August 9, 2009 - Ephesians 4:25-5:2
Last week I suggested that growing the church could mean an increase in love whatever the numbers might be. This week we are given some details about what that might look like in the community of the beloved.
At the heart of the matter is the end of slander and malice and the embrace of kindness and mercy. These sound like such simple mundane things but they signal a profound change of heart with enormous practical consequences. When Bishop Reuben Job wrote his little book on the Three Simple Rules reflecting on John Wesley's General Rules for Methodist Societies he wrote how the practice of the first rule "Do no Harm" changed how he dealt with conflict and disagreement. I have also found, he wrote, that this first simple step, when practiced, can provide a safe place to stand while the hard and faithful work of discernment is done. When we agree that we will not harm those with whom we disagree, conversation, dialogue, and discovery of new insight become possible. He goes on to offer more detail: 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.
It is interesting to me that when John Wesley first came up with this General Rule he put it this way: By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced. Especially that which is most generally practiced. I suspect that most of us tend to think of evil as something big and extraordinary, cataclysmic, even, but perhaps it is useful for us to entertain the idea that evil is also small and plain and all too ordinary. It is perhaps most damaging in its simple everyday forms that become habitual with us, an unkind word, an exaggeration of the facts for our own benefit or to the detriment of another, meanly assuming the worst of those who disagree with us and so on.
You may not be surprised to know that such issues are nothing new with us. Thomas ? Kempis writing in his classical little book entitled The Imitation of Christ 500 years ago said this: We cannot trust ourselves too much, because we often lack grace and understanding. The light within us is small, and we soon let even this burn out for lack of care. We condemn small things in others and pass over serious things in ourselves. We are quick enough to feel it when others hurt us - and we even harbor these 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.
A person who honestly examines his own behavior would never judge another too harshly. And I guess this is where it begins really, with confession, an honest examination of the ways we do cause harm. How can we do no harm if we have not realized what harm we have done and are doing? The good Bishop in speculating about why we do not practice this first rule asks the defining question: Are we ready to give up our most cherished possession - the certainty that we are right and others wrong? This raises what I believe we could call a conundrum: what if being right gets in the way of love? Can we trust God enough to give up the illusion of our own power to always be right in order to discover the truth and ultimately the way of love?
We religious types may be confused by this because we may think that love and what is right are the same thing so how can one be in the way of the other but the problem is that love lays itself down for others while being right insists on its own way. As Mark Twain famously said: He was a good man in the worst sense of the word. I think most of us have come across someone who was so right he was wrong. Perhaps some of us have even recognized that person in our self. It is a particularly vexing problem among the religious to need to be the one who is right. Where this rule, to do no harm, comes in is to raise the possibility that there may be something even more important than being right especially if what is right is actually causing harm. Is there anyone within the community of faith who really believes that this does not happen in the community of faith?
Bishop Job says that if we were to take this first rule seriously it would mean an examination of the way we live and practice our faith. And if this examination were thorough, it would surely lead to a change in the way we practice our faith. He goes on to say: To do no harm is a proactive response to all that is evil - all that is damaging and destructive to humankind and God's good creation, and therefore, ultimately destructive to us. 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. And it is this vision of every other person as the object of God's love and deep awareness that I too live in the loving Presence that can hold me accountable to my committment to do no harm. And then the Bishop comes out with it: Perhaps the greatest consequence of all is that we are formed and transformed to live more and more as Jesus lived. As the text said last week to come to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. In other words to be what god made us to be, to be the presence of Christ in the world. Wouldn't we like to be that Church, the one that embodies the living Christ in spirit and in practice?!
Seeing through the eyes of Jesus is to see the sacred worth of every living thing and to see the connection, the interdependence between all of life. Enlightenment is when we understand that harming another is also harming our self. It is not enough to be right. We are called, as the writer to the Ephesian Church put it, to live in love. We are challenged by John Wesley to do no harm. Will we always succeed? Of course not. Even the Bishop asked the question: Is it possible to live in this complex and violent world without doing harm? A question which, by the way, he did not directly answer except to say that Jesus himself (remember him?) taught and practiced a way of living that did no harm and that our taking this simple step of wanting and practicing to do no harm will change your life in good and wonderful ways . . .
As we should know by now we don't do any of this in order to be successful but rather to be faithful. It is certainly a real and good beginning toward being imitators of God as the writer of our text today implores us to be. I call upon you, the good people of these United Methodist congregations on this day that we examine our ways and change those things that are needed to be changed in order to practice doing no harm that we may continue to grow and increase in love and the measure of the fullness of Christ, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
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