Three simple rules — No. 2: Do good

Two weeks ago, during the Democratic National Convention, one of the people who endorsed Joe Biden was 13-year-old Brayden Harrington. Brayden’s talk was memorable because it was difficult for him because he stutters. He was befriended some time ago by Biden, who stuttered when he was a kid.

Even today, Biden occasionally has moments when he simply freezes for a second, or trips over his words. You may have noticed that sometimes I do those things, too. Maybe that’s because when I was a kid, I stuttered.

My first grade teacher immediately noticed it and arranged for me to have speech therapy – a pretty forward thinking thing to do in 1955. Once a week, a speech therapist would appear in the classroom and motion for me to follow her, and I would go away for an hour or so to practice making sounds and saying certain words over and over until I got them right.

That walk from my seat to the classroom door was the longest walk I ever had to make. I felt like all eyes were on me as I was singled out for my weekly humiliation. For a shy six-year-old, having to do speech therapy was even more humiliating than stuttering.

Obviously, the therapy helped. Today I say, “Thanks, Mrs. Schuyler, you did good.” But at the time, I hated it. I benefitted from the therapy, but the embarrassment of it pushed me deeper into a shyness that sometimes still troubles me.

We have been talking about the Three Simple Rules that we inherited from the prophet Micah and from Methodist founders John and Charles Wesley. Last week we looked at rule No. 1: “Do no harm.” Today we focus on rule No. 2: “Do good.”

Obviously, the line between doing harm and doing good isn’t nearly as clear as we might like it to be. The line blurs in several areas we’ve talked about recently.

Six months ago, we shut down the economy to slow the spread of covid-19. This drastic action did slow transmission of the virus. But it also wrecked the lives of millions of people who couldn’t afford to shelter in place without income.

Today, students, parents and educators everywhere are wrestling with questions of when and how they will resume classes. Everybody seems to agree that in-person teaching is superior to online learning much of the time, but not everybody agrees that it’s safe at this time. Same issue with sports, though that debate is considerably more heated – telling you what’s most important for some folks.

We weigh the potential good against the potential harm. From the uproar you hear in every school district and college town, it’s clear that not everyone gives the same weight to good and to harm.

In these divisive days, once harmless things now are burdened with heavy political meaning. That makes it doubly difficult to speak to someone who disagrees with you. Can’t you disagree agreeably? Must you mock and denigrate? Must you always view the other as the spawn of Satan?

I am usually not shy about sharing my opinion of current events, but I’ll never impose my view on you. You don’t have to agree with me. If you don’t agree, I’ll still love you, and I hope you’ll still love me. I think that’s the way we ought to conduct ourselves in all situations.

We have to make decisions similar to these every day of our lives. That’s why these three simple rules offer such necessary guidance for us. It’s also why they alone are not enough. They have to be informed by certain basic values.

It’s interesting that when the Wesleys encourage us to do no harm, they can list maybe 20 specific things we ought to avoid. But when they encourage us to do good – good, as they say, “of every possible sort” – their list is really short.

Basically, it comes straight from Jesus in Matthew 25: Feed the hungry. Give a drink to the thirsty. Welcome the stranger. Clothe the naked. Visit the sick and imprisoned. (Matthew 25.31‑46)

That’s what John Wesley and others did in their so-called “Holy Club” at Oxford College. They were maligned as enthusiasts – or worse, as Methodists. People kept asking them, “Why in the world would you even think of running around trying to do good?”

Perhaps because they had read the Bible.

They had read the Psalms that said, “Depart from evil and do good” (Psalm 34.14) and “Trust in the Lord and do good” (Psalm 37.3).

They had read the prophets that said, “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1.16b‑17).

They had read the letters of the Apostle Paul: “See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all” (1 Thessalonians 5.15).

They had read the letter to the Hebrews: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13.16).

Most of all, they were guided by the example of Jesus himself.

There is a time, related in Mark’s gospel, when Jesus is in the synagogue on the Sabbath, and in comes a man with a withered hand. Jesus’ enemies are watching to see whether he will cure the man on the Sabbath. If he does, they can claim that he was doing work on a day when work is forbidden.

He asks them, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath or to do harm, to save life or to kill?”

They remain stubbornly silent. Jesus looks at them with anger burning in his eyes because they all know that doing good on the Sabbath is never forbidden, because doing good is never a form of work, it is always a holy act of worship, and worship cannot not be forbidden on any day, especially the Sabbath.

So he says to the man, “Stretch out your hand,” and when the man stretches out his hand, everyone can see that it is whole again. (Mark 3.1‑6)

And that, near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, is the beginning of the end. Because some people simply cannot stand it when others do good for anybody because that makes their own deep selfishness look as petty and as depraved as it is.

“Blind guides!” Jesus says. “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”

You’re so scrupulous about obeying the rules that you give God one-tenth of the spices you raise in your home garden, but you neglect the weightier matters that God values most (Matthew 23:23-24).

