For five or six years in a row, I spent a week every summer as a volunteer counselor at Camp Chippewa. Sleeping at night was much more comfortable the last couple of years, because by then the cabins were air conditioned.
Every week with campers began basically the same way. Start with introductions all around the cabin – first name only. Then, a brief rundown of the rules. Boys, stay out of the girls’ bunkroom. Girls, stay out of the boys’ bunkroom. Always travel in groups of three or more. And so on.
Inevitably, some 10-year-old boy would whine, “So many rules! It’s just like school!”
We all know how restrictive and even life-stifling some regulations can be. But most of the time we appreciate the need for boundaries to keep us from bumping into each other. Even with such boundaries, we often transgress, so it’s good that we pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
In the last few weeks, we have been talking about the Three Simple Rules that John and Charles Wesley drafted 280 years ago, based on three words that God gave to the prophet Micah 2,500 years before that.
Today we express them as: Do no harm. Do good. Love God.
These are not laws or regulations that we have follow to avoid being prosecuted or punished. These are relational guidelines for how to live together. They are statements of intent that express a personal obligation to a loved one. These rules are intensely personal, and they imply a personal obligation to God and to other people.
Micah asks, “What does the Lord require of you?” Just three things, God says. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God.
Three Hebrew words are used here that are key to understanding not only this passage in Micah but actually the whole Bible.
The first key word is mishpat. It means justice. This is the way things ought to be. Justice is what we pray for every time we say the Lord’s Prayer. It’s the way things would be if God’s will were done on earth as it is in heaven. It’s the way things will be when God’s kingdom has come.
The second key word is hesed. It means kindness and mercy of a special type – the type of steadfast love that God shows to us and that God wants us to show to others.
The third key word is halakah. It means right steps or right walk. We ought to walk humbly with God, Micah says. That is, we ought to walk in right relationship with God.
That’s our focus this morning. I want to stress from the start that loving God is more than humming sweet Jesus songs throughout the day. Loving God is about what you doi while you’re humming sweet Jesus songs. If you are inflicting harm and not doing good, you can’t hum loud enough to cover the screams of those you hurt. God’s ears are attuned more to the cries of the oppressed than to the praise songs of the oppressor.
Loving God is a matter of mishpat and hesed, right relationship with God and others. In their general rules of discipleship, the Wesleys put a particular spin on it. Walking humbly with God, they say, means “attending to the means of grace.”
Means of grace are pipelines of God’s grace. I’ve spoken of them several times before. They are activities that open us to God’s grace so that God’s grace flows into us and through us to others.
First on their list, and probably foremost in our minds right now, is public worship. If worship is giving your heart to God, then public worship is giving your heart to God in communion with others who are giving their hearts to God. Virtual, online, worship is an acceptable substitute, when necessary, as it still is for so many people in many circumstances right now. But we all feel instinctively that it’s second best to in-person worship – and that’s why we are gathered here this morning.
Next is the ministry of God’s written word, read or expounded. Listening to a scripture-based message is fine, because it may help you understand the scripture, but reading the scripture for yourself may be even more important. You can listen to only so many sermons before your brain turns to mush, but every time you read scripture, you give God another opportunity to speak to you personally through it.
Two weeks from today I plan to introduce you to a kind of Bible study that I think you will find helpful in these days of pandemic. The covid-19 outbreak has fragmented our lives spiritually and mentally as well as physically. It has left us feeling weak and defenseless and vulnerable in ways that most of us have never felt before.
Reading scripture daily is one way you can combat this sense of fragmentation and helplessness. The Connections Bible Study that I’ll show you is a way to discover the heart of the Bible reading only 20 minutes a day.
Once every couple of weeks, you can meet with others to share insights from what you’ve read. This kind of small-group discussion is another of the means of grace, one that the Wesleys call “Christian conference.” Chris Kerr will lead these discussions, though you’re free to start your own group as well, meeting whenever and however often you like.
Another means of grace is one that we will participate in later this morning. Through the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, we take the very life of Christ into our bodies. Though this sacrament, God communicates with us in a way that is so direct that it’s beyond the limits of our understanding.
Equally beyond our understanding is the mechanism of prayer. That’s the means of grace through which we converse with God. We do most of the talking most of the time, but sometimes, when we pause to listen, we also can hear.
There are other means of grace, including fasting and faith sharing, that I will skip over this morning. John Wesley lumps all of them under the rubric “acts of piety.” Alongside these he sets “acts of mercy,” which are the ways we love God through our love of other people. Together, these are acts of justice – mishpat – and acts of kindness – hesed – and they add up to a halakah – a way of walking with God.
Acts of piety and acts of mercy are ways of loving God and neighbor, as Jesus instructs us in the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with every fiber of your being, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12.29‑31).
Loving God and neighbor is how we worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4.24). It’s interesting, though, that when they speak of it, two prominent early Christian teachers don’t mention God at all.
Twice in his letters to young churches, in Galatians and in Romans, the Apostle Paul says: “The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (Galatians 5.14; see also Romans 13.9).
James the brother of Jesus says the same thing in the letter that carries his name. He says, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (James 2.8).
Have they left God out of the equation altogether? Not at all! Because love of God finds its expression in love of neighbor. Love of God is fulfilled in love of neighbor. Love of God is actualized in love of neighbor. Love of God is made real in love of neighbor.
That’s why God doesn’t seem to care nearly as much about what we do here in church as about what we do outside church, because we’re here only an hour or so every week. It’s what we do out there the rest of the time that shows God’s love to the world and gives God the most glory.
This is what God wants of us, Micah says. Mishpat. Hesed. Halakah. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God. From these three words the Wesley brothers draw their Three Simple Rules to guide the Methodist movement. Do no harm. Do good. Love God.
The whole thing is a halakah, a walk of life, a way of being, a pathway that leads us to holiness of heart and life. It’s a guideline like the straight edge of a ruler. It’s a way of keeping your life in line. The rule shows the straight way God wants you to walk because that’s how God created you to walk – not stumbling from side or side but walking in right relationship with all.
I’ll talk more about this next week when I introduce you to a United Methodist Rule of Life. It is not, as I mentioned earlier, a matter of legalism, of following laws and regulations. It’s a way of behaving because you love someone.
This is the rule that guides your behavior with your spouse, your children, your parents and your friends. Doing harm to one you love is unthinkable. No, you always want to do what is good for them. You want to do what is best for them. It’s not a matter of law, of being required to act this way. You want to act this way because it’s the loving way to be.
“Way to go!” we tell people when they’ve done well. “Way to be!”
This message was delivered live at Edgerton United Methodist Church on September 6, 2020, from Micah 6:8, Jeremiah 9:23-24.