“What a Friend” by Mark W. Harris
December 11, 2016 – First Parish of Watertown, Unitarian Universalist
Opening Words – from Beverly and David Bumbaugh
Our church exists to proclaim the gospel that each human being is infinitely precious, that the meaning of our lives lies hidden in our interactions with each other. We wish to be a church where we encounter each other with wonder, appreciation, and expectation, where we call out of each other strengths, wisdom, and compassion that we never knew we had.
Reading – from The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks
Our reading this morning comes from a fictionalized account of the story of King David from the Hebrew Scriptures. The famous story of friendship in the Bible is that between David and Jonathan, Saul’s son, but this reading depicts a conversation between Nathan, David’s servant and seer, who becomes his friend and confidant and helps him work through all the pain he has experienced because of his own actions and those of his children.
As I have mentioned in previous sermons, I am not someone who logs into Facebook very much, except when it comes to receiving birthday greetings. Every year when my birthday rolls around countless people seem to wish me a happy birthday. While I can say it is just some quick push of the button, it does make me feel like someone is thinking of me. This week I was motivated to post something and not only be a selfish recipient. I saw that our former First Parish member and student of mine, Morgan McLean had a birthday. I had not communicated with her in some time, and so not only wished her a happy birthday, but also mentioned how her new ministerial settlement in Davis, CA is the site of my old internship church. She wrote back, noting that she needed to learn more church history. I don’t know if this was a reference to reaping more from my well of knowledge, or that I had become so old that I was now part of church history. She concluded by saying Miss You!
I have hundreds of UU colleagues who are Facebook friends, and yet I do not communicate with them regularly, and in fact, barely know most of them. They are not close friends , but even for those who once were, our ability to communicate is impeded by distance.. Ministry is a lonely profession. You might say that is ridiculous because we ministers are around people all the time. Yet many of us have heeded a call that has landed us far away from those who we were once closet to. It also seems we all get tied up in the day to day living of our lives, and time spent with those who were once your dearest friends is limited to an occasional email or a lunch at the annual General Assembly. Those of us who serve a parish devote most of our lives to the parish, which means most time and energy is given over to our calling. The perennial question for ministers is can parishioners be your friends? Even if we spend some social time with parishioners it becomes a complicated question. A minister may really like and communicate well with certain parishioners and enjoy spending time together, but can a minister cross the line between minister and parishioner to reveal intimate details about our lives? At some point you have to become minister to this person, and the idea of a close friendship where you can say anything, and merely be yourself is limited. Moreover, parishioners must be treated equally in a minister’s purview, and thus befriending certain people means, you do not befriend others. Of all people, the minister has to be fair.
Finding friends in the parish, though, is not fair for anyone. This question of friendship arose because we were speaking at a meeting recently of why people may stop coming to our church. The general response seems to be that while most people find the church to be a warm, welcoming place at first, those who leave in a year or two do so because they did not make a personal connection. I have had many people tell me this after they had already left, and I tracked them down to ask why. While the preaching may be stimulating, the music awesome, and the RE supportive and helpful, these features will not seal the deal on a faith commitment unless something happens personally that is supportive, social, fun, enlightening, and maybe even life changing. Some may feel that they already have enough friends, or they come to be reassured by the presence and company of their old friends, or they may even say that this is not their community of friends, but that they only come here for services. I can’t demand that you change your patterns of why you come to church or why you stay, but I do want to suggest that making new friends will bring experiences, growth, support and maybe even challenge that you would not know otherwise. And a reminder that many of those people who walk through our doors are looking to find a friend.
Every personal encounter is not ripe soil for cultivating a friendship. Over Thanksgiving many of us were paranoid that there were going to be ugly conversations with family or friends who happened to be supporters of the political opposition. But here at First Parish the odds of you finding someone here who shares your political, social and religious values is quite high. Religiously, we begin with certain values. In the fundamentalist church of my childhood we used to sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
“What a Friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry.
Everything to God in prayer!”
While no one is likely to take up that song in our UU church, the idea of modeling friendship is important. We may not have a religious deity to share our griefs with, or a source of solace to bring our reflections to for relief, but we are a source of connection in what we can offer to each other. The other day my son was saying you would think that in a church everyone would get along. Most of us know that is not the case. Some say their most difficult encounters occur in such a community. We know that personalities clash, that even if we don’t believe in that sin I sang about as a child, we understand people are flawed in their expressions and often judge others or react to personal challenges with anger. Friendships are broken, even as they are created. Friendships can also encourage us to reflect on our behavior, seek forgiveness, and become more compassionate towards others.