What are these weightier matters? Justice and mercy and faith. Or as Micah puts it: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God. Or as we say today: Do no harm. Do good. Love God.

Three words are especially important here. In Hebrew they are “mishpat,” meaning justice; “hesed,” meaning kindness; and “halakah,” meaning right walk.

In Hebrew, the words for justice and righteousness both come from a common root word meaning “as it should be.” So you are just when your relationship with other people is as it should be, and you are righteous when your relationship with God is as it should be.

Both are expressions of love. “God loves righteousness and justice,” Psalm 33.5 says. “The earth is full of God’s steadfast love.” Actually, what the Psalm says is, “The earth is full of God’s hesed.”

Or, as the 23rd Psalm puts it, “Surely goodness and hesed shall follow me all the days of my life” (Psalm 23.6).

Wherever you go, God’s goodness and mercy travel with you. In whatever situation you find yourself, be comforted in knowing that God’s steadfast love precedes you and God’s total fidelity will never fade. For we know, as Paul says, that God is working for good in all things (Romans 8.28). Not that all things are good, but that God is working for good in all things.

And so should we. Sometimes a decision is crystal clear. You know what to do to do good. But it is not always possible to know what is the right thing to do. Most of the time we operate on inadequate information. That’s one of the things that frustrates doctors and disease specialists fighting covid-19. It’s familiar, and yet it’s new. Every time they think they have it figured out, they discover how little they really know.

Even when we do have all the information available about any given situation, we still may not know what is the right thing to do. We have to step out in faith, knowing that even if we are wrong, God always gives us another chance to get it right.

When my first-grade teacher first heard that skinny blond-haired kid stutter, she might have just shrugged and said, “He’ll learn to live with it.” But she took a chance. She decided that with the right therapy, I could learn to talk without fear of getting stuck on certain sounds.

She also probably knew that I would be miserable throughout the learning experience. But she decided that the good the therapy would do outweighed the possible harm. Today, I say, “Thanks, Mrs. Schuyler, you were right.”

We take a chance with every decision we make. We might end up doing as much harm as good. But if we don’t try, the good never has a chance.

I have to end with that great quote from John Wesley – not that he actually said it, because he probably didn’t. But he would have agreed with it.

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.

And isn’t that the best you can do?

This message was delivered August 30, 2020, at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas, from Micah 6:8 and Ephesians 2:8-10.

Three Simple Rules — No. 1: Do no harm

Early this summer, Linda and I had our deck replaced. The original was 20 years old and so poorly built that three support posts were rotting away at the base. One way or another, that deck was coming down. We chose to take it down rather than let it take us down with it.

Our contractor was a chatty fellow who made sure we knew he was a strong Christian. I think he was the best witness for Christ I’ve ever encountered in such a way. He was especially interested in talking with us when he learned that we were both United Methodist pastors.

At one point in our talks, the topic turned to safety measures for the pandemic, and either Linda or I mentioned that “Do no harm” was one of the three basic rules of Methodism. He’d never heard of these rules and was intrigued, so we explained them a little.

Turns out, a lot of people have never heard of these rules – including a lot of United Methodists. That’s why Linda and I are both preaching about them for the next three Sundays – me here, she at Ives Chapel. It’s a coincidence, I guess, that we both chose to start this week. But this is basic stuff to Methodists in a time of pandemic and social unrest. I got a head start, though, because I preached them a dozen years ago when the book Three Simple Rules by Bishop Rueben Job was first published.

These three rules are deceptively simple. I say “deceptively” simple because as straightforward and uncomplicated as they are, these rules run deep. They are radical – in the true meaning of the word “radical,” which is to say that they go to the root of things. They go to the essence of our lives with God and with one another.

These three rules are derived from a remarkable passage in the book of the prophet Micah. We don’t know much about Micah’s life, but he must have been a pretty sharp guy. When God spoke, Micah listened carefully – and thank God he did.

Micah begins by asking, “What do you want from me, God?” It’s a universal question, one that gnaws at all of us at one time or another. “I don’t understand what’s going on in my life, Lord. If there’s a message from you hidden in events, I sure can’t figure it out. Just tell me. What do you want from me?”

It’s a universal question, only when Micah asks it, he is acting as a spokesman for Israel, and Israel feels abandoned by God, so Israel’s question to God is almost sarcastic. It’s almost like a twisted version of a certain Roy Orbison song.

“You want burnt offerings? You got it.

Yearling calves? You got it.

Anything at all, Lord, you got it.

“A thousand rams? You got it.

The life of my firstborn?

Anything at all, baby, you got it!”

Micah’s reply comes slowly, deliberately. “God has told you what is good and what God requires from you. Just these things: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.”

