“Love Thy Neighbor” — A Basic Christian Ethic

November 13, 2016

(a sermon based upon Matthew 5:14-16 & 38-48 , page 839 in the pew Bible)

by Rev. Dr. Paul A. Lance, Minister

First Congregational United Church of Christ 201 S. Second Ave., Alpena, Michigan 49707

“Love Thy Neighbor” is a familiar phrase in Christian churches, quoted by Jesus himself from the Old Testament in his Sermon on the Mount. Leviticus 19:18 says: “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself, for I am the Lord your God.” Not only Judaism & Christianity, but all of the great world religions echo that basic ethic: Treat the other as you would like to be treated. Do not do to another person what you would not want done to yourself. Even the most secular humanist knows they should love their neighbor, if not because God desires it, but because it is the right thing to do.

 

To love one’s neighbor is a basic ethical standard by which one’s “morality” can be measured. Good people do it; bad people don’t.

 

Let me pause a moment right now to define some terms: the difference between “morality” and “ethics”. “Morality” is about how our actions affect others. Recognizing that our actions do affect other people is the key that opens the whole “moral dimension” to our awareness. In other words, morality is an aspect of every action we take if it has an effect on others… It’s not a list of good behavior & bad behavior; a list of what is acceptable or unacceptable to society… those reflect our “ethics.” Morality is not just about certain matters, such as sex or gambling or alcohol or abortion.

Morality is a dimension in every interaction in which something you do affects others.

 

I sometimes wish morality were so simple as making a list of ethical standards, because then we’d have a checklist by which we could see if a person was “moral” (or immoral) based on whether or not they did one thing or another: Do they dance? Do they play cards, or just dominoes? Do they drink or smoke? Do they cheat on their taxes or lie to their boss? Do they carry things on the Sabbath? Do they wash their hands correctly? Rule-making religions tend to mistake their code of ethics for actual “morality”. It’s not the same thing.

 

When we begin to reconsider our behavior by the affect we have on other people’s well-being (instead of a list of “do’s” and forbidden “don’ts”) the equation becomes infinitely more complicated!

 

For example, when Jesus says: “give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you” — will giving $20 to a beggar ease their need, or will it aid their addiction? You see, the “morality” or “immorality” of

 

that action must consider the outcome. Will forgiving a family member (“turning the other cheek, going the second mile”) open new possibilities to them, or simply cover their sins with enabling behavior so that it may continue?

 

It’s hard to know “in advance” whether or not our action will be good for them in the long run. The rightness or wrongness of what we do is relative not only to what we intend – the goodness or badness of our motives in doing what we choose to do – but also the situational context of the person we do it to. Taking the moral dimension seriously complicates any simple list of ethics: how to behave, and how not to behave. Every person must make up their own mind!

 

“Loving one’s neighbor” is a great ethical principle to hold, but actually doing it means taking the moral dimension very seriously: how will my decision, my action, affect this other person? If what I am doing has no affect on another person, then there is no question of “morality” (or “immorality”) involved. Feel free; go ahead, if it does no harm! But… if what I am about to do does affect another person (or an animal, or our planet)… If it is to their advantage, it is moral. If it does good, it is moral…

 

Medically necessary abortions, for example, are moral actions, even though some local laws & some people’s attitudes & ethics would forbid them… and would scandalize the people involved! That shaming behavior, in such a case, is immoral, because it heaps additional emotional burdens on suffering families.

 

The word “Ethics” applies to the principles we hold by which we “evaluate” behavior… principles which we believe will enable people to function more fully and effectively. (One could say that our “ethics” reflect our “ideals.“) One thing that election campaigns can do for society every few years is to engage us in the process of defining our “ethical” standards for various encounters, for economic matters and better human relations. Unfortunately, with our deeply polarized public – and the personal defaming and ad hominum attacks which characterized so much of the recent campaigns – we missed the opportunity on this go-around to model any “ideal” ethical standards for the general population.

