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.

Prodigal Son Sermon a la the Ukraine

Preached at St. John United Methodist Church, L’viv, Ukraine

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Our text from Luke today is a familiar text to many of us. As soon as we hear the intro, “There was a man who had two sons…” some of us begin to think – oh, I know this story. This is a good one. It’s like those old favorite hymns – you know them backwards and forwards and they speak to you whether because of their foundational and transformative messages or because of their familiarity and the feelings and memories they evoke. I remember listening to the story as a child and being fascinated by the younger son feeding the pigs and wanting to eat what the pigs were eating. Could have been my love for animals or it could have been the funny pictures of pigs that we put on the felt board in Sunday School, but for some reason, that was what stood out to me in the story. My romanticized view of getting to sit with the pigs quickly changed as I got older and sitting in the mud with pigs stopped being so appealing.

One of things about the familiar is that sometimes it’s really easy for us to let the words and the meaning slip by us. When it comes to the routine, it’s easy to go on autopilot and miss what God is speaking to us today.

Because we know this story so well, we have lost some of the shock and horror at the behavior of the younger son. Since we know the beautiful ending that is coming and can almost hear the orchestra tuning up the celebratory music, we forget the harshness of the younger son’s words and the father’s great hurt. The broken relationship that is clearly present.

Culturally, in Jewish tradition a son was allowed to obtain possession of his inheritance, only after his father died or the son got married. As his father is still alive, he had no right to dispose of it. He’s demanding what he wants when he wants it, disrespecting his father and cultural tradition and acting like his father is dead. He’s all geared up for rebellion – no matter the cost or whom it hurts.

Several studies have shown people that have won the lottery or somehow received a great deal of money, for the most part end up right back where they started, no matter the amount, and some even worse off than they were before. There are a lot of reasons for this – an extravagant lifestyle, thinking the money will never run out, a false sense of reality, not thinking things through. The prodigal son easily could fit the profile of one who gambles it all away – the text tells us “he squandered his property in dissolute living” and “he spent everything.” Here he was a Jew tending pigs for a Gentile and longing to eat their slop. He had lost everything. Both his wealth and his integrity.

Just because Jesus eats with sinners, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t take sin very seriously. As seen in the consequences of the younger son’s actions – sitting in filth and coveting pig food. Sin does have serious consequences and can lead down a devastating and degrading path. Not only has the son been led to a physically desperate place, his sin is also seen as broken relationship with God and the community, as he is left in self-imposed isolation in his pigsty.

I like the phrase, “when he came to himself” in verse 17. It’s as if he’s been in this stubborn and disobedient state and he’s finally beginning to snap out of it. Praise God for those lightbulbs of awareness – the Holy Spirit – coming to us and helping us to realize how lost we are, helping us to come to ourselves. It’s not easy to face the reality of our disobedience, but it’s definitely necessary to move forward.

The road back is paved and well lit, because we have traveled this story many times. We forget how scary it is for the prodigal to come home. The shame, the feelings of unworthiness, the lack of hope. I read of a man who had committed a crime for which he was deeply ashamed. When he’d served his prison sentence and was about to be released he wondered if his family would reject him because of the scandal he’d caused and the shame brought on the family. He wrote his parents saying that he would be coming back by bus but didn’t want to embarrass them with his presence if they didn’t want him back. He asked them to tie a yellow ribbon on the ooak tree at the beginning of their street if it was all right for him to return home. If there was no ribbon on the tree when the bus passed he wouldn’t get off the bus. He was nervous on the bus and as he got closer and closer to his street he couldn’t bear to look so he asked the driver to look for him. But, he needn’t have worried because the tree was covered with yellow ribbons!

The father in this passage offers his son yellow ribbons, and following his lead, the community joins in the celebration as well. It is clear in this passage that the father is representing God. God does not stop us from making choices or from the consequences of those actions, but as our loving parent God is ready and waiting for us to come home. In the passage, the father also goes above and beyond to show his love and forgiveness to his son. The son had dishonored his father and the village by taking everything and leaving. When he returns in tattered clothes, bare-foot and semi-starved, he would have to get home by walking through the narrow streets of the village and facing the raised eye-brows, the cold stares, the disgusted looks of the village. So when the son is still far off, the father sees him and decides immediately what he must do. In compassion for his son and to spare him the pain of walking through the gauntlet of the town alone, he runs to him, falls on his neck, and kisses him. The expected thing for his father is to wait in the house and let the young man be brought before him. Let the boy fall down on his face before his father and grovel in the dust. The father may then reluctantly accept his apologies and put him on probation. This father does not do any of that. Instead, he not only runs to his son but also falls on his neck and kisses him.

