"A Step Beyond"

Message preached August 6, 2000
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon Matthew 22:34-40

"You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Matthew 22:39)

Iím sure youíve heard it said that in order to love your neighbor, you need to be able to love yourself. There is a great deal of truth to that statement. Often our lack of love toward another is a reflection of how, deep down, we feel about ourselves. Psychologically speaking, this is called "projection." We "project" upon others aspects of ourselves that we donít like. Our neighbor then becomes like a movie screen, and what we see in them is not exactly what they are, but what we think they are. Our thoughts of them are deeply colored by our thoughts about ourselves. What we see on that screen, sometimes the parts of them that we donít like, are really reflections of who we are. And if we donít love ourselves, even that part we consider ugly, how can we love our neighbor when we see that same ugliness in them?

An obvious example of this, and one that Iíll be stepping into in the not-too-distant future, is the father of a teenage daughter who has been asked out on a date by a neighbor boy. Note that I say "boy," because his daughter is, from the Dadís perspective, not old enough to date a "man." Thereís a difference between a boy and a man, you know. A boy may have all the equipment necessary to be a man, but not the level of maturity to handle it responsibly. How does the father know this? Because he was once just such a boy. And he projects onto this neighbor kid the boy he once was (and perhaps still is, if the truth be told)... "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Even if he wants to date my daughter?

Of course, here is a case where "projection" isnít all that bad an idea. But as the father of an almost 15 year old daughter, I would say that, wouldnít I? To the extent, however, that my projecting myself, especially when I am not conscious of doing so, upon this neighbor boy prevents me from seeing him as he really is, and seeking to love him, then my act of "projecting" has run amok. To love this "boy" may mean that I need to look back upon the awkward, hormone driven, pimple faced kid I once was (and in some ways still am) and learn to love him. "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

Sometimes what we call "prejudice" is actually self-hatred. We look upon our neighbor, who may happen to be black, Hispanic, gay (you name it), and we can project upon them that which we hate in ourselves. They may not at all be what we see upon the screen (of course, then again, they may - who am I to say?). And we pre-judge them, before first getting to know them. The person we have seen and pre-judged in them, may in truth be a reflection of our own uglier side. Maybe the cure to prejudice, in addition to taking the time to get to know our neighbor as they really are, is getting to know (and perhaps even love) ourselves as we really are. "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

Yes, in order to love your neighbor, you need to be able to love yourself. There is a great deal of truth to that statement. But, like all truisms, it only goes so far. The second commandment of God, echoed by Jesus, goes far beyond this oversimplification. You see, some folks believe that if only we would really get to know each other, and see each other as we are, and not as projections of what we hate, then weíll just automatically love each other. Call it the "Aquarian" principle. As in "this is the dawning of the age of Aquarius" when "peace and love will guide the planet." It sounds great but, unfortunately, itís as bogus as all those horoscopes we find every day in the newspaper. The truth is, neighbors can be very hard to love, even if we reach that impossible ideal of really loving ourselves.

"Shema Yisrael, adonai eluhenu, adonai echad. Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." (Dt. 6:4-5) The first priority for all who would claim the Lord as their God, above all other gods; as the only real, true God - the others being just pale imitations; the primary commandment, reaffirmed by Jesus is to love the Lord God.

Please note, it does not say, "love the Lord your God as you love yourself." Itís very true that we can project upon God all sorts of stuff, both good and bad. Some folks project upon God a malicious nature - as if the Lord was always "out to get" them. The rotten things that happen in life are examples of this.

Iím reminded of a scene in the movie "Forrest Gump," that takes place during a hurricane out on a shrimp boat. Forrestís partner in that endeavor, a man who had earlier had his legs blown off in Vietnam, and who was lost in a bottle of alcohol and self-pity when Forrest found him; this fellow climbed up the mast of the ship and was railing at God in the middle of the storm. When the hurricane passed, theirs was the only shrimp boat that survived. All others were "safely" in port, which turned out not to be safe at all. With the competition wiped out, this one ship became the beginning of a fleet in the "Bubba-Gump Shrimp" empire. Another by-product of that storm in the movie, however, was the peace that came over this disabled veteran after he faced into the real God, beyond his own self-pity.