 

This past Wednesday morning, for example, when The Alpena News (Nov. 9, 2016, A-1) reported “Late Night, No Winner” – they characterized the tone of this year’s campaign as follows: “Capping a presidential campaign of venom, audacity, and history, Donald Trump scored major victories… building steam in a stunningly competitive contest with Hillary Clinton… In an election that laid bare the divisions gnawing at the nation… both candidates left multitudes of Americans dissatisfied with their choices. … The two New Yorkers pounded each other relentlessly, each preaching that the other is wholly unqualified.” And so forth. “Venom.” Women versus men, white voters versus blacks & Hispanics. .. By Friday, the commentaries caught up to the headlines. John Kass, for example, in The Alpena News (A-4), called the contest between President-elect Trump and Hillary Clinton: an “ugly and contentious American presidential election, with families at odds, and friends lost, and anger in the air month after month”. He asks: “will the results help begin a healing process?”

 

JohnKass continues: “We’re Americans… We fight about ideas and power, and we say stupid, angry, and shameful things to each other; [however] harsh words and harsh ideas are not yet a crime. So, our feelings get hurt… We’re so full of strife in national elections because there is so much at stake. Because the federal government is so large now, so involved in our lives in ways the Founders never dreamed… from deciding about our public restrooms, to late-term abortions; to deciding about how far our religions can reach into the public square; to decisions about who is an American, and who can look at our cell-phones, to decisions about our jobs and our health care… An all-powerful federal government [with bureaucratic oversight in every town] is the price of Empire. And individual liberty is its casualty.” (Fri., Nov. 11, 2016, 4A) At least he admits it: we say stupid, angry, and shameful things. Rude campaign ethics are not generally good for people.

 

On the same page, columnist Mona Charen, wrote: “The glow of victory cannot obscure or perfume who the man is. Trump has demonstrated emotional unsteadiness, cruelty, and wild irresponsibility. He is most unhinged when his fragile ego is wounded. He is, I many ways, a spoiled child.” (unquote) Venom; unsteadiness, cruelty, wild irresponsibility.

 

A third commentary on the same page in The Alpena News on Friday (this one by Cleveland’s Connie Schultz) says: “We know the list of what he [Trump] promised to do and whom he promised to harm if he became our next president.

… We are his targets – a diverse group, which, in his view, qualifies us as the collective enemy. We are women. We are immigrants. We are black and Latino. We are Muslims and Jews. We are gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender. We are the people on the margins; the ones invisible in plain sight. We have listened to him talk about us for months. We know him. We know whom he threatened and whom he bullied.” (unquote) Threatened, bullied, a collective enemy… How  sad!

 

Christian ethics sometimes match the values of society (such as, valuing “practicality,” for example; or being “reasonable”, or improving one’s “material well-being”), but what distinguishes the Christianperspective is that we measure ourselves against Jesus’ story & promises… Jesus’ ethics are taken as our own. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of Jesus’ ethics demonstrated in American politics, in media, or in business. Sometimes, it’s not even found in churches!

 

For the Christian, neither social norms, nor ethnic traditions — not what the Bible teaches as Torah-Law, nor even what passes as Federal or State-law — is our primary concern. Our behavior is measured against the standard of Jesus’ own ethics. Are we “Christ-like” in what we do?

 

ETHICAL BEHAVIOR is defined as those actions which assure that individual well-being will flourish, and that social “good” will be enhanced. To define one’s “ethics” is good for us to do occasionally, and healthy for society, whether one is Christian or not. You don’t have to be Christian to have good “ethics.” You don’t have to be Christian to be “moral.” But we do have to be fully informed. (I hesitated to preach about ethics and morality prior to last Tuesday, because I was concerned that it would be perceived as supporting one party over the others. Now that the Decision is behind us, let’s talk.)

 

You and I are the “Light of the world”, said Jesus. We are like “a city set on a hill” that cannot be hid. So it’s important that we let our light so shine before others that they may see our good works, and give glory to God for them. We let our God-light shine in public when we actually “Love Our Neighbor”… and they know it! Now, we may want to love our neighbor… agree that it would be a good thing to love our neighbor… but for some reason or other, we keep that light hidden under a bushel. We don’t really spend much time or energy letting our neighbor know that he, or she, or they, are loved. “Love Thy Neighbor”… a good ethical principle: easy to remember, but hard to do.

