On Friendship

April 22, 2012, Psalm 133, John 15:9-18

I am delighted that we are celebrating the resurrection today with bluegrass music.  And I am delighted that this congregation appreciates variety in worship.  When Carmen and I meet with the Worship Committee I often comment that I cannot remember a time when we tried something in worship that people found offensive.  We’ve had Broadway Sunday, jazz Sunday, Gospel Sunday...  Last summer we even had Hard Rock Sunday—and the only complaint I remember from that day was that the Ozzy Osbourne song wasn’t loud enough. 

It’s great to have Shady Grove here with us, leading worship, and helping us to praise God.   That’s what we do here every Sunday, praise God.  Give thanks to God for the grace we know in Jesus Christ, for the joy we have in being together and to be reminded of God’s powerful love for all people.

And those thoughts can be communicated and expressed in an infinite number of ways.  The guiding principle that shapes how Presbyterians worship is that everything we do should point the worshipers’ attention to God.  Any style of language, prayer, music that points people to God is acceptable for worship.  So today we’re trying something we’ve never tried before here.  We’re singing hymns accompanied by banjo, mandolin, and dobro today.  And Petra tells me that’s she’s playing a fiddle, not a violin!  But we’re also doing the same thing we do every Sunday at this time, in this place; we’re gathering as the people of God to lift praises to God. 

For today’s sermon I took an approach I’ve never taken before.  I waited to hear what the band would select for hymns before picking a topic for the sermon.  Once I knew what the hymns would be, I turned to the index of scriptural allusions in the back of the blue hymnal to see what passages of scripture were the bases for today’s hymns. 

The scripture index pointed me to the gospel lesson.  This is part of Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples.  Sometimes this passage is called “the new commandment.”  Jesus commands his disciples to love each other, as he has loved them.  Every year someone asks me what “Maundy Thursday” means.  This is the passage that gives that day its name.  The word ‘maundy’ comes from the Latin word for “commandment.”  You can sort of hear “mandatory” in ‘maundy” if you listen closely.  Jesus gave his disciples the commandment to love one another.  And a little bit before this passage Jesus got up from the table and washed his disciples’ feet.  I believe one reason he did that was so they could feel and experience the loving touch of a friend.  Now, just a little later in the passage that Suzanne read, it’s as though Jesus has given his disciples a promotion, they are no longer servants, but friends

I want to spend a few minutes getting you to think about what it means to be a friend and what it means to have a friend.  When I was in about 3rd grade and having a hissy fit about something that I have completely forgotten, my mother told me to count my blessings…and I did.  There was Curt, my friend from down the street, Tommy, my friend from across the alley, Billy my friend from school.  Mom laughed at my response.  But I think I was on to something there.  Friends are blessings.  And friends are gifts.

Presbyterians take friendship pretty seriously.  Every time we ordain or install deacons, ruling elders and teaching elders, we ask them to promise “to be a friend among [their] colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit.”

That promise puts friendship into a larger context—that we promise to work as friends—think horizontal—subject to God’s Word and Spirit—think vertical.  And this promise implies that friends work together—or perhaps it implies that called leaders in the church should be friends as they work together serving
Christ and Christ’s church. 

I asked the Session at our meeting Tuesday what it meant to be friends with Jesus—how is Jesus your friend? And the answers were very revealing: some ruling elders said that we can count on Jesus to be with us in good times and bad, that Jesus is always there, that he’s a good listener…and that difficult times strengthen our friendship with Jesus.

I asked the deacons the same question on Thursday—again, their answers were revealing: They didn’t want not be Jesus’ friend.  That it is easier to be friends with Jesus than with anyone else.  That one can always talk to Jesus—any time at all.

I’ve given a lot of thought to friendship—what it means to be a friend, and how to be a friend.  A few years ago I had a kind of “aha moment” that helped me identify what still feels like a call to be a friend.  I was eating breakfast with another pastor who was going through a difficult time—several difficult times—there was stress in his church, his immediate family and his extended family.  I said to my colleague, “You’ve got a lot on your plate…” I summarized the various difficulties he was facing, then I said, “Where’s your support system?”  My friend looked me in the eye, and said, “Dude, I just spent two hours eating breakfast with you!” 

“Right,” I said, “but where…?”  Then I got it.  Just eating breakfast and listening, and caring…I was being part of my friend’s support system.  I had been doing this kind of thing for a long time, but I’d never seen it as anything other than being a friend.  Maybe it is nothing more than being a friend, but being a friend can be a huge gift. And having a friend can be a huge gift.

That conversation over breakfast made me claim the identity of “Friend” in a new way.  I’m the guy who attends class reunions.  And when necessary I’m the guy who organizes class reunions.  I’d much prefer to outsource this work, but in all honesty, when I can’t, it never feels like “work” to me.  Still, there is a certain amount of what I call “friend maintenance.” that needs to be attended to.  Friendships need to be nurtured or they might never grow.  Now it is often the case that seeing a classmate 30 years later hasn’t changed the bonds of friendship you felt with this person when you sat next to them in chemistry class.  But it also happens the other way, that on seeing this person again there’s something missing, a part of the friendship has died and that connection just isn’t there anymore.  I find I cannot predict which old classmates I’ll still feel bonded to on seeing them again years after we were first acquainted.  That’s not really the point though, I want you to hold onto this concept of “friend maintenance."  What kind of effort do you put in to remaining in touch with, remaining close to your friends?  It take effort.  The guy I spent my final three years of college playing backgammon with now lives in Seattle.  I’ve seen him once since 1986.  That friendship is maintained differently now than when we trash talked each other over strategy in a dice game.  Oh, and we’re both professionals with families and kids now.  We’re different people, and our friendship is different. We’re still friends, but in a different way.  

We have sung a song this morning about what a friend we have in Jesus.  To remain friends, with Jesus or anyone else, requires that we do “friend maintenance.”  That we say and do things with our friend that keeps us close—and enables our friendship to grow and change.  Even being friends forever allows both sides of a friendship to change.  So think about how you can do friend maintenance with your relationship with Jesus.  Do you even imagine that the one we call Lord and Savior to be your friend?  What do friends do together to become close, to remain close?

The first thing a ruling elder said about friendship on Tuesday night is that friends are always there for you.  We count on friends in difficult times.  Let me add a little to that insight.  I believe friendships are strengthened when they are challenged by difficult times.  So think about what a friend you have in Jesus.  As you are Jesus’ friend, as you attend to and maintain at friendship—turning to Jesus in difficult times, calling on Jesus in those moments will build a stronger, more durable friendship.  Thanks be to God for the friendship of the risen Christ.