We can project all sorts of personal agenda upon the screen in front of us when we look to God. Our task, our commandment is to love God (not some projection of our personal likes or dislikes, but the living, true God), this One who is revealed in the Bible, with all of our being - heart, soul and might. Iím here to say to you that that is not an easy thing to do. If it were, then this Book of books, as we have received it, would have ended with the Torah, the Law revealed to Moses, the first five books of the Bible. That, however, is only the beginning. In the rest of the Hebrew Bible we find the story of how difficult, if not impossible, that primary task is.

From our perspective, as those who see the story continued in the rabbi from Nazareth, Jesus took that commandment one step further. He embodied the love of God, not just our love for God, but Godís love for us - which is far greater than our ability to love in return. It is hard to truly love God with all your heart, all your soul, and with all your mind! Itís well-nigh impossible, if not for Christ Jesus...

Along those same lines, it is very hard to love your neighbor, even if you do manage to love yourself, even if you do succeed in seeing them as they truly are and not as some projection of your own prejudices or desires. There are barriers that get in the way of fulfilling the second commandment, just as there are obstacles in the way of accomplishing the first.

When those Pharisees grilled Jesus about what was most important in a life of faith, I wonder if what they heard in response was a truism. Just like, "in order to love your neighbor you have to love yourself." They knew the law. They could agree with his synopsis. They daily repeated the "Shema," which commanded the love of God. From the scroll of Leviticus, they knew the corollary, "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." (Lev 19:18) True.

Of course, Jesus took that very commandment a step further. When he was asked "who is my neighbor," he brought in someone no self-respecting Jew would consider a neighbor. This person at best was an ignorant know-nothing, at worst a vile enemy. In either case, this person would be impossible to love, given the barriers of that day. Not only did Jesus lift up this person as a neighbor to love as you love yourself, he presented him as an example of what it would look like to actually live out the second greatest commandment. You know the story. The parable of the good Samaritan. Substitute the name or type of person you find almost impossible to love, and that is your Samaritan.

Jesus had a habit of doing that, taking the least likely character and making them the vessel upon which Godís truth travels. The Samaritan is the one who teaches us what love is along the dark highway, the fellow who takes one step beyond the expected and reaches out in spite of all the barriers that stand in the way. The tax collector is the one Jesus calls out of the tree, that he might go to Zaccheusí house and eat his food. Love means receiving, not just giving. Another tax-collector became the very bearer of good news which we heard this morning from Matthewís gospel.

The prostitute is the one from whom Jesus receives hospitality when she came and bathed his feet in her tears. Did she realize how she was fulfilling the first and the second commandment by doing so? If she didnít see it, we should. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart" ... "Love your neighbor." In another instance, it was a woman of the night whom Jesus trusted to do the right thing - to turn from a loveless life of being used by others in order to put food on the table, to turn and sin no more, to find a better way. Love means such trusting?

Indeed it does! Isnít that the most remarkable thing about the gospel of Jesus Christ, that God entrusted this good news into our hands, that we share it with our neighbor, both in giving and in receiving? Our neighbor isnít defined as "somebody like us," as one of our own people. Jesus broke down that barrier. When he died upon that cross, between those two questionable characters weíd hardly consider to be our neighbors, he made real, honest-to-goodness love possible. Once we, ourselves, were enemies of God. It was you and I who were strangers from the Almighty. Now, because of Christ, we are Godís neighbors. Not only that, weíve been welcomed into the family.

Yes, loving our neighbor is hard. It does help to understand them. But "understanding" alone wonít do it. When it comes around to actually loving them, isnít it a matter of trusting in and following the One who took that one step beyond our impossibilities?

©2000 Peter L. Haynes

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