Do No Harm
Today we begin a new sermon series called Three Simple Rules based on three rules that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, put forth as ways of living in the world for the early Methodists. The reason that John Wesley outlined the three rules is because one of the greatest challenges of being a faithful follower of Jesus in the world is living into the ideals of the two great Commandments that Jesus outlined for us. You remember what they were:
"Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as you love yourself."
While those sound like wonderful words and a powerful way to live life, they can be challenging to figure out how we live those out each and every day. I know this is true because I’ve heard many of you ask questions such as these:
“I would like to learn more about how to integrate my Christian faith into my daily life in a secular environment.”
“How can we be followers of Jesus in a corporate world? How do we gracefully shine our light in places where there is no God?”
“How do we live out our faith in our families and relationships?”
“How do we forgive when we have been hurt badly by someone?”
Those are all great questions and they point to how challenging it can be to live out our faith in today's world because there are so many decisions to make. We make decisions everyday about life. We make decisions at work about whether we should do something this way or that way. Do we do this in order to advance in the company or do you do that. We make decisions about how to use our words in our relationships. We make bigger decisions about where to live or where to work or where to retire. We make decisions about our health and well-being. We make decisions that impact our families and our friends and our neighbors and our coworkers.
And the hope is that somehow we can find some wise counsel. Something that’s going to be helpful and of course we have the Bible. And it is God’s Word, His instruction book for us. And yet oftentimes when we go to its pages we find out when we’re looking for advice it becomes very complicated. They are very complicated pieces of advice that end up muddying our mind. We need Cliff Notes which make things more accessible and easier to comprehend. What we need are bullet points. Bullet points are nice. They can help us understand virtually anything.
Two weeks ago members of our Building and Capital Campaign Committees made a presentation before our District Board of Building and Locations. We had an awesome 42 page presentation. A good bit of it is what we shared with you back in February. Several days before the meeting the District called me and said could we give them the bullet points. So that’s what we did. We gave them the bullet points and that 42 page presentation became a one-page bullet point summary.
You see the bullet points don't tell you the whole story but they give you a framework for understanding the story. The three simple rules that John Wesley coined don't tell us the whole story of the Bible but they give us a foothold for understanding what the story is about and how our story fits into the story of Jesus and what does it mean to be a follower of this man named Jesus.
The Bible has many commandments like not to be proud or conceited. Do not curse. (You heard some of these a moment ago in our Scripture reading.)
Don't repay anyone evil for evil. Let no debt remain outstanding. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not murder. Do not covet or be jealous. Do not have any other gods in your life besides the one true God. Do not take the Lord's name in vain. Do not eat rock badgers (I promise you that is in Leviticus.) When you're trying to figure out where to go eat today be sure you avoid the rock badgers, okay? Do not lie. Do not make a graven image. Do not judge. Do not hate your brother or sister. Do not let the Sun go down on your anger.
Or in short, do no harm. Do no harm. That’s how John Wesley summarized all of those commandments. It’s simple. It’s memorable. But what does it mean?
People debate this on deep levels in coffee shops, in university classrooms, and in Bible studies. And they debate it from two different angles.
And one is the angle called deontological ethics. Deontology comes from the Greek word deon, "obligation, duty." And a deontologist would say that we as humans have certain things that we are obligated to do and not to do. There are certain things that are right by their very nature and these are the things that we should occupy our time with. And there are certain things that are wrong by their very nature and we should avoid those things. Do not murder. Do not lie. Do not gossip. There are certain things which we just don't do because they are not right and so we follow a rule.
A deontologist would say it is very simple when you decide what it means to do no harm because there is a set of things which you can list as what would cause harm and you just follow the rules and don't do those things. But its not always that simple.
You see there’s another school of thought called teleological ethics. Teleology (teleological from Greek telos, “end”or “purpose”).
And teleologists would say that we all have a divine purpose and an end that we are moving towards. And as we are moving toward this end which Christians understand as the love of God and the love of neighbor; where everybody is alive in God and all stomachs are full. That if we are moving towards that goal then sometimes there could be a questionable behavior that is allowed. Sometimes they would say that the end justifies the means.
