Love Your Neighbor as You Love Yourself
Earlier today I found myself trying my hardest not to blubber like a baby in the middle of Shake Shack. I think crying is a good and healthy thing to do. But I was kind of mystified about why it was happening. I had set up camp at a table for lunch with two clear goals: to each a cheeseburger with crinkle fries and to sit there until I finished reading the Mister Rogers biography The Good Neighbor. I crushed both of those goals and it was wonderful.
Yet as I read author Maxwell King describing the death of Fred Rogers, I felt tears welling up in my eyes. I took a deep breath, composed myself, and trudged forward. More tears. Why was this happening? King’s writing was fine, but it wasn’t particularly resonant emotionally. I knew that Mister Rogers had died. It happened a decade and a half ago. What was going on?
I grew up on Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. They aired back to back on SCETV. If you had asked me which of the two had more of an impact on me, I probably would have said Sesame Street. It’s blinding creativity combined with education, the let’s-put-on-a-show ethos of the Muppets, and its sense of humor has always been something that aspire to as I teach today. I liked Mister Rogers, but it wasn’t the show that I was anxious to show my own children. Not that there has to be a competition between the two, but they are inextricably linked in my head: the binary stars of my earliest memories of media.
Yet I think something about Mister Rogers and his neighborhood seeped down into me at a deeper level than I realized. The songs. The slower pace. The reminder that I was liked just the way I am. The neighborhood. There was something in all of that which colored the way that I see the world and my own neighborhood.
Jesus remarked that all of the Law and the Prophets can be summed up in two simple commandments: to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Philosophically I don’t have a big problem with the first one. I am not great at always living that out and there are those times in the face of tragedy or loss when I may struggle with the idea of loving God. Yet for the most part, I have no quarrel with the need to love God with all of my being.
I struggle mightily with loving my neighbor as I love myself. And the struggle is intense because I have issues with both ends of that command.
I strive to love my neighbor. I truly do, but, good Lord, it is difficult as this world seemingly becomes an angrier place. Some of it comes from a toxic political climate. Some of it comes from not knowing where you stand with people in the church of your childhood because a fair number of your beliefs have changed and that is a community where beliefs matter more than you could possibly imagine. It comes from being a parent and seeing a world where children are hurt and suffering and killed. It comes from having had a taste of being an outsider and seeing people treated even worse because they are a different skin color, love the wrong person, come from another country, or whatever else.
I want to love my neighbor. But if I am being honest, I want to be selective about the neighbor I love. This continues a thread that I talked about in my sermon about Jonah this past week. I understand “Love your neighbor,” but there are days when it is too tall a task to undertake.
And so is the loving myself part. This is more complicated. I grew up with parents who love me as I am. Great siblings. I have a wife who thinks a great deal more of me than she probably should. I am fortunate that I have had family and friends who love me and let me know it.
And yet for as long as I remember I have dealt with this sense that I am never good enough. I don’t literally hear voices, but that’s what I call them. I don’t know where they come from, but they’re there. I have grown a lot and have gotten much better at ignoring those voices. But they’re still there and I fear they always will be. There are some days when loving myself is an intense uphill battle.
I think that’s why I was crying in a Shake Shack on a beautiful Friday afternoon. Mister Rogers was human, but he was also this avatar, this modern day patron saint who reminded us to love our neighbor and to love ourselves. Over decades, he showed us the world through the lens of a neighborhood. He spoke directly to the camera and told us “It’s you I like.” He was that calm steady reminder that we were bound together and that we mattered. Reading about his passing felt like reading about the passing of those notions: that my neighbor and I should be loved.
Obviously, that is not true. Those notions existed long before Fred Rogers walked this earth and they will still be around long after my final breath. But I guess there was this tension between how I see the world now and how I want to see the world…how I thought the world was when I was a child. It struck a nerve and that nerve had to cry out somehow.
So I will say this, as obvious as it may be. Love your neighbor. That includes people who live on your street, but also all manner of people who are not like you and may even live a world away. Work for a better neighborhood in whatever small or big ways that you can. Be a good neighbor seeking not only your own good but the good of others.
And love yourself. You are this beautiful creation of God and you hold more value than you could ever imagine. The neighborhood needs you for you are the only you we’ve got. God loves you. I love you. You are loved. Try not to forget that. Write it on your walls if you have to. Ask people to call you and remind you if you need to. But don’t ever forget it. You are loved.