Just these three simple things. Three words from God. Three broad concepts that express God’s ideal for human life, the way things ought to be, the way God created us to be, the way God is working to make us be.

These three words are the Be-attitudes of the Hebrew Bible. Three Hebrew words occur here that are key to the message of both Testaments. These words are mishpat,meaning justice; hesed, meaning kindness, and halakah, right steps, or right walk.

To walk rightly with God, you have to be just and kind. To walk rightly with God, you have to deal rightly with others. Life is about relationship. Life is about living rightly with others. And here’s Micah’s point: You can’t fake it. You can’t ignore what God wants and bribe God to accept your behavior.

Your life is your worship. You can’t disregard the rules of relationship out there, IRL – in real life – and then come in here and make up for it all just by singing sweet Jesus songs. If you don’t walk the talk, God won’t be putting up with your jabber.

Two hundred eighty years ago, when they were forming the first Methodist societies, John and Charles Wesley changed the wording a little. Today we express their three general rules this way: Do no harm. Do good. Love God.

These rules are not just part of our denominational heritage. They are part of United Methodist doctrinal standards. They are how we are expected to live today as United Methodist Christians.

“First, do no harm.”

This saying is not, as commonly thought, part of the Hippocratic oath that many physicians take when they begin medical practice. It was not widely used in medical circles until 100 years after the Wesley brothers started using it. Who got there first doesn’t matter. What matters is the intention.

How do you avoid harming people? One way, the Wesley brothers say, is by avoiding evil of every kind, especially the kinds of evil that are most common in society.

They list 16 specific evils as examples of things to avoid. Some of these appear rather quaint today, though all are as counter-cultural today as they were in 18th century England. Taking the name of the Lord in vain, profaning the Lord’s day, drunkenness, quarrelsomeness – nothing unexpected there.

Wearing gold or costly apparel, uncharitable or unprofitable conversation, self-indulgence, frivolous diversions, bawdy songs – about what you might expect from two preachers who are serious about walking the straight and narrow.

But then one that’s still relevant today: borrowing money without likelihood of repayment. And one bombshell: owning or trafficking in slaves.

The Methodist movement was abolitionist from the start. Slavery was always forbidden. Methodists in the American South ignored that rule, of course, and when northerners pressed them on the issue, the Methodist church in America split apart. That was in 1844, 17 years before the country was split by Civil War over the same issue.

See, these rules aren’t so simple, after all, in their application. For example, in his 1760 sermon on “The Use of Money,” John Wesley says we should not earn or use money in ways that cause harm to ourselves or to other people.

Think that through for a minute. If you believe that pornography harms people, you shouldn’t buy or sell pornography, right? What about working in a convenience store that sells it? What about buying other things from that store?

What about buying and selling stock in companies that you know make part of their profit by exploiting their workers? What about buying or selling products made in China, the largest human rights violator in the world? Or buying or selling shirts or jeans made in sweat factories in other countries around the world?

I once knew a fellow, a union man, who was proud to say that he didn’t own a thing that was not American made and union made. But, boy, he said, shopping was hard!

So is living by this rule. Micah doesn’t actually say, “Do no harm.” Micah says, “Do justice.” If you do no harm, you will be doing justice.

Can we be honest here? Our human understanding of justice is pretty pathetic. We throw some crackhead in jail for 20 years, and we call it justice. That’s not justice. That’s human warehousing. Put the problem in a box and when you open the box 20 years later – surprise! – the problem hasn’t changed a bit, at least for the good. Where’s the justice in that?

God has a better idea. Mishpat, the Hebrew word for “justice,” comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for “righteousness.” This common root word refers to the demands of relationship. It means “as it should be.”

Righteousness and justice are about the ways things should be. You are righteous when your relationship with God is as it should be. You are just when your relationship with other people is as it should be.

Sin is the way things are. Righteousness and justice are the way things should be. God wants you to live in righteousness and justice. Do justice, Micah says. Make things the way they ought to be between you and other human beings.

This has both individual and social meanings. Yes, you ought to make things right between you and everyone you encounter face to face. But it goes beyond that, as Wesley is trying to show with his questions about how you earn and spend money. You also have to worry about making things right between you and people whom you will never meet – because your behavior always has wider ramifications and wider effects.

You live in a human society. Therefore, every action we take has social consequences. That’s one reason the mask debate is not about individual rights alone. There are no lone individuals. You cannot think about justice without thinking of social justice. That means righting wrongs and setting things right.

This is usually not a popular position to take, because most societies are organized around perpetuating wrongs, not eradicating them, because powerful people always profit from socially enforced wrongs. Stand up for social justice, in any form, and you are likely to be shouted down, or gunned down, by representatives of the powers that be.

Social justice is about leveling the playing field, creating a truly equal opportunity society. Power likes to keep the playing field tilted its way. Power does not like to be challenged. When power is challenged, people die or simply disappear without a trace.

