Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister




“Three Simple Rules”

Sunday, September 19, 2010




Rev. Dean Snyder

Three Simple Rules:
Do Good

I am pretty much preaching from our Methodist heritage this month. I know that not all of us have Methodist backgrounds. Some of us may not particularly think of ourselves as Methodists. I suspect we have Foundry Catholics, and Foundry Baptists, and Foundry Pentecostals, and maybe even Foundry Buddhists and Foundry Hindus.

But I am convinced that our character as a congregation is deeply permeated by the spirit of Methodism’s founder John Wesley and our Methodist heritage.

We are taking a vote next Sunday afternoon on a matter that some people think has the potential to put us in conflict with the United Methodist Church. So I want to be clear about my own feelings. I love being Methodist. I love having a Book of Discipline. There are a few things in it that I disagree with strongly but I love being in covenant with millions of other United Methodists around the world.  I love having bishops and district superintendents and general boards and agencies and mission work that covers the globe.

The only problem is that sometimes the Methodist Church isn’t Methodist enough. Sometimes the Methodist Book of Discipline isn’t Methodist enough. Sometimes we need to be more Methodist than the Methodist Church.  

So this month I am preaching from our Methodist heritage and we are focusing on John Wesley’s Three Simple Rules.

When the Methodist movement began within the Church of England, and Methodists began to meet in groups and classes about 270 years ago, the first Methodists asked John Wesley for rules to live by. John Wesley developed a few simple rules for the movement. Not a lot of rules. Just three. What Bishop Reuben Job later came to call “Three Simple Rules.”

The Three Simple Rules are: First, “Do No Harm;” Second, “Do Good;” and Third, Attend Upon the Ordinances of God, or as Bishop Job paraphrases it, “Stay in Love with God.”

We talked last week about, first, “Do No Harm.” John Wesley gave some examples of the harm we ought to avoid – doing harm to ourselves, doing harm to others, and doing harm to God.

Some of us experimented with intentionally and consciously trying to do no harm this past week, and I’ve heard some interesting reports and some struggles over what it might mean to do no harm in certain situations. It’s not necessarily easy. Reuben Job after he had written his book entitled Three Simple Rules got so much feedback that he used to start his sermon when he preached by saying: “I say they were simple, not easy.” We’ll talk a little more about that before we are done this morning.  

We want to focus today on the second simple rule: to “Do Good.”

Here are John Wesley’s exact words: “It is therefore expected of all who continue [in Methodist societies and classes that they should continue to evidence their desire for salvation….by doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, as far as possible, to all….”

This is very similar to John Wesley’s most famous quote:

“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.”

What did John Wesley mean by doing good? I’d like us to look at three of John Wesley’s examples of doing good. Remember they are 270 years old and may need some translating into our time and place.

Here are three of his examples of doing good:

Do good to all – “to their bodies, of the ability which God giveth, by giving food to the hungry, clothes to the naked, by visiting and helping them that are sick or in prison.”

First, do good by caring for people’s physical, bodily needs. It is in our Methodist DNA that religion is as much about the physical as it is the spiritual.

Jane and I were meeting with a group of Methodist pastors in the mountains of Guatemala a couple of years ago. They were all Native Americans. Their first language was their tribal language, not even Spanish. Most of them had not grown up Methodist.

We asked them why they were Methodist. Without a pause and with total agreement, they answered: Because Methodists care about the whole person. Methodists, they told us, care about hunger, they care about education, they care about justice. Many churches around here, they said, only care about people’s souls. Methodists care about the whole person. That’s why we are Methodists, they said.

We’ve heard the same mantra from Methodists in Africa and in the Caribbean. Methodists care about the whole person, the whole society, all of life, physical, spiritual, intellectual, political.

Methodism has birthed all over the world countless hospitals, clinics, schools, orphanages, universities, and graduate schools because it is part of the Methodist DNA to care about the whole person. If you go to Old Mutare Mission in Zimbabwe, the birthplace of Methodism in Zimbabwe, you will see a statue that has four sides with images to represent Methodism in Zimbabwe. There is a picture of a plow….people need to eat. There is a picture of a stethoscope…people need health care. There is a picture of a school…people need to learn. There is a picture of a pulpit…people need to pray.   

First, do good by caring about people’s bodily physical, concrete welfare.

John Wesley’s second example: do good “to their souls, by instructing, reproving or exhorting all we have any intercourse with.”

Do good to people’s souls by “instructing, reproving or exhorting” them. I know this sounds sort of priggish. I’ve had people in my life who’ve instructed, reproved, and exhorted me until I wanted to run the other direction whenever I saw them coming.

But it is an interesting question: What does it mean to care about people’s souls?

How open are we to conversation with the people in our lives about questions of meaning, purpose, and values? How much time do we spend with others either doing business or having fun without ever discussing the deepest concerns of the human soul?

When is the last time you had a profound conversation about life’s meaning with someone? When is the last time you sat and listened to somebody’s pain or puzzlement?

