To prepare us for a new church year, today, I invite us to be a part of a four-part sermon series entitled: Renewing Our Mission. To be the church that God is calling us to be, the church that God needs us to be, we will be challenged to renew our mission in at least four areas: friendship, partnership, stewardship and discipleship. Today, I want us to think about friendship.
Friendship. It’s a word that we use casually, superficially. These days we call nearly every acquaintance or contact a friend. I have Facebook friends, friends who follow my blog or my Twitter, many I have never met and never will. I have ministry-colleague friends. I have teacher friends, professor friends. I have friends from high school, college and seminary. I have running friends, gym friends, and I have Ainsley’s Angels friends all over the country. I have a dry cleaning friend, a friend who cuts my hair, and just this past week, I met a new friend who repairs my automobiles. And, of course, I have some wonderful church friends.
But we all know that friendship can be experienced on another level. Genuine, long lasting friendships can be so much more profound than our more casual relationships.
A week ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend some time with two old friends. Steve is a pastor outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, and Cary is a pastor in Longview, Texas. We met fifteen years ago in the Doctor of Ministry Program at Gardner-Webb University. We used to get together every year; however, this was the first time that we have gotten together in maybe eight years.
We decided to meet somewhere in the middle, so we chose Memphis. We spent one day at the National Civil Rights Museum and one day on the golf course. And spent both days, eating a lot of barbeque.
Although Steve has had a career serving with mostly Baptist churches, he now serves with an inter-denominational church. I said Cary is a pastor in Longview, Texas; however, he is only a pastor for another week. His passion for serving the poor and the marginalized is prompting him to leave the pastorate to co-direct a ministry for the homeless in Longview, similar to Hope Campus here in Fort Smith. Steve and Cary are both the fathers of two children.
So, the three of us share much in common (our jobs, our religious convictions, family, golf and barbeque); however, this is not the reason we are such good friends.
One of my favorite authors and preachers, Frederick Buechner perfectly describes our friendship:
Basically, your friends are not your friends for any particular reason. They are your friends for no particular reason. The job you do, the family you have, the way you vote, the major achievements and blunders of your life, your religious convictions or lack of them, are all somehow set off to one side when you get together. If you are old friends, you know all those things about each other and a lot more besides, but they are beside the point. Even if you talk about them, they are beside the point. Stripped, humanly speaking, to the bare essentials, you yourselves are the point. The usual distinctions of older-younger, richer-poorer, smarter-dumber, male-female even, cease to matter. You meet with a clean slate every time, and you meet on equal terms. Anything may come of it or nothing may. That doesn’t matter either. Only the meeting matters.
Only being together matters.
And although we hadn’t been together in almost a decade, although the hair on our heads were much more gray and thin, it was somehow like no time had elapsed at all. Yes, we did our best catch up one another, but we really didn’t have to. That is friendship. And the joy that is experienced in such a friendship is priceless.
Another one of my favorite pastors, Henri Nouwen, said this of friendship:
Friendship is one of the greatest gifts a human being can receive. It is a bond beyond common goals, common interests, or common histories. It is a bond stronger than sexual union can create, deeper than a shared fate can solidify, and even more intimate than the bonds of marriage or community. Friendship is being with the other in joy and sorrow, even when we cannot increase the joy or decrease the sorrow. It is a unity of souls that gives nobility and sincerity to love. Friendship makes all of life shine brightly.
This makes it all the more astonishingly wonderful when we read scripture like:
“The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11). The prophet Isaiah says that God referred to Abraham saying: “Abraham, my friend” (Isaiah 41:8).
When we consider what friendship truly means, when we consider the innate grace of friendship, the unconditional love of friendship and the immeasurable joy that is experienced through friendship, “the friendship of God is a staggering thought.”
The friendship of God—that the creator of all that is wants to be with the creatures just as they are, and that everything else is “beside the point” except for that—This privilege, this divine gift, this holy friendship is such a staggering thought, we say to ourselves, “Yeah, but I’m no Abraham. I am no Moses.”
The good news is that that too is beside the point.
Through our scripture lesson this morning, Jesus says to his disciples and to everyone of us: “I do not call you servants any longer. . . I have called you friends.”
Notice that their relationship has changed. It has grown to another level.
