Part 3 of our 4 part sermon series – What We Believe
Our newest sermon series focuses on our Methodist beliefs. We’ve talked about giving and about grace. Today we talked about how to stay in God’s grace – by practicing what John Wesley called “the means of grace.” We focused on one group today – works of mercy. Next time, we’ll focus on works of piety. Hope you enjoy!
Everyone say “cheeks!”
Did you know that saying “cheeks” instead of “cheese” gives you a better smile in pictures? It’s true. Not only that, but a “cheeks” smile is more likely to make you feel happier as well. Studies have found that the more we use our upper facial muscles to make a smile, the kind that produces crow’s feet around our eyes, the more likely we are to feel happy. Researchers also did a study where they had people hold a pen in their mouth while looking at some cartoons. The people who held the pen with their teeth, making them smile with their upper facial muscles, thought the cartoons were funnier than the people who held it with their lips, making them pout. Smiling has a positive reaction on our mood. It also makes us less stressed. It’s kind of like the concept of “fake it ‘til you make it” – the idea being that faking happiness can help lead us to happiness or at least alleviate us from stress and depression. Are there limits to this superpower though? Sure. But overall, smiling has proven to give us added health benefits and can help “turn that frown upside down.”
That being the case, maybe that saying applies to John Wesley’s ideas about faith.
His motto might also have been, “Fake it ‘til you make it.” John went through periods of doubt in his own life including on his passage back to England from America. The ship was going through a heavy storm and his heart was gripped with fear, but this group of Moravians weathered the storm joyfully. They sang songs and had such a positive attitude that John came up to them later and asked how they dealt with their fears. He admitted that there were times when his own faith was in doubt and the Moravians told John to simply continue practicing his faith until he felt it again. In essence, to “fake it ‘til you make it.” John was convicted by their words and he continued preaching and teaching and helping others until one day at Aldersgate, John wrote that he “felt his heart strangely warmed.” And in that moment, the solidity of his faith returned and he felt renewed in the Spirit. That’s why John preached so feverently on the means of grace. He felt that the means of grace helped us to stay IN God’s grace. He felt that the means of grace helped us to stay IN God’s grace. For John, the means of grace were simply the ordinary ways God worked in our lives and he divided them into two works of piety and works of mercy. He divided them into works of piety and works of mercy. Works of piety were things like reading the Bible, praying, fasting, attending worship, going to Bible study, taking communion, and sharing our faith. Works of mercy, which we will talk about today, are things like doing good works and seeking justice for the oppressed and addressing the needs of the poor. Both were essential to stay in the grace of God. Both were important to develop our faith.
If you have a Bible, please go to Matthew 25, beginning with verse 34.
Matthew 25:34. The passage we are going to share this morning is what inspired Wesley’s ideas about works of mercy. In it, Jesus reveals to his followers that eventually everything will come to an end. He points to their holiest of temples and says, “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down (Matt 24).” The disciples come up to Jesus privately and ask him, “Psst. Tell us Jesus, when is this going to happen?” I don’t know if the disciples were simply curious or scared or trying to get a heads up, but Jesus tells them only that it WILL happen, and says that only God knows the details of when. Instead he encourages them to live a life of readiness – to act as if every day might be the last so that when he DOES return for them, they will be found to be ready. He tells them that on that day when he returns, all of the people of the world will be divided into two groups, the sheep and the goats with the sheep on his right and the goats on his left and the passage we are reading this morning describes what Christ will say to them.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Jesus makes it very clear that there is a right way and a wrong way of doing things.
The right way is by helping those in need. Whether they are hungry or thirsty or needing shelter, we have an obligation as God’s people to help them out. Our help shouldn’t be conditional on whether or not they share our beliefs or our political affiliation or whether they are a Dodgers fan or a Giants fan. Even if they are misguided Giants’ fans, we are supposed to help them if they are in need. On the other hand, when we ignore those in need, we distance ourselves from God. We become selfish and self-absorbed. We become everything we are not supposed to be. Jesus is telling us that our faith is more than just words. It’s more than rituals and habits. It’s more than simply showing up. Our faith becomes evident in how we live our lives. And God is watching.
In the book of Acts, Jesus commands us to witness to those all over the world.
He tells us, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).” It’s interesting that Jesus chose those exact locations, and like many of Jesus’ teachings, these words were carefully chosen. They weren’t random places to make a point. Jerusalem represented those who are like us, those who lived in our communities, those who shared our values, if not our beliefs. Judea was far from Jerusalem and represented those who might be like us but who lived far away. For us that might be the people of our state or maybe even our country. You know the story of the Samaritan woman. She lived close to the Jewish community. They were neighbors but considered outcasts to the Israeli people. But Jesus commanded us to bear witness to them, to the disenfranchised, to the outcasts, to the people on the fringes. Because they were his children, too. And to make sure everyone was covered, Jesus commanded us to take his Word to the ends of the earth. That we weren’t supposed to stop at just the people we knew, the people who were like us, or even the people on the fringes of society. We were supposed to take it everywhere else too. For us, that might mean international missions to bring aid and the Word of God. To support missionaries or to BE missionaries to the world. We can support ministries in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth in many ways.
Today, churches all across the country are celebrating the One Great Hour of Sharing.
It’s a time-honored tradition that began in 1949 as a response to relief efforts after World War II. A group of churches got together with the goal of raising funds for humanitarian aid through a nationwide televised broadcast. Gregory Peck was one of the stars featured in the broadcast and even President Truman joined in. At the end of the broadcast, viewers were asked to go to church the next day and give toward these relief efforts. From then on, each year churches join together with the goal or raising money for relief efforts worldwide. Since the 1990’s, more than $20 million annually has been raised for this purpose. In our denomination, all funds go to support UMCOR – the United Methodist Committee on Relief. But it’s far more than a “committee.” UMCOR act as the hands and feet of Christ to bring aid and relief to countries all over the world. They are often one of the first responders in any situation. Whether it’s a tornado in Oklahoma or a tsunami in Japan, UMCOR workers are out there to help. This offering is the only funding that UMCOR receives to keep the lights on. Whatever we give is what allows them to do their work. That way, when people offer donations for disaster relief, we can confidently tell them that literally 100% of their gift is going to relief efforts and not for overhead costs or anything like that. 100%. UMCOR relies on us to get the job done. During our donation lunch today, please consider how much you can give to this worthwhile cause. And know that your gifts enable us to help millions all over the world, each day and each year.
Whenever we act in alignment with God, our lives seem to be better.
When Wesley proposed works of mercy as part of the means of grace he may have been on to something without even realizing it. Because among the things that cause the most happiness in our lives or give our lives a “happiness” boost, are also means of grace – volunteering, performing acts of kindness, keeping a gratitude journal, and praying. All of these not only help us in our faith, but consequently also make us happier. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I think you’ll find that the more we act in concert with God, the more we find a deep sense of happiness in our lives. And that is certainly something worth smiling about. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.