Friday, October 24, 2014

Loving Neighbors and Self (Matthew 22:34-40) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Can loving your neighbor ever be taken a bit too far?  A couple approached the pastor in the greeting line after church one Sunday:  The young woman said:  “Rev. Jones, Toni and I just met during this morning's 'Greet Your Neighbor' time, we started talking, one thing led to another and we fell in love.  We'd like you to marry us.”

St. Augustine, the 5th century Christian bishop, theologian, philosopher, and church father from North Africa, whose writings influenced the development of Western Christianity, said something rather profound: “Love God and do whatever you please, for the soul trained in love to God, will do nothing to offend the One who is beloved.”  Rather than commenting, I'm going to let you think about that for a moment. 

Last week we focused upon Jesus' command to love God with our heart, soul, strength and mind.  Jesus took that command from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy and he linked it with another command from the Old Testament book of Leviticus in a novel way, saying  - And a second is like it:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

What is the definition of a neighbor?  The dictionary has two definitions.  First, someone who lives nearby, someone who lives next to or near another person.  The second is your fellow man.   The second definition is the one found in the New Testament, for example in the parable of the Good Samaritan.   Neighbor is not to be interpreted in a limited way or narrow way.  My neighbor is any person who is in need of my love, any person who is in pain, any person to whom I can give encouragement to or hope through my personal presence or my resources. 

Jesus commands us to love our neighbors.  Be concerned for them and pray for them and express active goodwill toward them.  Why?  Because one way of strengthening our love for God is to love other persons and one way to strengthen our love for neighbor is to love God.  The two principles are bound together.  When we love others, God’s love can flow in and through us in a free and powerful way.  God is able to give us greater wholeness of life when we are sharing life in an unselfish way with others.   It is both a life-enhancing and an extremely demanding command. 

Jesus command is clear, but not easy.  But who promised that Jesus commands to his followers would be easy?  It’s easy to give in to hate.  It's easy to be contempuous of those with whom you disagree.  It’s easy to demonize those who see things or think differently.  But loving another person, especially one who holds different values, now that is a challenge.  Jesus sets the highest standard. It is Jesus’ radical ethic and one that is daunting for anyone who strives to follow Jesus.

Jesus says: “If you only love people who love you what is your reward?  Anyone, even tax collectors are capable of that.  He says: “If you greet and welcome only your brothers and sisters, how hard is that?  Even Gentiles do the same.”

For instance, loving someone, helping someone can sometimes become enabling behavior.  You find yourself being manipulated, being used, becoming a co-dependent.  In some situations tough love, saying no, is the appropriate loving response.  Sometimes saying no, not helping someone in the way they request, is the most loving response.     There are of course no cookie-cutter models for loving one's neighbor.  It is case by case.  That's why we rely on prayer and the Holy Spirit.

One way to love a neighbor is to minister to someone who is hurting.  A student sent a note to one of his former teachers.  He received this reply:  “Dear William:  I can't tell you how much your note meant to me.  I am in my eighties, living alone in a small room, cooking my own meals, lonely and in poor health.  I taught school for 50 years and yours is the first note of appreciation I every received.  It came on a blue, cold morning and it cheered me up in a way you can never know.  Thank you with all my heart.”   Bringing consolation to the lonely, food to the hungry, comfort to the grieving are ways of ministering to those who are hurting.

Loving one's neighbor implies taking some action.  I recall years ago when I was living in San Diego and attending my home church.  One of the members of our young adult group had been beaten in a random attack and sent to the hospital.  Our group prayed for him.  We were very concerned.  When he returned to church, I said we were sorry it had happened and I hoped it didn't negatively affect his faith.  He said:  “My faith is fine.  But I was in the hospital for a week, and not one of you came by to visit, no one called to see how I was, or sent me a card, or showed any concern at all.  My faith is fine, but I wonder about the faith of this group.”

Another way of loving our neighbors is to work to correct social conditions which cause suffering and injustice.  Jesus preached that the Spirit of the Lord is uon me, he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and to set at liberty those who are oppressed.  It is working to change or correct social conditions of our society which victimize and oppress people.  It is loving our neighbors by working for social justice.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a prime example of this form of loving neighbor.   I think also of whistle blowers, who are never popular, people like Frank Serpico, and Karen Silkwood and Erin Bockovich. 
Jesus in this command said further:  “As you love yourself.”  A preacher tells this story.  “One day I was reflecting on last weeks’ sermon.  I will never forget it.  I think it was my finest hour in the pulpit.  Unequalled eloquence seemed to roll off of my lips.  My brilliance even surprised me.  Afterwards he commented rather modestly to his wife, “I wonder how many great preachers there are living today?”  She replied, “Well, there is one less than you think there is.”

