John 15:1-9; Galatians 5:25-6:10
Last week our MCCI Social Justice Interview teams met with the Ad Council. Their role was to go out into our community here and listen to community leaders to see where the gaps are— to listen for the places where needs aren’t being met. They went to business leaders and non-profit organizations; they met with Government officials and with school leaders. One of the stories that they shared, which was actually from a different school district, was a story about a front office worker of a school after she had received training about ACES. ACES stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. Before the training, the front office workers were instructed to send any children who were late to school to detention for being tardy. But after the training, the school realized that they needed to change their tactics— that chronically late children often had many reasons for being late, not many of them which were their fault, and that sending them to detention retraumatized and isolated them from their peers. Being on the front lines of making sure to do no harm to these children, the front office worker was freed up to be creative in how to respond, so now when a child comes in late, she gives them a hug, asks them if they want breakfast, and makes sure they get a pass to the cafeteria before going to class. What had been a negative, punitive interaction, has now become a positive, relationship-building response.
When John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, came up with the General Rules in 1739, I doubt that he had a front office worker in mind; and yet she was following the first of his General Rules— learning what it meant to do no harm to the students she interacted with daily, which then gave her the creativity and capacity to choose to do good— to show them compassion, comfort, and offer them food.
These General Rules seem so simple, and they can be very simple to follow, and yet they are truly radical because they offer a level playing field to all.
In order to do no harm, we can’t take on a patronizing or condescending tone. We can’t see ourselves as above someone else or knowing more than someone else. We have to tear down the things that separate us from each other. In Wesley’s world of England in the 1700’s, the gap between poor and rich, uneducated and educated, the culture clash between classes, was great. And yet Wesley was a bridge. When he gave examples of doing good, he said to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit and care for the sick and imprisoned (a list he got from Jesus, by the way!) but he didn’t do so from a standpoint of “do good so that you feel good about yourself.” Wesley instructed those early Methodists to do good because it’s a natural outpouring of our faith. When we have received God’s grace in abundance, then it is only natural and right that we will want others to receive it too— and in order to do that, our goal is to do no harm and to do good— to live as disciples of Jesus.
In our Gospel this morning Jesus is giving his farewell address to his disciples, and he wants them to know that he loves them. He wants them to know that he no longer calls them servants, but friends— that he considers them equipped to be his disciples in the world even after he is no longer with them. And so he tells them that he is the vine and they are the branches. And that if they love him, they will keep his commandments and they will see the fruit that God can produce in them. What he doesn’t say is, “You’re on your own now, hope you learned something.” He doesn’t say, “It’s all up to you— good luck saving the world.” Jesus tells them that they— that we— can be as connected to him as a branch is connected to the vine. And that when we stay connected, there will be fruit— delicious, joyful, abundant fruit— for all.
In his book on the General Rules, Bishop Reuben Job talks about what it means to give our lives to Jesus in doing good. And he makes a distinction that I think is really helpful between giving of ourselves in healthy ways, and giving of ourselves in unhealthy ways. It’s easier, perhaps to imagine the unhealthy when we think of doing good, because we’ve all either been there or seen someone there. I’m talking about the person who takes on everything that they feel will benefit the world, only to their own detriment; someone who maybe feels like they need to save the world all by themselves; or someone who gets so focused on doing good in a particular way, that their agenda about doing that good, becomes all encompassing and they can easily end up hurting those around them and getting burned out.
But giving up ourselves in healthy ways— or as Jesus says, “to lose our lives so that we can gain them” means focusing on Christ and what it means to live a life in Christ— to do good in the ways that we can, but not just in BIG TREMENDOUS WAYS. Rather, to set aside our agenda, set aside our need to save the world, set aside our desire for everyone to be just like us, and instead to do no harm wherever we go; to do good wherever we are; to be mindful of our actions in the world; and to be present not only to others, but also to ourselves, knowing that there are times to rest and rejuvenate as well as time for doing.
And what’s our evidence for when we are doing no harm, when we are doing good, when we are giving of ourselves in healthy ways? Jesus says we will see fruit when we are connected to the vine. And Galatians says that the fruit will be love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.
In South Florida there was a little United Methodist Church that was getting smaller and smaller. The Pastor that was appointed there very part time was told that he should give pastoral care to those who were still around and help them grieve the loss of their church so they could close their doors within a year. When the Pastor arrived and began to get to know the people, he was surprised to find that there was a men’s group that was completely against the church closing. They were all older, and retired, and they didn’t know how they were going to keep paying the Pastor, but the church was where they gathered in the afternoons to put on a pot of coffee and have their Biblestudy. The Pastor started going to their Bible study to help them see the error of their thinking, but after he had gone to the Biblestudy for two weeks, he began to notice the school that got out around that same time across the street. He noticed all of the kids that hung out, seemingly with no place to go, just picking on each other, and he began to point this out to the men’s group. The next week when he went to the Biblestudy, he found that the men had moved outside and along with their coffee, they had brought lemonade and cups. By the end of the week they were bringing apples and granola bars. Several of them had been teachers or engineers, so they began to ask if the kids needed help with their homework and within a few months, this dying United Methodist Church, had a vibrant after school ministry that was fulfilling a need in the community they hadn’t ever known was there. But it took a leap— setting aside what they understood as church and following Jesus instead. It took being uncomfortable a lot of the time when they didn’t know what those kids were talking about. It took vulnerability to share their own lives with these kids who weren’t so sure at first that it was very cool to hang out at the church with a bunch of retired folks. It took knowing that living out their faith meant not just doing no harm, but seeing where there was a potential for great harm and doing good in response.
These rules may be simple, but they’re not easy. They will change our lives when we have the courage to follow them. They force us to be practical about what it means to follow Jesus. As Mother Theresa once said, “We can do no great things; only small things with great love.”
The Administrative Council decided on Tuesday to explore what it will mean for us to be trained in the ACES training as a church; to begin to see our ministries through the eyes of helping one another go from trauma to wellness; to not only reach out in ministries that will offer places of healing, but create a community where we can be part of preventing harm as well. The Holy Spirit has been leading us powerfully towards this path, though we couldn’t have named that until Tuesday night, and we’re not sure yet where it will lead us as a congregation, but we know that when we stay focused on Christ, we will be walking in the right direction.
What good can you do today— for your Mom; for your neighbor; for a coworker; for someone who frustrates you; for the person you are afraid to get to know? How can you follow Jesus into doing no harm and doing good in your everyday ordinary life?