Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
Sounds so simple, right?
Just love. Love, love, love. Love is all you need.
Ok…but then…, “Why does love got to be so sad?”
It sounds simple and straightforward… and it is…it’s simple…but not easy, is it? No. It’s not easy at all.
If it was everybody would do it.
But it’s not. Loving others…and sometimes loving ourselves…is not easy. We know that. Jesus knows that. The very next thing he says after today’s reading is, “If the world hates you, be aware it hated me before it hated you.” (John 15:18), and then further on, he says, “In this world you will have trouble…[suffering]…[tribulation],…but take courage,” he says (John 16:33)…
Remember, he is about to be arrested and crucified for living a life dedicated to loving God and loving others…for living this commandment out loud…in every aspect of his life. He is under no illusion about how hard loving others is. He never promises that it will be easy. What he does promise is that he will be with us, and that with him beside us—it still won’t be easy, but it will be easier…”Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,” (Matt 11:29)…that doesn’t mean put the yoke on all by yourself…a yoke is a thing that binds two draft animals together so that they share the load and the share the labor…Jesus knows that this command is simple…but not easy, and he also knows that we can do it… if we stick with him. If we follow him. “In this world you will have trouble, you will have suffering, you will have tribulation,” he says, “but take courage; I have conquered, overcome the world!” (John 16:33).
Starting last Sunday and continuing through Pentecost we’re hearing sections from what is known as Jesus’ “farewell discourse” from the gospel of John. In Mark, Luke and Matthew, the focus of Jesus’ last night with the disciples is on the shared meal and some discussion of betrayal and denial. In John, the focus is on the washing of the disciples feet, and then this long (three full chapters) of him giving and then explicating this commandment…what is called “the new commandment” but it’s not really new at all…its the same commandment God has been trying to get us to follow since the beginning…Love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as your self. Love one another as I have loved you, is just another way of saying that. Love one another as God loves you.
So very simple. And some days so seemingly impossible.
In my decade plus of ministry, I’ve pretty regularly heard some version of, “I’m really struggling right now…I know I’m supposed to love others but I just can’t…I can’t love…THEM.
And you know who “They” are, don’t you? I mean you must, because, I can’t define “Them” for you. Only you know who “They” are for you. And for each of us “They” will be different. But every one of us has some one in particular, (or several some ones) and sometimes even whole groups of people whom we find it hard to love.
Can we just admit that? Can we just acknowledge that that’s true? It’s hard to love others sometimes…And when someone comes to me and says, “I’m struggling…because I can’t love “Them.” What I want to say is, “It’s great that you’re struggling with that! It IS hard, but keep it up! Struggle means you’re on the right path.”
But what I try to do is help them find things that make it a little easier. One trick—I know it’s cheesy but it works—is to simply start adding the word “yet” after whatever it is you feel you can’t do. “I just can’t love them, yet.” I’m going to keep struggling with this.
Another thing that it helps to remember is that loving someone and understanding them and agreeing with them are not the same things. You don’t need to agree with someone in order to love them. It makes it a lot easier if you agree about things, but agreement is not a prerequisite for love. Jesus and Peter (and some of the other disciples) don’t agree all the time. “Get behind me, Satan” is not something you say to someone you’re agreeing with.
Also, understanding someone and agreeing with them are also not the same thing. I can hear someone out…I can listen deeply and compassionately and do my best to understand their point of view…and still not agree with them, and still love them. The rich young man who wants to follow Jesus but doesn’t because “he had many possessions” (Mark 10:22), I don’t think Jesus agreed with his decision, but it says “he loved him” (Mark 10:21), and let him go on his way.
Listening across difference in love and for understanding is a skill. A skill that needs to be practiced. We offer opportunities to practice here in many ways, in particular our Courageous Conversations (today) and the From many, one conversations which we’ll be practicing again next week after church.
It’s also true that loving someone does NOT mean tolerating or condoning bulling language or abusive behavior. Abhorrent, dehumanizing, or demeaning language or behavior needs to be called out, and dealt with with a goal of repairing the damage, and changing the behavior.
The last thing I’ll says is: remember that it’s really hard (I’m tempted to say impossible) to love anyone who you don’t actually know… It’s really hard when the person you struggle loving is someone you know…but often the person or group you can’t love is an abstraction someone or groups you’re fed up and frustrated with…conservatives, liberals, corporations, the media, mask-wearers, non-mask-wearers…whatever…
You can’t love an amorphous group, not in the way Jesus is talking about. No one can. You might feel compassion for some group…say the unhoused…but to love them…you have to get to know them…you have to be in relationship with them…and struggle to love them (just as they will struggle to love you)…the struggle is part of the transformation.
Love. Real love…the kind of love Jesus is talking about is transformational…It is relational…it’s reciprocal. And honest. The kind of love he’s talking about is not blind; it can’t be, because you cannot truly love someone unless you know them…unless you see them…and they see and know you.
As we come to know one another as as real, flawed—sometimes deeply flawed—but also tremendously gifted individuals…love flourishes.
And when we are able to see ourselves, and one another fully and truly…as God sees us…When we are able to speak and be heard…When we are able to listen and fully absorb the truth of another—however difficult that is…When we are able to stand together in our broken wholeness…our fullness…and really see and hear, and love each other…then our joy will become complete.
“Love one another as I have loved you.” It’s a simple command, but not an easy one…but the best things…the things worth really working for rarely are.