Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Back to Basics

(Read Mark 12: 28-34)

One of the most haunting images in the Bible is after Jesus has been arrested, and Peter is sitting out in the courtyard of the high priest’s house where Jesus is being held captive. Then, Peter denies Jesus 3 times, saying “I do not know him.” Then, the cock crows announcing Peter’s betrayal as Jesus had predicted. And then, the Lord turns and looks at Peter (Luke 22:61).

When I imagine Jesus turning and looking at Peter, their eyes meeting, I am filled with the sense of what it means to be a sinner, of having failed God, of having gotten swept up in the world, and thus, rejecting God.

Not that I think Jesus’ look towards Peter was one of condemnation. When I see Jesus’ eyes, he’s saying, “I told you so,” but without malice. More with a look of deep sadness and acceptance and forgiveness.

Peter, on the other hand, when he saw Jesus’ eyes and remembered his prediction, his own eyes must have registered pure horror. He had done it. He had done what he promised he would not do! The shame and the guilt were so great that Scripture says Peter ran from the courtyard and wept bitterly.

I hate to think of any of us denying Jesus. But we live in a complex world, and oftentimes, the answer don’t seem so clear. We do harm, and we don’t even realize it. We pass up opportunities to help others because of our own selfishness and insecurity. If Peter could deny Jesus while he was standing only 30 feet away, how much easier is it for us deny Jesus when we aren’t even sure where he is?

The closest you and I ever get to looking into Jesus’ eyes is when we look into each other’s eyes. In fact, whenever we are interacting with one another or watching one another from afar, we should remember that Jesus said, “Just as you do it to one of them, you do it to me” (Mt 25:40). Jesus is here in the world in the faces of our neighbors, our brothers and sisters, and even ourselves.

Today, I thought we’d go back to the basics. A life pleasing and acceptable to God is one in which we love God, we love ourselves, and we love our neighbors. I like the way the Message translation phrases it. Jesus says, “that God is one and there is no other. And loving him with all passion and prayer and intelligence and energy, and loving others as well as you love yourself” (Mark 12: 32-33)... Why, that’s the way to live a good life!

In the mid-18th century, around 1750, John Wesley thought up some simple instructions to give to the early Methodists so they would know how to fulfill Christ’s command to love.

They were called the General Rules, and there were 3 of them:
Do no harm.
Do good.
Stay in love with God. (Not Wesley's original wording, more on that later).

“The rules are simple and they are easily understood,” but they have far reach. If everyone followed them the world would literally be a different and a new place, a more loving place. But just because the rules are simple and easy to understand does not make them easy to practice. (Job, Rueben. Three Simple Rules. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007. pg. 41).

First, do no harm. For most of us, this seems like a pretty obvious way to live. We don’t go about intending to hurt or harm people or things. We don’t intentionally beat people up or set forest fires or run over animals. But we need to go beyond the obvious and beyond the intentional to better understand this first rule because it is in the nuances, and in our indifferences, and in our ignorance where we really become offenders of this rule.

We don’t intentionally hurt the environment, but we often do damage to it inadvertently. We don’t mean to, but the cars that we drive and the aerosol cans that we spray and the garbage we throw away are putting holes in the ozone layer and filling up our land fills. For many years, we just claimed ignorance. We didn’t know what we were doing. But as stewards of God’s earth, and God did set us as stewards in Genesis when God said that we should “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Genesis 1: 28). God gave us everything God made, and I’m sure God hopes we will take care of it. So when we think of the first rule, do no harm, let us think of God’s earth, Mother earth, nature, the environment.

Let us also think of one another. Rueben Job recently wrote a little book on the General Rules, and he says, “To do no harm means that I will be on guard so that all my actions [and words and opinions and decisions] and even my silence will not add injury to another of God’s children or to any part of God’s creation” (Ibid. pg. 31).

When it comes to not harming our brothers and sisters, we have to be aware and sensitive to other people’s feelings. Just like with the environment, we don’t want to hurt each other, but a casual, off-the cuff remark can cut a deep wound. When “I” decide to defend my position, another person can feel very attacked and hurt.

Thomas a Kempis wrote, “We cannot trust ourselves too much, because we often lack grace and understanding. The light within us is small, and we soon let even this burn out for lack of care. Moreover, we often fail to notice how inwardly blind we are; for example, we frequently do wrong, and to make matters worse, we make excuses about it! Sometimes we are moved by passion [reckless emotion] and think it zeal [inspiration]. We condemn small things in others and pass over serious things in ourselves. We are quick enough to feel it when others hurt us—and we even harbor those feelings—but we do not notice how much we hurt others. A person who honestly examines his own behavior would never judge other people harshly” (Ibid. pg. 30).

I really was touched by the line, “We are quick enough to feel it when others hurt us, but we do not notice how much we hurt others.”

Next time your about to make what you think is a witty comment, consider if really it’s a sarcastic remark, a cut. Next time your about to interrupt someone with your opinion, stop and think. Do I really need to add my two cents here? And next time you go to accuse someone of something, consider if perhaps you are being defensive or you are taking your anger out on the wrong person.

Do no harm requires awareness, intentionality, sensitivity and education so that we do not remain ignorant of the things that we are doing that go on hurting people and the creation.

Second, do good.

Wesley said something to the effect of, “Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the places you can.”

This morning, let us focus on the part of that statement which says, for all the people you can.

Last night, I watched a movie titled, Music Within. It is a wonderful, true story based on the life of Richard Pimentel. Richard went to serve in Vietnam with the intention of coming back to the States and going to college on the government’s dime. While he is fighting in Vietnam, an incoming mortar round blows up right by his head so that he develops tendonitis, a ringing in the ears, and essentially goes deaf.

