Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Rule Two, Do Good

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Romans 12:9-21.

In 1730, William Morgan joined a member of a small group at Lincoln College, Oxford, called the Holiness Club. They met three times a day to read scripture and pray, attended the sacrament of communion as often as possible, fasted two times a week, and sought to hold one another accountable to leading an upright Christian life. The group was under the direction of another student and his brother who was a member of the faculty. Those two were, of course, John and Charles Wesley, and this was the beginning of what was to become the Methodist movement. But, William Morgan did not think that what they were doing was enough to lead a Christian life; he said they should be going out into the city to help the poor and the needy.

On August 24, 1730, John, Charles and William went to Castle Prison in Oxford for the first time, but it was not to be their last. The group was so struck by what they found there and the conditions that the prisoners live in that they began making weekly visits bringing food, clothing, blankets and medicine, as well as preaching and providing communion. This outreach to those in need was to become an integral part of who and what Methodism was to become.

For Wesley, theology was always more about being practical and as such he was more concerned about orthopraxy, which is right practice, than orthodoxy, right belief. We live in a time in which there is much more emphasis in Christianity about orthodoxy, that you have to believe in X, Y and Z, and believe them in the right way, in order to be a true Christian. It’s even happening within Methodism, but that was not what Methodism was or is about. Wesley was concerned not only with what the Gospel says to people, but what the Gospel does to people. In other words, in Wesleyan parlance, once you have accepted Jesus’ saving actions on your behalf, the only appropriate response is to act on that in the world. We have to be working to bring the kingdom of God here and now. This belief has always been a mark of Methodism.

In 2007, former United Methodist Bishop Reuben Job published a small book entitled Three Simple Rules, based on a set of principles created by John Wesley to instruct people, in particular new converts to Christianity, on what they should be doing in order to live a Christian life. Last week looked at rule number one, which was to do no harm, rule two, which we address today, is to do good, and with the introduction that I just gave this rule should come as no surprise. And rule three, which we will cover next week is to stay in love with God.

Under each of these rules, Wesley gave a brief list of things to help illustrate the rule. For doing good, Wesley began with what we would probably think of immediately of what it means to do good, namely giving food to the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting and helping those who are sick or in prison, which is given to us directly by Jesus in Matthew 25. The second was to instruct, reprove and exhort all we have interactions with. Now this did not mean that we were supposed to pound people over the head and tell them how wrong they were, and in the process reaffirm how right we are. Instead, as we will get into it is much deeper and harder than that. The third rule, and one that was very important in the early movement, was to prefer to do business with those who were members of the Methodist movement or were “groaning to be so” in Wesley’s words. And finally, we do good, Wesley says, quoting first from Paul and then Jesus, by running the race that is before us, and taking up our cross daily.

Now of the three rules, in their most simplistic terms, this might be the easiest one to carry out. As was already said, doing good is part of the DNA of the Methodist movement, from the United Methodist Committee on Relief, which does remarkable work throughout the world, to Goodwill, an organization started by a Methodist church in Boston, to our own Good Samaritan food pantry, we are engaged and active in helping those in need. But, just like the rule of doing no harm, it turns out that doing good is not as easy as it seems, because the rule cannot be seen or carried out just on it’s most simplistic level.

Dunbar Ogden was a Presbyterian Minister who, in 1954, accepted a position to become the minister at Central Presbyterian Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. While there he became the head of the local clergy association. It was in that capacity that he received a call on September 3, 1957, from Daisy Bates, the owner and publisher of the local black newspaper, looking for assistance from the clergy to help escort the Little Rock Nine who were set to integrate the public high school the next day in hopes of keeping violence at bay. Dunbar said he didn’t know if he could help, but he would call around. He was met with resistance. Two other white ministers who were visiting said they would be there, but none of the local ministers, white or black, said they could come, even those who supported integration.

