Sermon preached May 17, 2009
Text: John 15:9-17
I want to begin this morning with a confession. I sometimes search the internet for humor to incorporate into my sermons. Searching the internet has its associated risks. For instance searching the internet for information about pasties might lead you to recipes for Cornish meat pastries or to sites about burlesque costumes.
So I was searching for humor about the complexity of life the other day and I came across a site with over thirty pages of math humor – it is almost as if the number of math jokes is infinite! One of the humor lines goes like this: Math is like love; a simple idea, but it can get complicated.
Life is like that – simple and complex. When our thinking about life gets too simple, we probably need to be reminded of its complexity – and when it gets too complex, some simplicity might be a good thing. The jazz artist Charles Mingus is quoted as saying: “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”
So in our complex world, where can we look for creative simplicity, for a simplicity that does justice to the complicated beauty and mystery of the world yet helps guide us to a better life, for a simplicity that is not simplistic?
As Christians, we look to Jesus for that kind of creative simplicity, and we find it. Remember that Jesus’ faith tradition was a faith tradition that understood the purpose of God to be embodied in over 600 commandments. Now that is not a bad thing – boiling life down to 600 plus commandments – at least it is a finite number. But Jesus seemed dissatisfied with the way some understood these rules, these commandments. It is not that he necessarily objected to any of the commandments themselves, only to their misuse and misinterpretation. He seemed to think that there was a core to these commandments that some of the religious teachers of his time were neglecting, and he sought to make that core clear. He argued that one’s relationship to God and to others could be simplified. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you abide in my love…. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you…. You are my friends if you do what I command you…. Go and bear fruit, fruit that will last…. Love one another.”
In the midst of this complex and complicated world, how do we find our way, how do we make sense of our lives, what does God ask of us, how should we treat each other? Jesus, with creative simplicity says, “Love.” He asks us to imagine our lives as fruit bearing plants – grow, take in nourishment from the sun and the earth and grow, spread, and bear fruit – and the fruit is love.
Love is certainly not simple in what it asks of us sometimes. The poet Rilke, in another place in his Letters to a Young Poet, writes (Seventh letter): Love is a high inducement for individuals to ripen, to strive to mature in the inner self, to manifest maturity in the outer world…. This is a great, demanding task, it calls one to expand one’s horizons. Maturing, expanding – these are not easy tasks and often not simple tasks. Another writer I have recently read argues that “the more honest we are with ourselves, the better our chances for living a satisfying and useful life” - - - something like Rilke’s love inviting us to maturing the inner self and manifesting maturity in the outer world. She goes on to say, however, “honesty about our own motives does not come easily to us” (Nancy McWilliams, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, 1). What love asks of us is often not simple, especially in our complicated world.
Yet when we see in love our life’s work, the fruit we should bear, the way we should reflect God in our lives, there is a creative simplicity in that. We know something of the way forward, something of who God is and what God asks of us.
But perhaps just a little more elaboration would be helpful, and for that we might look to the person whose interpretation of the Jesus tradition, of Christian faith, started the movement which became The United Methodist Church – John Wesley. John Wesley believed that love was our life’s work, the fruit our lives should bear, that love was the nature and name of God and that when we loved we best reflected God in our own lives. Wesley also thought we might need just a bit more direction than the single encouragement to love provides – so he came up with a simple plan for loving – as simple as one, two three - - - or in our global world as simple as: uno, dos , tres; an, der twas; eins, zwei, drei; or (especially for my friend Armas) yksi, kaksi, kolme.
John Wesley, as he was providing some structure for spiritual renewal groups, offered three rules that became known as “The General Rules of The Methodist Church” and have appeared in The Book of Discipline of our church since 1808. Here they are, the three simple rules Wesley used to elaborate on what it meant to live love: Do no harm, do good, attend to all the ordinances of God (things like worship, Scripture reading, prayer, communion).
Like love, these three simple rules can get complicated pretty quickly, and Wesley was not always good about keeping the simple rules simple. He often elaborated with lengthier lists about what each of these rules meant – and sometimes those elaborations were more helpful than others. When Wesley thought about do no harm he included things like wearing gold and costly apparel, but he also included “the giving or taking things on usury – unlawful interest” – perhaps a more applicable concept in our time. On doing good, Wesley is most often quoted as saying: 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 you ever can. Wonderful and inspiring, but maybe tiring, too. Wesley was not always a model of self-care.
But even if these rules can get complicated sometimes, they remain helpful sign posts for living a life of love. They seem a fine example of creative simplicity, and part of the testimony to that is their recent updating by retired United Methodist bishop Rueben Job. Job has recently published a wonderful brief book entitled Three Simple Rules: a Wesleyan way of living. And how does Bishop Job update Wesley’s rules – as follows: Do no harm, do good, stay in love with God. Bishop Job’s words about these three simple rules are moving, and I share some of them with you.
There are three simple rules that have the power to change the world. While they are ancient, they have seldom been put fully to the test. But when and where practiced, the world of things as they were was shaken until a new formation, a new world was formed.
We live in such a fast-paced, frenzied, and complicated world that it is easy to believe we are all trapped into being someone we do not wish to be and living a life we do not desire to live. We long for some way to cut through the complexities and turbulence of everyday life. We search for a way to overcome the divisiveness that separates, disparages, disrespects, diminishes, and leaves us wounded and incomplete….
I believe we have reached a place where, as a people of faith, we are ready to give serious consideration to another way, a more faithful way of living as disciples of Jesus Christ. This way must be so clear that it can be taught and practiced by everyone. It must be accessible and inviting to young and old, rich and poor, powerful and weak, and those of every theological persuasion. It is a large order, but we already have in our hands the blueprint for this way of living. And with God’s help and our willingness, it can change our world….
Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.
These rules are simple, but the way is not easy. Only those with great courage will attempt it, and only those with great faith will be able to walk this exciting and demanding way. There are many other options for us to choose, but they are all lesser options and lead to lesser results that range from poor to disastrous. [7, 9, 10, 62]
Life is complicated and complex and I have little interest in searching for a simplicity that simplifies by ignoring the richness of life. I yearn for a creative simplicity, though, that gives direction and shape to life. I hear that in the invitation of Jesus to love, to let my life bear the fruit of love. I hear it in the Wesleyan elaboration on the Jesus tradition to love – do no harm, do good, stay in love with God. Of course these three simple rules might themselves be complicated sometimes. There will be times when I am unsure of what they ask of me, but in a creative way they can shape my life, our lives. They point a direction. They invite forward movement.
I believe that as we seek to follow Jesus command to love by following these three simple rules – do no harm, do good, stay in love with God – our lives will change as we mature and ripen within and expand our horizons, our church will change as we grow in our ability to be a transformative place, our world will change as we manifest love and maturity in it.
The way is always open, and we can always begin again – one, two, three; uno dos, tres; an, der, twas; eins, zwei drei; yksi, kaksi, kolme. Go! Amen.