June 27, 2021
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE BASIC RULE
This is my 511th sermon here at Nampa First United Methodist Church. So this one could be short. Because I’ve already said pretty much everything I have to say.
On the other hand, this could be my longest sermon ever. Because this is my last chance to say everything I haven’t yet said. So you might want to just settle in and get comfortable.
I am well aware that sermons seem shorter to the preacher who is preaching than to the people who are listening. I have been where you are, so I understand. And I’m about to be there again.
Life is going to be different for Helen and me. She is used to me leaving in the morning and going to work. She has the house all to herself. I know she misses me. I know she can’t wait for me to come home. And I know she is so excited about my retirement and having me home with her all the time.
Some of you understand exactly what I’m getting at. Kahlil Gibran had that wonderful advice for married couples: “Let there be spaces in your togetherness.” I am looking forward to more time to be with my wife. There is no place I would rather be. And yet we both know it’s going to be an adjustment. And I know I need to make sure I don’t turn into this guy.
(YouTube “Six Feet Under: Frying Pan Scene”) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SdLCHSh_yIE
I checked. Helen does have a cast iron frying pan.
You’re going to have some adjustments here as well. You’re just starting to get used to my peculiarities and now you will have some new peculiarities to get used to. I know going to a new church is hard. I know what that’s like. But I can imagine getting a new pastor is also hard. Change is hard. We talked about that last week with that disorientation, reorientation circle.
You have been way too generous with your compliments. The other day one of you said, “I know the new pastor won’t be as good as you.” That’s not the compliment I want to hear. Mainly, because I don’t agree. I think it’s going to be the opposite. So I asked this person, “What makes you think the new pastor won’t be as good as me?” I got this answer: “Well, I have been in this church a long time. I have seen many pastors come and go. And every one has been worse than the one before.”
That’s a made-up story. I had to let you know that because I know if I didn’t you would all be trying to figure out who I’m talking about. Some of you had already decided who it was.
What do you say in your final sermon to a much loved congregation? I decided that even though I’ve pretty much run out of things to say, I shouldn’t make this too short. And even though this is my last chance to get things off my chest, I shouldn’t make this too long. So expect the usual 20 minutes, give or take. Today I just want to look with you at this simple teaching of Jesus:
Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake will save it (Luke 9:24).
It’s a paradox. It’s not what you would expect. You would expect that if something is valuable enough that you really want to save it, you will lock it up. You will guard it. You will insure it. You will make sure you don’t lose it. Maybe that’s true with possessions, but that’s not true with life. It’s just the opposite.
Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.
I’m calling this the basic rule.
I’m from Oregon. The basic rule has a specific meaning in Oregon. Oregon passed a law back in the 1920’s that allowed drivers to pretty much set their own speed limits. As long as it was “reasonable and prudent.” For years this was interpreted to mean that if you were driving in good weather on a good highway with no traffic, you could go 90 miles an hour and the police wouldn’t care. In fact, Oregon was famous for having signs like this: (See featured image 2) Notice, the word “limit” is missing. This is Oregon’s “basic rule” traffic law.
Actually, police in Oregon do hand out tickets to people who drive faster than the sign says they should. Don’t ask me how I know. The basic rule law usually is enforced when there are bad weather driving conditions. You may be going slower than the posted speed, but if you are going faster than what the police officer thinks is “reasonable and prudent,” it’s still considered a violation. And then in 2002 a law was passed that allowed the word “limit” to be added to Oregon traffic signs. East of the Cascades, these are sometimes referred to as “commie speed limit signs.”
The basic rule of Jesus is something different. It’s a rule about how to live our lives. It’s what we might call a counter-intuitive rule. It’s not the way we think it should be. We think doing what we want to do and living how we want to live is the best way to live. We think that because we, like every human being who has ever lived, are infected by something called sin.
I was cleaning out my office and I was about to throw this away, but I held onto it. I figured I might use it again someday. I had made it for a Walk to Emmaus talk I gave several years ago. The “I” in the middle is too big. That’s what sin is. It’s when the “I” gets too big. It is selfishness.
St. Augustine defined sin as “incurvatus in se” (curved inward on self). Martin Luther said:
Our nature is so curved in upon itself at its deepest levels, it not only bends the best gifts of God toward itself . . . but does not even know that, in this wicked, twisted way, it seeks everything, even God, for itself.
This is our sinful human nature. But it doesn’t feel sinful. It doesn’t feel wicked or twisted. It just feels natural. That’s why we call it human nature. Left unto ourselves, this is what comes naturally. This seems the right way to live. But we are warned in Proverbs, not once, but twice:
There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death (14:12, 16:25).
This is a basic truth. I’m calling it the basic rule. And it applies to more than just our individual lives. Bill Easum calls it “the basic law of congregational life.” Churches grow when they intentionally reach out to people instead of concentrating on their own institutional needs; churches die when they concentrate on their own institutional needs (The Church Growth Handbook, page 16).
Because you see, churches are like people. Churches also turn inward on themselves. It can be very subtle. We take a survey on what you want in your church. Not a bad thing to do, but the underlying assumption is that the church is here for you. It is here to meet your wants and your needs. And if it doesn’t, you will look for a church that does.
Jesus said, “I came not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28). But we followers of Jesus turn that around. We come to church not to serve, but to be served.
And it gets worse when a church is in decline. The inward turn becomes more pronounced. The mission becomes whatever it takes to save the church. The result is just the opposite. It’s a death spiral. Like Bill Easum said, “Churches die when they concentrate on their own institutional needs.”