Yet social justice is possible only when truth speaks to power. The prophet Micah is a champion of the poor who speaks truth about injustice. We don’t know how his message is received, but we do know that other prophets of his time who spoke the same message were hounded to an early grave, as they are still today, in every society, including our own.

Speaking truth to power is hard. So is trying to do no harm.

When you encounter someone who refuses to wear a facemask in your presence, what do you do? It might seem that to do justice, you ought to confront that person – but can you do it in a way that causes no harm, either to the other person or to yourself?

What about politics? Can you have a decent conversation with someone with whom you disagree? Can you disagree without doing any harm? Must you inflict damage with your words? If you can’t do it in the small things, how can you expect to do it with the large things?

What about sending your kids or your grandkids back to school? Is it safe? Can you or anyone else protect them? What’s the right thing to do? What action will do no harm, or will do the least harm?

This is not a political question. If you think it is a political question, you need to have your mind washed out and disinfected. This is an ethical question, a life or death question, a question of right and wrong. This is a question of how to act in the most loving way possible, given the many uncertainties of the situation.

This is what God wants from us. Do justice. Do the right thing. Do no harm. It’s the first of the simple rules we ought to live by. No one ever said it was easy. Pray for the will to do it anyway.

This message was delivered August 23, 2020, at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas, from Micah 6:6-8. 

Think of others

“You have the power to make this thing stop.”

That’s what Steve Stites said recently. If you watch TV news, you’ve probably seen him a lot in the last several months. He’s the chief medical officer at KU Med Center.

Photo by Matt Rourke/AP

Last week, he was talking about obeying public health orders and covid-19. Looking directly into the camera, he said, “You have the power to make this thing stop.”

He meant you and me. Together, we have the power to defang this deadly virus. We can’t kill it. We can’t vaccinate ourselves against it – at least not yet. But we can protect ourselves and our neighbors and keep it from spreading. All we have to do is make a few changes in our behavior.

You know the drill. Six feet of separation. Wash your hands. Wear a facemask. It sounds so simple. Why in heaven’s name can’t we do it?

Well, it’s more complicated than that, isn’t it? The chief complications are government orders limiting the number of people who are allowed to gather, and closing certain businesses where limiting the size of crowds is hard to enforce.

Namely bars and churches. You didn’t know we had so much in common, did you? Most people don’t like to drink alone. Most people don’t like to worship alone. Drinking and worshipping are social activities. They can be done alone, but that’s not how most people want to do it.

The governor of California has barred places of worship from holding indoor services. Some churches have defied the order. “We will obey God rather than men,” said one pastor. “Compliance would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands.”

Really? I don’t recall reading anywhere in the New Testament that Jesus clearly – or even not so clearly – commands in-person public worship gatherings on Sunday morning. We should not neglect meeting together, the book of Hebrews says in one place (Hebrews 10.25). But I don’t think that’s a meant as a command from God: every Sunday morning, plant your butt in a pew or else!

I think limiting the size of services is much preferable to banning worship altogether. But surely the government does have God-given authority to prevent people from acting in ways that threaten other people. And pretending that covid-19 doesn’t exist is probably the main threat to our efforts to fight it.

So why can’t we agree on this mask thing?

In Kansas City just yesterday, national coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx said that this is a crucial moment in out fight against the virus. We have to stop it now. “Wear a mask,” she said. “Protect one another.”

A columnist for a major newspaper said recently, “There are no intelligent grounds for rejecting masks.” But who said intelligence had anything to do with it? Everybody knows the arguments for masks. Some people just don’t care. And don’t think that shaming them will change their minds. It will only reinforce their belligerence.

Best-selling novelist James Patterson says he can’t understand why we’re stuck in this self-destructive debate. He says, “Not wearing a mask is the equivalent of driving around drunk and going through red lights.” That may be true, but plenty of people do both those things even though they know it’s wrong.

When coronavirus cases soared recently in North Carolina, the governor said: “For those who continue to defy basic decency and common sense because they refuse to wear a mask – either wear one or don’t go in the store. The refusal to wear a mask is selfish. It infringes on the life and liberty of everyone else in the store.”

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas is blunt: “Put on a damn mask.”

Kansas City Star sports columnist Vahe Gregorian tells this story:

Masks are mandated in Nashville, Tennessee, but not in many nearby rural areas. So a colleague of Dr. William Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine, experienced this the other day:

Clad in a mask as he ambled up to a roadside produce stand, Schaffner’s associate noticed no one else wearing one. The man running the stand looked him up and down and said, “If you don’t take off that mask, we’re not going to serve you.”

I probably would have said something regrettable and got back in my car. If a business doesn’t require a mask, I don’t go there. Period.

On the other hand, store clerks have been verbally abused, beaten and even shot for trying to enforce mask requirements. And you can’t rely on traditional law enforcement to carry out these mandates.

