3 Simple Rules: Do No Harm

Galatians 5:14-15

14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

Today is part two in a 4-part series on the “Three Simple Rules” or the General Rules of the early Methodists. Remember the three rules as Reuben Job states:  Do No Harm, Do Good, and Stay in Love with God.  Last week we introduced the idea that Methodists became a driving force in 18th-century England in large part because this spiritual revival movement was anchored into a system of small groups. Remember what Fred Barnes said, editor of The New Republic, on how it affected England, “Yes, it had tremendous economic, social, and political consequences, but it began as a spiritual revival – a spiritual awakening. And unless we get in this nation a spiritual awakening and a spiritual revival that will create these kinds of economic and political implication…in our day, it won’t work. It’s got to have a new generation of Methodists who will do for this day what they did in the 18th century.”

That’s where our scripture comes in.  Love God and love neighbor.  5 simple words, harder than anything to live out.  How do we love God with all our souls, with all our hearts and with all our minds?  Who is our neighbor?  I think Wesley was getting at that by his hard core belief in personal piety – doing all you can to abide in God and grow in grace and knowledge.  Wesley didn’t believe you should leave your brain at the door.  He was an Oxford don.  He believed what Albert Outler called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral that you had to look at things with Scripture at the base along with Tradition, Reason, and Experience.  But only when he was crossing back over to England from America did he witness the Moravian’s assurance of their salvation while his boat was tossed to and fro on the waves.  You see we are all on a life-long faith journey and we grow in our love of God each and every day.  We live and move and breathe in the Spirit of God and nothing we can do can ever separate us from God’s love.

The next thing is Love of Neighbor.  That’s why Wesley not only believed in personal piety – you can’t just cloister yourself in your own little prayer closet or in an ivory tower.  Jesus calls us to be in the world but not of it.  First we have to be IN it to bring God’s kingdom to earth – love, peace, joy, hope.  Social holiness is aligning your self with the least of these and setting the captives free – whether it be from prisons of their own creation and choices or coming alongside them helping any way you can.

We learned last week the use of small groups reflected the unique theology of the Methodists and the needs of their time. After all, theirs was a time when science and economics, philosophy and many theologies, supported the idea that people are pretty hard-wired in their animal instincts. Some folks, they thought, just naturally have more virtue than others, and overall a “leopard really can’t change his spots.” In other words, for the most part you were either born a good egg or not. From that perspective, it was believed that church should try to deter sin, but more than that its function was to be the channel through which people could be forgiven after inevitably giving into temptation time after time. And, too many times, that forgiveness was only available to the special few who had access to church.

But into this reality came the Methodists, who believed that any sincere follower of Jesus could be a changed person – in terms of one’s decisions, priorities and even behaviors. John Wesley, upheld that Jesus’ death and resurrection weren’t just meant to keep us on this merry-go-round of sin and pardon. Instead, he taught that being born into a new creation means, by the ongoing work of the Spirit, we have the potential for sanctification. We can and should strive to grow in holiness, and try to approach a perfect love for God and neighbor in which our sin doesn’t have room to thrive anymore. Or, think of it this way. I put I don’t know how much Neosporin I put on Enoch’s cuts, itch relief cream on his poison ivy, and a massive amount of bandaids last night.  He is constantly scraped up ALL over the place.  I had my share of scrapes because I was a klutzy, gangly, tom boy.   My knees were always scraped.  My two brothers and I grew up when there were no digital cameras, so how did we take family pictures? We went to the local department store and there would be a kind of pop-up Olan Mills area there. And, as was always the case, one of us at least, two of us most times had skinned knees or bite marks.  Do you relate to that at all?  Did you spend childhood with skinned knees?

Imagine our faith lives like this: imagine that every time we sin and fail and fall short spiritually, it’s like we stumble and skin our knees, just like when we were kids.  John Wesley would say our faith doesn’t just provide an infinite supply of band-aids. Our faith invites us, by God’s grace, to grow into our legs, to learn to walk with God, and maybe to start falling down less in the first place. Do you hear the difference? It’s what blew people’s minds about the Methodist movement. No wonder the Methodist altar call wasn’t just “believe today and be saved” it was, “believe in the Lord, be saved, and join a group today to support you in Christian transformation.”

That’s important to us because these groups, dozens and dozens of them, put their theories to the test, over and over. It was not just a façade to ask people how they were and they would immediately say “fine” and you both would go on your way.  It was, “How well is it with your soul?”  This question became a crucible or incubator for finding out exactly what works in order for Christian disciples to help each other change, to grow together, and be stronger in the faith together.  The result is these three simple rules. Rule #1 is Do No Harm.  I want you to hear it as the time-tested Christian counsel of our spiritual mothers and fathers. Do. No. Harm.

Now, I’d love to know exactly how you receive that as a rule. “Do no harm.” We all have different thresholds for harm, don’t we? For some of us, harm might seem rare or remote, especially by comparison to other places and times. Many of us are stable, secure Americans and spanking our children isn’t even allowed, right? Where’s the harm? For others of us, all we see is harm. In several articles for The Atlantic, psychologist John Haidt proposes that, more and more in America, our only criteria for whether or not something is morally wrong is if harm is caused. That can work alright, but Haidt says it’s also the root of some big problems, like an over-sensitivity on our college campuses if you’re familiar with terms like “micro-aggressions” and “trigger warnings.” Haidt calls the trend “vindictive protectiveness” because, at some point, these efforts to avoid harm end up inflicting harm themselves. My point is that we need a place to start lest this simple rule doesn’t turn out so simple. Let’s read what Wesley said what doing harm was.  First: By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced, such as:

