Words to Build a Life On:
Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.
Today we’re turning to a well known lesson from Jesus.
It comes at a tense time for him.
He’s being questioned by the leaders of the day:
All of whom wonder if he’s teaching the right things
Or leading his followers in the right way.
Some of them, Mark tells us, are trying to trap him
To get him to say something wrong
But he keeps astounding the audience with his answers.
Someone in the audience, after seeing this going on for a bit
Comes forward to clarify things
That’s where we start today, from the Gospel according to Mark.
I invite you to open your hearts and your minds
To this reading from holy scripture:
28 One of the scribes came near
and heard them disputing with one another,
and seeing that Jesus answered them well,
he asked Jesus, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’
‘The first is,
“Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one;
30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your mind,
and with all your strength.”
31The second is this,
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
There is no other commandment greater than these.’
32Then the scribe said to him,
‘You are right, Teacher;
you have truly said that
“God is one, and besides God there is no other”;
33and “to love God with all the heart,
and with all the understanding,
and with all the strength”,
and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself”,
—this is much more important
than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’
34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him,
‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’
After that no one dared to ask him any question.
And may God bless to us our reading
And our understanding
And our applying of these words, to how we live our lives. Amen.
I was reading this story again this week
And it had me thinking of a wonderful old story
Of the blind men and the elephant.[i]
Do you know that story?
A group of blind men heard that a strange animal
Called an elephant
Had been brought into town
But none of them had ever been near one.
None of them knew anything about elephants
What they were like, their shape or form.
Out of curiosity, they said
“We must find out!
We must go and touch and feel with our own hands!”
So they brought it out
And when it came near, they started groping all over it.
The first man, whose hand landed on the trunk of the elephant
Said “Oh, I know what this is. It’s a huge, thick snake. That is what an elephant is”
The second man, the one who reached for an ear
Said “No, no. That’s not right. This is more like a big fan,
useful for cooling us during hot summer nights!”
Another, who was in a different part of the room
Reached out and touched the elephant’s leg
And was confused:
“I don’t know what you two are talking about.
This is clearly a tree trunk.
The last guy felt around and grabbed the elephant’s tail
“you all are surely mistaken:
this is a rope.”
My favorite version of that story
Ends with the various people arguing over who has it just right
They devolve into acrimony and division
And the elephant, with what is something like a sigh
Walks out of the room, and leaves them to their argument.
This old story is meant to help us understand that sometimes we only see things
From our own particular points of view
And often there’s more going on
Beyond our perception, beyond our vision.
Sometimes care for one another
Love for one another
Requires that we worry less about being right
And more about affirming that we’re in this together
You and I.
Besides: we may only be seeing part of the elephant.
The other thing that I was reminded, this week
As I reflected on this passage from Mark
Is the wonderful and often curious ways
that the stories of Jesus get woven together.
The people who sat to write the good news down
Did so with a purpose. Each of them. And that purpose was unique to each author.
For more than forty years after the death of Jesus
these stories were passed around verbally
Friend to friend, parent to child, traveller to those gathered around a fire
And some of them would be written down for memory’s sake here and there
And compiled and shared some more
And they eventually found their way to the desk of the author of the gospel itself
Who was trying to tell the Good News about Jesus for a particular community.
Each gospel is different, because each author takes these different nuances
And applies them to their unique circumstances.
We read today from the Gospel of Mark,
which was probably the first of these Gospels to be written.
Mark was likely responding to substantial social upheaval
During the persecutions of the Roman Emperor Nero
And the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
That was his perspective, his point of view.
He was grabbing that part of the elephant, so to speak.
He felt a particular need not just to put the story of Jesus together
But to write it down
Which isn’t the easiest process
When you don’t have paper and number 2 pencils
But were working with animal hide and unreliable inks.
But things in Mark’s world were falling apart.
This might explain why it feels, as you read Mark, it feels a bit breathless
Or, as I like to say, Mark uses 6 words when you really need 10 to tell the story.