Only last week, in Florida, where virus cases are spiking, one sheriff ordered his deputies to not wear masks in most situations. He says the jury is still out over whether masks are helpful. Actually, the jury rendered a verdict a long time ago, but some so-called public servants are reluctant to enforce the verdict because of possible political blowback.

Presidential candidate Joe Biden has called for a national mask mandate. “Patriots wear masks,” Donald Trump said the other day. For months, of course, he insisted that patriots don’t wear masks. The only people who wear masks are those out to get him, he said.

Creating chaos and division is not just a Trump tactic. Back in March, religion columnist Morgan Guyton wrote a song titled “Excalibur.” Part of it goes like this:

You think that you have triumphed, Satan.

You think that you can bring the world to its knees

With a virus that makes us turn on each other.

That’s one of the nasty things this virus does. It makes us suspect each other of unknowing treachery.

I can’t know if you’ve got it but you’re just not showing symptoms. You can’t know if I’ve got it but I’m just not showing symptoms. We can’t trust each other because we can’t trust ourselves because we can’t know ourselves. To care for ourselves and each other, we have to assume that each of us has the virus already but isn’t showing symptoms.

In this situation, we have to either avoid each other altogether or be covid-careful when we do meet – all the standard prudent measures and maybe then some. That’s living with appropriate caution. It is not living in fear, as the truly paranoid often claim. It’s being smart, not being blinded by some ideology that demands the denial of reality.

An awful lot of people appear to be living in denial. Denial, as they say, is not just a river in Egypt; it’s also a state of mind. People want to return to what they remember as normal. They want to be free to go wherever they want, whenever they want, without having to worry about observing any rules. They want to do what they want to do the way they want to do it when they want to do it.

That’s why every time states or counties or cities loosen the restrictions on social gatherings, hundreds if not thousands of people rush out to break all the rules and celebrate their new freedom. That’s why thousands of bikers have been gathering in Sturgis, South Dakota. This Sturgis rally is more defiant than some in the past, some observers say. It’s not rebellion against society in general but more specifically rebellion against any sense of social responsibility.

You might chalk this up to pure human cussedness, but I think it’s more than that. It’s an almost militant defiance of the principle of caring for others. I find it very hard to understand. I have long known that it is quite possible for a person to be made in the image of God, to be one for whom Christ died, and still be as dumb as a brick. But stupidity is one thing. Not caring is another. Why don’t people care?

Rex Archer, director of the Kansas City Health Department, says that getting through this crisis will require that we make a cultural shift. We’ve got to move past the clichés of rugged individualism and start caring for one another. If we don’t, we are quite likely to see a social collapse. Some folks wouldn’t mind a social collapse, because that would give them an excuse to consolidate their power. But it would be a disaster for the American dream. It would mean failure of the grand American experiment of self-governance.

We’ve got to make that cultural shift. The key to making it happen is not so hard to define. You know the ingredients as well as I do. They are, essentially, doing the hard thing of putting others first.

The Apostle Paul lays it out clearly several times.

Romans 12:3 and afterward: Don’t think of yourself more highly than you should, because we are all in this together.

Romans 15:1: If you consider yourself strong, you need to be patient with those who are not strong and defer to them, not please yourself.

Philippians 2:3-4: Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourself. Don’t look to your own interests but to the interests of others.

The principle is ancient. It goes back to the prophet Micah: “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?” (Micah 6:8 NRSV)

A few hundred years ago, when they were forming the first Methodist societies, John and Charles Wesley changed the wording a little. Today we express their three general rules this way: Do no harm. Do good. Love God.

The first rule is the one that applies most directly to our response to the coronavirus. We ought to first act in ways that do no harm to others. That’s not as easy as it sounds. Several months ago, we basically shut down the economy to slow the spread of covid-19. It worked. It slowed transmission of the virus. But it also wrecked the lives of millions of people who couldn’t afford to shelter in place until the storm passed.

By contrast, being required to wear a face mask is a small price to pay for beating this thing. Some people insist that a mask requirement stomps on their precious rights. I say, get over yourself. If you care so little for others that you can’t wear a mask to protect them, why do you want to be around them at all? If you care so little for others, just stay home and be with the only one you love – that is, yourself.

You don’t realize it yet, but I have just introduced a new worship series that will start as soon as next week. It’s all about those Three Simple Rules from Micah and the Wesley brothers. They are so simple – and yet so hard. But, as we all know, that’s the way it is when you try to be a loving person. It’s so simple – and yet so hard.

This message was delivered Aug. 16, 2020, at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas.

House of faith – 3

In Matthew 7:24-27, Jesus says:

“Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise builder who built a house on bedrock.

“The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It didn’t fall because it was firmly set on bedrock.

“But everybody who hears these words of mine and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built a house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It fell and was completely destroyed.”