You can see how these two groups of people would argue about things, especially big topics like war. What does it mean to do no harm? It might sound like an easy question to answer but it can be more complicated at times.
Most of us are not in one school of thought or the other. We’re normally somewhere in between. I know that there are times when I am a deontologist and a rule follower. I also know that if someone came into my house to harm my wife or my family I would become a teleologist like that! I would use a roundhouse punch for good!
Teleology however is not just about rationalizing some harmful behavior in order to achieve the common good. Teleology also recognizes that sometimes we do things that seem innocent on the surface but they actually are quite harmful.
Take an action that seems as innocent as buying tomatoes. Buying tomatoes. You’ve never been in a grocery store with a lady with a bag full of tomatoes laughing with a sinister laugh. You never really see someone feels like they are doing something evil when they buy tomatoes. But in the book, Everyday Justice, it’s said that whenever we try to buy tomatoes in winter something happens in the process. Because in order for us in northern Virginia to get tomatoes in winter the tomatoes have to come from places like Florida. And it costs money to ship tomatoes from Florida to northern Virginia. And if we are trying to buy tomatoes at a certain price, the company has to pay the tomato farmers even less than they do at other times of the year. So buying tomatoes which seems like a very innocent act, by buying tomatoes in winter we could actually be participating in making poor farmers become even poorer.
So this action that’s not wrong in and of itself but when you step back you may see that doing harm maybe is exactly what is happening. You see God wants us to experience life that is full and abundant and anything that we do that steers us or someone else away from that abundant life may be causing harm. This means we need to stop and think more critically about what we do and how we behave because we are all interconnected in many ways.
Every person is a child of God and every person has sacred worth to God. The reason that God came in human form and was incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ was to send this a very clear message that God values people above all else. Wesley reminded his followers and we can take heed today knowing that doing no harm is about seeing each person the way God sees them, through the eyes of Jesus Christ. And either we get with the game or we don’t.
We should stop causing harm because we are all connected, much more connected than we had thought.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu oversaw the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. It is what helped the country get from the apartheid era of its history to a stage where it could even host an event like the World Cup. He was motivated by the African concept of “ubuntu.” Instead of “I think therefore I am,” ubuntu says, “I am connected therefore I am.”
Archbishop Tutu was interviewed and was asked to explain it a little bit better and Desmond Tutu said this. He said, “Ubuntu means that in order for you to be all that you can be, I have to be all that I can be.” Our lives are intertwined.
Forget rubber and glue because whatever we say sticks to them and sticks to you. When we rain on someone else's parade we step in the puddles. Our culture says that we are very independent and individual and you can choose to do whatever you want to do—if it feels good just do it because it doesn't impact anybody else. No! What you do with your life impacts what you do with your life. Ubuntu.
So whenever we’re at work and we manipulate somebody and we use them for our own advancement we create a culture of manipulation in the workplace that we have to live in.
If you go home and the first words out of your mouth are criticism and it slithers past your teeth then you have to spend the rest of the evening in the house environment that you just created.
This is why the Scriptures tell us that the best thing that we can do to find fulfillment and joy in life is to bless others. You are blessed to be a blessing and not simply meant to keep everything to yourself. You are meant to be a River that life flows through and not a clogged up reservoir where the water becomes stagnant and stale because you keep everything yourself. If you are blessing to your spouse, your kids, the waitress that brings your food and they are fully alive in God then it would benefit you because you have to live with them.
You know the pain we inflict on other people is pain that eventually we inflict upon ourselves. And if we are not careful we will repeat over and over again. We should quit harming people for that reason.
We should quit harming people because there is more to them than we thought. Dietrich Bonheoffer was a Lutheran pastor during the Holocaust and he died while in a concentration camp just before the Allied forces liberated Germany. One of my favorite books is his Letters and Papers from Prison. He wrote these words in one of his letters.
"We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do and more in the light of what they suffer."
We harm other people because we don't think they are children of God. We harm people because we don't recognize how connected we all are and that it harms us in the process. We move so fast through life that everybody else is a blur. And we don’t slow down enough to see the features on their face, the hurt in their eyes, or the scar on their cheek.
