A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sermon (August 28) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Three Simple Rules"

    I don’t know of a whole lot of people who wish that we had more rules than what we already have. Rules often feel like a killjoy. Some of you who just moved here may have already paid a price for not obeying the parking rules in our fine community.
     Some rules seem sillier than others. Here are some random silly rules that people have sent in from all over the country. I’ll list a couple of my favorite ones.
     Here’s a silly rule in Youngstown, Ohio for example. They have a law that says you’re not allowed to run out of gas. Actually, that’s a personal rule I try to live by whenever I drive my car.
     Did you know that supposedly in Oklahoma, it is illegal to have a sleeping donkey in your bathtub after 7 pm? That's a crazy rule, right? 7 pm is just way too early in my opinion.
     In Louisville, Kentucky, I understand that there is a law that says it is illegal to walk down a street, public or private with an ice cream cone tucked in your back pocket. This is one of the reasons I love living in Athens. You can do things like that.
     This is too much fun. OK, just one more silly rule. In Baltimore, Maryland, there is a law that says that you are not allowed to take a lion to the movies. That’s crazy, right? And I am not “lion” about this. I am not “lion” about this. I am not “lion”…
     Well, that’s enough of the silly rules. I actually don’t know if any of these are actually true or not. I found them on the internet. You might want to do some fact checking to see if these laws are still on the books.
     The point is that we can have too many rules. But, imagine if we had no rules. Things would get really chaotic. What if baseball didn’t have any rules? There would be no point in playing the game, right? Rules can be helpful.
     Someone once asked John Wesley, the 18th century founder of the Methodist movement in England, what it meant to be a Methodist. And he basically said that Methodists are Christians who follow three simple rules.
     The three rules are #1) Do no harm.  #2) Do good. And he said the 3rd rule was to stay in love with God.
     Those are easy enough to remember.  #1) Do no harm.  #2) Do good. #3) Stay in love with God. That’s all we need to remember.
     John Wesley said that these three rules summarize what it means to be a Methodist.
     Our scripture reading from Hebrews this morning touch on all three of Wesley’s simple rules to some degree which is why I thought it would be good for us to reflect on these this morning.

Simple Rule #1 - Do No Harm

     The first simple rule is to do no harm. Do no harm. The author of Hebrews gives us some examples of what it means to do no harm. In verses four and five, he warns how dishonesty in a relationship and the misuse of money, can cause harm.
     Of course, there are many other ways that we can do harm to others in addition to dishonesty and greed, but these are two important ones that we need to guard against. If all we care about is getting ahead and what’s in it for me, then we will make things more important than people.
     What does it look like to live out this first simple rule of doing no harm?
     One of the great Methodist preachers was Sam Jones who lived during the 1800’s.  He came from a line of seven Methodist preachers in the family.  Born in Alabama, the Jones’ family moved to Georgia when Sam was just ten. 
     The hope was for Sam to attend college but that didn’t happen since he started to drink heavily.  He thought that by getting married and settling down it would help him to stop drinking, but it didn’t.  He kept on drinking his life away.  Somehow, he became a lawyer but that ended quickly because of his drinking problem. 
     By 1872, he was stoking furnaces and driving freight wagons for a living.  The death of his infant daughter sobered him for a time, before he fell off the wagon yet again. 
     Then in 1872, Jones was called to his father’s deathbed where his father pleaded with him to quit drinking and Sam promised he would.  A week later during a church service, he made his confession to God to turn away from all the harm he was causing himself and others and he became a Christian.
     Sam then became a Methodist preacher in the North Georgia Conference.  Before long, his talent for preaching had him leading revivals in large cities that often gathered over a thousand people.  He later became known as the Billy Graham of his day. 
     Sam was always preaching against sin and hypocrisy.  His message was simple.  He would often say, “The best thing a person can do is to do right and the worst thing a person can do is to do wrong.”
     His most famous sermon was entitled, “Quit Your Meanness.”  I love that sermon title! In that sermon he said, “Just quit your meanness and follow along in the footsteps of Jesus.”
     To be sure, there are many different kinds of meanness.  There’s a meanness that is deliberate, blatantly rude and disrespectful.
      Our family went to a minor league baseball game one year with some friends. We were pretty close to the action, so the players were able to easily hear what people were shouting from the stands.
     There was a guy who was sitting pretty close to us and he was really obnoxious toward one of the players who was waiting in the on deck circle. I mean, it was awkward because the player was only like 20 or so yards from us, and this fan was just being over the top rude.
     His favorite line was something like…and keep in mind that I have to clean up the language to share this with you in church. He yelled out, “You can’t make it to the big leagues because you always strike out. You stink!” And he kept repeating that over and over again.
     Now, my wife isn’t one to make a scene in a public place, but after about three innings of this guy spouting off, she couldn’t take it anymore. So after this guy yelled out, “You always strike out,” for like the 20th time, she yells out, “If you wouldn’t be yelling at him all the time, maybe he could get a hit!”
     Everybody around us applauded because they were tired of hearing this guy, too! My wife is my hero for sticking up for that player!
     Sometimes, “doing no harm,” isn’t easy to follow. We can all be tempted to say something we shouldn’t say or do something we shouldn’t do.
     One of our membership vows when we join the church asks, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”
     I love that question because it reminds us that in any given moment, God’s grace is always reaching out to us to help us do the right thing in any given situation.  The question is if we are open to receiving God’s grace to help us exercise self-control and to do no harm.
     Simple rule #1 is to do no harm.

