In the Gospel of Matthew there is an interchange between Jesus and the Pharisees and they ask him what is the greatest commandment, and Jesus says, “’You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 22:37-40) This, or something similar was a question that Jesus got quite often. Now in this particular instance the Pharisees are trying to get him to say something blasphemous, but in most of the other times the questioner is genuine in their desire to know what it is they are supposed to be doing. They are saying, I’m at point A and you want me to go to point X, so tell me what I need to do to get there, draw a map for me so I’m sure I’m doing the right things. That’s something all of us like. We want direction, we want to know what is expected of us, we want to know that we’re on the right path. There’s a reason why we have GPS’s in our cars and on our phones, so that we know where we are going and we don’t get lost when we’re driving. People are looking for the same things in their relationships with God.
As Methodism began to grow and spread throughout England, people began approaching John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, asking him to explain what they were supposed to be doing. Was their some set of rules, or a road map, that could be followed? To answer these questions, John Wesley created what became known as the “The Nature, Design and General Rules of Our United Societies.” The General Rules, which are still foundational to us as Methodists, served to encapsulate a simple set of principles to follow. Just like Jesus answer to the Pharisees, the General Rues did not tell the whole story of the faith, but they give us a foothold for letting us know where to start in our lives as Christians and where to come back when we have gone astray, and the rules are to do no harm, to do good, and to attend upon all the ordinances of God. In 2007, Bishop Reuben Job took Wesley’s general rules and updated them a little for a book he entitled Three Simple Rules. Over the next three weeks we’re going to be looking at these three simple rules, and we begin, appropriately enough, today with rule one, which is to do no harm.
Wesley’s original list was certainly geared for its time. Here is a partial list of some of the things he thought we should not be doing in order to avoid doing harm:
Buying, selling or drinking alcohol.
Fighting, quarreling, brawling, returning evil for evil
The giving or taking things on usury
Uncharitable or unprofitable conversation
Doing to others as we would not they should do unto us.In the early Methodist movement, it was expected that you would abide by these rules and if you were not willing to, or if you failed to obey them then you could and usually would be removed from the society until you repented of your ways and pledged again to abide by the rules.
Now we might wonder why this rule comes first, why it isn’t that we are supposed to stay in love with God first, and everything else would come after it. I don’t know why Wesley put this first, but, I suspect that this rule comes first probably because I think it is the hardest one to undertake. On its face the rule to do no harm seems easy enough. It’s certainly a rule that we can all understand, but once put into practice it’s not so easy to live out because first where does it end, how far do we extend this principle? We end up being like the lawyer, who when hearing the two commandments, then says to Jesus, “but who is my neighbor?” When we seek to do no harm in all things then we have to view everything as a creation of God and everyone as a child of God, who is loved by God and to treat them as such. That’s a hard thing to do. Because at its heart, at its core, doing no harm calls us into a radical sense of hospitality towards the world that is simply hard to undertake, and so we have to keep coming back to it again and again.
These are pictures that most of you have probably seen before. They are photos of Elizabeth Eckford, who was one of the first black students to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. On September 4, 1957, a group of nine black students were supposed to meet and proceed to the school together for their first day of classes, but Elizabeth, who was painfully shy, did not know about the prior arrangements and she arrived at the school before everyone else. She was met by an angry crowd, and suddenly she was all alone. As she began walking up to the school, a crowd of some 250 whites gathered around and started shouting at her: “Lynch her!” they cried. “Go back where you came from” “No nigger is going to enter our school.”
I apologize for the use of that word, but I want to be honest about what Elizabeth heard that day, and while we may say that sticks and stones may break our bones but that words will never hurt us, but we know it’s not true, that the words that are said can be extremely painful because of the intent with which they are used. The ugliness of the N word, which is still all too frequently used, along with lots of other derogatory terms that are thrown around which seek to classify people, usually as a way of saying they are less than us. Jesus said that “it’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but it’s what comes out that defiles.” (Matt. 15:11) It’s what comes out that defiles because its what comes out that reveals of the core of who we are, the core of what we think and believe, and when we use racial epithets, when we seek to demean, disgrace, or humiliate another person, then we reveal who we are, and we are clearly not doing no harm.
Looking for someone to help her, Elizabeth turned to an older woman who promptly spit in her face. Knowing she couldn’t go backwards because of the crowd, she said that she wanted to run away but thought she would fall down if she did. So, she decided to walk a block to a bus stop where she thought she would be safe, but the crowd followed her screaming taunts all the way. Can you see the anger on their faces? One of her tormentors was Hazel Bryan, a junior at Central High, who also freely used the n-word and told her to “Go back to Africa!” and then told reporters that blacks “aren’t the only ones who have rights; whites had rights too…” (sounds familiar) and that “if God had wanted blacks and whites to go to school together, he would have made us all the same color.”