Dunbar himself was not even sure what he wanted to do, but after praying he decided that he would at least go down to the meeting place and then make a decision. In the end, Dunbar walked to the school with the children that day before they were turned away by the National Guard. The only clergy member who came out in support of the students, Dunbar remained active throughout that year working on interracial dialogue and community building, but his work of good deed did not go unpunished.

He saw attendance in his congregation immediately drop by more than a third, and it was down by half by the following summer when he was asked to leave the church. Dunbar Ogden was willing to take a stand, one that was not supported by most, and he paid the price for that stand, but to his dying day he did not regret what he had done, and he continues to be praised by those who were there for the work he did, and for the good he did, not only for the black students but for the entire community.

While Dunbar was escorting most of the students to school, 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford had arrived by herself where she was met by an angry mob, which we discussed last week, but two people came to her aid. The first was Benjamin Fine who was the education reporter for the New York Times. Seeing the attacks taking place, the reporters began to sort of form a screen around Elizabeth trying, in their words, to protect her from the hatred that surrounded her. But thinking of his own daughter who was also 15 at the time, Benjamin walked up to her and told her “don’t let them see you cry” and then walked with her to the bus stop.

For his act of kindness, he was excoriated by commentators who told him that his job as a reporter was to remain impartial and detached and that he had abandoned his proper role by becoming part of the story. But he believed he had done the right thing, that his humanity was more important that his job, that Elizabeth’s humanity was more important than his job. He resigned his position at the New York Times the following year.

Grace Lorch was a public school teacher until she married Lee, who was a college mathematics instructor. When that happened, Grace lost her job under a state law that prohibited married women from teaching. On September 4, 1957 Grace had just dropped her daughter Alice off at another school, and, as she was driving home, she saw Elizabeth sitting at the bus stop with the angry mob behind her. Grace stopped her car and proceeded to the bench where she put her arm around Elizabeth and told the crowd that they should be ashamed of themselves. Elizabeth later said she did not like this because she thought it would make the crowd angrier, but Grace waited with her as the crowd dispersed and she made sure Elizabeth was safely on the bus and on her way home.

Doing good is often about more than just doing good actions for those in need, it is also about standing up and saying that this is unacceptable, and often all it takes is just one person to break a mob mentality. Once one person has voiced an objection others feel more free to say what they are thinking, but being that first person is never easy, that, again, is one of the things that makes this rule so hard. As we begin a new school year, and as Samantha prepares to enter kindergarten, I can think of all the things that happened when I was in school, that I often allowed to happen, because let’s be honest children can be mean. When I was growing up, and I know it’s not much different in most places today, the worst thing that a boy could be called was gay. When I was in elementary school one of the other boys, whose name was Paul, was very effeminate, and we tormented him unmercilessly.

Now I know you’ll be surprised by this because of my deep bass voice and remarkably athletic physique, but I was not at the top of the social hierarchy in school. In fact I was pretty close to the bottom, but I was not all the way at the bottom because that’s the spot that was occupied by Paul, or as we called him Pauline. Now I don’t know if Paul was gay or not, although I strongly suspect that he was, nor do I know what happened to him. Knowing that gay teens attempt suicide at 4-8 times the rate of heterosexual teens, I wonder if he made it. And if he did, I wonder about the damage that we did to him in our bullying. One of the true regrets of my life is the way I treated him, and if there was any way to tell him how sorry I am for what I did I would.

Now I tell this story because sometimes people get the idea, and sometimes even I feel, that we ministers get to stand up here and preach from on high and tell you everything you need to be doing, as if we don’t struggle with exactly the same things. Doing no harm and doing good are no easier for me; I struggle with exactly the same issue. I could have been the one to stand up and say that what we were doing to Paul was wrong, I could have chosen not to participate, I certainly knew what it was like to be tormented, but I didn’t do any of those things. Instead I went along with it. No matter where we stand on the issue of homosexuality, we do not have the right to torment people; we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves. I certainly did not abide by that injunction, nor did I seek first to do no harm, and second to do good.