 

Admittedly, some people’s ethics are self-serving; some people’s ethics are doctrinaire (meaning they will not admit any alternative). It’s hard to have a productive conversation with folks like that… but we’ve still got to love them! There can be a lot of honest debate (and dispute) among us as to whose ethical principles are more “moral” – more moral because they (1) do more good (2) for more people (3) more of the time.

 

One of the things I like about the U.C.C. is how open we are to varieties of ideas — thinking outside-the-box — and even raising questions on matters that seemed to many people to have been long-settled… We can disagree with one another without being disagreeable. We are largely “open” to other people’s experiences and opinions. We have passionate people from both of the major political parties, who come together here for a higher calling than politics.

 

Something distinctive about Jesus was how (in his teachings) that basic ethical principle of LOVING OTHERS was lifted up to clear articulation. When he was asked ‘Which commandment is the greatest of all?’ Jesus answered (quoting the Jewish Shema in Deut. 6:4) “The first is ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall 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 is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (there’s that quote from Leviticus 19:18 again!) Jesus said: “There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)

 

Jesus’ ethics, based on the “Love of God” – wholehearted, full-minded, nothing held back LOVE of God – and its subsequent corollary: LOVE of one’s neighbor, put all other squabbles (about right practice & right ideas) to rest!

 

If one loves God – who made the world… and all that is in it… and who loves it still, despite all the brokenness and hurt that has been inflicted over the eons – one cannot help but want to cooperate with God’s Spirit in advancing God’s cause! According to Jesus: Loving God whole-heartedly, double-fistedly, soulfully, mindfully… won’t steer you wrong, for it immediately brings you into a relationship of loving everything. As the Hebrew writer put it so long ago: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is ONE!” Comprehensive, all-inclusive, immortal, omnipresent… An every-thing in every-body at every-time in all of space, forever-&-after, world without end kind of God! (Amen?) Loving God relates us to all that God has made.

 

With a God like that, is it any wonder that the UCC chose as its motto back in 1957 Jesus’ prayerful plea: “That they may all be One!”? because God is ONE, all-inclusive, LOVE! With a foundational ethic like that, the divisiveness of other ideas quickly shows itself. If LOVE of GOD (GOD who is ONE) is the foundation, then separating ourselves along any other lines is allowing a secondary criterion to take first place.

 

To be “Christian” – a follower of Jesus’ ethic – means that all subsequent criteria, beliefs, or social custom, must necessarily take second-place to the command to LOVE your neighbor as you love yourself.

 

If “Love Thy neighbor” is truly a primary ethical principle, a lot of our political debates and personal arguments pale in importance. If we take the moral dimension seriously — and actually try to love our neighbor — there will be more give-and-take! “Compromise” will no longer be seen as “betrayal” but as the first step toward a more comprehensive solution, based on mutual respect. If we are to “love your neighbor” as you love “yourself,” the personal stubborn-nesses and political stalemates will begin to move. Things will change!

 

The Congregational tradition (since the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower) historically values “Faith, Freedom, Fellowship, and Education.” With core values like that, we are more apt to seek a reasonable compromise than to argue. We look for possible and practical “win/win” solutions than fight a “win/lose” kind of battle. Instead of a world of black & white “either/or” we hope to find a both/and solution that embraces all parties in a more inclusive way.

 

If people who hold responsible positions in our society — in business, in politics, in education, in the media, in churches — were to begin to actually use Jesus’ ethical principles, we may not be far from the Kingdom of God. A person can meet the high ethical standard that Rabbi Jesus set by simply loving one another. Period! Love your neighbor, whoever they are! Just do it! Let it be known; let it be seen! Love ’em!

 

So, what — specifically — is a “CHRISTIAN” ETHIC of Love? When St. John writes: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God,” (First John 4:7) what makes our understanding of LOVE different from the soap operas and the Sonnets of Shakespeare?

 

The test is simple enough: does our love of our neighbor reflect the values of Jesus of Nazareth — as his life and teachings are recorded in the Gospels? To me, that is the primary measure of Christian Love: it will be “Christ-like” love.

 

And Jesus, in turn, we believe, lived fully (& demonstrated perfectly) the kind of love that God intends… of which there are three noteworthy attributes:

 

First, it is non-judgmental. God’s love is non-judgmental.

