June 6, 2010


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             In the years 2000 and 2008 Senator John McCain made strong bids for the oval office.  His strength of character, not just his politics, attracted many.  Even opponents respected the depth and courage of his values.  During both bids for the oval office, his biography captured America’s attention, especially the story of how he could have been released by Hanoi as a prisoner of war but refused to go unless his comrades were freed as well.  What kind of person would do that?  What kind of person would sacrifice his own well being for that of his friends?  What kind of person puts the needs of others on equal footing with one’s own?

            Thankfully, John McCain is not alone when it comes to looking out for the interests of others.  Let me tell you about Larry Deans.  Larry Deans, an eighty-year-old retiree at the time, chaired the Personnel Committee of our church in Florida.  Shortly after our coming to the church, Larry heard the story of how I had completed all the course work for a doctor of ministry degree but had not written the dissertation.  Instead of the dissertation, I had written One Anothering, Volume 1, and got it published.  With small groups exploding in our congregation at the time, I thought it made more sense to write the book than a dissertation.  At the time I thought, “When I get the book done, I will tackle the dissertation,” but I got sidetracked.  I lost an associate pastor, and then came building projects and building campaigns, and I hardly had time for my family, let alone a dissertation.  Ultimately, I missed the deadline for the dissertation.  If I wanted to complete my doctoral degree, I needed to update my course work or the seminary had to grant me an extension.  Larry asked me, “If the seminary granted you an extension without additional course work, would you write the dissertation?”  I said, “Of course, I would.  I was so close.”

            Months later Larry called and asked if he could drop by my office.  He told me it wouldn’t take long.  He came bearing a file folder.  He handed it to me and said, “With the help of your wife, I contacted the seminary.  I told them your situation, and asked if they would grant you an extension.  After researching your file, they sent it along to the appropriate approval committee.  The committee knew of you work in small groups and said that because you had remained current in church renewal issues, they would give you a two-year extension to complete the dissertation.  All you need to do is call this woman, at this number, and she will tell you what to do next.”

            I was flabbergasted.  I could not believe what Larry had done for me, and every time I look at the diploma I think of him and the smile on his face the day he handed me that file folder.  If it had not been for him, looking out for me, I doubt I would have earned the degree.

            The Apostle Paul put it this way:  “Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4).  That’s our one another passage for today, and the situation behind these words must have come as a surprise to Paul because, of all his churches, First Church Philippi was his favorite.  One cannot miss the affection in his voice when he writes them.  He began his letter by saying, “I thank my God every time I remember you,” and now comes the news of disunity and disputes in the church.  I know it’s difficult to believe but two women in the church were quarreling with one another, but they were and their dispute was adversely affecting the entire congregation.  The church that had cared so much for him, and one another, had suddenly taken a wrong turn.  People were looking out for their own self interest instead of looking out for one another.

            I love the poem Jill Briscoe included in one of her sermons.  It put a smile on my face.  It’s about grandmothers, and particularly how grandmothering has changed from one generation to another.  Listen to it,


            In the dim and distant past

            When life’s tempo wasn’t fast,

            Grandma used to rock and knit,

            Crochet and baby-sit.


            When the kids were in a jam,

            They could always count on Gram.

            In an age of gracious living,

            Grandma was the gal for giving.


            Grandma now is at the gym

            Exercising to keep slim.

            She’s off touring with a bunch,

            Taking clients out to lunch.

            Driving north to ski or curl,

            All her days are in a whirl.

            Nothing seems to stop or block her,

            Now that Grandma’s off her rocker.


            Paul must have felt the Philippian church had gone off its rocker.  The church that had done so much for him, the church that cared so deeply for him, the church who had looked out for his interests, was becoming infected by a self-centeredness that was unbecoming and contrary to the example of Christ. 

            Looking out for one’s interests and not the interests of others is easy to do and tough to fix.  I am told, and I don’t know if this is true, I am told that when Russian children go to school, there is a map of the world posted on their classroom wall, and at the very center of that map is Russia.  When I went to Edison Elementary School in Glendale, California we had the United States at the center of our classroom map.  From early on, we place ourselves at the center of the world.  Galileo was branded a heretic because he had the audacity to say that the universe did not revolve around the earth. 

