Broken and Beloved: Love your neighbor “as yourself”
Matthew 22:34-36 (Proper 25)
By The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery
25 October 2020
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
In his reply to the Scribes question about which commandment is the greatest, Jesus replies with the summary of the law, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
This morning, I’d like us to think about this second great commandment, “To love one’s neighbor as oneself.” And, I’d l like us to consider the question, Why is it not enough to say simply, “You shall love your neighbor?” Why are we also commanded to love ourselves?
In a Sermon given over 1500 years ago, St. Augustine asked his listeners this very question. And in his sermon he gave the following reply: He said, if we do not know how to love ourselves, then we should go wrong in loving our neighbors. The exact words from his sermon were, “So the Lord resolved to give you a form for your love of yourself in the love of God, and only then entrusted you with your neighbor, to love as yourself.” Augustine’s worry was that if we do not love ourselves properly then we cannot be entrusted to love our neighbors properly.
In a previous sermon a few years before he had also told his congregation: “First see whether you have learned to love yourself; then I will trust you with your neighbor to love as yourself; if you have not learned to love yourself then I am afraid you will cheat your neighbor as yourself.”
To love one’s self, as being discussed here, obviously isn’t a feeling. Like we love chocolate, or our favorite football team, or our children. And, to love one’s self isn’t merely self-care, like getting a massage, playing golf, or scheduling some downtime. Self-care, we might say is an outgrowth of a proper self-love, but not its equivalent. Even self-esteem, which is generally defined as confidence in one’s self-worth or self-respect, is not the same as the self-love being under discussion here, but can be an outgrowth from a proper love of self, too.
No, the love of self being discussed here is not a psychological concept, but very much a theological one. Bear with me as I try to unpack this.
The foundational love of self discussed in this text, springs from the knowledge that we owe the very fact of our existence to God. God is our Creator, the author of our very being, who creates us out of love. God, through his ongoing love, is the one who sustains us in our being. God has fashioned each of us for a purpose, God has formed in his mind what kind of men and women he has called each of us to be. God’s initial work of love, bestowed upon us not because it is something we merit, but because it flows out to us from the very being of God, is the foundational form of love in which all human love must take its cue. Notice that the love of God is outflowing; it is other-oriented, flowing from the being of God. If you want to think of this in Trinitarian terms—think of the divine love which constitutes the relationship between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. In the being of God there is a divine self-love, as it were, and this self-love, issues forth from God and is directed to God’s creation. And, it is for our sake that God loves us. It is for our own good, that God loves us. And, in loving us, God himself is not diminished. On the contrary, it is in loving us that God is perfectly and fully God’s self.
And so, thinking analogously, as God’s creatures, as humans, if we do not have a proper self-love shaped to the love of God, then we are not equipped to care for our neighbor’s welfare. Its only when we recognize ourselves as God’s beloved, knowing that we can only discover our true nature as we are in relationship with God, always accompanied by God, that we can know what it means to love our neighbor rightly. In other words, self-discovery in God is the precondition from which we can come alongside to love our neighbor. And in that coming alongside, we see that our neighbor is equal to us, because our neighbor, when she arrives alongside us, is in relationship with and is accompanied by God, too.
So, I’d like you to do an exercise in spiritual imagination right now. I’d like you to close your eyes and imagine God in the person of Christ sitting next to you. In your mind’s eye, grab his hand and hold on to it. Or, perhaps imagine his arm affectionately placed around your shoulder. We know that Christ is our friend, he is the presence and love of God incarnate. Now, I’d like you to recall in your mind instances in your life where you have felt joy, and gratitude, where you have felt fulfilled and successful, confident, and secure. Recall times in your life when you have felt peace, and happiness, and calm. Times when you have been healed. Recall that God was with you in those times, even if you recognized it or not. [Pause]
Now, recall in your mind instances in your life where you have felt sadness, and despair. Where you have been injured or hurt, where you have injured or hurt others. Recall times in your life when you have been broken. Times in your life when you felt God had abandoned you. Or when you had abandoned God. Recall times in your life where you have felt alone and vulnerable. Anxious and insecure. Recall that God was with you in those times, even if you recognized it or not. Picture God alongside you, too.
Now, keeping your eyes closed, in your mind’s eye I want you to think of all of these experiences, the good, the bad, the joyful and the sorrowful as interlocking bricks which form the path of your life. See these pieces of your life being assembled brick by brick, bricks of various colors, shapes and textures which form a single whole. Now, think of yourself walking along these bricks, with Jesus by your side, accompanying you, holding your hand or with his arm around your shoulder. As you walk be conscious of Christ’s love. Be conscious of the foundational love that has always been there, a love that you have sometimes remembered but also forgotten. And, think of the kind of person you have been when you remembered it and when you have forgotten it.