Unlike, maybe, some sermons you might listen to,
Brevity is Mark’s calling card
And his narrative is punctuated with abrupt transitions
And this wonderful word “Immediately”
Suggesting that there’s an urgency to what Jesus was all about
What we should be all about
Because you don’t know quite what tomorrow will bring.
Matthew and Luke appear to have had the benefit of holding Mark’s gospel in hand
When they sat down to put their stories together.
They had less pressure, perhaps,
So they could take a bit more time to tell the story.
Their story, from their perspective.
They both had a collection of Jesus’ sayings that Mark didn’t seem to have
And each of them had their own side collection of stuff to work with, too:
Matthew putting it all together for his largely Jewish audience
Seeking to explain the life of Jesus through an analogy
to how the Torah is put together
And Luke, on the other hand, writing to a more Jewish/Gentile/Roman community
To those who love wisdom and wanted to see how God’s movement in Jesus
Was sparking a new movement in the world, the realm of God.
And then there’s John, the fourth Gospel, who decided to do things his own way
Choosing not to follow Mark’s lead
But talking about Jesus’ signs and works
as the very revelation of the presence of God.
Comparing some of these differences is part of what makes biblical study entertaining
And rewarding, and absolutely obvious that God has a sense of humor
and is probably smiling at our humble attempts
to piece it all together in a nice little tidy way.
I mention all of this because sometimes even the most famous stories about Jesus
Have nuance, have a vantage point,
And where you sit matters in trying to get the point of it all for you,
for your own particular life.
Take, for instance, Jesus’ teaching about the greatest commandment.
You find this reading not just in Mark
But in Matthew and Luke as well.
I’m willing to bet that most of those who know this story
remember the version from Luke’s gospel.
And its not because its all that different,
But rather its because there, in Luke,
The author of that gospel puts this story
Within the context of an even more famous story
The story about the Good Samaritan[ii]
You know, where the upstanding guy gets robbed and beaten on a dangerous road
And left for dead
And a priest and a leader travel down that road and they see him
and then they cross to the other side of the road
And continue on, leaving him, gasping and wheezing…
But a Samaritan
He happens upon the man and patches his wounds and takes him to an inn
And does what needs to be done to heal him.
The Good Samaritan.
For Luke, the command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” begs the question
“ok then, Jesus, just who is my neighbor”
and for that, Luke says, you need to look at this little story
about how an outsider from a despised community
took care of someone dear and important to you
how the Samaritan knew, in his bones,
that the neighbor crosses these lines of division that we build between each other.
What beautiful context, right?
Only Luke does that.
Luke does is a great service by reminding us that
This great commandment of Jesus
Begs the question: just who is our neighbor.
Love God with all your heart, and mind, and soul, and strength.
Love your neighbor as yourself
It makes me think of Mister Rogers.[iii]
Fred Rogers was a modern prophet of sorts
Who centered his life around helping all of us
Particularly kids and young people
But all of us
Live into that question: who is my neighbor.
Many of you will remember, as I do,
Sitting and watching his television show.
Mister Rogers Neighborhood included his signature song, every episode
As he was changing his shoes and donning his cardigan:
Would you be mine
Could you be mine
Wont you be my neighbor.
And Fred Rogers dedicated his life to producing captivating television
To help all of us, at our most fragile and formative moments
Understand that we are ALL neighbors to each other
that we are worthy of receiving care and compassion from one another
and not only that: that we are capable of giving it to others too.
I really want to see the new documentary about him that is out.
Haven’t been able to get to it yet.
I hear it shows how Rogers did some powerful things
To draw the circle wider
To break down the things that divide us
To help us understand that, while we all have our own perspectives
While we come to the world from our own vantage points
We are all neighbors to each other, all of us worthy of love.
We Presbyterians are perhaps sinfully proud
To claim the good Reverend Rogers as one of our own
Even though most people didn’t know that he was theologically trained
Or that he was an ordained minister of word and sacrament.