            Preoccupation with self is tough to break.  Try teaching toddler how to share.  It’s not an easy task, and some of us are not too far removed from the two women who left worship on a Sunday morning.  One woman said to the other, “This morning’s sermon about ‘Only Thinking of Oneself’ was really moving.”

            The other replied, “It had quite an effect on me, too!  It’s the first time I didn’t pray that I would find a good man to marry!  Instead, I prayed that my parents would get a good son-in-law!”

            What’s the cure for rampant self-centeredness?  It’s what Paul recommends here.  It’s looking out for the interests of others.  Of course, what Paul says here needs to be tempered  It needs to be interpreted in the light of other scripture.  By that I mean, taking Paul’s words literally, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interest of others,” makes us scratch our heads.  Taken literally, he seems to be saying, “Always put the interests of others before your own.  Think of others, and not yourself.  Be other directed,” but that’s not what Jesus said or did.  Let me draw your attention to Jesus’ response to a tough question posed by a lawyer.  I’m reading from the 22nd chapter of Matthew, verse 34.  If you would like to follow along as I read turn with me there.  As you do, let me say this is the third tough question posed to Jesus in rapid succession.  The first question (Matthew 22:17) posed to Jesus came from the Pharisees who were trying to trap Jesus by playing on Jewish patriotism.  They asked, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” The second question came from the Sadducees, the ones who did not believe in the resurrection, that’s what made them “Sad-you-see!”  Trying to make Jesus look silly, they described a scenario where a woman is widowed seven times, and they asked Jesus, “In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be?” 

            Finally, came the third tough question.  This one came from a lawyer, and I do not want to disparage lawyers, some of my friends are attorneys, but nonetheless I did enjoy what Malcolm Ford said about this father, Harrison Ford, of Star Wars and Indiana Jones fame.  Malcolm was a preschooler at the time, and in explaining what his father did for a living Malcolm Ford said, “My daddy is a movie actor, and sometimes he plays the good guy, and sometimes he plays the lawyer.” 

            The lawyer who approached Jesus was one of “those” lawyers.  He wasn’t seeking the truth.  He wasn’t asking his question in order to learn and grow in his faith.  This lawyer already knew the answer.  He just wanted to “test” Jesus, to trip him up.  That’s the context.  Now let’s read the passage.


            When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.  “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  This is the greatest and the first commandment.


            By the way, that’s the “Shema” (Deuteronomy 6:5), which faithful Jews recited twice daily, and he matched it with another commandment located in Leviticus 19:18, and that’s the one that tempers and clarifies what Paul writes to the Philippians about looking out for one another.  Let’s continue reading.


            And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.


             What Jesus says here clarifies and softens what Paul wrote about looking out for one another.  Jesus said, “love your neighbor as yourself.”   He did not say “love your neighbor more than you love yourself.”   In other words he directed us to put our neighbor and ourselves on equal footing.  He also practiced what he preached.  Think about it.  Think about how Jesus had the ability to walk away from the crowds.  He fed thousands.  He healed hundreds, but the did not respond to every need.  He was never too busy to be interrupted, but he was never so available that he always dropped everything.  Looking out for others more than we look out for ourselves is a recipe for frustration and exhaustion.

            So we are to look out for one another, but not any more than we look out for ourselves.  What Jesus teaches tempers and clarifies what Paul encourages us to do. 

            Let’s close with this.  Psychologist Alfred Adler put an ad in the paper for his “Fourteen Day Cure Plan.”  He claimed he could cure anyone of any emotional or mental disorder in just fourteen days.  One day an extremely lonely man came in for advice.  Adler told the man that if he would do as instructed, he would be cured of this loneliness in a mere fourteen days.

            “What do you want me to do?” he asked.

            Adler replied, “If you will do something for someone else every day for fourteen days, your loneliness will be gone.”

            The man objected, “Why should I do anything for someone else?”

            To which the psychologist replied, “Well, in your case, it may take twenty-one days.”

            Look out for one another.  Let’s do that for the next fourteen days, and see if it starts to become a habit.