A Sermon from Sherborne
Loving neighbour; loving self
A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 4 November 2018 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods
We hear them Sunday by Sunday at the start of the Eucharist – the two Great Commandments which Jesus told the scribes and the Pharisees summed-up “all the law and the prophets”. The first, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength”. The second, “to love your neighbour as yourself.” Matthew, Mark and Luke all record the same story, but only today’s Gospel reading, from Mark, [12.28-34] tells us that the scribe to whom he said this passionately agreed, and earned Jesus’ praise: “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”
Whenever Jesus told his listeners to love their neighbours, or to love one another, he did not mean that they should love in a vague, generalised, sentimental sort of way. He meant that they should use their imaginations actively to love and care for one another. Christian love has to be expressed in thoroughly practical, concrete, tangible ways, or else it is not love at all. As one writer puts it, it has to be expressed “in and through things we can touch and see and smell and taste and hear.”
That was something discovered during the Second World War by a leading psychiatrist, D. W. Winnicott. He was one of a group of experts gathered together to discuss the future of the children of war-stricken Europe. He was asked particularly to suggest the appropriate psychological response to the needs of children throughout Europe who had been traumatised by the war. He replied simply, “Give them food.”
An important official quickly interrupted. “No, no. We don’t mean physical things. We mean the right psychological approach.” But Dr Winnicott replied again, “Give them food.” He saw that the giving of food at that particular moment would not only be catering for the physical needs of the children, but for their psychological needs too. Giving food would say more clearly than anything else that the victors in the war cared for the vanquished, the hurt and the hungry. Winnicott saw that unless love expresses itself in tangible, practical, physical ways, it is not love at all.
Jesus, in today’s Gospel, gives us the commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves. We are all signed-up to that in theory, or else we would not be here. But translating it into practice is another matter. “To love the world for me’s no chore; my trouble is the man next door.” William Blake wrote long ago, “He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars: General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite and flatterer.” We need to start in little ways: a word of encouragement, or thanks, or praise; a helping hand; a smile. And if we are at the receiving end of the helping hand, and deep-down resent it, we need to learn how to respond with grace and with humility.
I find it deeply significant that Jesus told the scribes to love their neighbours as themselves. I think he saw very clearly that men and women made in the image of God should always have a proper sense of self-worth, self-respect and self-esteem. If you do not have a proper love of self – as opposed to the twisted, selfish, narcissistic variety – then you will find it impossible to love other people – family, friends, neighbours, strangers – as Christ commands us to love them.
So many people suffer from a crippling lack of self-worth. “I can’t be confirmed, Rector, I’m not good enough.” “I was confirmed as a teenager, Rector, but I don’t receive Holy Communion. I don’t feel worthy enough.” If I had a pound for every time I have heard remarks like those, I would be a rich man today. You are worthy. By definition, you are worthy, because you have been made and kept and loved by God, in his image – and saved by the precious blood of his Son. The early Christians would stand to pray, looking up, because at last they knew – they knew – that that they could and should “walk tall” in the presence of their Creator and their Redeemer. This is an essential part of the Gospel, of the Good News. It is Good News which could empty our psychiatric hospitals and clinics overnight if those who have beaten themselves up so badly by having a chronically low opinion of their own worth and value would realise that in God’s sight they have infinite worth and are loved by him with an infinite love. So: love yourself as God loves you, and then you will be able to love your neighbour too.
Let me leave you with a prayer some of you will have heard me quote before. It was written for church members many years ago by someone who knew their – our – weaknesses well.
Let me be a little kinder; let me be a little blinder
To the faults of those about me; let me praise a little more.
Let me be, when I am weary, just a little bit more cheery;
Let me serve a little better those whom I am striving for.
Let me be a little braver, when temptation bids me waver;
Let me strive a little harder to be all that I should be.
Let me be a little meeker with the brother who is weaker;
Let me think more of my neighbour and a little less of me.
Let me be a bit more prayerful, let me be a bit more careful
Of my daily love and welcome to the stranger at the door;
Let me be both kind and thoughtful even when I find folk awful:
Help me trust you, Lord, and serve you; help me love you more and more.
Let me be a little sweeter, make my life a bit completer
By doing what I should do every minute of the day;
Let me toil, without complaining, not a humble task disdaining,
Let me face the summons calmly when death beckons me away.
[Original prayer/poem by the English-born American poet Edgar A. Guest, 1881 – 1959. Much adapted – including by me – and by Glen Campbell, who turned part of it into a popular song].