January 29, 2017

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

1 Samuel 18:1-5
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
Colossians 3:12-17
John 15:12-17

“Wisdom for Friendship”

In this mini-series on the Book of Proverbs, it has been interesting to take a look at one of the wisdom books of the Hebrew Scriptures to which we don’t often pay a lot of attention.

Two weeks ago, we reflected on the book in a general sense, exploring its purpose and potential usefulness for us today. Rather than trying to read whole chapters of the book in a single sitting, I suggested taking individual proverbs (just a verse or two in length) and reflecting first on how we may have experienced the proverb to be true, followed by asking ourselves what the proverb may be calling us to do, change, or focus on in our daily lives in response to its wisdom.

Last week, I chose a particular theme that comes up frequently in Proverbs – “the fear of the Lord” that is described as the beginning of wisdom. We remembered God’s holiness and Jesus’ call to us to be perfect as God is perfect. Although we can be realistic and admit that we won’t reach perfection in this life, we were challenged by the reminder that God does have great expectations of us, and that God will judge us. Yes, forgiving us too, but continuing to work on us until we begin to reflect the goodness and love of God-self in the world.

This morning’s theme from the Book of Proverbs will likely seem like a pretty stark contrast from last week, because I’ve chosen the theme of “friendship.” I noticed the topic of friends coming up repeatedly through the book a few weeks ago, so I went through it carefully and found quite a few interesting proverbs.

Like this one about faithful love between friends: A friend loves at all times, and kinsfolk are born to share adversity. (Proverbs 17:17)

Or this one that encourages us to forgive one another: One who forgives an affront fosters friendship, but one who dwells on disputes will alienate a friend. (Proverbs 17:9)

Another one suggests that friends can be honest with one another, even if it hurts: Well meant are the wounds a friend inflicts, but profuse are the kisses of an enemy. (Proverbs 27:6)

And this one points out that two friends can make each other better: Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another. (Proverbs 27:17)

Friendship can easily be damaged by gossip and cruelty, according to this wisdom: A perverse person spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends. (Proverbs 16:28)

Indeed, it may be better to make friends with peaceful people, so as not to get involved in a lot of arguments and trouble: Make no friends with those given to anger, and do not associate with hotheads, or you may learn their ways and entangle yourself in a snare. (Proverbs 22:24-25)

In our Bible study earlier this morning, we took each of those proverbs apart, considering what truth and wisdom they hold, and challenging ourselves to respond to them in our lives.

Some of us need to learn to keep our lips closed when it comes to holding the confidences of our friends, and some of us need to make a better effort in supporting our friends who are going through tough times.

Some of us are being invited to be more patient with constructive criticism that we may receive from our friends, recognizing that the gifts and strengths of our friends can actually provide us some good insight, even if the advice is sometimes difficult for us to hear.

Besides what we can learn about friendship from the Proverbs, I had a good time searching out and identifying other scriptural texts that speak to us about friendship. As I tell you about these passages, I want to invite you to think about your friendships. Consider what wisdom God may have for you today in terms of how you develop, maintain, and nurture your closest relationships.

Another one of the wisdom books has one of my favourite passages about friendship, and it argues that friendships are worth the effort. “Two are better than one,” the wisdom writer tells us, “because they have a good reward for their toil… If they fall, one will lift up the other… If two lie together, they keep warm… Two will withstand one [in a conflict]… A threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

The passage acknowledges that good relationships take work, but it is worth the effort because of all the benefits that come from being a pair, or even a threesome. It makes me think of an old friend of mine, Shane, from university days. It was towards the end of our undergrad degrees, and Shane’s life was extremely hectic. Most of us (back in the 90’s) were just students with a few extra curricular activities at most. But Shane didn’t have a lot of financial backing from family, so she had switched to studying part time, and she was working full-time in a hotel. And she was starting to get overwhelmed by it all.

I remember distinctly an email I received from her as she tried to maintain some kind of balance in her life. The email said that she had decided she could properly maintain five friendships, and that was her limit. She had identified the fact that I was one of her current friends, of which she had more than five, and she wanted to know if I wanted to stay on the list. Unfortunately, she was going to have to down-size her list of friends, but she wanted to keep the ones who were really interested. Have you ever heard of something like that?

I laughed when I read it, and said, “Oh, Shane!” But in a way, I really respected her for it too… because she was really committed to the work of friendship. She didn’t want to have a long list of friends that she neglected or took for granted. She would rather have a few friendships that she really cared about and worked on. And I did say “Yes, I would very much like to be your friend.” It wasn’t until after we graduated and moved to different cities, that we drifted off each other’s lists, except on Facebook, of course.

