#BeUMC Week 1: The People of God Who Do No Harm
By Derek Weber
Resilient, Diverse, Justice-seeking
Do not plan harm against your neighbor who lives trustingly beside you. Do not quarrel with anyone without cause, when no harm has been done to you. - Proverbs 3:29-30, NRSV
Our series begins simply: Do no harm. Easy enough, right? Well, maybe not. This isn’t a passive avoidance of intentionally doing harm to another person. This is asking us to be aware of how harm is caused in our multicultural and interwoven world and to understand how devastating even unintentional harm is for those who are already living on the margins of society and the world. That is why we chose the words Diverse and Justice-seeking for this first week. We begin our worship together by declaring that we are in solidarity with people from all walks of life, even those who are ignored or overlooked – the poor, the homeless, the abused, the forgotten.
The messaging theme of inclusion seems obvious in this context. How can we move to a more inclusive stance in our worship and our mission? We begin by paying attention to the words we use for worship. How are we subtly excluding some people from our worship? What are the images that dominate our liturgy and our hymnody? What are the descriptions of who the beloved of God are as we gather together? Do they all look like us, or is there diversity in our images of community, even if not in our gathered congregation?
At the same time, we chose the word Resilient to align with this first theme of our series. Being resilient is about keeping our focus even through changes and difficulties. Doing no harm sometimes requires changes in behaviors and patterns of living. While change is always difficult, resilient people of God can incorporate change without complaint, while maintaining the mission of doing no harm and making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Worship can issue a challenge to, as Discipleship Ministries likes to say, “#SeeAllthePeople.”
Here we incorporate the theme of influence, connection, and impact by understanding that the changes we embrace—inclusion of and hospitality to the other—will need to radiate out from our local congregation into the wider community around us. We are the yeast that leavens the whole lump of dough; we are the salt that gives flavor to the whole world. Worship issues a call that continues beyond the benediction into how we live in the world around us, doing no harm.
The best way to do this is by telling our own stories. We have been welcomed into this family; we have experienced God through the love and support of the body of Christ. So, tell that story. Let there be a witness within the worship experience of someone who was endured harm and has been released by the grace of community and inclusion. The theme, “Experience of God through the UMC,” is a testimony to how transformative doing no harm really is in the lives of individuals and communities. How is the world around us more whole because we have chosen to avoid harm and undo the harm inflicted on people and the environment? What stories of healing what has been broken can we tell? steps What steps are being taken to avoid causing damage to the ecosystem that we can share as we gather for worship this week? How have we cleaned up what has been harmed in our neighborhood?
Doing no harm is not passive avoidance of behaviors, but an active awareness and response to systems and attitudes that inflict harm on a regular basis, without thought or regret. A part of our invitation to the world, to our neighbors, is to come to this understanding and experience of doing no harm as we are made into followers of Jesus Christ. The fourth messaging theme of the people of God campaign is Disciple-Making, and that is what we are always about. That is what worship does for us as we gather week by week; we are being shaped into examples of Christ at work in the world. The influence of that shaping is not simply an internal change; we are not made into disciples for our own sake, but for the world’s sake.
(NOTE: Please start your sermon preparation by reading the planning notes first. The design outline and intent of the series are found there and are essential for the sermon as well. The campaign words and messaging themes are outlined there and are useful for sermon preparation.)
As mentioned in the planning notes ,there is a surprising simplicity in this first week of the #BeUMC worship series. Surprising and deceitful, to be honest. On the surface, it is easy to proclaim, “Do No Harm” to the gathered and online congregation. Just avoid hurting anyone. Just . . . well, you know, don’t be a jerk. You’re like a parent in the carpool line at school leaning out the open window shouting at the child running into the open doors— “Make good choices!” Appropriate, perhaps, but not terribly transformative.
So where do we start? You could start with the rule. Spend some time unpacking what “Doing No Harm” means in both an active and a passive sense. Start simple and get more complex as you examine what it means to first be aware of the harm that is happening all around us all the time and to which we have become blind to or accepting of. Then consider how to avoid adding to the harm by how we have come to live our lives. What abuse are we contributing to by how we shop and how we eat and how we move about in our world? Who is being harmed so that we can enjoy the pleasures of our abundant society? It is sobering to consider, troubling, to say the least. There is certainly a need to make folks aware of the implications and the impact of our lifestyles on the wider world. People need to be aware of communities that are marginalized and harmed by a majority that manages not to see its privilege. The reality is, however, that many have tuned out this message, this approach, as being too uncomfortable to hear. Some efforts to raise awareness of the effects of racism, for example, have been met with a determination to avoid the conversation altogether.
So, where should you start, preacher? You could start with the text. Proverbs is an interesting book. It is difficult to preach without sounding like you are moralizing. And it lends itself to simplicity, just like the general rule itself. But what if you give the advice in Proverbs 3:29-30 a little context? Jump back to the beginning of the chapter and read the “why.” Why are we told to avoid harm? That’s what the first couple of verses of the chapter tell us.
