Do No Harm by Pastor Leah Rosso

Would you believe that those kids had never played chimes until a month ago? Or that Vicki hadn’t taught kids until then? And yet they are all so confident now. I love that when I ask any of you kids what you’re good at, you give me a long list. I love that you are confident that you can do anything, learn anything, accomplish anything. The idea of playing chimes for a song in worship didn’t even phase you a month ago, and it definitely didn’t phase you this morning.

I want to tell you kids a secret this morning. Sometimes it’s harder for adults to start something new than it is for kids. Just over a year ago, I started a yoga class at the Y. And it was challenging at first. I didn’t know the language. I didn’t know the protocol. There were days I was afraid that when we got to the end of class that I was going to fall asleep and the instructor would have to wake me up before the next class began. I had to learn again what it meant to start something new. If you’re a guest with us this morning, than you already know what I’m talking about. There may have already been a dozen words you didn’t know or acronyms like UMW and YAH in your bulletin that you wondered about. How do you begin to look for a church? Where do you go to find out what they believe or whether you’ll fit in?

John Wesley, the leader of the people who originally got named Methodists, was always trying to keep the practical living of faith combined with sound theology. He worried that the Christians of his day were not very concerned with following Jesus— that they were substituting a vibrant, dynamic faith in Christ with just coming to worship once a week. He wanted Christians to be focused on renewing their hearts in the image of God— on being disciples of Jesus— rather than focused on the institution— the church— that was formed to help people do those things.

So whenever anyone showed interest in wanting to commit their lives to God and be saved from their sin, Wesley would connect them with a United Society— a group of people also interested in committing their lives to God and being saved from their sins— and Wesley gave them three rules to follow in their society: Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God by practicing your faith. This, he believed, was a good place to start living out your faith. Do no harm, do good, stay in love with God. With these three simple rules, as a new believer or someone new to the Christian faith, you would have a place to start, to know what to do, and once you began living these three simple rules, you’d soon find out that their simplicity is deceiving and that you’ll be trying to live them the rest of your days.

These rules, in fact, became so important to the early Methodists and onward into United Methodism here in the United States, that even to this day, when the Bishop publicly asks the historical questions of our faith to those coming to be ordained, 2 of those questions are about the General Rules: “Do you know the General Rules?” and, “Will you keep the General Rules?”

Today we’re focusing on “do no harm.” Do no harm may seem easy and obvious at first, but it’s not a practice we see a lot in our world today. Imagine what a difference it would make if we were all committed to doing no harm. Imagine for a moment what would our political arena could look like if our politicians adopted a policy of doing no harm— even if it was just that they would promise not to harm each other. Imagine what could business look like if the people in every office committed to doing no harm to one another. How much more productive could a department be if everyone believed that no one was going to try to harm them in any way? If no one gossiped about another; or ridiculed another; or turned friendly competition into a place of shame. What could our relationships look like— with family, with friends, with neighbors, with our spouse— if we were committed to doing no harm?

In Galatians, the Apostle Paul has his own list of what is harmful, which Marusha read so confidently this morning. Paul describes them as acts with selfish motives— moral corruption, idolatry, drug use, hate, fighting, rage, group rivalry, jealousy, drunkenness, obsession. This isn’t so different from John Wesley’s list of doing no harm, though Wesley’s is a bit longer. I want to show it to you this morning, but as you see these things on the screen— the things that Wesley encouraged us not to do as we seek to do no harm— remember that this was written in 1739. This is 37 years before the Declaration of Independence was signed and the United States became a country.

Wesley wrote that in order to do no harm— to avoid evil of every kind— we should avoid certain things— especially that which is most generally practiced, such as:

  • Taking God’s name in vain
  • Profaning the day of the Lord (Sunday) by doing ordinary work or by selling or buying
  • Drunkeness, as well as buying or selling liquor (unless in extreme necessity)
  • Slaveholding, as well as buying or selling slaves (126 years before slaves were freed!)
  • Fighting, quarreling, or returning evil for evil
  • buying or selling goods that have not paid the duty
  • giving or taking things with interest
  • uncharitable conversation— particularly speaking ill of magistrates or ministers
  • doing to others what we wouldn’t want them to do to us
  • Doing what we know is not for the glory of God
  • wearing expensive clothes and jewelry
  • singing songs, reading books which do not tend to the love of God
  • needless self-indulgence
  • Laying up treasures on earth
  • borrowing without a probability of paying for what you borrowed

Some of these may seem obvious to you; others may make you feel a bit defensive. Just sit with that for a moment. We are good at deceiving ourselves about what is harmful and what is not.

It is both simple and difficult to do no harm. We see this in Jesus’ own temptations in the desert. Jesus is visited by the devil offering him what we can only guess are the things that tempted him the most— the temptation to turn stones into bread so that he can feed the world, but in doing so will deny the laws of nature that God has placed on the earth and will reduce God into a bread basket. Jesus is told to throw himself off of a cliff so that everyone can see the angels who will save him— what an amazing temptation this would be, to do miracles for the sake of doing a miracle, proving that God exists. But Jesus recognizes that miracles do not produce faith and so he resists the temptation to try to prove he is loved by God. Jesus is offered the temptation to rule over everything— to become the Emporer of all he can see— if he will just bow down to Satan— and once again, he chooses to do no harm— even when, in this situation, it might seem like he could do so much good.

With each temptation Jesus chooses, very actively, to do no harm. And by choosing to do no harm, Jesus creates a space for his ministry. This is not just a commitment he makes in the desert for one month of his life; it is a commitment he has made for all of his ministry. It’s what allows him to create space where tax collectors are welcomed; where lepers know they will be seen; where women choose to be disciples. People notice that he is committed to doing no harm; and it changes how they relate to him and how they relate to one another.

What would it look like to do no harm in your life?

  • To choose to not say the angry words to your spouse or your boss or your child that seem like they would feel so good to say.
  • To choose to change your habits so that your lifestyle doesn’t harm the earth.
  • To choose to rest instead of working through the sabbath day so that you can remember that you are not God and the world does not revolve around you or depend on you.
  • To choose not to buy that which you can’t afford or is not necessary to your daily life so that you won’t be in debt and switch your allegiance to who and what is important in your life.
  • To choose to see who is being harmed in your world by the systems that are in place, and to let go of your silence around those systems.

And, to not get overwhelmed, but take it step by step. We have to resist throwing our hands in the air when we get overwhelmed by trying not to do harm. And we have to resist focusing so much on ourselves that we don’t realize the harm we’re doing. And I suppose that’s what this is really all about— being aware of the impact we are having and caring enough about the world around us— both people and creation— that we live carefully— full of care— for those around us and those beyond ourselves.

In Galatians we are told that when we resist that list of harmful things, than we create space for the fruits of the Spirit— love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. I think the same thing happened to Jesus in the wilderness. When he chose to do no harm— to resist the temptations that would’ve taken him off course and done more harm than good, he made space to be who he was called to be. Doing no harm freed him up to do good and to stay in love with God.

So let’s begin there— with doing no harm— and see how far it gets us. You may be surprised at what can happen when we commit to doing no harm. Imagine how we could experience the world differently just by following Christ into living this one simple rule!

Resources Cited/Consulted:

Three Simples Rules by Bishop Reuben Job The United Methodist Book of Discipline, 2012 John Wesley’s Sermons, compiled by Albert Outler and Richard Heitzenrater