Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 10/30/2016
Every seventh year you must cancel all debts. This is how the cancellation is to be handled: Creditors will forgive the loans of their fellow Israelites. They won’t demand repayment from their neighbors or their relatives because the Lord’s year of debt cancellation has been announced. You are allowed to demand payment from foreigners, but whatever is owed you from your fellow Israelites you must forgive. Of course there won’t be any poor persons among you because the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess as an inheritance, but only if you carefully obey the Lord your God’s voice, by carefully doing every bit of this commandment that I’m giving you right now. Once the Lord your God has blessed you, exactly as he said he would, you will end up lending to many different peoples but won’t need to borrow a thing. You will dominate many different peoples, but they won’t dominate you.
Now if there are some poor persons among you, say one of your fellow Israelites in one of your cities in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, don’t be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward your poor fellow Israelites. To the contrary! Open your hand wide to them. You must generously lend them whatever they need. But watch yourself! Make sure no wicked thought crosses your mind, such as, The seventh year is coming—the year of debt cancellation—so that you resent your poor fellow Israelites and don’t give them anything. If you do that, they will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin. No, give generously to needy persons. Don’t resent giving to them because it is this very thing that will lead to the Lord your God’s blessing you in all you do and work at. Poor persons will never disappear from the earth. That’s why I’m giving you this command: you must open your hand generously to your fellow Israelites, to the needy among you, and to the poor who live with you in your land. (Deuteronomy 15:1-11, CEB)
This is the second week of our three-week series called “Three Simple Rules.” (Online-only readers – my congregation all received a copy of the book mentioned above)
So if you were here last week, you’ll remember that the three simple rules alluded to in the title are given to us by John Wesley – the founder of the Methodist movement in 18th century England. Mr. Wesley believed that if your soul was truly saved, if you had truly found Jesus, then your way of life should look very different from the rest of the world. So he wrote these three rules to give structure and a rough sketch of how our life in Jesus should look. So here are the three rules again – can you repeat them after me?
Do No Harm.
Stay in Love with God.
So last week we unpacked what it might really mean to live a life that does no harm to ourselves, to anyone else, and to this world. So this week, we’ll be taking a look Rule #2 – Do Good.
When I was a student at ONU, I was a part of several Christian student groups. One of these groups I was in decided that for an outreach event, they would go to Lima Hall – one of the dorms on campus – separate into groups, and go around to each dorm room in that building and ask the students living in each room if they would like their … bathroom cleaned by this group (all the rooms in Lima Hall had their own bathroom). If the students wasn’t too weirded out by this group of people at their door asking to clean their bathroom and said yes…they would clean the bathroom.
Now we’re thinking about doing good today. And that’s an AWESOME, if unorthodox, opportunity to do good. What a great idea, right?
Now – absolute transparency here – I lived in Lima Hall myself for my sophomore year of college, and I think I could count on one hand how many times I cleaned my bathroom that whole year. So the first time I heard about this event, I said “That’s disgusting. I think I’m busy that day. Y’all can take care of that.”
Have any of us experienced something like that? We see an opportunity to do real good in the world, or maybe not even that wide – an opportunity to do real good in the life of a person or group…but then we think “Well…
That’s going to cost too much money.
That’s going to take too much time.
That’s way too far out of my comfort zone.
That’s not really my problem.
We have a great opportunity to do some real good, to really bless someone with our actions or words or money, but then we think up excuses that get us out of it, right?
I had some difficulty writing this sermon for today, because this rule – Do Good – seems SOOO obvious, right? “Christians should do good.” DUH! You don’t need me to tell you that. We hear about it all the time – so why do we still try to worm our way out of it?
Now the Bible has a lot to say about this call to Do Good – surprise, surprise. So I want to start by unpacking that passage from Deuteronomy that was read for you earlier. The whole passage is summed up in the very first verse – the whole rest of the passage is explaining how this first verse will be carried out:
“Every seventh year, you must cancel all debts.”
I kid you not, when I read that verse at the beginning of this week when I started preparing this sermon, I stopped and said “Excuse me?”
I would LOVE this law if it was in place now – goodbye student loans, goodbye car loan! How many of us would really get into this? No more mortgages, no more car loans, no more credit card debt (at least once every seven years) – right?
Now I want to make sure we understand how crazy this law is, this “Year of Debt Cancellation.” It’s not that you had 7 years to pay off your debts. Every 7 years, all the debt of every Israelite would be canceled, even if you had just taken on debt the year before.
So this is really a double command here. God commands God’s people to cancel debts every 7 years, and God commands them to give generously to the poor among you despite the understanding that if you loan out money in the sixth year of this seven-year cycle…you won’t get all your money back.
Here’s how I see it – doing good was written into the Israelite constitution. The welfare of the whole nation rested on this, because according to this passage, God would bless them only if they followed God’s command and canceled debts every 7 years and gave generously without expecting full repayment.
God’s people were to be known as a people who were committed to Doing Good. And the call throughout the Bible, not just in this passage, is not to just do good, but to do all the good you can do for whomever you can even your enemies, even though it will cost you something, even though you might lose something – money, property, reputation. The Bible calls us to commit ourselves to doing good.
So – Do Good. What does it really mean or look like to do good?
