If You Can’t Love Yourself…

This sermon was originally preached via podcast and Facebook Live at Mission Hills United Methodist Church in San Diego, California on July 26, 2020. To listen to the full recording, visit our podcast, “Mission Hills United Methodist Church” or search ‘Mission Hills United Methodist Church’ wherever you get your podcasts. If you would like to donate to the ministries of Mission Hills UMC, you can make a secure online gift here. 

Deuteronomy 6:1-9

Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

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. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Of all the transformational passages in scripture, one that sticks out to me as fundamental is the instruction to love God and love neighbor as ourselves. A lot of the time, we attribute this to Jesus, but actually, the originator of this teaching comes from the passage in Deuteronomy, which we just read.

This passage in Deuteronomy focuses on the law, and specifically God’s law. But it also shares a message much bigger than that, a message about the value of God’s law in our own individual lives. 

For the next three weeks, we’ll be following along with the teachings from Compassion Camp, which our young leaders will begin the first week of August. Today, the theme is “Be Loved”, and talks about the value of loving ourselves as a vital part of compassion. Part of this teaching means that we honor ourselves, seeing ourselves as a child of God, a phrase we may use often, but really breaking it down, it is a powerful descriptor. God is powerful, above all else, and God teaches us and reassures us, over and over, through many different avenues, that we are God’s beloved. We are made by God, and God is with us till the end. And so when we talk about loving God, about following God’s law, it is for ourselves too.

This teaching, however, took some time to understand for those there. In the time Deuteronomy was recorded, God was seen as one to be feared, as one who can cause destruction to a city at the snap of a finger, who could destroy evil rulers and cast plagues on communities. With this shift, those hearing this message in Israel now see a new side of God, a new reason for God’s action. Yes, God still has the power to do all kinds of things, but God’s motivation is not to be feared. Rather, God’s motivation is to motivate, inspire, and teach a larger, more whole understanding of love for God, love for neighbor, and love for self. Here, that notion of God adds something new to the conversation: love.

When we can frame God’s law and God’s teaching as an expression of God’s love, it turns the idea of law on its head, just like it did for those who heard it first.

If you were to describe God in one word or small phrase, how would you describe God?

I take a wild guess that you hadn’t used the word fear. Yet Deuteronomy says “so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life”. Fear to us means something to be scared of, or even something to dread or avoid seeking because of the outcome. In reality though, fear in this case is used as a term of reverence or respect. It’s as if to say “trust that I know what will help you to thrive.” And even goes to reassure people that if they take this law seriously, it not only helps them to thrive, but will help their children thrive too.

So this fear, this reverence, it’s a way of encouraging God’s people to move towards love, even when things get hard. I don’t believe God expresses God’s love because God thinks everything is easy in life. I don’t think God dismisses the times when life feels unfair, or when our own self-esteem flares up in unhealthy ways, or any other day to day things life throws at us. And in spite of these things, and amidst them, God shows up still, and invites us, as God’s children, to be loved too.  

As we talked about, this passage in Deuteronomy is one that is carried into the New Testament as well, specifically the famous passage in Mark, where Jesus is being pressured to make a scene, to choose sides, to increase tension and conflict. You see, those gathered with Jesus in Mark are focusing on the wrong things. They’re focusing on minute things, ways of seeing the world that are divisive and try to prove that Jesus is a bad leader. In other words, they are afraid of choosing love. So those gathered are casting serious doubt and harm onto Jesus. And Jesus had every right to play into their cards. Maybe he even thought about it, about proving them wrong or snapping back. But he doesn’t. Instead, Jesus pauses, takes a deep breath, and reminds them what is said in Deuteronomy, what is really important. Love God, and Love neighbor, as yourself. And perhaps the ‘as yourself’ is the most important part. 

You see, when we believe, truly believe, that we are children of God, God’s law is not only God’s law; it’s our law too. God wants us to thrive, to multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey. The writer is stressing the hugeness of God’s love, the exceptional nature of God’s love for us.

So love God, love neighbor is not just a law, but it’s a mantra of sorts, for when following God’s love seems almost impossible. Because if we’re really honest with ourselves, it’s hard to be a human. It’s hard to be in relationships with other humans. It’s hard to be in the middle of a pandemic that doesn’t seem like it’s going away. It’s hard to believe that you are making an impact or being a good listener or a good friend in the challenging times. 

And still, God says we are to love God, and love our neighbor as we love ourself. When we do this well, it means we have to love ourselves exceptionally, so that the same caliber of love can be passed on to those around us. And the times that are hardest to love others? Those are the times when loving ourselves relentlessly becomes even more important.

What is something you love about yourself?

God, like Jesus, grounds us in this message of self love. When it feels like complicated things are being thrown your way, rest in this commandment, that you follow God’s law and love yourself.

So friends, as we leave today, may you practice exceptional love towards yourself, knowing that it is a fulfillment of God’s law. May you extend the same grace you give to others to yourself. And may you remember God’s promise, to help us grow and thrive as God’s beloved. Amen.

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