May 9, 2021
Back several years ago when I started learning how to play the banjo, I remember the hardest part was learning the basics. See, there was this music teacher who had graciously put up a series of videos on YouTube for anyone to watch so they could learn how to play, and I used those. And what made it so hard wasn’t the technical parts—where to put my fingers, or how to hold the banjo, or how to structure a chord—no, it was his basic instruction: “practice this one lesson for a week before you go on to the next lesson.” So I did what he said, and I practiced my bum-ditty strumming for a whole week before I even touched the fret board. Y’all, I’m not patient so that was pretty hard.
That’s the thing about practice, though. You don’t pick up a football and immediately run a complex play. You don’t put on your dancing shoes and immediately run a masterful routine. You don’t play a tuning note and immediately start singing a complex harmony line. You practice first. You do the basics, repeating them over and over, putting together the building blocks until you get really good at it, and then you can do the harder stuff. And it’s the same with love: you don’t go out into the world and immediately love all people like Jesus loves them. That’s what we’re doing when we get together as Christians, is practicing how to love.
Jesus is talking to his disciples in today’s gospel reading, and he talks about how they (and we) are to abide in his love. We don’t use the word “abide” very much outside of the church, but what he means is that we spend time with his love. We get together to give and receive his love. We do things like pray for each other and worship together, and sit with new people at coffee hour to learn who they are, and put packages together to feed the farmers in Jesus’ name, and tend the graves of people we don’t know, and listen to each other’s stories and joys and heartbreaks and hopes, and learn to live with each other. We practice his love. That means we don’t just read about it. Jesus’ love isn’t theoretical—as Gustavo Gutierrez said, “You say you love the poor. What are their names?” You can be the most biblically literate human being on earth, knowing every verse from Genesis to Revelation, but it won’t make a lick of difference if you’ve never practiced the love Jesus shows us.
So what does that love look like? What is this love that Jesus shows us? Well, this reading is during the last night of Jesus’ earthly ministry, when he’s gathered with his disciples in the upper room. Just a few chapters ago, Jesus had taken off his outer robe, pulled up a water basin, and washed their feet like a slave. The Word made flesh showed us that God chooses to serve, and that is the shape of this love. Jesus washed their feet, even of the one who betrayed him and the one who denied him. And then he broke bread with them, and ate with them. And he told them some hard truths, the cruel reality of the world. And he comforted them with promises to be with them.
But he didn’t stop there with modelling the kind of self-giving love we’re called to imitate. He said, “just as I have loved you, you also ought to love one another.” He’s pointing directly at the cross. Love looks like serving, even to death, for the sake of others. We don’t usually have to face such an intimidating prospect—literally dying as an act of love for someone else—but what about figuratively dying? What are the things that stand in the way of loving your neighbor? What are the roadblocks that you need to practice moving out of the way so you can love better?
We especially need to practice this love that calls on us to die to ourselves today, because so much of the way the world interacts is completely loveless. We hear the constant drumbeat of “I am right and you are wrong, and not only are you wrong but you’re also certifiably evil.” We’ve turned our neighbor’s rich and complex inner lives and stories into one-dimensional narratives that cast them as either an ally that agrees with everything we say or an enemy who must be destroyed. When we find ourselves adopting that attitude—no matter how wrong we may think others are—we need to return to practice. We need to come back to abiding in Jesus, because we don’t develop that attitude when we’ve been abiding in him. When we practice his love, we learn to die to our conceits, our pride, our certainties, remembering that it’s more important to love than to be right.
Any teacher or coach will tell you, you practice the basics so much because they need to be second nature. You can’t stop to think about how to switch from a “C” chord to an “F” chord while you’re playing. You can’t worry about counting how many steps before pivoting to catch the pass. You practice, and practice, and practice, so that those things will be second nature, a reflex rather than a decision.
And when you practice love, abiding in Jesus, keep practicing the basics. You can’t be concerned over whether someone is worthy of love before sharing Jesus’ love by feeding them or clothing them or praying for them. You can’t be preoccupied with whether someone agrees with all the right things and has the right worldview before you follow Jesus’ lead and listen to and understand their perspective. When we practice Jesus’ love, spending time in that love with one another, we do it so that we can carry that love out into a world that doesn’t know how to love that way. We do it so that the world will see the kind of transformational reality that Jesus’ love brings through us, and they will want to find out where we learned it.
And y’all, this love is hard. It’s not the saccharine kind of love that demands we give our blessing to or ignore the wrongdoing of our neighbor, or that we weaponize it to shame others into acting like horrible sins didn’t or aren’t happening, but it does call on us to hold our neighbor’s humanity close, even when we find ourselves on opposite sides. It’s the kind of love that says to the Black Lives Matter activist, “listen to understand the challenges of policing,” and says to the policeman, “listen to understand the pain of the Black community.” It’s the kind of love that says to the White Nationalist “honor the humanity of your immigrant sibling,” and says to the immigrant, “give the White Nationalist a cool cup of water.” It’s the kind of love that says to the young person, “hear the wisdom of your elders,” and says to the elder, “understand where the world has changed.” This love is hard, and because it’s hard we need to practice. We need to spend time with Jesus’ love, practicing our love with one another here, where we can mess up; where we first learn to forgive, and repent, and be reconciled; where we can grow before taking this love out into a world unused to the idea of what this love looks like.
So practice love here. Practice the core basics of listening and caring, of putting your pride to death so that you can see your neighbors and friends as whole human beings. Learn the small steps that reach toward love. And then take that love out into the world. Share it with your neighbor with whom you disagree on everything. Remember the humanity of the person whose actions and beliefs you still see as evil. Be transformed by the kind of love that took Jesus to the cross, and guides our love today. And by that love of Jesus that’s being shown through you, trust that God is changing the world, and making the kingdom come. Because it all starts with practice.
Thanks be to God. Amen.