This version of the “house built on rock” saying comes from the gospel of Matthew. Last Sunday we heard a slightly different version from the gospel of Luke.

In both versions, the wise builder, who is a follower of Jesus, builds a house on a firm foundation. The foolish builder, who is not a follower of Jesus, builds a house without any foundation at all – “on the ground,” Jesus says in Luke; “on sand,” he says in Matthew.

Either way, lacking a foundation, the house cannot stand against the storm. If you’ve ever seen the raging waters of a flash flood, you know how powerful water can be. Yet a house can withstand a lot of punishment if it has a strong foundation.

A strong foundation is not just rocks piled on top of one another but rocks bonded with mortar that won’t let go. And what is the mortar that holds the rocks together? That’s what we’re looking at today, in the last of this series of messages on the “House of faith.”

We began by looking at how Methodist founder John Wesley uses a house to describe the way a person comes to new life in Christ. Repentance is the porch and faith is the door. Inside the house, you’ll find religion itself. You move from the foyer, where you are welcomed; to the living room, where you get to know people better; to the kitchen, the heart of the house, where you form deep and lasting relationships.

Last week we described six other rooms in the house where you connect with God and other people, grow in your relationships and serve in the name of Jesus.

Today we look at what holds the house together. As we noted earlier, Jesus is the cornerstone and we are living stones who are being built into this spiritual house (1 Peter 2.4-7). Now we ask, what are the ingredients of the mortar that binds us together?

Because this house is a living community of faith, I want to talk about this mortar in terms of five signs of community health. These are “vital signs” because they are measurements of community vitality. When the vitals slip, the community suffers.

Several years ago the United Methodist Church did a study of what behaviors give life to churches. The study came up with six ways of measuring congregational vitality. We report these vital signs to the conference every week – how many people are in worship, in mission and in small groups, and how much they give financially as well. We can even track how the indicators move over time, to measure how we’ve done.

These numbers measure things that can be measured. What I’d like to talk about, though, are some vital signs that cannot be measured. You may see evidence of them in the statistics we report, but these are notoriously hard to quantify.

I’m going to list five of them. These are among the 10 or 12 that you’ll find in the standard literature from church health advisors such as Adam Hamilton, Jorge Acevedo, Mike Slaughter, Lovett Weems, and Tom Berlin, to name only United Methodists.

I think these signs are especially important to us as we think about rebuilding our ministry after the long lockdown caused by the pandemic. We are in reset mode, and it’s a good time to get these things right as we start out anew.

Here are five ingredients to the mortar that binds us together, five signs of a vital house of faith.

1. Clear mission and purpose

The number one sign, from which everything else flows, is clarity of mission and purpose. We get that clarity from Jesus, of course. When we focus on Christ, and make him the cornerstone of our lives together, we are aligned with his mission and his purpose for us.

Mission answers the question, “Why are we here?” All United Methodist churches have the same mission – to make disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world. But each church does that in its own unique way, according to its unique history and its unique context.

Thanks in large part to my guidance, we have a very generic United Methodist mission statement. I now regret moving us in that direction. I think we ought to sharpen it to better reflect who we are. I’ll return to this in coming days.

2. Culture of discipleship

A second part of our mortar mix is a culture of discipleship. Jesus says, “Follow me” (Matthew 4.19 and many other places). So we are all about becoming better disciples. Jesus also says, “Go and make disciples” (Matthew 28.19). So we also are all about raising up new followers of Jesus.

As we help others grow more like Jesus, we ourselves are transformed. That’s what discipleship is all about. We are changed as we help others change. Not that we do the changing, in ourselves or others. But through the power of the Holy Spirit, we hope to become agents of transformation, provocateurs of change.

You may be thinking, “Me a provocateur?” Hebrews 10.24 says, “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” The Greek word we translate as “provoke” is paroxoosmos´, from which we get our word “paroxysm.”

You know what a paroxysm is. It’s a convulsion. It’s a spasm. It’s an eruption. We are supposed to provoke change, incite change, make change happen. And how do we do that? As Gandhi once said – reflecting Jesus himself – by being the change we want to see. That’s living in a culture of discipleship.

3.  Culture of outreach and service

A third vital sign is a culture of outreach and service. “Go and tell others,” Jesus says. (Matthew 28.19, Acts 1.8) To go out and witness to others, we have to be focused outward rather than inward. Many churches, much of the time, focus inward. It’s easy to fall into this trap. We all like each other. We like the way things are. Why would we rock the boat by introducing new people who might have funny ideas about how to do things? Why, they could force us to change!

Some churches think they are focused outward but really aren’t. They’re heavily into what they evangelism, making converts for Jesus – but it’s just a covert membership drive. They want to bring new people into the church so they can make the newcomers just like them. That’s cloning, not discipleship. Discipleship is allowing God to remake each individual uniquely in whose image? – in the image of Jesus.

