Are We Really Equipped to Love Our Neighbors?

a missional sermon by Becky Ullom

Text: Leviticus 19: 15 – 18, 1 Thessalonians 2:1 – 8

As a junior at McPherson College, I traveled to Europe with our choir. We toured for several weeks, visiting historical sites, singing in acoustically beautiful spaces, and living, more or less, in a family unit of 50 people. Towards the end of the tour, as fatigue was starting to be more noticeable, we put on our “game faces” again to give yet another concert. We reached the point in the set of music when a women’s quartet was performing up front and the rest of the choir was seated in the pews. The song started and the soloist began. But suddenly, she was overcome with emotion and stopped singing as the tears rolled. The other three women kept singing as if unphased, but we knew them well enough to detect the panic in their glances; during the solo they contributed support tones but no words. Time seemed to crawl as tension that swirled around the room. With every passing moment, my own discomfort and anxiety grew. And then, almost as abruptly as the melody had stopped, it again filled the air. But the soloist wasn’t singing. None of her quartet members had switched parts. On key and without pretention or a cue, another member of the choir sitting just down the pew from me revived the melody. Confidently, she sang “Love in any language, straight from the heart. Pulls us all together, never apart. And once we learn to speak it, all the world will hear, love in any language, fluently spoken here.” The soloist regained control, and the two sang a few bars together. And sensing the return of strength, the voice from the pew dropped out while the soloist continued. The experience was powerful for me, and the symbolic lesson speaks even today. Our culture, language, and occasionally even the way we practice faith seem to facilitate misunderstanding and confusion about the concept of “love.”Because of such ambiguity, we all give thanks for moments when the elusive, complex idea takes shape for a brief time as an observable reality. Those kinds of moments are precisely what we as imitators of Jesus strive to foster.

Now if it feels like a stretch to connect “complex ideas expressed tangibly” with the book of Leviticus, stretch with me for a moment. Leviticus is in the section of the Bible that Jewish tradition designates as the Torah, which means “law” or “instruction.” Some of these “instructions for life” are troublesome for us, and I’m smart enough to leave the examination of the more thorny instructions to theologians wiser than I am. But individual instructions aside, it is clear that the intent of the book is to guide behavior. Its purpose is to guide readers as they move from concept to action.

“Don’t pervert justice. Don’t show favoritism to either the poor or the great. Judge on the basis of what is right.  Don’t spread gossip and rumors. Don’t just stand by when your neighbor’s life is in danger. I am God. Don’t secretly hate your neighbor. If you have something against him, get it out into the open; otherwise you are an accomplice in his guilt. Don’t seek revenge or carry a grudge against any of your people. Love your neighbor as yourself. I am God. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

Does that list remind you of another list of “Top 10” rules we have? It should! The words I just read and the Ten Commandments are filled with directions for wise action. I have to tell you though, I find a healthy amount of challenge in the most basic of these directions. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Let’s focus on that last part: love your neighbor as yourself.

Before you check out of this sermon because you are tired of hearing about who are neighbors are and secretly a little bored that discussion, hang on! This scripture clearly encourages us to love our neighbors, and of course we should carefully consider how we define the word neighbor. Frankly, it is much more comfortable and much more Brethren to talk about love for neighbors than it is to talk about love for self. But we can’t ignore the connection or progression scripture repeatedly indicates. It sounds like we have to know how to love ourselves before we can learn to love our neighbors. So what happens then, if we don’t really love ourselves as God loves us? If we don’t love our “selves” in a Holy Spirit like way, are we really prepared to follow God’s commandment to love our neighbors?

I won’t ask you for confirmation, but I suspect I am not alone in occasionally breaking parts or all of this commandment. It is uncomfortable to think about breaking commandments, but I wasn’t exactly shocked to be reminded of my deficiency. However, realizing that in a twisted, backwards sort of way, we might actually be fulfilling the commandment did shock me. My stomach sank as I thought about the strong possibility that we DO, in fact treat our neighbors as ourselves – that is with impatience and fear and disrespect and lack of trust and on and on. Talk about a depressing “ah-ha moment!”

I’m not going to lie, this is hard stuff disguised as simple stuff. Loving yourself should be easy right? Perhaps we should all do the Jack Handy “Deep Thoughts” thing and stand in front of a mirror later today, repeating to ourselves “I’m good enough and smart enough and you know, people just like me!” Unfortunately, doing so will not change the way you or I allow the Holy Spirit’s honesty into our deepest soul the next time we find ourselves unlovable. Therefore it will not change the way we respond to neighbors the next time we find them unlovable. In the book, Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light, Joan Chittister shares this thought: “What we do not nourish within ourselves cannot exist in the world around us because we are its microcosm.” We can’t be effective conduits of God’s love if we do not first let it affect us!

Paul was trying to make this point, when he wrote to the Thessalonians. As we read first Thessalonians 2, we hear the passion in Paul’s voice as he reminded the Thessalonians of their own transformation.

“But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.” Hear those words again: “so deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.” What a profound statement of love and its different facets – love for God, for self, for neighbor!

Do you see the connection here? Paul knew the Thessalonians, aka: some of his neighbors, were struggling to remember God’s love and the teachings of the apostles. Paul, rather than singing the melody for them, wrote it.

It is our calling as followers of Jesus to know the melody of God’s love so well that we are able to sing it not only to ourselves, but also to others. We are called to sing the melody of God’s love especially to those who don’t know it, have forgotten it, or just can’t sing in a particular moment.

Just as the hymn writer reminds us, we tend to make God’s love too narrow. God’s love for us doesn’t melt in the heat of mistakes, freeze in the chill of uncertainty, or evaporate in the tension of frustration, and neither should love for self or for neighbor. Perhaps it is only by trying to loving our selves and our neighbors with such abandon that we are able to fully accept the embrace of the Holy.  Amen.

Becky Ullom is the Director for Youth and Young Adult Ministries of the Church of the Brethren