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.

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