When he gets back to the States, the government doesn’t want to let him go to college because they say he’s deaf. They assume he’ll fail all his classes, and even if he did succeed in college, no employer would want to hire him. In 1974, there was still a great stigma around all disabilities.

Richard’s a man of perserverence so he finds a way into college, learns to read lips so that no one will ever have to know he’s deaf, and becomes a successful man working in an insurance company. In a interesting twist of fate, while still at college, Richard realizes that the only person whom he can hear is this guy named Art, and Art has Cerebral Palsy.

The film uses touching humor to develop the friendship between the deaf guy and the guy in the wheel chair. Through the discrimination that Richard faces because of his disability, and seeing the even greater injustices done to his friend Art, and also the terrible treatment his buddies from Vietnam get, some of whom are missing legs or eyes or arms, Richard develops a career fighting for the rights of people with disabilities.

There’s this unbelievable scene when its Art's birthday, and what he wants most is to go out for pancakes. So Richard pulls Art’s wheelchair up 10 steps to get him into this pancake house, and they head to a table, (and remember this is in the 70’s), and all the people in the restaurant are staring at Art because he’s moving around all jerky and his mouth is hanging open, and the waitress comes over and demands that Richard and Art leave. She says she’ll call the cops if they don’t.

And do you know what? Richard and Art get arrested because in those days their was such a thing as ugly laws, where if you were diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed so as to be unsightly or disgusting, you weren’t allowed in public if it offended someone else.

After this and other incidents, Richard goes on to become the most prominent person in getting employers and the public in general to understand that people with disabilities are people too. People in wheelchairs, people missing limbs, people who are blind, deaf, each and every one deserves to be treated with equality, fairness and compassion.

You’ve heard of the Americans with Disabilities Act? It’s the reason we have handicap access ramps and lifts and handicap accessible bathrooms, and so much more. Richard Pimentel is largely given credit for getting the American with Disabilities Act passed. (FYI: Ugly laws were repealed in the 70’s).

My real point in telling you about this film is that one of the statements it makes is that people are often afraid to look at and see people who appear to be unlike them. Whether it’s a little person and you don’t want to stare or whatever the excuse may be, the bottom line is we often ignore people who don’t look like us, act like us, dress like us. But the truth is, while people might look different, act different, dress different, our hearts are the same. We are all God’s beloved children.

Don’t let the differences in the way people look and act stop you from doing all the good you can, to all the people you can, in all the places you can.

Do not be afraid of people who appear different. I often think we are afraid to reach out and help others because we don’t know if they will let us, if they will yell at us, what exactly we should do to help them. All we really have to do is speak to the person we see whom we perceive needs help, and politely ask: Is there anything I can do to help you? There’s nothing to be afraid of.

The movie has a happy ending because 20 years after getting arrested at the pancake house, Richard and Art go back. Richard doesn’t have to drag Art up the steps this time though because now, there's a ramp there – thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act- and Art has a motorized wheelchair. And the waitress at the restaurant is very nice to them.

The third rule is, stay in love with God.

In Wesley’s original language, the third rule was, “Attend upon the ordinances of God.” Ordinance is a word we don’t use much these days, and when we do hear it, it’s usually in relation to an order or statute or regulation enacted by a city government, such as a noise ordinance. But the word also means a custom or practice established by long usage or a Christian rite. “To Wesley, it was a word that described the practices that kept the relationship between God and humans vital, alive, and growing. He names public worship of God, the Lord’s Supper, private and family prayer, searching the Scriptures, Bible study and fasting as essential to a faithful life” (Ibid, pg. 53).

Each of you might have additional spiritual practices that you consider valuable, such as nature walks, meditation, dancing, singing, arts, crafts, fishing, golfing. These can all be ways to connect with the divine. As long as your practices, or disciplines, or ordinances cultivate the life of faith, give strength and guidance to your life, and draw you in closer relationship with the Living God, that is what matters most. Ultimately, any practice that we do is meant to help us stay in love with God. They are our nourishment, our communion with the Source who makes all things possible.

“The first two rules are important and bring immediate results, but without the third rule, the first two become increasingly impossible. Staying in love with God is the foundation of all of life. It is in a vital relationship with God that we are enlivened, sustained, guided, called, sent, formed, and transformed. The writer of Psalm 127 [v.1a] declares, ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.’ We practice the rules, but God sends the power than enables us to keep them” (Ibid, pg. 48).

In order for us to continue doing good and doing no harm, it is essential for us to stay in love with God. That’s what the Sabbath is for, to help us stay in love with God.

There is a powerful parallel that happens in the Bible. First, Peter denies Jesus three times right before Jesus is crucified. Then, after Jesus has been resurrected, he appears to the disciples by the Sea of Galilee and asks Peter 3 times, “Do you love me?” And 3 times Peter says, “Lord, you know that I love you.”

It’s like the three “I love you’s” Peter says are to make up for or replace the three denials Peter had made.

In addition to that, Jesus knew that his disciples would have to love him, to really love him, to go and do the work, the preaching, the teaching, the baptizing, the caring, the healing that would be required of them as disciples. The first time Peter says, “Lord, you know I love you,” Jesus replies, “Feed my lambs.” The second time Peter says, “Lord, you know I love you,” Jesus replies, “Tend my sheep.” And the third time Peter says, “Lord, you know I love you,” Jesus replies, “Feed my sheep.”

When we love the Shepherd, we love the Shepherd’s sheep, and we will take care of them.

So the basics are: Do no harm-not to yourself, not to any person, and not to the earth or any living creature on the earth. Do good- in any way you can, big or small, to all the people you can – paying special attention to help those who appear different from you, in all the places you can.

But so you don’t burn out, take time to stay in love with God.

These are the basics.