Micah says to walk humbly with your God and Wesley goes a step further with stay in love with God. I thought that was pretty neat. Just as a note and courtesy, I should say that the correlation between Micah and Wesley is not my own. Bishop Mike Coyner shared that with us during Annual Conference a couple of weeks ago. The rest is mine–or God’s, rather.

The passage from Micah opens with the author asking what things the faithful should do to be considered worthy of God. Everything from rams to ones first born are mentioned as possible items to be brought before God in order to cleanse ourselves for God. The belief being that these offerings would make up for the unworthiness of the petitioner–the one who seeks an audience with God. That is some Old Testament thinking, right there.

But even as Micah is in the Old Testament, the author goes on to say those things aren’t needed. The laymen would look at this verse from the Old Testament and think nothing is out of place. We have that mindset about what life was like for the Old Testament faithful. Yet, here we are, looking at a set of three things which are required. If you do these things, you’re good. It’s simple–and we like simple.

The first is to do justice. And what is meant by this? Micah is mirroring things said by Jeremiah and Isaiah. Jeremiah 7.5-6 says, “For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place…” Isaiah says about the same thing.

What does this have to do with do no harm? Bishop Job–remember him from earlier–says “To do no harm means that I will be on guard so that all my actions and even my silence will not add injury to another of God’s children or to any part of God’s creation.” When read alongside the words of Jeremiah, it’s pretty obvious what is being said. Jeremiah mentions justice as not harming God, His creation or His creatures. By doing no harm, we follow the same rules. Doing justice and no harm are synonymous terms for the Christian.

The second is love kindness. Again, Micah is not the only Old Testament voice about kindness. Hosea says. “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings (6.6).” Wesley’s second rule is do good. This should be self-explanatory. In case this isn’t enough, Wesley explains it by saying “there is scarce any possible way of doing good, for which here is not daily occasion.” We do good as our sacrifice. We do good as evidence of our fruit as Christians. When we attempt to use our own efforts as evidence of our own worthiness, we make ourselves into the deities. To do good is to show ourselves transformed by God’s working in our lives through our actions.

This doing of good is no small feat–not when we do it right. We cannot exist only on random acts of kindness. The nitty gritty of doing good and loving kindness comes in when we interact with the people we know–for better or worse. How do we treat those who sit across the dinner table from us? How do we treat those with whom we work? How do we treat those who have wronged us? Those whom we hate or that hate us?

You knew I was going to get there eventually. Love your enemies. The most challenging thing Christians experience on a day to day basis. It’s hard.

How hard is this loving your enemies thing? Let me test you by asking you this: what was your reaction to the death of Osama bin Laden? You have probably seen thoughts on either side of this. Bin Laden was hated the world over. There were celebrations in the streets over his death. Should there have been? Maybe you toasted his death? That’s okay. He deserved worse for what he caused our country to endure over the last decade. My point today is that the Christian isn’t allowed to do it–at least not according to Jesus. We can take him out and trust the grace of God to be enough to compensate, but we cannot dance on his grave. I think this event displayed just how difficult it is to do good, love kindness and follow the commands of Jesus. It doesn’t change the fact that it is what we are called to do.

Why does Jesus command us to love our enemies? It is difficult, for sure, yet we are commanded to do it. Why is this important? This is my theory. It goes to our understanding of God and man. There is God–he is up here. There is man–we are down here. That is the gist. We do not have leeway to make distinctions beyond that fact. We are stuck at this point to draw no further distinctions when it comes to our fellow person. We are no lower than the person who purports to know the Bible inside and out. We are no higher than any death-row inmate or child sex offender. It is our humanity which leads us to draw lines between “us” and “them.” God, on the other hand, is no respecter of persons. Peter says as much in the book of Acts (10.34). Love our enemies? There is no other conclusion which the Christian is obliged or allowed to come. Doing good and loving kindness are how we demonstrate to God we are His.