Life as a follower of Jesus
isn’t so much about calling out that fact, as you know
its not about attention or accolades
its more living your life around the way of Jesus.
Living in God’s realm, here and today.
That’s a good reminder for us
This day we’re welcoming young M through baptism
And we’re installing new ruling elders to our session.
But Rogers is a good example for another reason, too
Because he knew how love of oneself is essential
for anyone to be able to
Love thy neighbor.
And Fred Rogers worked really, really hard to help us all love ourselves just a little bit more.
According to Mark
Jesus is asked about the greatest of God’s teachings
What is God’s greatest commandment?
The first, Jesus says, is that God is one
And we are to love God with all we’ve got.
Don’t leave anything on the table.
The next follows from that:
we love God with all we’ve got
By loving our neighbor as we love our-self.
We miss something if we don’t hold all of this together
And only see it from one particular angle
Claim only one point of view.
Its not enough to just love God with our minds
As if thinking a lot about God will do it.
As if having the right beliefs about God is enough.
Its not sufficient to just love God with our hearts, either
Remember: to the biblical writers
The heart is the seat of the feeling, of the emotions
Its not enough to just have a good ardor, you know
A longing after God, and not want to think about it
To try to get it right, to see where our ardor might be a bit off or skewed.
The same with loving God with our souls and our strength
Important, essential even
But not enough.
They’re all important:
Love God with everything–
Heart, soul, mind, strength.
Even if, for some of us,
We mainly love God through one or two of these
The whole elephant is there, in the room, for us to wrestle with.
And the same principle is important
For us to fully grasp that other commandment:
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Some of us, lets be honest,
Do just fine with love of ourselves.
We are proud of what we’ve accomplished
We might be quite satisfied with what we feel we’ve built.
We’ve built no small amount of pride
And come on, you might say, we might even be the best at being humble, too.
To those of us who are there, at that place
The commandment puts much more stress on the Love your Neighbor part.
To be cautious that our pride doesn’t become prideful
And closed off to the needs of others.
To feel a push
Ok, maybe a nudge,
That our gifts and our talents
The very things that we love about ourselves
Are not for self-enjoyment or self-enrichment
But for the common good. For sharing with others.
That’s how we often hear this commandment of Jesus.
An admonishment not to be so ego-centered
That we fail to truly love other people.
But here’s the other side of the story:
many of us, a lot of us
Even if we give an outward appearance of loving ourselves just fine
Thank you very much
Really don’t love ourselves very much.
A lot of us don’t think we’re worthy of love
We carry wounds of people who told us we were unlovable
Or we keep telling ourselves that no one really could, or should, love me.
A lot of us do not think we’re worthy of love
And we don’t love ourselves very much.
Many people who are in that place
Try to fill it through acts of care and compassion to others
So we look as if we are doing a good job at Loving our Neighbor
But we are really, really struggling with that Loving ourself part.
Fred Rogers undertook Jesus’ most basic mission:
To help us rightly love ourselves so that we could love others.
The most fundamental truth of our faith
Is that God loves you.
God loves you because God loves you.
You don’t earn it.
You may not do anything to deserve it.
But God loves you.
God sees in you something lovable, something precious, something wonderful.
And because of that Love
God welcomes you.
That love helps us, when we can receive it
That love helps us love ourselves
Even as we see our faults and our mistakes and our limitations
Sometimes, that love from God is what we need to be able to love ourselves.
One day, centuries ago
Jesus taught us what was really important:
Love God with everything you’ve Got
And love your neighbor as yourself.
You can only do that when you recognize that God loves you first
And loves you with a crazy, wild, prodigal love
So that you can love yourself
And through loving yourself you can love your neighbor
And through doing that, you end up loving God.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Words to build a LIFE on.
May it be so.
[i] There are many versions of this story. A summary is found on Wikipedia at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elephant (Accessed July 28, 2018)
Post Image found at http://andrewhidas.com/the-holy-ground-of-mister-rogers-neighborhood/ (Accessed July 28, 2018)