Now, as you are walking along your path, with Christ at your side, I want you to envision encountering another person on the path. Imagine it is a stranger, or an enemy, or someone whom you hate, or someone who has hurt you. But as you see that person you are encountering, notice that Christ is alongside them, too. Christ’s is holding their hand or has his arm around their shoulder. Christ has accompanied them on their journey, too. Like you the person’s life path has many bricks on it. They have experienced joy and sadness, despair and hopefulness, they have experienced brokenness. Hold this person in your mind.
Do you see this person as someone like yourself? A person who is still on their own journey? A person who has also experienced joy and sadness, happiness and grief, brokenness and healing? Perhaps the person is someone who has hurt you, or is someone you have also hurt? Perhaps the person is a stranger whom you are afraid of. Perhaps the person is an enemy whom you distrust. How do you treat this person in your encounter? What do you say? Knowing Christ stands next to both you and this other person, in what way does this change your attitude toward them? Do you feel more compassion toward them? More respectful? More empathy? More forgiving? Less angry? Less fearful? How do you think this person might feel differently toward you? More compassionate, more empathy? More forgiving? Less angry? Less fearful? More respectful? How might your relationship change as a result of this encounter, with this orientation toward each other? Now, you can open your eyes.
The purpose of that exercise was to try to demonstrate that the foundational love of self that we have which is grounded in the love of God, and which is the precondition to recognizing our neighbor as equal to us, necessarily changes our orientation to our neighbor and helps us to love them. To see the other person loved by God and accompanied by Christ, just as we are loved by God and accompanied by Christ, helps us to love them as we love ourselves. In this relationship, we have no privileged moral status in the face of our neighbor. We are equal in moral dignity—a dignity grounded in the fact that we are loved by God and made in God’s image and all that this entails.
This proper love of self which then issues into a proper love of neighbor, is diametrically opposed to an isolated and subjective self-love which has its foundation in our own ego which is not fashioned after the form of God’s love for us. In this ego centric form of self-love we confer upon ourselves a privileged moral status based on race, or class, or education, or some other social standard which we use to justify why we can trade off our neighbor’s welfare for the sake of our own. Or we see our neighbor as someone whose self-interest is in competition with ours and we are locked in some sort of power struggle and view our relationship as a competitive zero-sum game constituted by power differential rather than in human solidarity joined to one another by the love of God.
This negative form of self-love does not issue from a proper understanding of self, a self who loves because she recognizes that she is first loved by God, but rather, proceeds most often time, by failing to see himself as beloved, and so out of desire and greed and fear born of insecurity, believe that the only way to shore up himself, is to do so at the expense of others. To slander one’s neighbor, to lie, to covet, to murder, to steal…to do all those things which are prohibited in the 4th through 10th commandments of the Decalogue. The person who slanders one’s neighbor, who lies, who covets, who murders, who lives in fear, is the person who does not love God properly.
In the coming weeks, I want to encourage you to undertake that spiritual exercise that we just did a few minutes ago on a daily basis. Everyone is on a journey. The spouse you just divorced is broken and beloved and on a journey. Our local, state, and national leaders, of all political parties, are broken and beloved and their own journey. Your next door neighbor or member of your own family who may vote differently from you, is broken and beloved and on their own journey. The person who has hurt you and disappointed you or of whom you are afraid is also broken and beloved and on a journey. I am on a journey, broken and beloved. You are on a journey broken and beloved. If we can see your neighbors as ourselves; then we can love our neighbors as ourselves. This is how we learn to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us.
Like God, whose love is inexhaustible, because it is constitutive of God’s very being, we too have the capacity for sustained love toward our neighbors, but only if our own self-love, our sense of our own being is formed by the love of God which sustains us.
None of us wants to be loved by someone who does not have a proper self-love. We have probably all been on the receiving end of this at some point of our life and nothing good ever comes of it. Likewise, think of how we have failed to love others properly because we were not grounded in a proper self-love, and were driven by egocentric needs or fears, and seeing our relationship with others in some form of competition and as a zero-sum game. It is only with a proper love of self that we can love our neighbor as ourselves.
I hope we can all keep this in mind after the election next week. No matter which candidate wins, it is expected that roughly 50% of the country will most likely be unhappy, disappointed, angry, and/or fearful. None of us is ever at our best when we feel this way.
So, whatever side you happen to find yourself on, please don’t forget to be mindful of your neighbor, which includes both of our Presidential candidates. Remember that when we encounter our neighbor they are equal to us, because God accompanies them, too. We’re all broken and beloved and on a journey, sustained by the love of God. There is nothing that can happen that is beyond the reach of God, that cannot be redeemed, and that cannot be healed and made whole. Amen