“Three Simple Rules: Do No Harm”
June 11, 2023
Romans12:9-15; Romans 13:8-10
Second Sunday after Pentecost
9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Last week the winds of Pentecost were blowing. We call Pentecost the birthday of the church because it’s the anniversary of the day when the Holy Spirit empowered God’s people to carry on without a physically-present Jesus. At the end of the service I said, “Happy Birthday Church, and Let’s Go!” because it’s also a rallying cry to be our best selves as Christ’s hands and feet on earth.
Today we’re starting a series that will help us dig into the how of being the church. Specially as part of the Methodist Movement and Christ-followers here in the 21st. century. We’re going to look at Three Simple Rules for living and be together in community. If we could just get these three things right we could see change and movement and wholeness in our own lives and in our communities. Sounds simple, right?
The rules are, Do No Harm, Do Good and Stay in Love with God. They were written down by John Wesley in the 1730s when people in the beginnings of this Methodist Movement were coming to him asking how they could better live for Jesus in the world. So John Wesley first said, let’s meet together every week in a small group. And as we meet let’s have conversation around how we’re doing, particularly around three main goals. And that’s when he penned the Three Simple Rules, as he called them.
Today we’re going to spend time with the first one. Do No Harm.
Now you might be thinking…Like why would we even need to talk about this? It’s not like you woke up in the morning and thought, okay, who should I harm today? I mean I hope that you didn’t do that. (If you did, you may want to talk to me privately after church.)
No, most of us don’t set out in our days to cause harm to other people. At least not most days, right? So if we’re not planning harm, them everything’s okay, right? We can just check it off the list? Three Simple Rules… boom!... first one done. Easy-Peasy. Not planning to do any harm, so no harm will be done. End of sermon.
Here’s the problem. If this step is so easily checked off by well-intentioned people, especially people who call themselves Christians, then we have to ask: why IS so much harm still done in the world?
Maxwell Perkins, a famous book editor once wrote these words, "One of my deepest convictions is that the terrible harms that are done in this world are not done by deliberately evil people, who are not numerous and are soon found out. They are done by the good--by those who are so sure that God is with them. Nothing can stop them, for they are certain that they are right.”
Nothing can stop them, for they are certain they are right.
That stings a little. The truth is, doing no harm is a lot harder than it sounds. It’s a simple rule. But no one said anything about being an easy rule. And no, the sermon will not end here. Sorry, not sorry.
You see, we need to talk about this. We get into trouble, all of us, at some point in our lives, when we fall into the tempting trap of certainty around being right … when we’ve got it all figured out… when we are in control…when everything sense because we’ve got a strong grip on the answers. We like feeling this way because it gives us the allusion of power and control, especially when other parts of our life seem shaky. The problem with this thinking is that our certainty will inevitably imply or demand that other people are wrong. And it’s how we then react to opposition that tests our ability to do no harm. Harm is not always physical, in fact, sometimes equal amounts of harm can be done with our words or silence.
We see this in every arena of our lives. From politics on the national stage to arguing about ideologies and mug slinging in the letters to the editor section of our local paper. We’ve seen it at play in thousands of years of church history as opposition to the “right” way of doing things leads to shame and isolation. And we even see it in our own homes when we refuse to admit our mistakes to those we love…when we’re too proud to acknowledge that someone else, someone we love, might have been right all along.
In all of these arenas of our lives, there is the potential for harm to be done. When our rightness becomes more important than the humanity of those around us, there will be collateral damage.
I’m probably not the only one who thought the world was ending sometime around 2:33 pm this past Tuesday. The sky turned a sort of a putrid greenish-yellow color. Did anyone else think back to the weird ending of that Pentecost scripture last week when they’re talking about what the Last Days will be like and it includes fire and smoke and the moon turning blood red…. I mean I was actually beginning to wonder if I should pack a bag for the apocalypse… if that’s even a thing you do, I’m not really sure.
It was a weird week in the skies. It was weird and hard to think about wild fires burning thousands of miles away in Canada literally harming us, innocent bystanders, with their smoke.
What’s harder still is to come to terms with the chain of events that led to the harm. It’s easy to claim we’re innocent bystanders. But was it just a random lightning strike in Quebec? Or was it possibly a cascade of human actions that contributed to climate change? Possibly our own human actions? Of course, none of those individual human choices was intended to ever cause harm, but one thing led to another and before you know it we had convinced ourselves that our convenience and progress was detached from the rest of the earth’s ecosystems, or worse, more important.
The point here is that sometimes we can do things without no knowledge of or regard for the harm they will ultimately cause. The effect is too far removed from the cause. We don’t want to know, so we don’t look. We just do things that benefit our way of thinking (because it’s always right) and don’t consider the long-term effects it has on other parts of God’s creation. We just shut our own windows, protect ourselves from the harm, and carry on.