We don’t realize that they have some of the same insecurities and pains that we have. That their life is maybe much more difficult than we ever gave them credit for.
I want to ask you to help me with this illustration and I want you to show with a raised hand. Who here in this room has experienced cancer in a very personal way in your life or in the life of a loved one? Please raise your hand.
Now hold your hand up nice and high. I want you to look around. Look at all the hands. Tread lightly. Do no harm.
Another question. By your own definition if you have been personally affected in some significant way by the recession, the economic downturn, or the government shutdown raise your hand. Raise it high and look around. Tread lightly. Do no harm.
One more. If you are a Redskins or Nationals fan raise your hand. Raise them high and look around. Tread lightly. Do no harm. You have no idea what we have gone through. I want to give you all a big old hug and tell you it’s all going to be ok. But I can’t.
Every one of us here has experienced immense amounts of pain. No one can ever guess how much pain you have gone through. And we have a chance either to incorporate that knowledge into our life and make that change our behaviors or not. We have a chance to recognize just how vulnerable we all are and if we do then maybe we start approaching people with gentleness. Maybe the person who’s late responding to an email is late because something’s happening in their family that’s a little more important. Maybe they are as wounded as you are and they need the grace and the benefit of the doubt as much as you need grace and the benefit of the doubt.
We should quit harming others and yet the words fly and phones remain uncalled. We still harm.
And one reason we harm is because of the way it makes us feel. You know when we hurt others we do it because we get something out of it. Everything a person does they do because they get something out of it. And when we hurt others it somehow makes us feel better. You know if you’re feeling insignificant the best way to get to feeling better quickly is to make somebody else feel even more insignificant. Then you’re saying to yourself, “I may not be the best person around here, but at least I’m not them.”
Or if somebody blames you for something to make yourself feel better you blame somebody else. We do this because we get something out of it. It feels good.
Let me give you a really concrete example of how this works for us.
I have here with me 12 fresh doughnuts from Krispy Kream. When I first got them this morning they were warm. The first doughnut you eat tastes pretty good doesn't it? Then you eat a few more and your stomach starts to feel a bit queasy. How do you feel if you eat the whole box? You will feel sick to your stomach.
Would any of you like to try that this morning? I have a confession to make. I’ve done it before. It’s called high school.
What do you think I was feeling after eating a whole dozen of Krispy Kream Donuts? Sick right?
The weird thing about eating a dozen Krispy Kream donuts is that at the end of eating 12 glazed donuts you don’t feel full. You don’t feel satisfied. You don’t think to yourself, “That was a good idea. I’m glad I did that.” In fact with each donut that you eat you get less and less enjoyment out of it.
They call that the law of diminishing returns. This law says that the more that you do something that was pleasurable at first, like drinking alcohol or gambling or eating glazed doughnuts or doing harm to others, the less pleasure you get from doing it just once. You have to do it more and more in order to achieve that high. We get less of a good feeling out of doing these things over time but we find it hard to stop doing them because we remember that at one point it did feel good and we keep pursuing that experience again and again even if it leads to our own destruction.
Then we start to live out a saying that has been around a while. I think I have even seen it on a bumper sticker. Hurt people hurt people. We who hurt and harm others are usually those who have been harmed and wounded ourselves. Somehow we try to make ourselves feel better by causing other people more pain and yet we find that this does not lead to life or joy. And so we carry this pain around within us sometimes for years and years.
In John 5 we hear these words:
“Jesus returned to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish holy days. Inside the city, near the Sheep Gate, was the pool of Bethesda, with five covered porches. Crowds of sick people—blind, lame, or paralyzed—lay on the porches. One of the men lying there had been sick for thirty-eight years.”
Now Jesus healed this man. But the power of this story is not just the fact that Jesus healed this man. Archaeologists discovered that this pool at Bethesda was dedicated to the Roman god Asclepius. This was the Roman god of healing. So this man was not just looking for healing, but he was looking for healing in the wrong place.