First do no harm. We’ll look at what happened with Elizabeth more next week as we explore the second rule of doing good, but we should ask ourselves if we had been there that day would we have done anything differently? This week we recognize the 50th anniversary of the Rev. DR. Martin Luther King Jr’s, “I Have a Dream Speech,” which has sort of become a proud moment for the country, that most people cling to but we have highly sanitized what was happening that day. 50 years ago, more than 70% of people had a negative opinion of King, and the civil rights movement, and Life Magazine had even just published scathing editorial in opposition to King. After the speech, the FBI marked King as an enemy of the state, or in their words, that he was “the most dangerous negro for the future of this nation … and national security.”
Of course we all want to say that if we had been there that we would never have participated in what happened to Elizabeth, or to King, but is that really true? The people attacking Elizabeth that day were not special people. They were just like us, ordinary people. These were not atheists or pagans doing these things. In fact they were almost, if not exclusively, all Christians. But they wanted to demean and dehumanize Elizabeth, to bring her down and scare her away by hurling vile names and threats at her. They were people who had been in church the Sunday before and would be in church the Sunday after, and who told themselves that there was absolutely nothing wrong with what they were doing. In fact they were justified in what they were doing, often using scripture to justify their behavior
In today’s scripture passage, Jesus is teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath, when he sees a woman who is crippled, and is unable to stand up straight, and he heals her. Upon seeing this, the leader of the synagogue, chastises Jesus and the woman, that there are six days on which Jesus could have done this, or six days on which she could seek healing, but that work cannot be done on the Sabbath, the law is very clear on this, scripture is very clear. There is no question that Jesus is wrong and the leaders are right. They could show you exactly in scripture were God says that the Sabbath is holy, and that no work is to be done, and what was the punishment given in scripture for violating the Sabbath? Death.
Rev. Peter Gomes said that “a surplus of virtue, is more dangerous than a surplus of vice. Because,” Gomes said, “a surplus of virtue is not subject to the constraints of conscience.” Another way of saying this is that moral certitude causes more evil than just about anything else because there is nothing to check moral certitude. When we are convinced that we are morally correct in what we say and do, then there is nothing which can dissuade us and tell us we are wrong, not even God. Although we don’t normally worry about that because we are also convinced that God is on our side, after all we can’t possibly be wrong, and if we are right than God has to be on our side right? One of the reasons that doing no harm is so hard, Bishop Job says, is that it requires us “to give up our most cherished possession – the certainty that we are right and others wrong.” (p 26)
Of course Jesus rebukes the leader, telling them that while they would take care of their animals of the Sabbath, and does not the woman deserve at least the same as their animals? But of course the woman is crippled, and she falls outside of the bounds of acceptability, she is not welcome amongst those in the synagogue, and that’s what makes Jesus rebuke to them so strong is that he called her a daughter of Abraham. She is one of us, Jesus cries out, she is one of you, a daughter of Abraham, an heir to the promise. While the leader seeks to demean and disgrace, Jesus elevates and equalizes. This is a child of God, Jesus says, a daughter of Abraham, and with that the leader is shamed and the people rejoice. First, do no harm.
So let us return to that picture of Elizabeth Eckford and her taunters including Hazel Bryan. It would be so easy to villainize Hazel, to make her the poster child for everything that we abhor, but to do that to her would be no different from what she did to Elizabeth. In Thomas á Kempis’ seminal work The Imitation of Christ which was instrumental to Wesley’s thought, á Kempis says “We are quick enough to feel it when others hurt us – and we even harbor those feelings – but we do not notice how much we hurt others. A person who honestly examines his own behavior would never judge other people harshly.” When we do no harm, we begin to see Hazel just as much as a child of God as Elizabeth and to look at who she truly is and we find out that Hazel was routinely beaten by her father, had difficulties in school and one point attempted suicide. She was filled and surrounded with hate and fear, so is it any wonder that she acted on that hate and fear in the world?
Bishop Job says, “to do no harm means that I will be on guard so that all of my actions and even my silence will not add injury to another of God’s children or to any part of God’s creation…. I will determine every day that my life will always be invested in the effort to bring healing instead of hurt; wholeness instead of division; and harmony with the ways of Jesus rather than the ways of the world. When I commit myself to this way, I must see each person as a child of God – a recipient of love unearned, unlimited, and undeserved – just like myself.” When we begin with seeking to do no harm then we are forced to look past the front that people often present to mask their own pain, and to see them as they are, as children of God, even when they are people we think we are supposed to despise. When we seek to do no harm, we begin to realize that when we surround ourselves with fear and hate, that we become fearful and hateful. When we seek to do no harm, we become aware that to overcome evil in the world we do not have to become evil ourselves. When we seek to do no harm, we realize that everything we say and everything we do, and everything we do not say and do not do, impacts others.
Doing no harm is not about the extraordinary occurrences in our lives. It is about the innocuous, bland, occurrences that surround us every day. When we make the first rule to do no harm one of our operating principles we come to understand, just as Jesus did, that we are all God’s children, and that what comes out of our mouths, and what comes out of our actions, can defile or bless not only us, but can defiled or bless the world. When we seek to do no harm, it becomes who we are, we are transformed and through our words and actions we transform each other and we transform the world. Our lives become objects of healing and goodness to all those with whom we interact, and maybe just as importantly we become objects of healing and goodness to ourselves. May it be so. Amen.