Now, if doing good was easy, everyone would do it. We wouldn’t have to hear about having to do it, we wouldn’t have to wonder if we are doing it, and we wouldn’t have rules stipulating that we should do it. We don’t make rules about things that most people do all by themselves. Doing good is hard, and what makes it even harder is that, as they say, no good deed goes unpunished. Lots of times doing good comes with a cost, sometimes a significant cost. Sometimes we know in advance what the cost will be and sometimes we don’t.

In his heart Dunbar Ogden probably knew he would lose his church, but Lee and Grace Lorch did not know that they would find dynamite in their garage after what Grace had done, or that their daughter would be harassed at her school or that Lee would be called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, lose his job and be blacklisted so that he could only find a teaching position in Canada. Elizabeth Eckford and her family also paid their own price. Elizabeth’s mother was originally not sure if she should allow Elizabeth to go, but agreed knowing that what was happening was not just about Elizabeth but also about opportunities for all blacks, and as a result she lost her job as did the parents of four other members of the Little Rock Nine.

We often act as if things happen in a vacuum, but we know that they don’t, and it is because they don’t that we know that standing up for what is right and doing good is a hard thing to do. Doing good is hard. Being the first one to stand up and say that something is wrong is never easy and never without cost. But here’s the thing. It only takes one to say that things are wrong before others also begin standing up. In fact in studies done about group think, all it takes is for one person to give a different answer, even if it’s a wrong answer, for the spell to be broken and for others then to start saying something different. All of us have in us the ability to do good and the ability to do evil, the ability to stand up for what is right and the ability to stay silent and let things go the wrong way. But it only takes one to stand up and make a difference.

In 2008, the softball teams from Central Washington University and Western Oregon University met with an NCAA playoff berth on the line. Neither had ever been to the post-season before, and they had exactly the same record going into the second game of a double-header. With two players on base, and down two runs, Sara Tucholsky from Western Oregon came to the plate. Sara was normally a bench player. A career .153 hitter, and for those unfamiliar with batting averages, that’s not good, Sara had never hit a homerun, not even in batting practice. So when she came up to bat, no one really expected what happened, for you see Sara hit a homerun. But in her excitement Sara missed first base and as she tried to stop to go back and touch the bag, her knee gave out and she collapsed to the ground in pain, having torn her ACL. Sara crawled back to first unsure what to do.

The umpires told her and her coaches that if any of her teammates helped her that she would be called out and the home run would be erased, although the two runs would score which would tie the game. They could put a pinch runner in to take her place, but again the home run would be erased and the score would remain tied. At this point, Mallory Holtman, who played first base for Central Washington, and was also the conference’s all-time home run leader, asked the umpire if she and her teammates could help Sara. She was told that there was no rule against that, so Mallory called over the shortstop Liz Wallace and they then carried Sara around the bases, having her touch each base with her good foot. When they reached home, they handed into the waiting arms of her teammates.

By doing what they did, Mallory and Liz allowed Sara’s home run not only to count, but also allowed her to score the go ahead run in a game their team lost 4-2. By doing what they did, Mallory and Liz, both seniors, cost themselves and their teammates a shot of playing in the postseason for the first time. They paid a significant cost for doing good, but they have no regrets for what they did.

Doing good often comes with a cost, but it is these situations which make us who we are. It is in these moments in which we live into our Methodist heritage, but more importantly it is in these moments in which we learn to pick-up our crosses, as Jesus commanded, and live into being disciples of Christ. The first rule is to do no harm, and the second rule is to do good. But while important, Wesley says that doing these things only by themselves makes us “almost Christian,” because it is the third rule, which we will cover next week, which unites them all and brings us to a full understanding of who we are called to be as disciples of Christ, so I hope you will join us next week as we explore how doing no harm and doing good are impacted by staying in love with God. Amen.

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