I went back to Philadelphia week before last. The university where I was the campus minister years ago was opening a new campus ministry building and they asked me to speak at the dedication.

When I was a campus minister I spent most of my time listening to students wrestling with questions about the meaning of their lives. They’d come and want to talk about things like: What does it mean that my parents are so weird? What should I do with my life? How important is money? Why is there poverty in the world?

Then we leave the university and get on with life and we stop asking the important questions. Where do you ask and answer the important questions of life?

Many of us need more friendships in our lives. We need small groups. Some of our women have taken the initiative to organize some new small groups. Apparently not our men. We men apparently don’t have spiritual needs.

Do good by caring about people’s physical needs. Do good by paying attention to profound questions, soulful questions of life.

Here’s John Wesley’s third example:

Methodists should do good “by running with patience the race which is set before them, denying themselves, and taking up their cross daily; submitting to bear the reproach of Christ, to be as the filth and offscouring of the world; and looking that [people] should say all manner of evil of them falsely, for the Lord’s sake.”

Wow. What did John Wesley mean by this? “To be as the filth and offscouring of the world.”

I had to google offscouring. I had no idea what offscouring is.

The says: Offscouring is

1. Something that is scoured off or disposed of; refuse. Often used in the plural.
2. A person regarded as fallen from society; an outcast. Often used in the plural.

Here’s what John Wesley was saying: To do good means being willing to take unpopular stands that may cause you to be rejected by friends, family, and others.

John Wesley took a stand against slavery at a time when only radicals and fanatics opposed slavery. John Wesley got his hair cut only once a year so that he could give the money he would have spent on haircuts to the poor. John Wesley went from door to door begging money to support his ministries with the poor.

John Wesley, an Anglican priest, was for many years not allowed to preach in Anglican churches because whenever he preached his poor friends would show up and people didn’t want those folk in their churches, maybe one or two, but when Wesley preached they filled the place.

The story about Jesus in Mark 3 is unsettling. The religious folk of Jesus’ time used religious rules to try to prevent Jesus from doing good. And Mark says: “Jesus looked around at them with anger.” (Mark 3:5)

What do you think irritates God the most? Apparently, good religious people who use their religion as an excuse for being caring and decent and doing good. 

John Wesley taught that we can’t do good if we need everyone to like us. If we are not willing to be distained, we can not do good.

I am grateful to those who shared with me their experiences of trying to do no harm this past week. It turns out it is not necessarily so simple.  

My conclusion after trying to do no harm this past week is that I am personally not very optimistic about doing no harm. Getting through a week, or even a day, without doing any harm seems to me hard.

My hope has been that cumulatively over the course of my life, the end result might be more positive than negative. I had hoped to leave the world a better place than when I got here…to – in the end – do less harm than good.

My parents left the world a better place than when they got here, I think. I think my grandparents did.  

So it was staggering this past week when the U.S. Census Bureau announced the dramatic increase in the number of Americans who are officially poor. The number increased from 40 million to 44 million. One in seven.

You want to know what staggered me even more? For a single adult the poverty line is $10,830 in pretax cash income; for a family of four, $22,050. One out of seven Americans is officially poor when poverty is defined as a total income of less than $10,830 a year.

It is very difficult when you begin to wonder if during the course of your lifetime you and your generation have participated in making the world a less just place. Maybe I’ve done okay personally but I am leaving a world with more and more poor people. That would really be depressing.

I’ve been sad this week. When we’ve known about it, up until now, we have been able to help some of our members avoid eviction. All this is confidential so I want to be very careful how I say this: we have now begun to encounter situations where the difficulties are so persistent that helping out with some cash this month or next will not be enough to fix things.

People are now facing crises that temporary help can’t help. I am troubled and embarrassed by the possibility of people in our own congregation losing their place to live when we are trying to end homelessness in Washington DC.

Trying to help people in crisis situations is no substitute for jobs and decent incomes and the health care people need. Rescuing individuals from the flood is no substitute for stopping the flooding. We can either try to keep pulling babies from the river forever or we can figure out whose throwing them in the river upstream. Emergency help isn’t enough.

I am not saying this to ask you this morning for more money for our emergency and discretionary funds. What we need is for you to go do something so that people don’t have to come to us in situations where giving them help with their mortgage or rent isn’t going to make enough of a difference to prevent the inevitable.

We need you to fix the economy. That’s what you need to do. Create jobs. Create a real safety net. Do that good. Create a safety net that works.

Last night a police officer stopped by the church to talk to me. Someone was trying to get him to file criminal charges against us because people were sleeping on our steps. I told the officer that it is criminal that people need to sleep on our steps.

44 million Americans are living on less than $10,800 a year.

Two hundred seventy years ago, a religious movement was born in England that changed the economy of a nation for a century. It changed the lives of millions of poor people. The movement was begun by John Wesley and the members of the movement were called Methodists.

Do it again, Lord, do it again.