4.  Culture of invitation and welcome

A fourth vital sign is a culture of invitation and welcome. When anyone shows interest in learning more about him, Jesus invites that person to “Come and see.” (John 1.39, 1.46) And so we in the church invite others to meet this Jesus we talk about so much. We try to be welcoming, and much of the time we are, but sometimes we blow it.

For example, some churches we use off-putting churchy language, such as talking about their “narthex.” What in blazes is a “narthex”? Only church people know, or care. Oh, you mean the foyer? The lobby? Well, why didn’t you say so? To welcome others, we have to speak their language, not ours.

You know my favorite beef. How many people do you meet on the street who speak Elizabethan English? In so many churches, we prance around with our highfalutin “thees” and “thous,” and think we are so holy, and most people just think we’re just nuts.

And they’re right. King James English has been passé for 400 years. It is past time that we just dropped it.

That may require rewriting some dreadful old hymns, and a couple of good ones, too. Are we willing to do that to be inviting and welcoming?

5.  Willingness to change

A fifth vital sign is a willingness to change. We don’t change just to do it. We change because we are agents of transformation and provocateurs of change. We change because our mission is to make disciples, and to make disciples we have to become better disciples ourselves, and part of being a disciple is reaching out to others on their turf as well as inviting them into our space.

How much are we willing to change for the sake of others? Sometimes we worship the god of personal preference rather than the God of Israel and Jesus Christ. Simply put, we want things our way. Consider it in terms of your favorite candy bar. We like Snickers. If others like Milky Way, they can just go someplace else.

What if you were willing to have Snickers less often and Milky Way more often – or even Three Musketeers – if doing that helped you reach more people? Would you be willing to do that?

What we’re really looking for in our house of faith is an attitude called “holy indifference.” It’s not that we don’t care. We care deeply. But we care about what matters most. We say, “I’m for it as long as Jesus comes out a winner.” Can we cultivate such an attitude?

The house of faith has a strong foundation, anchored by our cornerstone, Jesus Christ. The mortar that holds these living stones together begins with clarity of purpose, out of which flows a culture of discipleship, outreach, welcome and change.

On such a foundation, Jesus says he will build a strong house of faith, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16.18)

Let’s continue to build such a house, shall we?

This message was delivered August 29, 2020, theTenth Sunday After Pentecost, at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas.

House of faith – 2

I once had a dream in which I was talking with a friend. He casually asked me about a certain room in my house, and I was puzzled. “What room are you talking about?” I asked him.

He took me down a hallway that I only vaguely remembered to a door that I had never noticed before. The door led to a wing of the house that I’d never been in, and in this wing were several large and attractive rooms with comfortable furnishings. I don’t remember any details, only that I was amazed. The rooms were there all along, but I never knew about them!

Alas, when I woke up, I learned why I never knew about those rooms. They never existed. It was all a dream.

Sometimes I think the Christian life is a bit like that dream. There is so much more to it than we realize. It’s there all along, but we never see certain doors, so we never enter certain rooms in the house of faith. And it’s not just a dream. It’s very real.

You all know that one of my favorite Christian pop songs is the Audio Adrenaline song “My Father’s House.” Some people imagine that it’s about heaven, but I think that’s a very limited way of thinking about it. I think it’s about the house of faith.

The house of faith is a big, big house with lots and lots of rooms. You can spend not only this lifetime but all eternity exploring those rooms. Every room is a place of adventure and growth.

Last week I spoke about how John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, uses a house to describe the way a person comes to new life in Christ.

Wesley says repentance is the porch, faith is the door, and inside the house is religion itself. When you enter the house of faith, you stand in the foyer, the welcome area. You move into the living room to get more comfortable and get to know people better. Later you move into the kitchen, the heart of the house, where you form deep and lasting relationships, with God and others.

Today we’re going to explore some other rooms in the house. These are six doors leading to six rooms where you can develop a stronger faith.

You’ve heard about these rooms before and, in fact, may be tired of hearing about them again. But don’t think that these doors are old hat. We need to pass through some of these doors daily to grow in our faith. If we ignore any of them for very long, we may discover that the hinges get rusty over time, and a door that once opened easily for us now requires more effort to open.

The first door is the door of daily prayer.

The Old Testament pattern is morning, noon and night. (Daniel 6.10, Psalm 55.17)

Theoretically, I suppose, you could follow this pattern simply by saying grace over breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is true that thanksgiving is an essential part of prayer, but it’s not the whole thing. You really need to do more than say grace

Prayer is conversation with God. If you want to know God better, you’ve got to talk with God. What do you talk about? Well, what’s on your mind? What’s on your heart? What’s bugging you? What excites you? Pray about these things.

Ann Lamott is one of my favorite writers. She has a winsome way of getting to the essentials of things. She’s written a marvelous book titled Help Thanks Wow. She calls those the three essential prayers.

