Proper 18A Sermon (2014)

Proper 18 (September 4-10)
Texts: Romans 13:8-14;
Matthew 18:15-20


God’s work, our hands. As we begin another school year at Prince of Peace, we continue a theme from this summer, when our summer camp for children was called “The Art of Service.” And today’s Epistle Reading from Romans boils it all down for us:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. All God’s commandments are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

This afternoon we will spend some time acting out this word through service projects. In our worship here first, I’d like to contemplate for a few moments the second part of that word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” In other words, let’s spend a few moments on the importance of loving ourselves.

Here’s the question of the day: If love for God is always linked with love for others, and if we are to love others as we love ourselves, what does it mean to love ourselves? Could the Spirit of God teach us a holy and healthy kind of self-love?

Of course, advertisers and politicians often tempt us to become more selfish or self-centered — our doing so often in their self-interest. But the Spirit teaches us a profoundly different way of loving ourselves — a way of maturity that involves self-examination, self-control, self-development, and self-giving. These practices of mature self-care enable us to love God and others more fully and joyfully.

Now our struggles with self are often struggles with pleasure, for the self is, among other things, a pleasure-seeking entity. When it comes to pleasure, if you listen to some people, you might conclude that God is a divine killjoy, sitting in heaven with a sourpuss glare, eyes roaming to and fro across the Earth to find anyone who is having fun — and stop it immediately! If the pleasures of life were compared to the awe of looking into the Grand Canyon, many anxious Christians through the ages have worried so much about someone falling over the edge that they erect fences farther and farther back . . . so far, in fact, that you can no longer enjoy the view!

Pleasure, of course, was originally the Creator’s idea. By giving us taste, smell, sound, sight, and touch, God was making possible an amazing array of pleasures: from eating to making love, from music to sport, from painting to gardening, from dance to travel. Human pleasure is a good and beautiful creation, mirroring, it would seem, a great capacity for enjoyment that exists in God. We are told that God takes pleasure in creation and in us, something all parents, teachers, and artists understand in relation to their children, students, and works of art. So again and again in the Bible, we are reminded that our Creator has given us all things to enjoy richly, and that in God’s presence is fullness of joy. The Creator is definitely pro-pleasure.

If that’s the case, why do we find so many warnings and rules about pleasure in the Bible? Those rules make sense when you realize how easily all life’s great pleasures — food, drink, sex, owning, winning, resting, playing, working — can become addictive and destructive. When we indulge in pleasures without self-examination or self-control, great pleasure can quickly lead to great pain — for the addicts themselves and for those whose lives are touched by their addiction.

So rules about pleasures have an important place. The desire-center within us that demands “what I want, when I want it, as much as I want” can all too easily become an addictive dictator. We all need to learn to say “No, that’s not right,” or “No, this isn’t the right time,” or “No, that’s enough for now.” Without wise rules and that basic, level of self-control to follow them, we’ll all be stuck in childish, selfish, self-destructive, and even suicidal immaturity. But the Spirit never gives rules the final word. Living by rules — “law” in the Bible — is at most like primary school.

As we begin a new school year, we celebrate that primary school has its place, a crucial time in life as children do much of their basic learning and growing. But if we’re never allowed to graduate to secondary school, it feels like a prison. So when we’re ready, the Spirit always leads us to graduate from rule-oriented primary school to secondary school with its new emphasis: what the biblical tradition calls wisdom.

And I especially want to emphasize this morning, and in our adult education this fall, how wisdom is grounded in silent prayer, the long tradition we call contemplative prayer. We’ve talked in recent weeks about how in silent prayer we learn to unthink the dualistic way of thinking that gets us started as human beings, the primary school way of thinking, you might say. We grow up learning to think in pairs, us-them, good-bad, righteous-unrighteous. And this morning we might add: pleasure-pain. In contemplative prayer we learn to go beyond the pairs to experience the oneness of everything in God.

But in meeting the one true God in the silence of our prayer, there’s also something very important to wisdom and to our question this morning about loving one’s self. We meet a God who loves us unconditionally. We find the very source of life and love itself. We find a God who loves us infinitely.

Martin Laird in his excellent book about contemplative prayer (Into the Silent Land) tells the story of James, who battles addiction and seeks healing in silent prayer. James describes the experience of how love of neighbor and love of self came together in his healing:

“Prayer has shown me the calm at the center of the storm, something that is silent even when the chaos rages.” Once during a particularly difficult storm of inner chaos something happened that [I] could only call a spiritual breakthrough. “One morning I was sitting in the chapel where I like to go to pray. The chaos was pretty bad. I thought my head was going to explode. I can’t really describe what happened next, but it was as though while trying to pray I fell into hell. I stopped fighting and just prayed there in hell. Then I felt a welling up of love within me, a love for all people who struggle, who screw up, who have been defined out of the picture, people who despair, people who are told they aren’t the right race, gender or orientation. I saw how I was part of all this, how I judge people who fail and condemn people who are different. I saw how it was all tied to my self-loathing. And there I prayed in solidarity with all people who struggle. I moved beyond my self-loathing and felt one with all these people.” (Laird, Into the Silent Land, 113-14)

By pursuing wisdom, you get out of your own way. You learn to be a friend to yourself instead of your own worst enemy. You learn self-examination, self-control, self-development, and self-care — so you can better practice true self-giving toward God and others. Rules are good, wisdom is better, and love is best of all.

Could this be a central purpose of the universe — to provide an environment in which self-control, wisdom, and love can emerge and evolve? Could this be a central purpose in our lives — to mature in self-control, wisdom, and love? And could this be a central purpose of religion and spirituality — to multiply contagious examples of maturity, to create communities where the more mature can mentor others, to build a global Spirit movement toward individual and collective maturity?

So You have this self. What you do with it matters a lot. You can be self-absorbed, self-contained, self-centered, selfish, self-consumed and your closed-in self will stagnate, spoil, and deteriorate over time. Or you can engage in Spirit-guided self-examination, self-control, self-development, and self-giving — and your self will open and mature into a person of great beauty and Christ-like maturity.

God, it turns out, isn’t a divine killjoy. God wants you to love you the way God loves you, so you can join God in the one self-giving love that upholds you and all creation. If you trust your self to that love, you will become the best self you can be, thriving in aliveness, full of deep joy, part of the beautiful whole. That’s the kind of self-care and love of self that is good, right, wise, and necessary. And that’s one more reason we walk this road together: to journey ever deeper into the beautiful mystery of the Spirit’s love. There we find God. There we find our neighbor. And there we find ourselves.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, September 7, 2014

1. This sermon is a reworking of one of Brian McLaren’s sermons in We Make the Road by Walking (Jericho Books, 2014), chap. 44, “Spirit of Love: Loving Self,” pp. 221-25.

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