My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they will give you. - Proverbs 3:1-2, NRSV
For length of days. Is this a promise of longevity? That if we . . . what? Not forget the teaching? Keep the commandments, then we will have longer days? That would be great. Wouldn’t it? Longer days and many years. Now, this is a message that would sell really well out there in the world.
Except we know it isn’t true. Or isn’t true in the way we might first think it is true. We’ve all performed too many funerals for keepers of God’s commandments to state that it is a prescription for longer lives. We’ve sat with families as days slipped away in the care of their loved one and known that their days aren’t any longer than yours or anybody else’s for that matter; including those who wouldn’t know a commandment if it wore a kilt and played the pipes in front of them.
So, what does it mean, then? If it isn’t about giving you more hours in a day or more years in your life, then what is it promising? Most of the commentaries say it is promising eternity. It’s about heaven, they argue. It’s about the kingdom of God and the invitation to dwell there forever.
And who can argue with that? Or better yet, who wants to? That is a promise that has sustained God’s followers for centuries. The idea that eternity in heaven, however we want to depict that realm, is on offer to those who keep the commandments has invited folks to live godly lives throughout history.
Proverbs is about wisdom, divine or holy wisdom that shifts the focus from the dog-eat-dog, just getting by, only-in-it-for-myself kind of wisdom to something higher, something broader, something deeper than what we sometimes settle for in this world. The ability to surrender to a higher presence, to set self aside and seek the good of all or at least some more, is indeed keeping the commandments of God. And the motivation of heaven is and has been a powerful one.
Yet, I’m not sure that Proverbs, chapter three, is talking about heaven. It seems much more about this life, this world, this walk, than it does about some someday yet to come. The result of following this wisdom, of keeping these commandments is that we will become people of good repute. That’s not a heavenly quality. That’s a now kind of thing. We want to find favor with God and people. We want to be known by God and people. We do.
The other promise is that we will find straight paths. God will make straight our paths. Which doesn’t, I don’t think, mean that God will run interference for us, keeping the bad things out of our way, smoothing out the potential bumps in the road, keeping the corners, the intersections to a minimum. No, that isn’t the promise. Rather when we choose to walk in the wisdom of God instead of our own wisdom, we will find contentment. We will find joy, even on the bumpy parts, even as we stand at the intersections agonizing over which direction would honor God more. The joy is in the attempt to honor. The joy is in the desire to be where God is, to walk in God’s way, to be filled up with the fullness of God.
Which, not to make a circular argument, is how it all starts anyway. By filling ourselves up with the fullness of God, Proverbs tells us to wrap ourselves in loyalty and faithfulness—to mark ourselves as those who love as God loves. Loyalty is the translation of hesed, which is sometimes translated as steadfast love. It is an attribute of God. Faithfulness is also a God quality. So, we wrap loyalty and faithfulness around our necks like a woolen scarf on a frigid day. We write them on the tablets of our hearts—whether Android or Apple. Windows tablets anyone? Windows might be better because, through these attributes, we see God, and we see God in what we do or say, how we live life each day and each hour of the day.
There aren’t enough hours unless each hour is filled with the presence of God, the awareness of God—unless each hour is an opportunity to acknowledge God and God’s claim on our lives, God’s praise on our lips, God’s joy in our hearts. So maybe the promise is not for more hours in the day to fill, but for more fullness for the hours we have, for the days we have. Maybe the promise isn’t an endless number of years in this life, but a life full of years of endless presence and joy. The abundant welfare promised in Proverbs 3:2 isn’t about safety or security or ease or comfort, but about the sustaining presence of God in all our doing, all our living, all our being. Our souls are cared for because we live in love, we live in presence. We live in joy.
In the end, then, not doing harm is about living in and expressing what it means to live in the kingdom of God, the kin-dom of God – that place of fellowship and connection. Not doing harm is about acknowledging that any we would cause harm to, or any we would allow to continue being harmed are a part of our own family, our own body. Harm done to any is harm done to ourselves, to the wholeness we seek as the community of faith.
There is nothing passive about the General Rule to “Do No Harm.” We are called to seek out ways to end the harm that is caused to God’s people for whatever reason; the harm caused to all of creation for whatever reason. It calls for a vigilance that is beyond any of us individually, but within the realm of possibility for all of us collectively - when we are empowered and equipped by the Spirit to be alive every hour of every day for the length of days we are given.
What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
- O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing UMH 57
- The Rule of Life W&S 3117
- And Are We Yet Alive UMH 553
- Cantemos al Señor UMH 149
- What does the Lord Require of You TFWS 2174
- Bring Forth the Kingdom TFWS 2190
- Roll Down, Justice: Sacred Songs and Social Justice by Mark Miller
Week 1: The People of God Who Do No Harm
Resilient, Diverse, Justice-seeking
- Come Down, O Love Divine UMH 475
- Be Thou My Vision UMH 451
- I Will Trust in the Lord UMH 464
- Surely the Presence UMH328
- We Walk By Faith TFWS 2196
Rev. Dr. Derek Weber, Director of Preaching Ministries, served churches in Indiana and Arkansas and the British Methodist Church. His PhD is from University of Edinburgh in preaching and media. He has taught preaching in seminary and conference settings for more than 20 years.