Friendship is one of the key examples that is made of Jesus’ ministry. The other night I had a dream where I was with a group of people, and we were arguing about whether or not we would follow the Didache. What is that, you might ask? Only a historian would dream about the Didache which was an early Christian manual that outlined the organization of the church, taking it from an itinerant ministry to an actual institution. How do we make a church for everybody? For us it may mean making space for people both metaphorically and literally. Jesus had defined what a true friend was. It is ultimately found in laying down your life for another. While that may seem extreme, the implication is what are we willing to risk or sacrifice to be part of a community. Many of our UU congregations are reflecting on this very question as we approach the next four years. If there is a Muslim registry, for instance, would you be willing to register as a Muslim? Would you be willing to stand up for the life of another? Jesus says he calls his disciples friends because everything he learned from God he shared with them. He didn’t hold anything back. This would be true if we stood up with an ally, and said I am not going to let you be hurt, or judged by others. Jesus does this when he touches and heals the unclean, or the leper.
For many of us this reminds us of a time not long ago when the AIDS epidemic was in our midst. Many people, including President Reagan, made jokes about the gay lifestyle and the onset of AIDS. A general perception in some of the culture was gay men were being punished for their sins – the wages of sin is death. A recent book portrays the courage of the gay community not to be destroyed by such rhetoric, but to find inner strength to carry on with perseverance and patience until better health care and medicines could be found, and, of course, more general acceptance. One of my most engaging students I have ever taught, a young man named Mark, who was a member here when he was a Tufts student in the 1970’s, eventually succumbed to AIDS. I tried to keep in touch with him over the years, and realize I could have made more allies as I tried to do then by raising money and sponsoring healing services and giving care.
This is the first sign of friendship in the church. Are we willing to show compassion for each other? The classic example of a person who is caught up in a series of afflictions in the scriptures is Job. In Chapter 2, Job’s three friends hear of all the “evil that had come upon him,” and so they respond by coming “to condole with him and comfort him.” Fourteen chapters later he refers to them as “miserable comforters are you all.” What happened? The pastoral care team showed up, but they certainly were not very well trained. Maimonides, a Medieval scholar, said that Job’s friends represent three different positions concerning divine providence that we may hear from our friends. The first position of Eliphaz is that Job must have done something wrong to deserve this kind of punishment. This is the classic affirmation that “it’s your fault.” I might say “my heart went crazy because I climbed Mt. Kathadin this summer. I overdid it. As a friend you might be the opposite of Eliphaz, and say, it’s not your fault.
The second position is expressed by his friend Bildad. This is the idea that you are being tested, and will receive a greater reward if you hang in there. We sometimes translate this to mean that this suffering is good for you, and you will be a better person for having endured this. Finally, there is Zophar, whose position is most like ours, not punishment, or great reward, but simply that these terrible things are arbitrary, and sometimes we are just darn unlucky. In those circumstances the friend might say I am here for you, let me listen, or maybe eventually you might come to the realization to enjoy what you have been given, even if much is taken away.
In my first church in Palmer, I knew George, an army veteran of Vietnam, who had trouble finding work, and felt his service was not recognized. He often said that he felt he was being tested, and that God would never give him more than he could handle. I worried that his anger would boil over, and the test he felt would come to an end. My happiest time with him was when we recognized his military service one Sunday. He did not feel so alone or shunned. His reward was not a great job, or even getting out of his trailer, but that someone heard him and honored his life. He stayed and found friends.
Muhammad Ali once said, “Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain. It’s not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything.” But making friends does not come naturally for many of us. Perhaps we are incorrigible introverts who fear new situations and new people, and so social hour feels like running the gauntlet. It is hard to make friends in a church because attendance does not mean automatic friendship. The person sitting next to you may be friendly, but it does not mean they are your friend. And it doesn’t mean that something is wrong with the church, if you don’t make a friend. You don’t make friends merely by showing up. It takes time to make friends. It also takes effort. Do you go to small group ministry, or potlucks or sing in the choir? Do you put yourself out there to be part of situations that will help you build friendships? I know I am an introvert, too. I don’t like people either, but if you want to be with wonderful, friendly people, then you have to be one of those wonderful people. Put yourself in a place where you can speak, or sing or be heard or give back in some way. Go to things. You are not going to find friends at church, but rather you must make friends at church. You have all those same values to share. You have that desire to grow. You have met these people. Now all it takes is the willingness to risk making friends.