A man was commissioned to paint a picture of the Prodigal Son. He went into his work fervently, laboring to produce a picture worthy of telling the story. Finally, the day came when the picture was complete, and he unveiled the finished painting. The scene was set outside the father’s house, and showed the open arms of each as they were just about to meet and embrace. The man who commissioned the work was well pleased, and was prepared to pay the painter for his work, when he suddenly noticed a detail that he had missed.

Standing out in the painting above everything else in the scene, was the starkly apparent fact that the father was wearing one red shoe and one blue shoe. He was incredulous. How could this be, that the painter could make such an error? He asked the painter, and the man simply smiled and nodded, assuring the man, “Yes, this is a beautiful representation of the love of God for His children.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, puzzled.

“The father in this picture was not interested in being color-coordinated or fashion-conscious when he went out to meet his son. In fact, he was in such a hurry to show his love to his son, he simply reached and grabbed the nearest two shoes that he could find.”

“He is the God of the Unmatched Shoes.”

Praise God that our God is a God of the unmatched shoes.

The great God of the universe came down and dwelt among us, took our sin upon himself, and died on the cross for each of us. Wow. Talk about grace in the face of disobedience. We believe deeply in God’s grace. God’s prevenient grace – that God loved us even before we knew it and God draws us to God’s self even when we don’t realize it. God’s justifying grace – where we realize the great gift of God’s salvation for us – that he died for our sins so that we can be again in right relationship with God. And lastly, God’s sanctifying grace – that God doesn’t leave us where we are, but we’re on a journey constantly growing and stretching in our faith and our understanding of God and discipleship. Grace. Nothing we’ve earned, but we’ve been given freely.
Before we close the book on the story, let’s look at the elder brother. The elder son was in the field and heard music and dancing as he approached the house. After he hears what has happened, he is angry and refuses to join the party. Again, the father could have easily reacted in anger, but he goes to his son, rushes out to him, and begins to plead with him. The son is extremely rude to his father. This son begins his speech with a Greek word that is often translated “Behold!” This version of the Bible has correctly caught the mood of the son by translating the word as “Listen!” His bitterness and anger are clear in his response. He sees himself as a slave working for his father rather than a son who is taking care of his own property.
Henri Nouwen, one of the great spiritual writers of the twentieth century, commented on the “lostness” of both sons in the story of the Prodigal Son. He wrote, “Did you ever notice how lost you are when you are resentful? It’s a very deep lostness. The younger son gets lost in a much more spectacular way — giving in to his lust and his greed, using women, playing poker, and losing his money. His wrongdoing is very clear-cut. He knows it and everybody else does, too. Because of it he can come back, and he can be forgiven. The problem with resentment is that it is not so clear-cut: It’s not spectacular. And it is not overt, and it can be covered by the appearance of a holy life. Resentment is so pernicious because it sits very deep in you, in your heart, in your bones, and in your flesh, and often you don’t even know it is there. You think you’re so good. But in fact you are lost in a very profound way.”

The thing is, whether we think we have it all figured out or if we have blatantly been living a life of disobedience, as Romans says, we have all fallen short of the glory of God. None of us has an edge on the sin market. We’re all in need of God’s grace. We are each part prodigal and part elder brother. As Karl Barth wrote, “If Jesus himself had not left the Father and traveled into the far country to share a table with sinners, we would still be there, eating those pig pods.”

And that is what we are to remember. Our text for today does not begin with the parable, but with Jesus interacting with the Pharisees. Our parable and the two that precede it, that of the lost sheep and the lost coin, are in direct response to this opening grumbling made by the Pharisees, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” We are called to do the same thing. I feel like I’ve been saying this all weekend, but we have got to share the light of Christ to all the world, to be the salt, to eat with sinners and Pharisees alike. If we share our little sparks in our daily walk with Jesus, may they become a raging fire, fanned by the flame of the Holy Spirit.

Spark by The City Harmonic