It is crucial to have a healthy attitude about yourself?   We recognize that there are many depersonalizing forces in life, events and experiences, which threaten our self-esteem, which call our self-worth into question.  We are tempted for example to compare ourselves with others.  I recall a speaker who said: “If you compare yourself with others, you will be vain or bitter, because you will always find there are persons lesser or greater than yourself.”  One writer said:  “Self-esteem is that deep-down inside the skin feeling you have of your own self-worth.   It’s how you truly feel about yourself even when no one else is around or regardless of what others say.” 

As children our identity and self-esteem is profoundly influenced by others: parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors, relatives, etc.  But what about when we become adults?  A writer said: “It’s what we believe about ourselves that counts.  Whether we were treated rightly or wrongly as children, our self-esteem is now our responsibility.”   Do you agree?

Growing to appreciate one-self is a process.  We all need to be told and shown from time to time that we’re loved, appreciated, and valued.  But at the same time it’s true that loving-ourselves is our responsibility.  You can be told you are wonderful, but ultimately you must believe it deep-inside your skin.  Self-love means to appreciate your worth, to have self-respect.    Eleanor Roosevelt said:  “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Loving yourself is not narcissism.   It's not being egotistical.  It's not feeling superior to others.  I’m speaking about a healthy attitude toward yourself and about yourself.     A woman whose husband had died years earlier and who raised her teenage children alone tells of how difficult it was when her children had all grown and left home.  She writes:  “I felt so lonely and the house was so empty.  I didn’t know what to do, where to turn.  I felt worthless and confused; my life didn’t seem to have any value, because I was no longer focused on raising my children.   When I was away from the house I didn’t want to return home and when I was in the house I could hardly stand the thought of leaving.  I felt like I was living in a cocoon.   So I began to pray, to pray as I had done throughout my life.  And as the days passed, I began to feel some stirrings inside of me, a kind of inner restlessness.  I began to see in my mind options for my life that I had never before considered and for the first time since the children had gone, I began to look ahead with some anticipation.  I didn’t know what was to happen, but I sensed God’s Spirit leading me and calling me out of myself, and I knew that I was about to break out of the cocoon I’d been living in and begin a new and meaningful chapter in my life.”

The challenge is to not allow what others say about you to change your opinion about yourself?   Are you going to give them that kind of power?   Jesus didn’t allow what others said about him to change his opinion of himself.  Jesus was slandered.  He was falsely accused.  They said he was possessed with devils.  Countless accusations were hurled like stones against Jesus every day of His life, but it didn’t change what Jesus believed about himself and what he believed about His mission.  Jesus taught people to love God and to love their neighbors and to love themselves.  Jesus reminds us that there is the sin of thinking too highly about yourself and the sin of thinking too lowly about yourself.  

So why should we love ourselves and respect ourselves and believe in ourselves?  God created you!  God made you in His image.  Psalm 8, a beautiful psalm says: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them, yet you have made them a little lower than angels and crowned them with glory and honor.  You have given them dominion over the works of your hand and put all things under their feet.”  God breathed life into you.  Knowing and believing this truth gives value and worth and meaning to our lives.

Why love yourself?  Our lives are new in Christ!  God is making us new people.  II Cor. 5:17: “So if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, everything old has passed away, so everything has become new.  All this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ.”   God sees us and through our faith is transforming us into a new being, a new creation, a new creature. 

 Why love yourself? God forgave you and me!  God forgave your sins and mine by dying on the cross.  Our sin is forgiven, erased forever.   Christ is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Christ took the consequences for our sin upon himself, our guilt, our punishment, our judgment our death and restored us to a right relationship with God.   Knowing and believing this truth gives value and worth and meaning to our lives.

Why love yourself?  Because God truly, fully, enthusiastically and passionately loves you.  Clearly, God’s will is that we have a healthy attitude toward ourselves.  Jesus’ greatest command is something we should believe in, remember, trust in and stand on everyday of our lives. 

Love neighbors and love self.  As one writer put it:  “Without love, all that you say is ineffective, all that you know is incomplete, all that you believe is insufficient, all that you give is inadequate, and all that you accomplish is insignificant. God's greatest aim for your life and ministry is love.”  Amen!

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