When we were children, we used to make our friendship status quite formal. Do you remember that? We had “best friends” and we declared that status both to our friends and to others. Maybe that was something that girls did more than boys, I’m not sure.

But I had a best friend, Suzanne, in elementary school, and we were a team, committed to spend time together, to support each other, and to keep each other’s confidences no matter what.

There is a lovely biblical example of a friendship like that between David (before he became the king) and Jonathan (the son of the first king of Israel, Saul). It begins just after young David has killed Goliath, and King Saul snatches up the young warrior to be a part of his fighting forces.

Jonathan hears David speaking to his father and just seems to immediately like him. The biblical text tells us that “the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” As the story continues, Jonathan proves his love and faithfulness to David, watching out for his safety and protecting him for Jonathan’s own father when the king turns against him.

But before all that, the two make a covenant together. It is almost like a couple getting married and professing their vows, their promises of love and faithfulness. Jonathan makes a covenant with David, and then he gives generously to David of his own resources – his robe, his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.

Most of us probably don’t make actual covenants with our good friends. Except for our marriages, our friendships may not be so formally acknowledged. But the example challenges us to consider our commitment to our friends. Proverbs 18:24 says it well: “Some friends play at friendship, but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin.”

The next passage may not be generally thought of as being about friendship, but I do believe it fits. Colossians 3:12-17 was written by Paul as part of his advice to an early Christian community about how they should live together in relationship to each other. I’ve preached on this text many times at weddings because the wisdom given to fellow Christians in a church applies equally well to married couples living their lives together. And I think it is good wisdom for friends as well:

“Bear with one another… and forgive each other…” Paul advises. Recognizing that even the most well-matched best of friends will get on each other’s nerves or let each other down at times, Paul encourages Christians to be patient and merciful in their relationships.

“Clothe yourselves with love… and let peace rule in your hearts…” Paul tells us, for these are the fruits of the Spirit that will help us to live in good and loving relationships, no matter what challenges we may face.

And then he suggests that we should give thanks. We should give thanks to God for the gift of friends and relationships of care. And I think we should give thanks in such a way that our friends hear and know how deeply grateful we are for the opportunity to share life with them.

When you think about your closest relationships right now, how are you doing? Do you need to make a special effort to bear with someone or forgive a wrong-doing? Do you need to ask forgiveness for letting someone down or not being there for them when they needed you? Or do you simply recognize today that you haven’t been very thankful for your friends, and you need to do something to acknowledge the blessing that they are in your life?

You may have many friends, just a few, or a single special friend who means everything to you. You may have long-time friends that you’ve known since childhood, or new friendships just beginning to grow. Your friends may be mostly your sisters and brothers in faith community here at church, or you may have a big social network developed through many involvements in work and leisure. But no matter the number, the Scriptures encourage us to live in loving and faithful relationships, loving one another as Jesus has loved us.

Today’s reading from John 15 provides us with the best model to follow as we seek to be friends to one another. And it reminds us that God is not only our Lord and Judge, but also our Faithful Friend.

In fact, Jesus shows us what it looks like to be a good friend. Our passage comes from the night that Jesus gathered with his friends to share a final meal before his arrest and crucifixion. And after getting down on his knees and washing their feet, he speaks to them with words of encouragement and hope, a farewell message for his friends before he is taken away.

Jesus says, “Love one another as I have loved you,” inviting his first disciples and all who call him friend, to care for each other in the same way that he did. He explains that the ultimate love we can show for our friends is in giving ourselves up for them. Just as he was willing to die to show his friends the true face of God, we also must be ready to give up our own desires for the sake of those we call friends.

It may seem odd to think of Jesus as our friend, given that he lived so long ago and far away. But Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” And so, our living according to the wisdom of Christ, and our desire to follow his teachings day-by-day is what makes us his friends.

Although we may call him, “Lord” in our prayers, he says that we are no longer servants, but friends. We are not just blindly following instructions as set by a master, but we are freely choosing to follow his commands because he has loved us first, and we are loving him in return.

And if there is any question about how this friendship with Jesus was initiated, he makes it very clear: “I chose you” to by my friends, he tells us, and “I appointed you to go and bear fruit that will last.”

May some of that good fruit be borne in our closest relationships, so that our friendships are a true reflection of God’s love in the world. Amen.