**A note about this sermon- I had planned this sermon title and had an idea a few weeks ago, about what it would look like/sound like, but as I began writing it, it went in an entirely different direction. As I started writing and reflecting upon this idea of “do no harm,” I felt that I was grabbed and drawn into it. Honestly, preparing and preaching this sermon felt like I was bearing a part of my heart and soul. I had a lot of positive feedback from the congregation as well. Don’t you love when God does something unexpected? Enjoy.
38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
How many of you have someone or something with whom you disagree? (That should be all of us!) I have many someones and somethings with whom I disagree, but probably one of the groups I have the most visceral, blood pressure raising, angry reaction to is the people of Westboro Baptist Church- a group whose sole purpose is to preach about how much God, in fact, hates people. Whenever I see them on the news picketing a funeral of a solider or a child or a gay person or protesting with their hate-filled signs outside of a church or event, I honestly just want to walk up and smack one of them or yell at them about how wrong and how hateful and how terrible they are. In fact, they came to a church right down the road from the church I served in Terre Haute and I was oh so tempted to give them a piece of my mind. But in all honesty, that would not do anyone any good. In fact, it would probably just stir them up even more. And on top of that, I wouldn’t be a Christ like example with my behavior either!
Things like this happen on social media all the time. In fact, I would argue that facebook has just become a huge platform for people to argue and debate and throw hateful and angry words around just because someone doesn’t agree with someone else. And sometimes the hateful words are directed at someone they don’t even know! And furthermore, I am convinced that the lowest of the low are the people who write hateful comments on news articles. The worst are the ones that tend to accompany news stories about tragedies or acts of violence. Some of the comments that I see on these stories make me physically ill and I have to make myself stop reading them before I begin to get a really dark view of humanity.
To make things even more complicated, today’s text is a reminder that Jesus doesn’t tell us to fight those with whom we disagree. He tells us to love them instead. He doesn’t just tell us to love them either- he tells us to go out of our way to love them- to turn the other cheek, to offer them our cloaks, and to go not just 1 mile, but a second mile- to love our enemies, and to remember that God is God of the just and unjust, the God of you and me, AND the God of those with whom you disagree. Ooh, even saying that makes me a little anxious! It’s so hard, isn’t it? It’s so difficult in the midst of feeling bitter or angry or frustrated to look at someone and say, “God loves you, and therefore, so should I.” It is so difficult when someone has done you wrong to look them in the eye and try to see the image of God in them somewhere. It’s even more difficult to go out of our way to let them know we still see them as a child of God because in that moment, everything in our nature is telling us to back away, to fight back, or see that they get what’s coming to them.
We live in a society that thrives on drama and vengeance. Think about it. How many shows on TV are about someone doing harm to someone else, and then that person sets out to avenge what has happened or to see that that person “gets theirs.” One of my personal guilty pleasures is the TV show, “Revenge,” which is about a young woman who sets out to get revenge on the wealthy family who framed her father for a terrorist act. Her father was taken away from her while she was very young and was thrown in prison where he was murdered. Years later, with the fortune her father left her, she moves next door to the guilty family who got away with murder and much more. She takes on a new identity and makes it her top priority to avenge her father’s death with elaborate plans of betrayal, framing, and murder. The show has many twists and turns and is great entertainment. Even the show’s name, “Revenge” is enough to get millions of viewers interested. On the contrary, years ago, NBC aired a show with the title, “Do No Harm,” which was a modern take on the classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story, but it lasted for only 2 episodes before the network pulled it off the air due to terribly low ratings. In fact, the show was the lowest in-season debut aired on a major network ever. There was no evidence that the show tanked because of its name, but when we weigh “Do No Harm” against shows with titles like “Fast and Furious,” “Falling Skies,” “Breaking Bad,” “Sudden Impact,” or “Walking Dead,” if we’re honest, the show does sound…well…unexciting…maybe even boring! (Homiletics).
