The Summer of Love: Your Neighbor As Yourself

Lesson: Leviticus 19:13-18; Mark 12:28-34

Our summer sermon series commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love of 1967, when an obscure intersection in San Francisco became known to the whole world and a symbol of counterculture. Haight-Ashbury gave us an different way to look at authority, consumerism, materialism, personal freedom, government, and war and peace. Like many social experiments, it had its up sides, and a whole lot of down sides. It was one of the defining moments of a turbulent decade, leaving a lasting impact on American culture and especially, on a generation of young people.

The phrase, “the Summer of Love,” was first used in a San Francisco Chronicle article from 50 years ago last Thursday – June 22nd, 1967. In a front page article with the headline, “Hippies Begin Their Summer of Love,” Chronicle journalist Jack Viets quoted a hippie who’d attended a summer solstice celebration: “‘There were strong vibrations of love,’ said Randall DeLeon. ‘People really got along well.’”[1]

How much actual “love” was there during that summer of 1967? It depends on what you mean by “love.” If what you mean is fuzzy feelings of goodwill and physical attraction, and “people really getting along well,” I guess you might say there was plenty of love. When I toured the de Young’s special exhibit on the Summer of Love a few weeks ago, however, it struck me that 1967’s version of love might not pass muster today. The leadership and the loudest voices that summer were all white, male, straight, and middle to upper middle class, and mixed in with the idealism and naiveté was a fair amount of greed and exploitation.

But it was 1967, after all. I suppose compared to the riots in Detroit that summer, Haight-Ashbury did look like a love fest. But the Bible’s definition of love goes way beyond fuzzy feelings of goodwill. Most Christians are familiar with Jesus’ words in this morning’s passage: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. This same story is told with different details in Matthew and Luke, as well, with the same conclusion: These are the two greatest, most important commandments.[2]

Fewer people know that Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy for the “love God” part,[3] and Leviticus for the “love your neighbor” part.[4] Now, Leviticus is a difficult book, a book full of rules, many of them odd and frankly outdated, by about two and a half millennia. Even people who claim to take all the rules in the Bible literally don’t follow all the rules in Leviticus. For example, “You shall not … tattoo any marks upon you” occurs later in this same chapter,[5] and had Jesus chosen that as the second commandment, we would be in an entirely different religion, wouldn’t we? Perhaps we’d have even fewer young adults in church. Still, how are we to make sense of a book where “no tattoos” stands just ten verses away from “love your neighbor”?

It helps to understand that Leviticus is about holiness: God’s holiness and the holiness of God’s people. Leviticus 19 begins with Moses calling God’s people to be holy because God is holy.[6] This isn’t so much a command as a promise. “Because I am holy,” says God, “you will be holy. It is my gift to you. It is who you are.” It’s not that God’s people are supposed to be “holier than thou,” it’s that we’re to partake in God’s holiness just as we partake in God’s image. Leviticus 19 ends by telling us what this holiness means: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”[7] In other words, God is holy not only because God is completely “Other,” but also because God liberates captives, sets people free, and stands opposed to tyrants and oppressors.[8]

So when Jesus summarized the over 600 rules in the Old Testament – his Bible – with, “Love God, love your neighbor as you love yourself,” he’s telling us not only what holiness looks like but what love looks like. Love, according to Leviticus’ standards, looks like liberating captives and setting people free. It looks like standing against any tyranny, against any exploitation, against any cheating or deceiving used to manipulate people. It looks like treating people fairly and generously, including outsiders and those less able to take care of themselves. Going through just a handful of the verses in Chapter 19, God’s people should reserve food for the poor and the alien,[9] not defraud others or withhold fair wages,[10] care for the deaf and blind,[11] not show partiality in law,[12] not hate or take vengeance,[13] care for the aged,[14] not cheat[15] or steal,[16] and, surprisingly, for a people who understood itself to be uniquely the people of God – love not only the neighbor but also the stranger or alien as oneself.[17]

C. S. Lewis wrote, “Love is not an affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.” Note, however, that Leviticus describes behavior, not mere wishes.[18] The love Jesus describes is to show in our behavior – in how we act. This is the ongoing theme of the Old Testament. The books of the prophets are all about reminding God’s people that when they do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God,[19] things go well for them. When they don’t, things go poorly. In Scripture, love is not just or even primarily about an individual; it’s a community responsibility. As William Sloane Coffin put it, “To show compassion for an individual without showing concern for the structures and society that make him an object of compassion is to be sentimental rather than loving.”[20] That’s why we Presbyterians have a long history of involvement in social justice. We can’t really love in the way Jesus loves without changing the world to look more like the kingdom Jesus describes: more just, more fair, more inclusive, more welcoming.

When Jesus says we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, we tend to gloss over that last clause – the “as yourself” part. We might be tempted to hear this from a contemporary, psychological perspective, but this isn’t what the biblical writers had in mind. The biblical writers begin by assuming that we all want our own ultimate good. What that phrase, “as yourself” means is that we are to seek the well-being and justice of our neighbor – of others – with the same energy and commitment that we’d pursue our own well-being. It means that our neighbor’s well being is to have the identical priority to our well-being.

But even though it’s absolutely true that the biblical writers wouldn’t have been thinking in contemporary terms when they wrote these verses, we’ve since learned that our failure to love ourselves, to have compassion for ourselves, does get in the way of our living the commandment to love our neighbors. Today, we know that self-loathing in the form of shame underpins today’s most devastating clinical conditions and social problems, including addiction, trauma, aggression, depression, eating disorders, bullying, and more. These conditions eat away at an individual’s and at a society’s ability to act for the ultimate good of our neighbors.