It’s basic stuff. Churches die because they try to keep from dying. Universities close because they try to keep from closing. Businesses fail because they try to keep from failing. It’s that inward turn that gets them every time. They forget that their purpose is not survival. Their purpose is service. Serving others, not themselves. Even institutions that think they have nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus still are governed by his basic rule:
Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.
A year ago Albert Pike was in the news. Albert Pike was a Confederate general. His statue was the only Confederate monument in Washington DC. But not anymore. It was torn down and burned (though I don’t know how you burn a statue). This happened on June 19, 2020 as part of the rage over George Floyd.
But no person’s life is entirely bad or good. I did some research on Albert Pike. I was looking for the person who said this:
What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.
I found out it was Albert Pike who said that. I found out he lived a very full, very interesting life. He was on the wrong side of history in the Civil War. A lot of good people were. Some will never forgive him for that. But I learned that he also is held in great esteem, even today, by Native Americans.
In 1814 land was taken from the Creek and the Choctaw by the United States government. 22 million acres. That is nearly the size of the state of Tennessee. It was all supposedly legal. There was a signed treaty – the Treaty of Fort Jackson. But this treaty did not provide for any compensation.
Albert Pike represented these tribes in a lawsuit. In order to represent them as well as he possibly could, he learned their languages. The case went to trial. Albert Pike was brilliant. The Creek and the Choctaw won. Nobody expected that to happen. The United States had to pay for the land they had taken.
Albert Pike died in 1891, 130 years ago. He was remembered last June. Not in a great way. We no longer have a statue to visit in Washington DC. But he is also remembered and always will be remembered for the good he did for the Creek and the Choctaw nations. He was right. What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.
The basic rule. We know it. We know we should follow it. We know Jesus was right. We know Jesus knew what he was talking about. And yet there is that strong current pulling us relentlessly toward self and selfishness and things and riches. We know better. And yet we go with the flow. We play the game. We play to win. But in this game, to win is to lose.
Here’s an illustration. I’m telling it in the first person, but it’s not my story. So when I talk about “my grandmother”, it’s not my grandmother. It’s somebody else’s grandmother. But I can relate to this story, and I’m pretty sure you will too.
I first learned it from my grandmother. Now, my grandmother was a wonderful person. She taught me how to play the game, Monopoly. She understood that the name of the game was to acquire. She would accumulate everything she could, and eventually she became the master of the board. And then she would always say the same thing to me. She would look at me and she’d say, “One day you will learn to play the game.”
One summer I played Monopoly almost every day, all day long, and that summer I learned to play the game. I came to understand that the only way to win is to make a total commitment to acquisition. I came to understand that money and possessions are the way you keep score. And by the end of that summer, I was more ruthless than my grandmother. I was willing to bend the rules if I had to in order to win that game.
I sat down to play with her that fall. I took everything she had. I watched her give her last dollar and quit in utter defeat. And then she had one more thing to teach me. Then she said, “Now it all goes back in the box.”
All those houses and hotels. All the railroads and utility companies. All that property. And all that wonderful money. Now it all goes back in the box.
None of it was really yours. You got all heated up about it for a while. But it was around a long time before you sat down at the board and it will be here after you are gone. Players come. Players go. Houses and cars. Titles and clothes. Even your body. Because the fact is that everything I clutch and consume and hoard is going to go back in the box, and I’m going to lose it all.
You have to ask yourself, when you finally get the ultimate promotion, when you make the ultimate purchase, when you buy the ultimate home, when you have stored up financial security and climbed the ladder of success to the highest rung you can possibly reach, and the thrill wears off – and it will wear off – then what?
How far do you have to walk down that road, before you see where it leads? Surely you understand, it will never be enough. So you have to ask yourself the question: What matters?
The basic rule. It’s basically about following Jesus. Christians, by definition, are followers of Jesus. But there is a difference between following Jesus and really following Jesus. Do we really put him and his way ahead of ourselves and our way?
Here I am preaching my last sermon before I retire. My 511th in this church. My 1,446th since I got started. And I am right back to what my fifth and sixth grade Sunday school teacher, Phyllis Moore, taught me 55 years ago. J.O.Y. It stands for Jesus first, Others second, Yourself last.
It has been an honor and a joy to be your pastor. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. This is, by the way, a basic rule church. I haven’t told you today anything you don’t already know and put into practice, with God’s help, the best you can. This is a great church. You are great people. And you are getting a great pastor. He will lead you well.
Be thankful you aren’t getting someone exactly like me. I think John Wesley said it well:
This preacher has one talent and that another. No one whom I ever yet knew has all the talents which are needful for beginning, continuing, and perfecting the work of grace in a whole congregation.
You have a lot going for you. A great church. Great people. A great new pastor. And best of all – a great God.
God, you are great. You are good. Forgive us that inward turn that makes us selfish and makes it difficult for you to use us. I pray for each and every person here, watching online, everyone with any connection whatsoever to this church. There is a strong bond of love that comes only from you that holds us together. I feel that love very powerfully, and that makes this moment hard. But love never ends. Through all the many changes in our lives, through all the many changes in the life of a church, your love is the one constant. I pray for this church as it begins a new chapter in its long and proud history. This church was here before any of us were here, this church will be here after all of us have gone to heaven, but we are so blessed to be part of the wonderful story of what you are doing through this church. Thank you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.