3 Simple Rules: Do No Harm

Scripture Readings:

Deuteronomy 6:5 – You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

Leviticus 19:18 – You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Matthew 22:35-40 – and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.  ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘“You shall 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.’

With the beginning of a new school year, Jennifer saw this sermon theme to fit right in with the rules that teachers list in their classrooms for the first day of school for their students. We need rules and laws to keep some kind of order or we would live in perilous chaos. God recognized this need and gave the Hebrew people not just the ten rules to live by, which we now call the Ten Commandments, but God gave the Hebrew people 613 laws which they were to obey. When Jesus was asked which one of these laws were the most important, he summarized all 613 laws including the 10 Commandments into two: Love God and love neighbor. 

In the 1700s when John Wesley was reviving the Anglican Church through the method of accountability groups called societies, he took the two laws that Jesus gave us and expanded them into three. He thought that to love our neighbor we need to do these two things: Do no harm and Do good. And the third rule is to Love God. Each Sunday we will be examining one of these rules. This week we will be delving into “Do No Harm.”

Would you pray with me? Lord, as we come to you this morning we want to ignore how we may have harmed someone with our thoughts, words, and deeds; yet by your grace you continue to nudge us to examine our hearts and lives so that we can be loving toward all of your people. As we hear your word proclaimed, open our eyes to see what it is you want us to see. Open our ears to hear what it is you want us to hear; and open our hearts and minds to receive the word you have for each of us and all of us this day. Amen. 

In 2007 United Methodist Bishop Reuben Job wrote a small book called Three Simple Rules, A Wesleyan Way of Living. In this book he began a revival of John Wesley’s General Rules for the Societies. These rules are printed in every United Methodist Book of Discipline. When Bishop Job wrote this book, he saw a need for the Church to live by these rules again: Do No Harm, Do Good, and Stay in Love with God. As I reread this small book to prepare for these sermons, I realized that we still need to practice these rules. Our world is still frenzied and even more divided than ever. What would our world look like, sound like, be like if everyone made it their mission to do no harm to anyone? If we truly practiced these rules, could we change our world?

A friend said to me, “What is it about us that our first reaction is to be cruel? Why do we devalue others just to make ourselves feel better? No matter how much you think you are a good, loving Christian once you are behind the wheel of a car and someone cuts you off, your religion flies out the window!” Another friend said, “When we were growing up, we would anonymously write on the bathroom walls nasty things about kids we didn’t like. Now kids write even worse things about others on various social media outlets. These words hurt some so deeply that they commit suicide.” Another friend said, “You don’t have to be a teen-ager to have hurtful things posted about you. Adults can say some of the nastiest things about others I have ever read! It is atrocious! And some of these people who are posting call themselves Christians! If I spoke this way gowring up, my parents would have punished me. People just do not have any manners anymore. What are we becoming?”

Yes, we need to be reminded yet again that one way to love our neighbor is to “Do No Harm.” Think about this. What are some ways that we harm others in 2022? When John Wesley wrote the General Rules for the Societies, he listed some things people were to not do. “Do no harm” has the longest list out of the three. Even in the 1700s, people could find all kinds of ways to harm others, too. Here is an abbreviated list. “First: By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind…The taking of the name of God in vain (the third commandment); profaning the day of the Lord, by doing ordinary work or [shopping] (the fifth commandment); drunkenness..(American Methodists were leaders in the Prohibition movement in early part of the 20th century); slaveholding, buying and selling slaves (This had an impact on Britian outlawing slavery in 1807); fighting and quarreling, returning evil for evil; uncharitable or unprofitable conversation; doing unto others as we would not they should do unto us (or don’t do harm to others that you don’t want done to you.); doing what we know is not for the glory of God, such as: wearing costly jewelry, diversions that take you away from the Lord, singing songs and reading books that do not honor God, needless self-indulgence, laying up treasures on earth, borrowing with no intent of paying back.” All who participated in these Methodist societies were expected to follow these rules as “evidence [of] their desire for salvation.” Following these rules was the “method” of holy living as a follower of Jesus. What method do we follow today? What rules do we live by? How are we witnesses of God’s love for all people?

The churches in Ephesus were not being good witnesses of God’s love. The Apostle Paul wrote to them, “Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say. Don’t make the Holy Spirit of God unhappy—you were sealed by him for the day of redemption. Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil.” Paul didn’t mince words with the Ephesian churches to “Do No Harm.” (Ephesians 4:29-31 CEB).

Today, we find the phrase, “First, do no harm,” used in the medical field. It is the basis for ethical medical practice. No one wants anyone in the medical field to intentionally harm them. Those in the medical field are to be agents of healing and not an instrument of harm. I also found the phrase on World Vision’s website. World Vision feeds the hungry all over the world. However, something as providing food to the hungry can become a political hot potato. World Vision outlines steps on their website how they strive to do no harm when providing aid in other nations. What would our world be like if every profession adopted the phrase, “First, do no harm?” We saw in our news article what truck driving would look like if truck drivers drove with this motto. What would our world be like if journalists, financial investors, lawyers, educators, those in law enforcement, politicians, the manufacturing industry, the food industry, the military, those who make government policies, and others would adopt a “First, do no harm” policy? There are people in each of these and other professions that do seek to do no harm. And for that we need to be grateful. However, when we do not adopt “First, do no harm,” our world becomes an ugly, hate-filled place.

What is it about humanity that we will harm others, often without a care? Selfishness and self-preservation. We will diminish others by name calling or being violent in some way when we are feeling bad or insecure about ourselves. This makes us feel superior. When we hold power over another, we will do all we can to keep that power no matter how much harm is done to others. In business, we may cut corners so that we can put more money in our pockets, rather than make sure others are safe and cared for. Greed is a form of selfishness. Another form of greed is to hoard more than we need while others are in dire need, just for our own self-preservation. Harming others in thought, word, or deed is the opposite of being kind and loving. 

What happens if we decide to do no harm, to not be destructive or to deny life to others? First, we have to put our whole faith and trust in God. We choose to follow the example of Christ who never harmed another and who called for us to love and become one. Jesus may have disagreed with how the Pharisees interpreted the scriptures, but he never put them down or physically harmed them. He tried hard to get them to understand his interpretation. Following Jesus is a radical, risky first step. Second, we will have to set aside certain ideologies or beliefs in which we know we are right and the rest of the world is wrong. We will need to let go of our fears, our anger, the need to seek revenge and retaliate, our need for greed, our bent to hate, our desire for selfishness and self-preservation as we bind ourselves to the sacrificial love of Christ. Third, when we choose to do no harm, then we can honor the other by having honest conversations in which we discover new insights and possibilities. We can see and hear each other more clearly. We will not gossip about a conflict. We won’t manipulate the facts. We will not diminish those who disagree with us. 

When we choose to do no harm, we choose to be agents of healing and not hurt. When we choose to do no harm, we strive for wholeness and unity, rather than division. When we choose to do no harm, there is no “us” vs. “them.” We see every person on the face of this earth as a child of God, a recipient of God’s love and grace, also. Risky? Yes, but we are never alone in our endeavors. God is always standing with us with the Spirit’s Presence and Power so we can practice our faith with integrity and loyalty to Jesus whom we choose to follow. 

-Rev. Dr. Sue Shorb-Sterling