The third rule is the most important–walk humbly with your God. The question that came up in my mind as I studied this was as compared to what? If you are not walking humbly with God, how else are you walking with him? The proverbs speak of a relationship with God that is humble, and not haughty (their word). Haughty means “scornfully and condescendingly proud.” You might also say presumptuous. To walk humbly with God means that we understand that we are who we are because God is as loving as he is–we are entitled to nothing as a result.

How, then, does that sync with Wesley’s third rule to stay in love with God? When Wesley speaks of staying in love with God, he means to be engaged in worship of, in knowledge of and in service to God. Can one show humility and still display their love for God? I think Colossians can help us understand how these two things are related.

The author wrote, “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving (2.6-7).” The Christian is to live rooted in Him and established in the faith–humble (v.6). The Christian is also to be “abounding in thanksgiving” (v.7)–in love with God. If the early church fathers believe it to be true, and if John Wesley believes it to be true, it behooves the listener to hear.

John Wesley says doing no harm, doing good and staying in love with God are the three rules a Christian should live by. Micah says doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God are the only things required of us by God. Of course, we know that the Christian life cannot be summed up in total by these rules. It is a template. A way forward. Three things you can do to make sure you are a faithful child of God.

So, let us do no harm! Hopefully, this is something into which I do not have to go into much detail. This is an attainable goal–though not entirely easy. This isn’t just a call to be nice to others–though it is a part of it. It also isn’t just a call to love your neighbor as yourself. To do no harm also means to be aware of what we are doing by all our actions. It means being engaged in our lives, aware of what we are doing and the consequences of that doing.

How many of you know someone who is happy to live as the victim of life’s circumstances? Maybe you are that person. These people will watch themselves fall into the same patterns they always do. They go to the same people in order to help bail them out. They look for anyone else to blame but themselves. The gift of life which we have all been given is something they take for granted–or even waste. Talk about being presumptuous with God!

Let us also do good! Doing good is, again, a whole other animal. Whereas doing no harm can really be something done independent of others, doing good is something you must engage with others to do. This makes it uniquely Christian. Christianity–the church–is a community. Jesus gathered disciples. Those disciples traveled the Mediterranean to begin and grow churches full of people seeking God.

The Barnabas Fund is a great ministry of the Kewanna United Methodist Church. For those who may not know, it is a fund from which the pastor writes checks to those with immediate needs. Anyone know why it is called the Barnabas Fund? Acts 4.32-37 recounts the nature of the early church. No one held private property. Everyone put what they had into a common treasury and Barnabas was the apostle who handed the proceeds out as there was need. It was a true community.

You may have noticed I use that word–community–a lot. The church is supposed to be a community. Doing good is important in a community, and therefore important for the Christian.

And what of staying in love with God? This is, by far, the most important of all the rules. If we do not keep this rule, why are we here? We must take care to give God our all in everything we do. It begins with worship. Are we actually here when we are here? Do we actually worship or just go along with the motions? Do we respect the communal nature of the act by insuring what we are doing does not disrupt the congregation–remembering the community aspect? If we are to stay in love with God, we need to worship Him as if we are.

I speak about worship, but that is not all. Do we study His word? Do we spend time with Him in devotion and prayer? It certainly is important to listen for His voice. When was the last time you listened to God? When we do pray, are we truly communing with Him or marking it off our checklist? We could not develop a loving and lasting relationship with our significant other based upon a few brief encounters each week, could we? How do we expect to build a humble, dependent, loving and lasting relationship when we give the same treatment to God? Staying in love with God is a full mind, body and spirit endeavor which we need to undertake daily. Every. Single. Day.

Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God. These three rules do not encompass all that it means to be a Christian. But I promise you that if you follow them, you will do well.

With that, I shall say goodbye. You must know it has been an honor to serve you this past year. You have shown my family and I such gracious hospitality and Christian love. Our thoughts and prayers will be with you constantly and we hope yours will be with us.

So, as with any epistle, there should be a benediction; something to draw the letter to a close. So I will say: may the life of Christ guide you, may the peace of God abide with you, may the grace of God sustain you until we shall meet again. AMEN

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