I find I must keep at it. Making friends was not something I learned in school. My parents were not good models. They both worked all the time, and no one ever came to our house. As a boy I learned that to be a friend was to be part of a group or gang. We traveled in packs and played ball, or shot each other in war over and over again. Later we hung out, which is fun with friends, but friendship is more than hanging out, although not a bad idea to get a start at church. Friendships are people to be with and keep you company. But what of this issue of intimacy? Friendship progressed with me when I shared time with a colleague who was also a Dad, and lived nearby. And even though our situations and circumstances changed, we remained friends until he was removed from ministerial fellowship for conduct unbecoming, and perhaps because he was embarrassed by his actions, or didn’t trust our friendship, we mostly fell out of touch, and when I saw him again it was not the same. It is hard for men to share their intimate feelings perhaps because of upbringing or enculturation. Working on maintaining friendships is something I still struggle with. As I wrote this sermon I took time to send an email to a friend who I didn’t get a chance to connect with at a recent conference. I miss him. Just as Morgan said, she missed me. Taking time to call or email, I have learned after all these years that my friends are not just there to be found, but I must be making and remaking those friendships, or I lose my connections to others, and lose my connection to a greater, more meaningful life.
One of the great Biblical examples of friendship is found between King David and Saul’s son Jonathan, who stands by David even as Saul pursues David to kill him. David’s life is fictionalized in a recent novel by Geraldine Brooks. While the Bible depicts a deep friendship marked by a covenant which stated “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David.” This implication of a sexual relation between them is played out in Brooks’ novel, The Secret Chord, where she writes about “a love so strong that it flouted ancient rule.” In the book Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin, writes about the intimacy of friendship in nineteenth century America in the example of Abraham Lincoln. Goodwin says that in the absence of parents and siblings, men turned to one another for support sharing thoughts and emotions so completely that these relationships had qualities of passionate romances. Lincoln became very depressed, and apparently said in addition to avoiding being idle that business and conversation of friends gave the mind a rest from that intensity of thought that makes it threadbare. Lincoln wrote to his friend Joshua Speed, that “my desire to befriend you is everlasting.” We often say that passionate and affectionate male relationships were more accepted then, and perhaps that is true, but nevertheless this kind of intimacy provides an example for those of us who aspire to deeper friendships where intimate thoughts can be shared. For many of us, our ability to forge relationships with others is limited by our own efforts, but we can realize deeper and more lasting friendships.
We also see an evolution of friendship with the example of Nathan and David that we heard in today’s reading. Their friendship has evolved, with Nathan serving as his seer and friend from early days when Nathan was spared by the young warrior David. David is a flawed man who Nathan helps work through the deep pains of his life, and his successes and failures as parent, only to come see them to fruition in the advent of Solomon. Nathan is no longer his servant, but his close and intimate friend who allows him to find meaning in life by listening and affirming what is good, but not denying what is painful. Some years ago I worked on a book called Walking Together, which was a collection of articles on Congregational polity, which I still use in my teaching. That phrase is found in the book of Amos. “Can two walk together, except they be agreed? Friendships develop as people come to agree on reasons to be together, and it is only as good or as close as those individuals choose to make it. A friend is one whom you can be yourself with and never fear that he or she will judge you, but can still challenge you. A friend is someone that you can confide in with complete trust. A friend is someone you respect and that respects you, not based upon worthiness but based upon a likeness of mind.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling has Hermione say,
“Harry – you’re a great wizard, you know.”
“I’m not as good as you,” said Harry, very embarrassed, as she let go of him.
“Me!” said Hermione. “Books! And cleverness! There are more important things – friendship and bravery and – oh Harry – be careful!”
May we all find kindred souls who will be our friends, encouraging us to be brave, and reminding us to be careful. We need each other out there.
Closing Words – excerpt from “Where We Belong, A Duet by Maya Angelou
In every town and village,
In every city square,
In crowded places
I searched the faces
Hoping to find
Someone to care.
. . .
Then you rose into my life
Like a promised sunrise.
Brightening my days with the light in your eyes.
I’ve never been so strong,
Now I’m where I belong.