  • The taking of the name of God in vain.
  • The profaning the day of the Lord, either by doing ordinary work therein or by buying or selling.
  • Drunkenness: buying or selling spirituous liquors, or drinking them, unless in cases of extreme necessity.
  • Slaveholding; buying or selling slaves.
  • Fighting, quarreling, brawling, brother going to law with brother; returning evil for evil, or railing for railing; the using many words in buying or selling.
  • The buying or selling goods that have not paid the duty.
  • The giving or taking things on usury—i.e., unlawful interest.
  • Uncharitable or unprofitable conversation; particularly speaking evil of magistrates or of ministers.
  • Doing to others as we would not they should do unto us.
  • Doing what we know is not for the glory of God, as:
  • The putting on of gold and costly apparel.
  • The taking such diversions as cannot be used in the name of the Lord Jesus.
  • The singing those songs, or reading those books, which do not tend to the knowledge or love of God.
  • Softness and needless self-indulgence.
  • Laying up treasure upon earth.
  • Borrowing without a probability of paying; or taking up goods without a probability of paying for them.

I want you to notice something. They had an exhaustive way of defining harm. It’s robust, probably more than what you had in mind, and if you notice the majority of these fall under “such as.”  You are a free to write your own.  Some of them are more challenging than others.  Can I get a witness?   The “such as’s” are divided into two parts.  The sins or harm we do consciously and those we do unconsciously.   The sins of volition, the harm we cause consciously – making choices because “I want to” or think “I have to.” Like when I have an angry outburst with someone or look at someone lustfully or tell a little white lie or gossip about someone or I don’t pick up my litter. Conscious harm.  It’s just a small, little thing.  No one will know.  No one will know that it was me.  But even those little things do harm and sometimes they do a great deal of harm.  Then there’s unconscious harm which I inadvertently cause just by being naturally self-absorbed or by failing to see the impact of my decisions down the line. Like when I’m a wasteful steward of God’s resources, whether it be food, energy, water, while somewhere someone doesn’t have enough to live. You can argue that this isn’t exactly unconscious, because we all know good and well that our choices have impact, but nevertheless: when we don’t overtly mean to hurt anyone, unconscious harm.

You can see your harm through the lens of individual choices, the harm I personally inflict on myself, others, God’s heart and creation, all by myself. Individual harm. Do No Harm means you’re not hurting one of the least of these or yourself.  Self-harm is running just as rampant as harm to others.  You can take a long hard look at things in terms of the harm that we can only accomplish together. Corporate harm, through immoral group dynamics and institutional sin. The sins of society, of slavery, of economy. If we’re attentive to it, “Doing no harm” includes the conscious and unconscious, individual and corporate.  Reuben Job writes of harm, “Each of us knows of groups that are locked in conflict, sometimes over profound issues and sometimes over issues that are just plain silly. But the conflict is real, the divisions deep, and the consequences can often be devastating. If, however, all who are involved can agree to do no harm, the climate in which the conflict is going on is immediately changed. How is it changed? Well, if I am to do no harm, I can no longer gossip about the conflict. I can no longer speak disparagingly about those involved in the conflict. I can no longer manipulate the facts of the conflict. I can no longer diminish those who do not agree with me and must honor each as a child of God. I will guard my lips, my mind and my heart so that my language will not disparage, injure or wound another child of God. I must do no harm, even while I seek a common good.”

You may be thinking of the ways you do all sorts of harm.  There’s a reason that this is number one. The Methodists realized that in our fallen human state, harm is our natural language. After all, the good farmer in the parable is awfully direct with his servants. He doesn’t say, “Oh, in the midst of the beautiful, fruitful wheat that I’ve planted, another farmer with a different set of strategic interests planted an alternative species.” No, in reference to our sinful produce he calls a spade a spade, or rather a weed a weed, the lifeless stuff that’s hardly worth burning.  If we’re ever going to do no harm then first, we need to have the ability to be real with one another, to paint a distinct, outlined picture of the true state of our hearts.  In the Methodist groups, this happened through confession, and every single week the members knew that their first job was not to hold back but to speak their struggles out loud, before God and one another. It was the first step toward discerning the wheat versus the weed in their hearts, and it’s something we have got to find ways to do together. Holy, honest confession.  Doesn’t it help to say things out loud?  So they’re not rolling around in our heads filled with worry, guilt and fear.  Speaking it aloud casts out fear.  When we confess things aloud, we do so in humility acknowledging we don’t have it all together, we don’t have it all figured out.

What did the Methodists do other than confess each week? They prayed together.  They shared each other’s joys and struggles.  Life together. They set out to connect with one another’s hearts and with God’s heart. The next week they would report in and then hold each other accountable in mutual love when they failed or fell short.  God could speak through their human voices a word of encouragement, challenge, and forgiveness.  They could celebrate together, because they knew exactly what God was doing in their lives by God’s transforming grace.

God doesn’t leave us where we are.  God continues to mold us, shape us, and free us to live lives of transformation.  The old has gone.  The new has come.  Not to be good little Christian boys and girls, not to be sure we’ve stamped our passport for heaven, but to be disciples. To be followers of Jesus who even if they’ve got their knees scraped with sin, God’s grace has enough Neosporin in it to heal anew.

Which brings us to this meal we are sharing together every Sunday during Lent and the transformative power where if we confess the harm we have done to ourselves, to others and to God, God is faithful and just, and will cover a multitude of our sins.  Hear these words anew and afresh as I say them and we will sing our responses today as well as the Lord’s Prayer.

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