The Sunday Sermon – July 10, 2016 – Love your Neighbor as Your Self
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning, a brash young lawyer asked Jesus a fantastic question. It’s a question we’ve all probably have been concerned about at one time or another in our lives- “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”- “How is it that I get to be part of the life of God and his people into eternity?” Jesus in his typical fashion fires back a question of his own- “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”
The answer the lawyer gives is the familiar “Summary of the Law” which we hear at the beginning of every Mass. It’s also called the Great Commandment: “You shall 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.”
The lawyer goes on to ask another question – “Who is my neighbor that I am really supposed to love?” Jesus’ reply, and no doubt the focus of many sermons this morning, is the parable of the Good Samaritan and what it means to “love your neighbor” or “what it means to be a neighbor to someone in need.”
But I want to follow another line of thought this morning. It’s something that has been running through my head all this week. We’ve all heard that sermon time and time again about the Good Samaritan and being a good neighbor and loving our neighbor. But the commandment is that we love our neighbor “as our yourself.”
So I want to know, what does it mean that we are to love our self? And indeed, what is this “self” that we are called to love? I’ve preached before on the idea that we can’t love God unless we love our neighbor, and we can’t love our neighbor unless we love God. Now, as it turns out, it seems we can’t love neighbor, or God, unless we love our self. But in order to do that, in order to love our self, we have to know what “self” God wants us to love.
For a long time, I have thought that the commandment to love my neighbor as myself meant something like this: If I’m truly honest, I really care about myself more than anything else in the world – that is to say, I’m more concerned with my own wants, needs, and desires than I am with anyone elses and what Jesus wants me to do is to take that energy that I expend on myself and use it somehow to love my neighbor.
This way of thinking is, i now think, terribly flawed. It really misses some important things about God, about love, and really about myself. You see, this “self” that I was thinking about is really something more like the ego, the part of me that is really only concerned with me, myself, and I.
I think that the self that God wants me to love is something different. St. Paul in Second Corinthians, refers to an outer self, which is wasting away, and an inner self, which is being renewed by the Holy Spirit, Day by Day.
Christian mystics such as Julian of Norwich, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. John of the Cross, have called this inner, true self “The summit of the soul”, “the place where God dwells within us”, and the place where we can “be still and know God.” Psychologists talk about this inner self, as the core of our personality; an almost indefinable center from which our being radiates.
You see, the self is not about what you do, but the very heart of who you are. It’s not the things that you do – It’s not me as a priest, or an EMT, or an Historian, or a Son, or a Friend- rather the desire to do these things comes from that inner self, which defines who we are. Discovering that inner self, that core, is a life long journey, and that journey is one of the utmost importance. But that journey of discovering who we truly are is not found by achieving some status, (I didn’t discover who I was by becoming a priest), doing meaningful activities (I won’t discover who I am by being an EMT), or even relationships because in due time these things vanish and yet the core of who we are will go on. Rather, I am driven to do the thing by the central principles of my inner most self to do these sorts of things.
Knowing our self, that self on which we are called to base of neighborly love upon, requires space and opportunity for quiet reflection. It requires that intentional self-searching that comes only when we are completely and totally honest with ourselves.
The problem with finding that inner self, in which God seeks to dwell, renew and enliven, is our constant busyness. We fill our life with things that give us a superficial happiness or joy, while ignoring the unrest deep in our souls and minds. We use things like Drugs, alcohol, sex, and even relationships to provide us with temporal happiness in order to get us through day by day and week by week.
Over time, we can become addicted to the “good feelings” that these temporary “quick fixes” provide us, and become even more negligent of the true inner self to which God seeks to give new and eternal life.
I have had to stop and reflect and ask my self – “Is being a priest what I really am supposed to be doing? Does being a priest really match up with and flow from the inner most self that I have discovered I am? Or, am I doing it for some other reason?”
When Jesus tells us that we are to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him; when Paul tells us that we are to lay aside the old, corrupted self, so that we may be renewed; the self which cares only about me; which settles for cheap, selfish, superficial joy; that is the “outer self” of which they are speaking. It is in that dying, and laying aside of that false, pretentious self, that we begin to have that space and opportunity for quiet reflection that knowing the inner self requires.
Discovering the self where God seeks to dwell – spending time and giving our self-space – going into our room and shutting the door to be with our heavenly Father in secret – is just the first part the equation.
The second part is learning to love and accept that self. And that can be even harder – because that inner self can be hard to face because we don’t always like what is there. Sometimes we discover that our selfish actions come because we are, infact, a selfish person, and all this time we’ve been pretending to be something we’re not. And yet, God seeks to dwell in us, to transform us, to sanctify us, to renew our hearts within us so that our inner life might be made alive by his life, and begin to look more like his life.
The ability to be comfortable with and indeed love who we truly are is self-esteem. It is that ability to recognize and to say “I am” regardless of what others may think, or what others may say. It is the ability to love our self, even though we know we are imperfect, and flawed human beings at the deepest level.
The big question in all of this is “why should I love myself at all? I know I’m imperfect. I know I’m flawed. Why love?”
I think the answer comes to us from the Fourth Chapter of the First Letter of John. He says “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
Each of us knows the flaws in our inner most self. And yet, God sent his son into the world for you and for me because he saw and sees in us something worthy to be loved. That’s redemption. And if God can see in you and me something worthy of his love, how much more should we love what he already loves.
God’s love for you and for me – that love that sent his son to the cross – that love that raised him from the dead – that love that drew him up on high when he ascended, bringing captivity captive – that’s why we can talk about loving our self at all. We are counted worthy of God’s love. Yes, there we are sinners, yes we need to grow in holiness and sanctification.
But until we know that we can love ourselves just as God loves us, then we cannot love him or our neighbor. Jesus said “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind; and your neighbor as your self.” Let us seek to know our true self, the self which God knows and loves, and know ourselves in deed, as God’s beloved children so that we may indeed, obey his Great Commandment. Amen.