Is it possible to love others if we don’t love ourselves?[21] Justin Valentin, a mental health professional, uses the analogy of secondhand smoke. Smokers used to think they were only hurting themselves. Then we learned secondhand smoke could be deadly. Valentin describes his patients, many of whom are mothers struggling with drug addiction. They tell him they hate themselves, but they love their children. They believe their children are lovable, but they are unlovable. They claim to love their children more than themselves, yet they destroy their lives and often damage their bodies beyond repair. “On the surface,” says Valentin, “one might say, yes, some of them love their children more than themselves.” But as with secondhand smoke, by destroying their own lives, they are poisoning their children’s lives. Is that love?[22]

Drug addiction is certainly an extreme form of this kind of secondhand smoke. More subtle ways we hate ourselves and pass it along to others we claim to love, and to our kids in particular, might be perfectionism, body shaming, or the belief that people are worthy of love and belonging only if they are spectacular or special. When we communicate to our children, “I’ll be worthy when I lose 20 pounds,” “I’ll be worthy if I can hold my marriage together,” “I’ll be worthy when I make partner,” or “I’ll be worthy as long as I can afford to live in Marin,” then they will know we’re probably judging others by these standards, too. Including them. One of my favorite moments in Brené Brown’s famous TED talks is when she talked about how people hold a baby, and say, “Oh, you are so perfect.” Better, Brown says, would be to say, “Oh, you are so imperfect. And you are wired for struggle. But you are completely worthy of love and belonging.”[23]

This weekend a friend posted a little animated video on Facebook about “ACE’s.” That’s A, C, E, an acronym for “adverse childhood experiences.” The video was made in the UK, and describes powerfully and poignantly how self-loathing is communicable and destructive. A small boy describes the cycle of hatred and violence in his house. His father is miserably unhappy, and takes it out on him and his mother. This terrifies him, and makes him feel unloved and unlovable. The video shows how this turns him into a disaffected, troubled youth, and eventually into an adult who can’t hold a job and who repeats the cycle of violence in his own home with his own children. Then, the video switches to a healthy adult version of the boy, who says it doesn’t have to end that way. With a few small interventions, his life is not perfect, but he does not end up repeating the cycle.[24]

It begins to make sense that you can’t love your neighbor unless you also have a healthy sense of your own worth when you think of God as less of a ruler and more of a parent. Jesus called God “Father,” or, actually, “Abba,” which is more like, “Daddy.” In our very legitimate attempt to be gender inclusive, we sometimes lose how radical that is. People had used king language to describe God, and don’t kings want our devotion, loyalty, and praise? But if you think about God more as a parent, everything changes. I couldn’t care less whether my children praise me, but I do care, deeply and passionately, about how my children treat themselves and each other. So that’s what these two commandments are – God’s parental love expressed for us by giving us rules by which we best care for each other as God’s beloved children and our siblings, and in this way we honor and love God.[25]

Love your neighbor as yourself. Learning the words is easy. Living them is the work of a lifetime. It is the centerpiece of our Christian journey. It is demanding, but it is not drudgery. Love is, after all, the ultimate healthy habit.[26] Healthy for us, for our children, for our neighbors, for the very survival of our world. But no matter how we labor at love, we don’t create it. It is a gift from God meant for us to nurture and return, given to us to pass along in the spirit of the Great Lover of all.

Love God. Love neighbor. Love yourself. Learn it. Live it. Rejoice in it… as God rejoices in you. May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2017 all rights reserved.

[1] Tim O’Rourke, “Chronicle Covers: The Summer of Love’s Official Beginning,” June 22, 2016, http://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/Chronicle-Covers-The-Summer-of-Love-s-official-8249616.php

[2] Matthew 22:34-40; Luke 10:25-28.

[3] Deuteronomy 6:4-5.

[4] Leviticus 19:18.

[5] Leviticus 19:28.

[6] Leviticus 19:2.

[7] Leviticus 19:36.

[8] Fred Gaiser, “Commentary on Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18,” October 23, 2011, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1004.

[9] Leviticus 19:10.

[10] Leviticus 19:13.

[11] Leviticus 19:14, 16.

[12] Leviticus 19:15.

[13] Leviticus 19:17-18.

[14] Leviticus 19:32.

[15] Leviticus 19:11, 35-36.

[16] Leviticus 19:11, 13.

[17] Leviticus 19:34.

[18] Author bell hooks, who writes, “To begin by always thinking of love as an action rather than a feeling is one way in which anyone using the word in this manner automatically assumes accountability and responsibility.”

[19] Micah 6:8.

[20] William Sloane Coffin, Credo (Louisville , KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 23.

[21] William Sloane Coffin said, “If we hate ourselves, we can never love others, for love is the gift of oneself. How will you make a gift of that which you hate?” Coffin, 21.

[22] Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (Center City, MN: Hazeldon, 2010), 29.

[23] https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.

[24] http://www.acesconnection.com/clip/adverse-childhood-experiences-6-min-substance-org-uk.

[25] David Lose, http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/matthew-22-34-40

[26] David F. Sellery, “The Great Lover,” http://us6.campaign-archive2.com/?u=dbffd2070718c7bb6a1b9b7e0&id=31f18153a4&e=9d753c1a09archive2.com/?u=dbffd2070718c7bb6a1b9b7e0&id=31f18153a4&e=9d753c1a09.

 

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