The disciples are much more than acquaintances, contacts or colleagues of Jesus. They are no longer students, no longer servants of Jesus.
Jesus says: You are my friends. I love you. I want nothing more for us to be together. I want to commune with you. I want to abide with you. I want to live with you, in you and through you. Your denials, your betrayals, your lack of understanding, your fears, your faults: none of that matters. It is all beside the point. The only point is you. I want to be with you, and I want nothing more than you to be with me.
And listen, for this is how you can be with me. This is how we can be together, finally and fully. This is how you can experience a joy that will fill you, complete you, satisfy you.
You are with me when you love one another. You are with me when you love one another as I have loved you. You are with me when you look past the flaws and failures of others. You are with me when meet people with a clean slate every time, always meeting them on equal terms. You are with me when all of the usual distinctions, older-younger, richer-poorer, smarter-dumber, male-female even, cease to matter.
You become close to me when we gather at the table, when we share the loaf and drink the cup, but we are together, when you are willing to break your body, pour yourself out, and give yourself away for others.
In Matthew, Jesus says, “Do you want to be with me? Then give food to the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome a stranger, give clothing to someone in need, take care of the sick and visit the imprisoned. When you are a friend to the least of these, you are a friend of mine. When we love others as I love others, you are my friend.
If we are to be the church that God is calling us to be, if our joy is ever to be complete, I believe the first thing we must do is renew our mission to be a friend of Jesus. We need to make the commitment not to study Jesus, admire Jesus, hit “a Like button” for Jesus, but to be a friend of Jesus.
We are going to take a step toward making this commitment tonight at our cabinet meeting, as we are going to talk about our church officially adopting a non-discrimination policy. I think such an official position is needed, but, doesn’t it seem like, for the church, for the body of Christ in this world, for the Body of the Christ who never excluded anyone, a non-discrimination should be the default? You would think that a vote would only be needed if a church wanted to start discriminating. But sadly, we know that’s not the case.
We know there are too many people today who call themselves Christians who are behaving more like acquaintances of Jesus, students of Jesus, Twitter followers of Jesus, even servants of Jesus, but not friends of Jesus.
You can call ourselves Christian, but if you discriminate against or denigrate anyone because of race or religion, ability or class, gender or sexual identity, ethnicity or any other social identifier, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.
You can worship God, but if you mistreat, take advantage of, or neglect the poor, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.
You can say your prayers, even make a National Day of Prayer, but if you do nothing to protect and care for our most vulnerable citizens: our children, the elderly, the differently-abled; then you might not be a friend of Jesus.
You can sing God’s praises, but if you are silent in the face of immorality, dishonesty and injustice, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.
You can hear God’s truth proclaimed on Sunday morning, but if you fall for lies the rest of the time, because you’re afraid of standing for that truth, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.
You can give our tithes, but if you do not support fair living wages, equitable healthcare, access to a quality education and affordable housing, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.
You can eat the bread and drink the cup and remember a life poured out, but if you are never willing to sacrifice for anyone or anything, then you might not be a friend of Jesus.
A common phrase that we say to our friends is: “a friend of yours is a friend of mine.” But this takes on a very challenging meaning when we remember that Jesus was widely known and ridiculed for being of who? “A friend of tax collectors and sinners.”
This means we can attend church every Sunday, but if we never go out and eat and drink with those outside of the church, if we fear getting a reputation for hanging out with the wrong type of people, then we might not be a friend of Jesus.
As I speak these words, I am reminded of my response to my son who is visiting with us this week when he asked to go downtown last night to eat supper. I said, “Downtown? This weekend? With a motorcycle rally going on?” “Heck no.”
But being a friend of Jesus is risky. It is difficult, and it is costly. Being a friend of Jesus takes us places that we would rather not go and puts us into contact people we would rather avoid. However, all who have experienced the complete joy of friendship know that to be friends with God is more than well worth it.
Invitation to Communion
We believe it is the Risen Christ who invites us to eat and drink from this table. And we believe that he invites us, because he has chosen every person in this room to be his friend. Our faith or our lack of faith—it’s not the point. Our understanding or our ignorance—it’s not the point. Our deeds or our misdeeds—it’s not the point. The Lord invites us because we are the point. Take and eat the bread, drink from the cup. Accept this friendship. All are welcome.