There’s a quote that’s been floating around for a few years that I want to read for you. It’s normally attributed to John Wesley, but he didn’t actually say it. However, it does sum up his understanding of this second rule of his – Do Good. It goes like this:
“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.”
Now that’s challenging. The idea behind that quote is that we are never to cease doing good. There’s never a point when we’ve done enough good for other people and for the world that we can just check it off our list and retire from it.
Now as I’ve said, this rule of Do Good comes from one of John Wesley’s three essential rules for Christian living. And Mr. Wesley really lived into this rule – Do Good. In the 1700’s, when he was starting the Methodist movement, Mr. Wesley was known for spending a huge portion of his time with the poorest people in England, seeing what good he could really do with them, for their souls as well as their bodies. Mr. Wesley was also known for visiting the sick in the hospitals, visiting those in prison, and not just once in a while – he was really known for doing it. Mr. Wesley also saw how the poor in 18th century England couldn’t get the basic health care they desperately needed, so he even published a book of basic remedies and cures that the poor could do for themselves. Mr. Wesley’s life was marked by doing good, however and whenever he could.
We have a compelling example for what it looks like to live out this rule in John Wesley. But there are still several obstacles that we all have in our lives that keep us from living out this essential rule of Christian living.
I think the Apostle Paul hit the nail on the head in Romans 7:15:
“I don’t know what I’m doing, because I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do the thing that I hate.”
This is key – we all, in a way, know that we’re supposed to do good. But we don’t do it, at least not as often as we are called to. Maybe we serve at Commodities [the church’s monthly food pantry] each month and we think “Well, that’s my good deed for the month.” Maybe when the offering plates are sent around, you give just enough money so that you don’t feel guilty, maybe you even made a Faith Promise commitment at Missions Conference a couple weeks ago, but that’s about it – that’s all the good you’re going to do.
But maybe there’s this hidden, suppressed voice within yourself that says “But I could do more good. I should do more good.” But you don’t listen to that voice because of those obstacles we talked about. So you try to push that small voice away – but you can’t.
This is the life to which Jesus has called us – doing all the good we can do. That’s why you can’t push that voice away. What do you think Jesus was talking about when he called us the light of the world, or the salt of the earth?
What use is a light that only shines once a month?
Who’s ever heard of salt that’s only sometimes salty?
For Wesley, these three simple rules were how people, in his words, “evidenced their desire for salvation.” In other words, you say you’re saved? You say that you’ve found Jesus? You say that you want God to save your soul? Good! Prove it through doing good. God’s people are to be known as a people committed to doing good. How are we to live this way?
The good news, church, is that we can live this way – our lives can be marked by doing good – because Jesus has already named us as God’s children, God’s people. I was reading 1 John earlier this week, and 3:1-2 jumped out at me.
“See what kind of love the Father has given to us in that we should be called God’s children, and that is what we are!…Dear friends, now we are God’s children and it hasn’t yet appeared what we will be.”
Through the power of Christ’s death and resurrection the power of God has been made available to us. Through our baptism, we were made into brothers and sisters in God’s family – God has claimed us as God’s own, holy and dearly loved.
So that means that the call to Do Good does not go like this: “You’re now a child of God so you have to live this way, following this hard and fast rule of doing good. You must do all the good you can, and if you don’t you should be ashamed.” No. No. No. What kind of crappy life would that be?
No, the call to do good actually sounds like this: “You’re now a child of God, you’re a citizen of God’s kingdom now, which means you are able to live this way.”
God’s people are to be known as a people committed to doing good. To follow Christ faithfully, we must commit to do good. But be careful – it’s not a rule we have to stress and clench and try super hard to carry out. Through grace, Christ has made us into a new creation and has given us a brand new life that should look different. Doing all the good we can do – this is a trait that Christ makes us able to live into. But it does require our commitment, our choice to live into it.
So how are we to do this? Let’s be honest – “Do all the good you can do” is intimidating. And that usually gives me more reason to ignore it. But think about it this way – that’s really the goal to which Jesus will lead us. We won’t get there today, but we can start today. So where can we start?
Let me phrase it this way – how can we Do Good this week? Doing Good isn’t hard – especially considering that all the power of the Holy Spirit is with us – but we have to decide to do it. So, how can we start today?
Has anyone seen the movie Evan Almighty? It’s a modern-day take on the story of Noah. There’s a part at the end of the movie Morgan Freeman (who plays God) and Steve Carrel (the main character) are talking. And Morgan Freeman talks about how the only real way to change the world is through one Act of Random Kindness at a time.
I think that idea can help us in starting out on this journey toward doing all the good we can do – start by one act of random kindness at a time.
Let me make it more specific. I wonder if we could each commit to doing at least one act of random kindness each day this week for someone around us. Maybe we leave a huge tip for the waiter or waitress when you eat out this week. Maybe when you’re in the checkout line at the grocery story, you buy the groceries of the person behind you. Maybe you go out of your way to compliment one of your teachers or one of your coworkers. Maybe you give a random gift to a sibling or parent or spouse.
That’s my challenge for you this week. God’s people are to be known as a people committed to doing good. To follow Christ faithfully, we must commit to do all the good we can. And through Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, we are already able to do this. We just have to choose to live our lives this way. So will you take a step in this direction and commit to doing one act of random kindness each day this week?