But I sincerely hope that we wouldn’t call the words of Jesus “boring,” because his challenging words for us this morning fall directly into that “do no harm” category. His lesson is loud and clear: when someone does you wrong, you have to decide how you’re going to re-act. You can hit back, you can set out for revenge, you can raise your voice or use hateful words or refuse to add to the problem. And going one step further, you can choose to love…or forgive…you could choose to do no harm. Once again I am reminded of Eva Kor’s story of her forgiveness of Dr. Mengele and the Nazis. Instead of seeking revenge, she has chosen to forgive and sow seeds of peace. One person at a time, Eva is changing and inspiring the world- I truly believe that. She is doing no harm where she easily could have retaliated. Instead, she chose to let go of bitterness and hatred and chose reconciliation. The choice was hers to make. Her path to forgiveness came when she had the chance to meet with an actual Nazi doctor- one who, in fact, was an eyewitness to the horrors of the gas chambers at Auschwitz. She tells the story about how she flew to Germany to meet him and was so nervous that she lost weight and sleep over the meeting, fretting about what would happen, how he would treat her, what they would say to one another. But when she met him at his home, she was surprised to find that he was kind, respectful, and treated her like a human being- he treated her well above and beyond what she expected. Out of this historic conversation came a signed witness statement from this Nazi doctor that would challenge any deniers of the Holocaust. 50 years after her liberation, as Eva stood beside this doctor at Auschwitz she realized that her victimhood, bitterness, and anger would no longer hold her captive, and her journey of forgiveness and peace began. An important note to Eva’s story is that she did choose to fight back and stand up for herself, but she did this in a peaceful way. A key to Eva’s understanding of forgiveness is that forgiving someone doesn’t mean that they are still in your life or even should be. Forgiving and letting go is something we do for ourselves, not necessarily for the other person. This is important in situations of abuse or violence. Part of this text today is also knowing when to walk away and when to seek justice for ourselves. The choices we make are also about empowering ourselves, but in a way that promotes peace instead of further hate.
It’s really all about the choices we make. We choose how we are going to react to someone who has done us wrong or someone with whom we have a disagreement. We can continue the cycle of anger or bitterness, or we could choose to love and forgive instead. We can continue to find ourselves in hopeless situations, or we can choose to walk away and seek justice and peace for ourselves in a way that doesn’t harm anyone else. Jesus challenges us to choose love above our divisions and disagreements, above our own pride and anger, above anything that gets in the way of loving God and neighbor- we are to choose love. And if we cannot choose love- if our hurt or pain is just too much, we are at least to choose not to do harm. In this I am reminded of John Wesley’s 3 simple rules for faith and living: Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God. These are rules that will guide us through our every day if we choose to follow them. If we can set out each day to do these 3 things, then we are ever closer to living a righteous and faithful life. At those moments where we just want to lash out at someone or if we find ourselves in a difficult conversation where we must choose our words carefully, we are to call to mind these things: First, do no harm- which is really the foundation of Christian living-ask: what words can I use that will not be hurtful, but might be helpful instead? What actions will convey respect instead of belittling? How can I simply refrain from doing harm? Second, do good- ask: what can I do to help this person? How can I love them even at this moment? How can I do this in a way that I can still love myself? Third, stay in love with God- pray, discern, ask God to strengthen your own soul in the midst of anger and bitterness, be mindful that God loves this person in the same way that God loves you. Let God empower you in the situation to seek peace in whatever form is appropriate.
Even though these are the 3 “simple” rules, when put into difficult contexts, these issues are not simple in the midst of a divided world. I struggle everyday as a pastor with the reality of a divided church, divided clergy, and broken relationships. It is no secret that our church as a whole and our nation is divided over so many things. Right now the top stories of division in the news are about issues of race (sad that this still goes on) and the rights of gays and lesbians. The United Methodist Church continues its bitter division over homosexuality to the point where many believe there is a split on the horizon. People are bitter and angry on all sides to the point where we are all doing harm to the church itself because the church cannot move forward and do ministry until sides put down their weapons and agree to just be the church and love one another and be with and in ministry to all persons. I personally am tired of the fight. I believe so strongly that the church should imitate Jesus in reaching out to all people, regardless of their gender, race, or sexuality, but that doesn’t mean that everyone agrees with me. Many people in the church have wasted so much time, energy, and anger over this one issue, when we really need to be focused on what it means to be the church. Because of this dividing issue, I believe that the church has lost precious years of ministry and showing our communities and our world the true love of Jesus Christ. Because of this dividing issue, the church has belittled and has done harm to itself. We have not followed our own rules of do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God. That in itself deeply saddens me. But I have to make a choice in how I respond to those with whom I disagree- with words of hate? Or words of love? As a United Methodist pastor, what is my role in this? As a United Methodist Church, what is our role in this?