Simple Rule #2 - Do Good

     The second simple rule is to do good. Our scripture reading gives us lots of examples of doing good. He tells us to love each other like family, be hospitable, do good, and share what you have with others.
     This is a good time for me to offer a shout out to our Monday Lunch crew. For the past several years, they have been doing so much good by providing a hot lunch for the people in our community. Tom Murray and Allene Kilgore help coordinate this ministry and many of you volunteer. This weekly lunch is a very practical way for our church to “do good.”
     Here’s what impresses me the most about Monday Lunch. Often times, there will be construction workers working outside on some project near our church building, and somebody from our Monday Lunch will personally invite those workers to join us for lunch. Isn’t that great?
     That’s living out this 2nd rule of doing good by just being aware of the needs around us and then finding a way to fill that need. Jesus talks about even offering a cup of cold water as a way of doing good.
     I admire people who are so good at anticipating a need and then doing something about it. They inspire me to look for those little ways of doing good.
     Another pastor and I were driving back from a conference meeting. This other pastor asked me if I would mind pulling into the next fast food drive through so she could buy a cold drink. I said, “sure,” and I got off at an exit with a McDonalds.
     I went through the drive thru and placed my order. As I was pulling up to the window, my pastor friend said, “When we get up to the window, ask the person if he has any prayer concerns.” I said, “What??”
     She said, “You heard me. I do this all the time. Ask him if he has any prayer concerns that we can lift up in prayer.”
     When we finally pull up to the window, he takes my money and as I’m waiting for my change, my pastor friend tugs at my shoulder and says, “Ask him. Ask him”
     I said, “You ask him.” She says, “No, you’re closer. Ask him.”
     Feeling a little uncomfortable in that moment, “I said, OK, OK, I’ll do it.”
     So when the guy gives me my change, I somehow got enough courage to ask him to share any prayer concerns with us. I know it was the Holy Spirit, because there’s no way I would have done this on my own.
     Surprisingly, he says, “Well yeah. Actually, I have a son in Texas who lives with his mom and I haven’ seen him for a while. Maybe say a prayer for my son. That would be great.”
     I was stunned that in that brief moment, he had shared such a heartfelt prayer request. It took me off guard. So I said, “I’ll just offer a quick prayer for him now.” I couldn’t believe it. I was praying in this drive thru line with cars behind me.
     Peeking up at his name badge, I prayed, “Dear God, be with Kevin’s son down in Texas. Help his son to know that his dad here in Columbus, Ohio loves him very much. Bless Kevin as well. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”
     After that 7 second prayer, Kevin looked down at me in my car and said, “I really appreciate it. Thanks.”
     As I began driving forward, my pastor friend tapped me on the shoulder and with a great big smile she said, “I’m proud of you. I’m going to make a Christian out of you, yet!”
     That drive-thru experience reminded me that there are opportunities all around us to do good. It also reminded me that we need to be open to those Holy Spirit moments when God nudges us to step out of our comfort zones and to bless somebody’s day.
     We have an incredible opportunity to do a lot of good as a church this upcoming Saturday morning. It’s our monthly “Athens First Saturday” outreach where we meet here at 8:30 in the morning and then we go out to do good in our community and we conclude before noon.
     There’s something for all ages. Now that the Fall semester has started, we are looking forward to having a lot of college students serve with us.
     Many of us wear our red “Athens First Saturday” t-shirts when we serve on these “First Saturdays” to let our community know that we are a church that is seeking to do good in our community. We should change our name to “First United Methodist Do Gooder Church.”
     Join us this Saturday, at 8:30 in the morning as we live out this second simple rule of doing good.

