Harrowing Of Hell
September 1, 2013

Friendship and Mutuality

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn

Luke 14:1, 7-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

What a Friend We Have in Jesus Hymn

The Gospel hymn we have today may be familiar to you.  It is a bit old school, although this is the church, so it is hard to define the parameters of old school.

It is the kind of song that tosses some of us back to our Sunday school days. It is a simple, catchy tune that will no doubt be stuck in your head for the rest of the day.

“What A Friend We Have In Jesus”was written by Joseph Scriven in 1855.  He was born in Banbridge, Ireland. At age 25 he immigrated to Canada after the tragic drowning of his fiancé the night before they were to be married.  In Canada he fell in love again and proposed marriage.  Weeks before that wedding his fiancé died of pneumonia.  It was at this point that Joseph (almost paradoxically really) decided to dedicate his life to God.  Some might have been angry at God.

Not Joseph, for in God he finally and fully found the friendship, the companionship he was always longing for. This was reflected in a letter he wrote years later to his mother back in Ireland when he heard that she was dying.  He penned her a poem titled, “Pray Without Ceasing,” which, when set to music, became “What A Friend We Have In Jesus.”

The words Scriven wrote describe the best friend a person could ever have. He tells how it is God who is there for us, who helps us bear our grief, and who provides a peace to prevail over heart wrenching pain.  God is the friend who forestalls temptation, and shares sorrow, and adds strength to our souls when we are heavy laden.  And Jesus came to make sure we understand, specifically and personally, what a friend God can be.

Lately at the Conn house we have been talking about friendship more than usual. Both our children are starting at new schools this fall.

I asked my nine year old, Desmond, as we were walking home from the park the other day, how one goes about making new friends.  He stopped.  I stopped.  He turned toward me and looked up. I looked down at him, and with compassion in his voice asked, “Dad, are you needing to make some new friends?”

I’ve put a friendship signup sheet in the back of the church if any of you are interested in being my friend.

Actually, it turns out, that is not how to make friends.  Desmond went onto say, “Dad, it’s simple really. You hang out with someone, you find out what they are interested in, you learn something about that interest, and you share in that interest with them. Over time,” he continued, “you find a group of people who have a similar interest with you, and they become your good friends.”

So basically, it turns out, to makes friends we need to: show up, know the person, and care about what they care about.

At the core of this entire enterprise called friendship is mutuality. The song, “What A Friend We Have In Jesus,” says a lot about what God does for us.

The question is, “How do we respond?” How do we respond since there is no friendship if there is no mutuality. We’ve all seen one-sided relationships before-where one person is just lapping around after another person. It always seems a bit sad and weird and out-of-balance.

God approaches us first for sure. It is God after all who imagined us into being in the first place. But as Dallas Willard reminds us, “God doesn’t continue to appear where God is not wanted.” Now, at first blush, this might sound thin skinned on God’s part, but upon further reflection we should see the reasonableness of this action. After all, if there was a person that our child was lapping after and that person ignored them or was mean to them, what advice would we give our child?

Exactly – stay away from them. Now to be clear, God is always near, this near, in fact, but people who ignore God or pretend God isn’t real, or even believe God isn’t real, can’t know friendship with God.  It requires mutuality, and if there is no mutuality, it is as if God isn’t there.

Now the plan, of course, from the very beginning, was for friendship between us and God. We see this at the beginning of the Bible in the Garden of Eden, where God and Adam and Eve are hanging out in the cool of the evening. They walk together.  They talk together.  They share the day that had passed, and no doubt speak of what tomorrow may bring.

This desire for friendship, even after Adam and Eve stumble out of the garden, is a major theme in the Bible. We see it in the story of Joshua in the Old Testament reading today.  Moses has died, and his hand-picked successor, Joshua, is left to bring the Israelites into the Promised Land.  And God’s words to him are, “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Josh 1:9).

The reading from Hebrew’s today backs up this sentiment as God says, “’I will never leave you or forsake you.’ And so with confidence we can say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid’” (Heb 13:5-6).  God is my friend which brings us back to friendship and the three characteristics Desmond defined. A friend shows up. A friend knows us. A friend cares about what we care about.

God is our friend.

God is there for us.

God knows us.

And God cares about what we care about.

But is there mutuality?

Are we there for God?

Do we know God?

Do we care about what God cares about?

The question is not is God a friend to us; the question is are we a friend to God?

I wonder, and this wondering begins with the question, “Where does God fit on our friendship roster?” If we’re not sure, a helpful assessment tool is to simply ask, “How often do I talk to God?”

Now in truth, for me, the problem with God as a friend is that I often forget about God in the regular routines of my life. This has sort of bothered me over the years… until it occurred to me this summer, with the help of Steve Jobs, that I could transcend my self-centered forgetfulness. Here is what I came up with.  It was like a revelation to me. Get ready. I set my iPhone alarm to go off four times a day! A little harp rings, and I pause what I am doing and pay attention to my friendship with God by pulling out my little Hour by Hour prayer book and reading the appointed prayers.

Is God jumping up and down because I recite these little prayers? You betcha!  It is like receiving a text from your best friend four times a day!

Going to church is another way we acknowledge our friendship with God. Sunday morning might not always be convenient for us, but it is the set time for our scheduled play-date with God. There is no mutuality if it is always about meeting God on our schedule so we go over to God’s house one a week for an hour. We show up!

Showing up is part of being a friend. So is knowing something about our friend, God. That is why we talk about the kingdom of God here at Epiphany all of the time.  To know about God is to know about how God works and where God works.  Right?  Wouldn’t you know something about the place where your best friend works?

Now the problem with where God works is that it is pretty big. So I invite you to slim it down.  Just take the bit that you’re interested in.  Maybe it is dog training, or computer programming, or international affairs, or building boats.

Whatever it is, take it to God.  Follow your passion with vigor as a way of knowing something really interesting about where God works. After all, what we are interested in, God is interested in as well. God made us with passions for particular things, and our mastery of that passion brings joy to us, as well as to God. So mastering our passions and pursuing our interests is one way of knowing something about God.

Another way is by studying a book that tells us a whole lot about God. It is called the Bible. And this year, in particular, in celebration of the presence of the St. John’s Bible in our midst, we are going to spend a lot of time studying and praying with the Bible.

So we pursue our passion and we study the Bible as a way of knowing something about our friend, God.

Which takes us to the third part of what it means to be a friend – being interested in what our friend is interested in. Now, this is a problem when our friend is God. I mean, by definition, God is interested in everything. But Jesus helps us to narrow this category by encouraging us to care about what no one else cares about.

That is the point that Luke represents in today’s Gospel. We care about God by caring for the things that have been disenfranchised or undervalued or discriminated against by people who are not interested in being friends with God.

So we care for the poor, the prisoners, the sick, the wounded, the sad, and the lonely. We visit them, and pray for them, and love on them, and care for them because God is interested in them, and we are friends with God.

And when we do these things we find that we too are poor in spirit and imprisoned by desire; that we too are sick in soul and wounded on the inside; that we too are acquainted with a longing that cannot be fulfilled by our ambitious dreams.

And by this knowing, we are turned back to God. And this becomes our cycle, our pattern in life. We show up for God, and seek to know God, and take further interest in what God is interested in. And God whispers back to us, “I am glad we are friends. Thank you. I love you.”  Which is the very best part of being friends with God.