  • “Help me, God!”
  • “Thanks for everything!”
  • “Wow, you’re so good to me!”

When you’re asking for help, feel free to ask for things small and large involving yourself and others. I’ve been asked to speak more about prayer and how it works – and I’m praying about how to best to respond. Prayer is a fascinating, and intimidating, subject.

The second door is regular worship. Ideally, “regular” means weekly, but increasing numbers of people are finding a weekly commitment hard to maintain. Whatever your situation, you ought to be in worship as often as possible – for your own good as well as the good of others.

In these days of pandemic, we have learned that worship does not have to be in person or in this building we call church. What’s important is that worship centers us on God and expands our awareness of others. Left to our own devices, we would all center everything on ourselves. If we don’t worship the Lord our God, we all worship the same idol, and its name is Me.

The third door of faith development is the door of diligent growth.

You know how to plant a garden. You go out in the back yard and you stir up some dirt and you throw some seeds around. Every once in awhile, you toss some water or fertilizer on the plants, and then you wait for the big harvest – or more likely, a big disappointment.

You have to be intentional about growing a garden, don’t you? Spiritual growth has to be at least as intentional as growing a garden. If it’s not, you shouldn’t wonder about all the weeds you encounter, and how little growth you experience.

We’re already mentioned two of the chief means of spiritual growth – daily prayer and regular worship. Frequent Bible study is another. These are among what we call the “means of grace.” These are ways that God blesses us as we demonstrate our love of God and neighbor. They are acts of devotion to God and acts of service to others. God grows us through them.

Spiritual growth is important. The plain truth is that if you are not committed to it, you are not likely to ever grow beyond the last formal study you did – and for some of us that could be children’s Sunday School.

Surveys show that one-third of people who graduate from high school will never read another book in their life. I love books, so I find that thought very sad. Here’s a thought that’s even sadder. How many Christians never open a Bible after their last Confirmation class?

The fourth door of faith development is the door of generous giving.

We’ve all heard the saying, “God loves a cheerful giver.” It’s biblical. (2 Corinthians 9.7) And it’s true. Cheerfully is the only way to give. Still, it’s a thought that some of us cheerfully ignore.

We wonder, “What’s the bottom line?” “What’s the least I can give without making God mad at me?” Truth is, we can’t buy God’s favor. We give cheerfully to God because God cheerfully gives to us. Giving is an act of gratitude. It’s not a bribe. It goes back to the “thanks” and “wow” parts of Ann Lamott’s three essential prayers.

The New Testament standard is generous giving. That’s giving according to what you have, not according to what you don’t have, as the Apostle Paul puts it. The more you have, the more you give. We talk a lot about the tithe, but if you have been richly blessed, a 10 percent tip is pretty cheap. A general rule of thumb is this: Give until you feel good about it. It sounds corny, but when you do it, you know the truth of it.

The fifth door is selfless service. Service is central to our being. We serve God because we love God, and we serve others because we love them, too. As the Apostle John says, we can’t see God, but we can see other people. We show our love for God, whom we can’t see, by how we serve the people we can see. (1 John 4.20)

There is a growth component here, too. The more you grow, the more you serve. And the more you serve, the more you want to serve, because serving feels good. We are hard-wired for relationship with God and others, so we feel better when we are serving in relationship with them.

That’s the secret of service. The server often receives as much from serving as the one who is served. In fact, the server may get more out of it – because serving changes you for the better. The more you serve, the more you are changed. The more you serve, the more you are formed in the image of Christ.

The sixth door is fruitful witness.

Saint Francis is said to have said: “Preach the gospel always. If necessary, use words.”  Whoever said it, it’s a catchy saying, and it’s highly misleading. Words are almost always necessary. You need to tell people why you are serving them. You need to explain your motivation.

Maybe you can get by with fewer words if you’re wearing a T-shirt that says, “Edgerton United Methodist Church, lovingly serving God and neighbor.” That’s a good catch-line, isn’t it? May it’s time to order some new T-shirts. No T-shirt can tell the whole story, though, so a few words of explanation will help people understand why you do what you do.

Jesus tells us what a disciple of his is like. He says a disciple is someone who “comes to me, hears my words and acts on them.” In other words, a disciple is someone who connects with Jesus, grows closer to him and serves others in his name.

Jesus says his disciples are like those who dig the foundation for their house down to the bedrock, and when a flood comes, the waters burst against that house but cannot shake it.

But those who don’t practice what they hear are like those who lay the walls of their house on bare ground, with no foundation at all, and when the flood comes, the waters burst against that house and wash it away.

The house of faith is built on a good foundation. It’s a big, big house with lots and lots of rooms. We’ve explored some of them today. Next week we’ll learn more about what makes the house so strong, the mortar that holds it all together. In the meantime, keep exploring all the rooms in the house of faith. You may be amazed by what wonders lie beyond doors you have never opened.