Simple Rule #3 - Stay in Love with God

     Do no harm. Do good. And the third simple rule is to stay in love with God. This was an important rule for Wesley because he knew that when we stay in love with God, it helps us to live out the first two rules.
     What does it means to stay in love with God? The author of Hebrews speaks about remembering God’s Word which we would associate with the scriptures. We are also told to offer our praises to God.
     One of the best ways to stay in love with God is through weekly worship like we’re doing right now. Weekly worship is how we remember God’s Word and offer our praises.
     Sunday morning worship continues to be one of the best bargains in town. There’s no cost. The offering is voluntary. The sermons are halfway decent most of the time. The music is inspirational. And we always offer a continental breakfast with flavored coffee.
     Seriously, Sunday worship is like a family reunion where we gather each week to be in fellowship and to honor and glorify God. If you attend Sunday worship on a weekly basis, you will be able to follow the entire life and ministry of Jesus Christ. You will be in sync with the Christian year.
     Forget about summer, fall, winter, and spring. Forget about semesters. Think about the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Kingdomtide. These are the seasons that matter the most, the seasons that invite us to follow the entire life of Christ.
     Shaping our lives around these seasons of the church year by attending church every Sunday, unless we are sick or out of town, will help us to be the people that God has called us to be. These church seasons will help us to stay in love with God.
     Another great way to stay in love with God is by participating in one of our awesome small groups. Our several small groups meet on various times and days during the week.  
     Their main focus is to give everyone an opportunity to share how they have experienced God’s presence in their lives, especially since their small group last met. We have been calling these, “Thin Place Moments.”
     These groups meet no longer than an hour and fifteen minutes so that we respect your time. We also use questions based on the previous Sunday’s worship theme.
     I have invited on of our small group participants to share how their small group has been helping them to stay in love with God.
(Small Group Member Shares)
      We are able to stay in love with God by attending weekly worship and by participating in a small group where we can share our faith with each other.
     What does it mean to be a Methodist? No, it doesn’t mean you have to attend so many covered dishes per year or join so many committees, or have read all 52 of John Wesley’s sermons.
     Being a Methodist is really just about focusing on these three simple rules:

     Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.

Three Simple Rules
Small Group Questions
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
August 28, 2016

Simple Rule #1 - Do no harm

Share a time when you were tempted to do harm to someone. What helped you to resist?

Simple Rule #2 - Do good

Share a time when you stepped out of your comfort zone to do something good. What helped you to do good?

Simple Rule #3 - Stay in love with God.

Share how you are seeking to stay in love with God. How does your small group help you to stay in love with God?

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