 

Jesus said, for example in today’s text: My Father makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good; and sends rain on the just and the unjust alike…” He goes on to say it is not enough to “love only those who love you” (to love only those who are like us), but that we are to “Love our enemies…”: “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you: Love your enemies [also], and pray for those who persecute you.” Jesus expects his followers to stretch their ability to love in some incredible ways in order to be ever-more inclusive. We are to let our light shine!  Make our mark! Make a difference for the good, in Jesus’ name.

 

That kind of non-judgmental, un-conditional, freely given, God-initiated, steadfast love is often called “GRACE” in the church. But it is LOVE: AGAPE love… Love of the “other”; love of the neighbor… taken to the extreme. (I suspect that it is here – in that command to love even our enemies — where many people break away from following Jesus’ radical ethic! They are just not gonna do it! Ya’ can’t make me love: them! That’s all it takes to break away from Jesus.)

 

Second, God’s Love — Christian Love — is self-correcting.

 

Jesus’ followers were often encouraged to “Repent…” (that is, to “turn around” and to “start over.”) Jesus says people may “go, and sin no more,” and time & again he says: “your faith has made you well…” In other words, it seems to me, Christian Love expects “change” to happen. It encourages self-correction, development, & growth…

 

Jesus taught his followers to pray: “Forgive us, in the same way as we forgive others.” Not just occasionally, but over-&-over! Remember, we are supposed to forgive our brother or sister who sins against us not seven times, but “70- times-7 times!” The inability to repent, to forgive, to change is a symptom of death. Christian Love — is self-correcting. (Again, some people shy away from that ethic of Jesus, too.)

 

God’s love is non-judgmental… God’s love is self-correcting…

 

And, third, Christian Love, like God’s Love, is “other-serving” — even to the point of renouncing self, if needs be!

Advocating on behalf of the marginal, the lost ones and the left-outs, the un-lovable. Giving of oneself in the service of

other’s well-being. “Christ-like” love is other-centered; other-serving.

 

We heard several examples in today’s text… Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ (Oh, yeah! Pay’em back!) But I say to you: do not resist one who is evil. (Say, what?)

 

But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Jesus, you’ve got to be kidding!) And if anyone would sue you, and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, [love them] and go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.” (I suppose a whole lot more of the crowd shook their heads at ethics like Jesus advocated.)

 

What’s required of our ethics in order to say they are “Christian” is not a simple list of forbidden & approved behavior (those rules of “do’s and dont’s” that I mentioned at the start of this sermon), but rather an approach that is whole- heartedly open toward God: an attitude toward God that engages our whole mind, our whole body, and all our being!

 

And then, from that source (that One-ness), we are to wholeheartedly love our neighbor as we love ourselves. That, of course, is not only “the Great Commandment” that Jesus taught, but his “Golden Rule” as well: we will do unto others that which we would appreciate them doing for us. It’s not enough for us to refrain from doing harm. To be Christian (“Christ-like”) we must actively promote others’ welfare, whoever they are. Christians are commanded to love!

 

Now, those “others” whom we love may not respect us; they may not thank us; they may not respond at all to our kindness… They may even want to take advantage of us (since they know we are “supposed to be” doing our best to love them)! Well, that’s their problem. (And I’ll admit: it’s sometimes hard to live with moral sensitivity in an a-moral world; sometimes our “ethics” may seem like liabilities!) Christian love demands much from us. It’s not natural, nor easy.

 

I would sum it up by saying that we show a person love when we “get RADICAL in showing them RESPECT” … realizing that the person they are (male/female, boyfriend/girlfriend, gay/straight/transgendered, immigrant or native-born) is a Child of God. They are loved by God! They are precious — made in the image of God — and of equal worth as oneself.

 

A Christian ethic of LOVE, then, is (1) non-judgmental, (2) self-correcting, and (3) other-serving… It’s a love that stands out from the “norm” by being more patient and forgiving than most; neither jealous, nor boastful; rarely resentful, delighting in open communication… All those things that St. Paul wrote about in First Corinthians 13 (which will be a sermon for another time). To my way of thinking, acts of love are the only things of eternal value.

 

So, let us learn it, and live it. For, as the song says: “They will know we are Christian by our love!” So, let that light shine!

 

Amen.

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