You know when we are hurting and we are looking for healing in the wrong place, we’re following this man’s example. Hurt people hurt people. And we’re experiencing so much pain that we think that if somehow if we hurt somebody else then that’s going to make us feel better. We repeat this over and over again and we can't figure out why we never find healing.
How long have you been at your pool of Bethesda? Have you been there for 38 years? Hoping for a different outcome for your actions? Have you been there for 6 months?
Some of the happiest and nicest people in the world have experienced the same or similar pains as you have. Some of the unhappiest and meanest people in the world have experienced similar pains as you have. The difference between the 2 groups is not in the severity of the pain, but it is in the decision they made of what to do with the pain. The decision of either taking the pain and giving them to Jesus and having Jesus do something with it or taking the pain as the motivator for doing their actions with harming others.
Without raising your hand I want to ask you a couple of questions.
Who here understands what rejection feels like?
Who knows what it’s like to have a broken dream?
Who knows the pain of feeling like you have to be perfect to get the love that you deserve? And if you’re not getting the love that you deserve it must be because you’re not good enough.
Who understands the fear of abandonment?
Look around. We are the walking wounded.
The good news of Jesus Christ is not that you can just take the words "do no harm" and do life better. Those words will help. The good news is that Jesus Christ can find you at your pool of Bethesda too and offer healing and out of your brokenness you can find the strength to do no harm because you recognize that each one of us is broken in some way. He can forgive you for all the things that you’ve been doing that’s been causing harm to others. And if you receive forgiveness, the forgiveness that comes out of the cross, if you receive that forgiveness then maybe you’ll be a little less stingy with grace.
And when somebody offends you or wrongs you maybe you’ll give them just a little more grace than you did before.
Or maybe Jesus can heal you just by showing just how much you’re loved, and if you feel that you are loved to your core maybe you’re less inspired to cause another person pain and to make them feel little so that you can feel better.
Jesus can find you at your pool of Bethesda. He can find you. He can forgive you. And He can heal you. He can do all these things for you. And the only thing that will stop hurt from having a domino effect from your life into another person’s life and in to another person’s life, the only thing that can stop that is Jesus Christ. And if you give your hurts over to Jesus and say, “I’m ready for a change. Save me.” If you are to do that then you will be gathered with other people like you making that same pledge who are being mended and to experience the truth that hurt people can heal people.
When you look at decisions and all the decisions that face you, big and small, you have to examine what decision is going to cause the harm.
Do no harm. Do no harm because it's better for your own soul. Do no harm because you recognize that we are more connected than you thought we were. Do no harm because when you inflict pain on others you eventually inflict pain on yourself as well. Do no harm because you recognize that each one of us experiences pain.
More than anything else do no harm because you recognize that in the end God wins and your hurts will be healed through Jesus Christ. When you recognize this then your motivation for hurting others no longer exists.
You have decisions facing you and you’re asking the question, “What to do? What to do?”
The answer is to do no harm.
We’re going to close in a prayer. And when I pray I want to say the phrase, “Lord, Christ Jesus.” And when I say the phrase, “Lord, Christ Jesus,” I want you to collectively respond as a prayer the words, “Save us.” This is a chance for you to talk to God and make this be a very real and important moment in your life and in the life of the people who love you.
Let us pray:
God we know that we have experienced pain in our own life that would inspire us to move away from others. We have heard horrible words like, "I don't love you anymore." Along the way we have picked up messages which say that we are not good enough. God we are terrified that these messages are true and we replay them over and over in our head. God we pray that you would heal us from all these hurts, “Lord, Christ Jesus”
Response: “Save us!”
Oh God we have taken our pain and paid it forward. Our words have sometimes been cruel. We have not been a safe place for other people were wounded to find healing. We have harmed others in the things that we have done and things we have left undone. We have delayed justice and often been obsessed with our own needs. God, we pray for forgiveness, “Lord, Christ Jesus”
Response: “Save us!”
We are ready for change. Today we pledge and we decide to give our hearts to you so that you can make us something new. You can make us into something that is more beautiful even now than we could ever imagine. We pray that you would come into our lives and make us a new creation. Heal us, “Lord, Christ Jesus.”
Response: “Save us!”
In Jesus name we pray, Amen.