Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Rule Two, Do Good

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16:

On the night before clergy are ordained in the United Methodist Church, we are asked a series of questions by the bishop, and one of those questions is whether we know the general rules of the church, and what those rules are?  The General Rules were created by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, as the Methodist movement began to spread across England and people began to ask what it meant to be a Methodist?  What was it that we were supposed to believe, what were we supposed to be doing, that made us different from other Protestant groups, and the rules were to first, do no harm, second to do good, and third to stay in love with God.

These rules are found right at the beginning of the Book of Discipline and are still foundational for us as Methodists.  But if you look at these rules you might notice a peculiar thing.  They are not about beliefs, they are about actions.  They don’t say these are the things you need to know and accept to be a Methodist, they say these are the things you need to do to be a Methodist, and that’s because John Wesley was always much more concerned about orthopraxy, that is right practice, than orthodoxy, right belief.  Wesley was concerned not only with what the Gospel says to people, but what the Gospel does to people.  It was not enough to accept the gospel message, or even to proclaim it to others.  We have to be working to bring the kingdom of God here and now, and that’s what these rules help us to do.  Last week we looked at rule one, to do no harm, today we look at what it means to do good, and next week we will look at the third rule to stay in love with God.

To help illustrate each rule, Wesley gave a brief list of things to he understood them to mean.  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 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, by running the race that is before us, a quote we heard a few weeks ago from Hebrews, and then by taking up our cross daily, with everything that that entails.

Dunbar Ogden was a Presbyterian Minister who, in 1954, accepted a position to become the minister at Central Presbyterian Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, where 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.  He was the only clergy member who came out in support of the students.

But, while Dunbar was escorting 8 of the students to the school, 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford did not know she was to meet the group elsewhere and so had arrived by herself where she was met by an angry mob, which we discussed last week, trying to flee from them, Elizabeth made her way to a bus stop hoping the crowd would leave her alone.  The reporters who were there to cover the event began to sort of form a screen around her, trying, in their own words, to try and protect her from the hatred that surrounded her, but Benjamin Fine who was the education reporter for the New York Times, went one step further.  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.  As the crowd continued to harass her as she waited at the bus, one other person came to her aid.

Grace Lorch had just dropped her own daughter 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, this is when doing good and doing no harm conjoin, and in doing those things we must also be willing to accept the potential costs of those actions. Picking up our cross daily sometimes comes with consequences, or as we say no good deed goes unpunished.  For his part, Dunbar Ogden immediately saw attendance at his church decline by more than a 1/3 because of his participation in the integration of the school, and it was down by more than a half a year later when he was finally asked to leave the church.  But to his dying days he son reports in his book on the events entitled My Father Said Yes, he knew he had made the right decision, and never regretted it for a moment, for he had fought for the good.  Likewise, for his act of kindness, Benjamin Fine 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 than his job, that Elizabeth’s humanity was more important than his job.  He resigned his position at the New York Times the following year.

In his heart Dunbar Ogden probably knew he would lose his church for his actions, and I suspect Benjamin Fine know the same, but Grace Lorch did not know that for actions she would find dynamite in their garage, or that their daughter would be harassed at her school or that her husband 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.

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 rules stipulating that we should do it and we wouldn’t have to wonder if we are doing it.  We don’t make rules about things that most people do all by themselves.  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 or that we should be doing something else, before others also begin standing up.  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, with two players on and down by two runs, 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 said the two other runners had scored, tying the game, but said that if any of her teammates helped Sara she would be called out and the home run would be erased, they could also put in a pinch runner, which would also erase the home run.  No one was really sure what to do, but at this point happened what I think is one of the most amazing sports stores of all time.  Take a look…

While Sara’s teammates could not help her without causing her to be out, there was no rule saying the other team couldn’t help, and so what you just witnessed was Mallory Holtman, who played first base for Central Washington, and was also the conference’s all-time home run leader,  and the shortstop Liz Wallace carrying Sara around the bases, letting her touch each base, so that her home run would count. 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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