Monday, October 16, 2006

From a sermon

To love your neighbor as yourself.

When I read this passage I remember my mother. One day as she was coming out of a depression she said to me, “I heard this passage for many years and only heard the part about loving my neighbor. Now I’m starting to hear the part about loving myself.” My mother was anything but a failure, but until she valued herself properly she felt like one.

We are created in God’s image. We are children of God. As such, the lowest beggar should feel like the greatest ruler in the world. As such, we should be helping our brothers and sisters over the world

“To love our neighbor as self’ – it sounds like an easy enough task. But is it?

I think it is a task that lasts for a lifetime.

What are the ways in which we delude ourselves into deceiving ourselves about who is our neighbor and whether we love our self? In biblical times Jesus spoke a little bit about the lepers. In our country we called some people children of Cain and rejected them. Today there are still people we label and call names and say ‘they’re less than human’ in our actions if not our words. Who are they? At times we place too much value on our self or other times we place to little value on our self. When are those times?

I mentioned my mother’s depression and her realization about loving herself as it mirrors my own experience with clinical depression. I found that as I denied some of my emotions I could not feel other emotions and in not feeling fell into a self-hatred that led to depression.

Now the above mirror is a little simplistic. Both the depression my mother experienced and the depression I experienced were triggered by events that were traumatic. Ask me later and I might (or might not) tell you about those events, but for this sermon I’ll leave the diagnosis at situationally triggered depression. The steps to a cure included learning to love ourselves as we were. And after we did that we were able to also love our neighbor. Or as we went out and worked on loving our neighbor we began to love ourselves.

The process of loving self and neighbor is not a staircase where one step follows another, it is a process of moving between the two. I can give more hints about how to show love to another, but I suspect that learning to love self is a more individual matter.

We’ve got a lot of hints in scripture as to what it means to love another. Did we give a cup of cold water to someone who was thirsty? Did we visit a prisoner? Did we clothe the naked? Provide food for the hungry? Did we welcome the stranger at the gate? Did we help to heal the sick?

In loving self I can only speak to what a couple of individuals found. My mother needed to accept that she had an identity as herself. She had lived as one of the twins, as a Nash daughter, as Victor’s wife, as the mother, as the pastor’s wife and other roles, but needed to find who Mabel was. What I needed to do was accept that the emotions, which I denied, were a gift from God or to stop denying who I was and am.

In this sermon I’ve talked a bit about both my mother and myself. I suspect in other places my father, or my twin brother, or my younger brother, or a church I’ve served, or someone who’s ministered to me, or an acquaintance, or an event, or something else will be more important.

I can tell you one of the changes since I started loving myself. I’m more of a storyteller. My sermons before depression were more academic and intellectual, since the depression they still have that background, but also another dimension that’s more fun. And story-telling is only a part of that. Since my depression I’ve also done a couple of sermons that were completely in song and you’ll get to hear that one of these days.

The whole of this scripture is about more than just loving self and neighbor. It is also about loving God. And I find that this summation of the law is all tied together. If you love yourself, then you can love your neighbor, if you love your neighbor, then you can love God, if you love God, then you can love yourself. To get better at one, then you need to work on all of them.

I sometimes think this loving is like planting a garden. You don’t just plop the seeds in the ground. First you’ve got to dig, maybe fertilize, then you plant. You pull weeds and try not to get the good growth. Watering and waiting take up some of the time. And with a little bit of work comes time to collect the produce.

So I have some suggestions about loving God, loving neighbor, and loving self.

One of them is to plan some time for each thing. In loving God my parents taught me to take time for prayer and study. In loving neighbor my dad ran a food program and my mother did things like bake Hot Cross buns at Easter for the neighbors. In loving self I’ve learned to take time to do some things that I enjoy just for myself.

From a teacher, R. Akiba, comes the story. “If you do not love yourself, ask Ben Azzai, how can you love someone else? Having penetrated beyond the outer rational capabilities of the human being to his possibly disturbed psychic condition, he proposes his therapy: First, make such a (and every) person aware that he is of ultimate worth because he bears the likeness of God, that regardless of his condition he has the divinely endowed potential to achieve joy and fulfillment in life, and only then, after having learned to love himself, will he be capable of loving others. (1)

How to love God?

Read scripture.

Read a commentary on a biblical book

Spend time in prayer.

Read a prayer book

Sing a hymn

How to love neighbor?

Bake cookies for the people next door.

Help at a food program.

Visit a nursing home

How to love self

Take a walk down the street

Go to a concert or sporting event.

Visit someone who makes you laugh

Rake up the leaves in your yard and then jump into the pile

I suspect that each one of you can come up with some ideas that will work better for you than anything I’ve just suggested. And some of them can certainly be combined. I’ve made cookies for the pleasure of cooking and then delivered them to others so that they aren’t around to tempt me to eat them. I’ve worked with groups in sorting food at a pantry and had fun in the conversation and work while helping a neighbor. I’ve walked alone for my time to be by myself and come back with a sermon (or at least the start of one).

Loving God, loving neighbor, loving self is not a situation where we do one and then the other. It is something where we do them all together in a glorious mixture that becomes a stew in which all the parts together make up a nutritious meal.

And this loving God, loving neighbor, loving self is a process that keeps changing and growing. How I understand the words 'Jesus loves me' now is different than when I was five, and when I was fifteen I understood 'Jesus loves me differently than now or when I was five, and if I live to be one hundred and five I hope that my understanding of 'Jesus loves me' will have continued to change and mature and deepen and broaden and....

Well, … I suspect my point was really made when I read the scripture lesson. Jesus was faced with some people who were rule bound and so intent on doing things correctly that they missed the point, the spirit behind the law, and they went away confounded. I hope you go away encouraged and supported and willing to take some steps towards loving God, loving your neighbor and loving yourself.


(1) Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), p.235.

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