Now we just happened to have a massive display this week of how far-reaching the harmful effects of one small event can go. But each and every day, we experience this on smaller scales. We speak harshly to our children because we’re frustrated and then we’re surprised when they use that same tone with others. Or we get called a name by someone politically on the other side and we think it’s okay to then call them a name back. Or we self-medicate our own problems in ways that puts others around us at risk. We forget our place in the world and God’s place in our heart. Our actions have a ripple effect. What we do or don’t do matters.
About 500 years ago Thomas Kempis wrote extremely relevant words in his classic, The Imitation of Christ. He said this:
“We cannot trust ourselves too much, because we often lack grace and understanding. The light within us is small, and we soon let even this burn out for lack of care. Moreover, we often fail to notice how inwardly blind we are; for example, we frequently do wrong, and to make matters worse, we make excuses about it! Sometimes we are moved to passion and think it zeal. We condemn small things in others and pass over serious things in ourselves. We are quick enough to feel it when others hurt us---but we do not notice how much we hurt others. A person who honestly examines his own behavior would never judge other people harshly. (The Imitation of Christ: A Timeless Classic for Contemporary Readers, pg 69)
And this is why this first Simple Rule is so hard. It asks that we examine our own selves and look hard at the ways we use our “rightness” to justify any means necessary to keep that control.
Rueben Job has written a small book on Wesley’s Three Simple Rules. He writes, that, by contrast to what our instincts might have us do, doing no harm demands a reversal, “a radical trust in God’s presence, power, wisdom, and guidance [not our own] and a radical obedience to God’s leadership.”
Doing no harm is about adopting a stance of humility and peace. It means acknowledging that our first instincts are not always the best instincts. Our rightness is not always as right as we think. We do not always know best. We are not always in control.
Doing no harm is about expressing the love of Christ toward ourselves and others, just as the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the church in Rome: Hate evil and hold on to what is good. Love each other; be happy in your hope. Bless people who harass you – bless and don't curse them. Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. Consider everyone as equal, and don't think you're better than anyone else. Don't pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good. You must love your neighbor as yourself. Love doesn't do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the Law.
Does this mean that we all have to agree? No, but the ways we have conversation… the ways we work through conflict… the ways we continue to be community together matters.
Last week at the Annual Conference of Upper New York Methodists, we got a chance to practice this. Historically, our big meetings of United Methodists from across the state have had tension and conflict. Divisions at this level reflect difficult and heart-breaking divisions happening all across the United Methodist Church as our global denomination wrestles with the basics of scriptural interpretation, particularly around how we include our colleagues and siblings in Christ who identify with the LGBTQ community. We have tried to have these conversations with love and respect, but great harm has still been done, particularly to those at the center of conversation whose love and identity is called into question by people whose “rightness” and certainty on the question does not waiver. Collateral damage happens. Humanity gets lost in pursuit of orthodoxy. Where is the grace?
The harm must end. And I finally think everyone is beginning to understand this. The United Methodist Church is moving into an inclusive future, a future where harm to our LGBTQ siblings is minimized. And some who feel their certainty and “rightness” excludes this possibility be leaving the United Methodist Church. Last week we voted to accept the disaffiliation of 35 churches across our conference, adding to the 18 that we had approved in March. And there will be more at a coming October conference. It is heartbreaking when our disagreements lead to permanent separation. I weep when I see much larger numbers of churches leaving the UMC in the south. And yet, if we seriously believe that Doing No Harm is the first step toward an authentic practice of Christianity, then we must be willing to let those go in peace who cannot abide.
In this movement we call Methodism, we have had many opportunities to Do No Harm and sometimes we’ve done well, and other times we’ve missed the mark. But my prayer is that we never stop holding ourselves to a higher standard. I’m proud that this church is staying United Methodist. I’m proud that the expectation of Doing No Harm is one we will constantly strive toward.
It won’t be easy. We’ll sometimes need to hold each other accountable and speak the truth in love. We’ll need to allow ourselves to be a safe space for wrestling with questions about difficult relationships, struggles with parenting and conflict resolution in our personal lives. We’ll need to think outside of our own walls and find the harm that is happening in our neighborhood and be holy agents of change and transformation. This is the work of the movement Wesley began. This is the holy conspiracy we undertake when we set forth as Pentecost people.
May it be so and let’s go.
Let us pray.
None of us wake up in the morning and think about harming others. Yet even with the best of intentions, many of us will do harm sometime today. O God, we confess that too often we hold on to control and certainty to the extent that others are harmed by our actions and words. We ask you to help us. We want to be better. We want all harm in the world to be alleviated and we ask that you open our eyes to the ways we may be some small piece of the puzzle to making this happen.