Benediction Online

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Love your neighbor as yourself

Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

What do you do for a living? Are you forgiving? Giving shelter? Cris Williamson

There is no way that we can read the whole of the Bible in church on Sunday mornings over three years. Sometimes it’s almost as interesting to see what we don’t hear as what we do. Although we have been following Paul’s Letter to the Romans since June our readings have skipped quite a lot. The two verses immediately before today’s reading tell us that we shouldn’t cheat on our taxes. Now I wonder why we leave that out?

Understanding the context helps us understand the beginning of this passage. According to Paul we should pay our taxes and owe nothing to the government or anyone else except love. Then our only debt is to wholeheartedly love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. And of course we know from Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan that our neighbor is anyone in need.

Which makes loving our neighbor very difficult. In Jesus’ day there were just 150 million people on the entire planet – that is half the current population of the United States. Today 1 billion 150 million people live in India alone. So Jesus’ disciples had far fewer neighbors than we do, and lacking rapid communication, they had no way to know about people in need outside the Mediterranean which reduced the scope even further. Today we know about far more people in need than we can possibly help.

So what do we do?

I think the temptation is to harden our hearts and do nothing. The pain of the world is overwhelming and we feel that we need to guard ourselves against it. But that is exactly what Jesus did not do. We are told that when he planned to take a retreat and five thousand or more women, men and children followed him, he had compassion on them. When Jesus was hanging in agony on the cross he saw his mother’s tremendous grief and instructed his favorite disciple to care for her. Jesus did not turn away from grief and suffering but stayed present to it.

I would much rather not know that people are starving in Somalia. I would prefer not to think about a one year old called Mason who was killed in a tragic accident this week. But I do know about them and since we are all connected, however much I try to close down, I am affected by their suffering.

So part of our spiritual calling is to learn how to stay present and open our hearts to the suffering of our neighbors without being overwhelmed by it. As we seek to become more Christ-like we will not only be astonished at the beauty of the world and the joy of living, the glory of God in humanity, art and nature, but we will look with God’s eyes of compassion and God’s breaking heart on the pain; the pain of humanity, the pain of the planet.

Earlier in this same letter, Paul made the astonishing statement. “The creation waits in eager expectation for the daughters and sons of God to be revealed… in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” (Romans 8:19,21-22)

We are the daughters and sons of the living God and as we realize our own heritage, as we come closer and closer to God, as we are transformed into the likeness of Christ, so the terrible pain of the world will be lifted. It is time for us to wake up. As Paul says, “you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” Our heritage in Christ Jesus is waiting for us. What are we waiting for?

The pain of our neighbors makes us want to close down. We want to change the channel, find something else to think about. But when we close down to the pain we also close down to our hope. Our hope is in Christ Jesus.

There is a strange reciprocity between our ability to love others and our ability to hope and to be truly free ourselves. One version of the Lord’s Prayer as it is translated from the Aramaic says, “Loose the cords of the mistakes that bind us, as we release the strands we hold of others' guilt.” As we forgive and set others free so we find ourselves being freed. As we love our neighbor so we find ourselves truly loved.

We often hear the axiom “You can’t love others until you learn to love yourself”. The gospel turns that on its head. It is in loving others, because God first loved us; it is in giving ourself to others, because God gave himself for us; that we deepen our experience of God’s love.

Some of us have not experienced the human love that we needed as small children to be able to feel loved deep down inside. We live with a feeling of deprivation which makes it difficult to truly give to others because we’re constantly thinking, “What about me?” When this is the case, the second part of the great commandment to love your neighbor “as yourself” becomes important. Loving yourself means having compassion on your broken places, the hurt feelings, the tendency to over-react and to take things personally. Loving yourself means having compassion on yourself when you just want to tell everyone to get lost and leave you alone, or when you take on too much or when you just feel downright grumpy for no reason.

Loving yourself means opening up to receiving God’s love, knowing that it’s not just for others but is truly ours.

When we forgive others we release them from their debts to us. When we forgive ourselves we release ourselves from the cords that bind us. I think that’s one way to understand Jesus’ statement “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” God’s incredible unconditional love and forgiveness are available to everyone but we have to want them. We have to allow ourselves to be forgiven and to let go of the ideas, memories and resentments that bind us.

The more we forgive ourselves the more we can open up to others and forgive them. But the converse is also true, the more we forgive others, the more we can forgive ourselves.

Before I close I want to reflect for a moment on the main part of the Gospel reading about what to do if another member of the church sins against you. (Not that that ever happens around here, but just in case.) When we play the game, what did Jesus really say? This gets a definite thumbs down. Why? Because there was no church when Jesus was alive. If his disciples had a disagreement they took it to Jesus. There was no organizational structure within which this scenario could have taken place. Perhaps it was a conflict resolution model which worked so well they thought Jesus must have created it, or perhaps it was a model that they thought people SHOULD use so they tried to give it authority by putting words into Jesus’ mouth.

My point is that we are not tied to this because Jesus said it. But the principle of going to the person who offended you rather than talking to other people is an important one. If I do something that bugs you please come and tell me, rather than complaining to two other people. Just as important if someone tells you that I annoyed them, ask them to come and talk to me and don’t pass the news on. This is one way that we love each other in community, by not feeding gossip and disagreement, and by always thinking the best of one another.

It seems on first reading as though the “sinner” who doesn’t admit his fault and make amends will be cast out of the church, treated like an outsider. But how did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors? He talked with them, he healed them, he had dinner with them. There are times when, for our own healing, we need to set firm boundaries and end relationships for a time. But as we mature as Christians, as we become more and more healed, the less we need those outer boundaries, the more we can like Jesus have compassion and indeed genuinely enjoy people who we once would have shunned.

Spiritual teacher Marilyn Williamson describes complaining to God about someone she didn’t like only to hear God say. “Really? I rather like him.”

As the sons and daughters of God it is our hope and our heritage to explore the amazing love of God and the forgiveness that is unconditionally available. Loving our neighbor as ourselves is not a chore but a joy as we discover the depth and breadth of God’s love for us.


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