And I keep coming back to the famous quote of John Wesley and these words: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”
“Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?” That is the key right there. I don’t think that the church has been loving alike. That is our failure. Not that we cannot agree. Not that we disagree. Not even that there have been hateful words shared between brothers and sisters in Christ- but that we have not been loving one another. In the midst of our disagreements, we have forgotten to simply be the church. We have forgotten that we are called to love even those with whom we disagree. Even if we have not forgotten to love them, we cringe at even the thought of it and refuse to engage- like stubborn children who refuse to play with one another.
The church’s fight has unfortunately extended to our nation’s government buildings where discrimination reared its ugly head once again with the news in Indiana about the marriage amendment prohibiting civil unions that was fortunately defeated, and the latest news out of Kansas and now Arizona that would make it LEGAL for someone to deny services to gay and lesbian couples, which has been compared to the Jim Crow laws of the civil rights era. These issues then are not about religion, but about civil rights! In a recent article on this Kansas bill, United Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton and evangelical pastor Andy Stanley weighed in on the topic. Adam Hamilton was quoted as saying something all Christians should know: “Jesus routinely healed, fed and ministered to people whose personal lifestyle he likely disagreed with.” Andy Stanley was quoted as saying he finds it “offensive that Christians would leverage faith to support the Kansas law.” He said, “Serving people we don’t see eye to eye with is the essence of Christianity. Jesus died for a world with which he didn’t see eye to eye. If a bakery doesn’t want to sell its products to a gay couple, it’s their business. Literally. But leave Jesus out of it.” The article also pointed out that a lot of people coming to have someone provide flowers or bake a cake are surprised to find that their business of choice has any concern about who they are or that they are even celebrating their union. After all, they are a business providing a service. They surely don’t interrogate all of their clients to see if their relationships are “in line” with their religious beliefs. The bottom line is that perhaps these businesses in question should simply ask, “What would Jesus do?” I think he would bake the cake. (Full article: HERE)
That’s exactly what Jesus is telling us to do today- to bake the cake- to love those with whom you disagree, to go the extra mile, to do no harm, to do good, and to stay in love with God- to be the church- to be children of God. To take it one step further, he challenges us to “be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.” Yikes! That is quite a challenge! But in doing this, Jesus is pushing us to set ourselves apart in the way we love. John Wesley has this idea that as children of God, we are to be moving onto perfection in this life and the next. That’s not for us to be intimidated by, but to accept the challenge to love in the best possible way and to imitate the love of Christ in the best way we know how. We do this by acknowledging that we might not all think alike, but that we must love alike. We do this by working for the things we love rather than working against the things we hate. We do this by making the choice to first, do no harm. We do this by using our minds, our hearts, and our hands and feet not for harm, but for God’s glory. When I think of this idea, I think of my parents who are both physicians and took the oath as they became doctors to “do no harm.” When I asked my mom what this meant to her, she referred me to a Jewish prayer that hangs on her office wall- the Maimonides prayer for the physician with these words:
“God above, before I begin my holy work, healing Your creation, I lay my plea before You, that You will grant me the strength of spirit and the vast energy to do my work with faith. Do not allow thirst for profit, ambition for admiration or the world’s renown to blind my eyes from seeing one who is suffering, one who comes for my professional advice, as a human being, whether rich or poor, friend or foe, the good and the evil person, in his sorrowful moment reveal to me only the human being in him. My love for the learning of medicine should only strengthen my spirit, only the truth shall be the lamp unto my feet, for any weakness in my work might bring about death and ill unto Your creation. I pray to you, compassionate and gracious God, strengthen and focus my body and my soul and plant within me a spirit that is whole.”
Choosing love begins with just this: allowing God to plant within us a spirit that is whole. A spirit that is love. A spirit that does no harm. A spirit that bids us to choose love above all else. May it be so for each of us as we continue to be the church- as we continue to be Christ to one another. Amen.