Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | May 9, 2021
John 15: 9-17
Around ten years ago, my brother Joe organized a family history project. He wants future generations of our family to have a record of their ancestors. He asked me and my siblings to write some reflections on our lives.
I wrote about some of my experiences of growing up. Family life was sometimes far from ideal, but all in all I had a happy childhood. One of the more famous episodes from my childhood, or infamous as the case may be, was how my Dad came to be known as “Bonzai Bob.” But that is a story for another time and place.
I was blessed, fortunate, and lucky – however you might phrase it, to have many friends.
What my friends did for me, other than sharing in some great adventures, was to show me that not all families are alike. My friends supported me in different ways. Some of the close friends I had when I was young are still my friends today.
It has been said that blood is thicker than water. That when push comes to shove, it’s your family that you can truly count on. But it’s also true that some friends will literally lay down their life for you. Think of the stories that soldiers tell.
There are many stories of friendship in the bible. Friendship is described in a word from Proverbs (18:24) – “Some friends play at friendship but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin.”
We have those experiences about which we can say, “I found out who my friends are.” Real friends are not like those in the hymn that asks, “Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?” But sometimes we find that out the hard way.
In the text we read today from the Gospel of John, Jesus is speaking to his followers. He calls them friends and he says that the highest measure of friendship is when you put your life on the line for a friend. Because of the way the Gospel is written, Jesus is speaking to future generations, to us. He says to you and me, “You are my friend.”
I would guess that we all have a kind of friend hierarchy. When some friends ask us to do them a favor, we are more than happy to oblige. When some friends ask for help, we might do it, but begrudgingly. And some friends, we make excuses for why we can’t.
When we lived in Scotland, Lindsay and I developed a kind of friends rating system. It went like this – when a friend would contact us to say, “We’re coming to Scotland!” they fell into a category. They might be a –
“Well then, you’re staying with us” friend. Or –
A “We know some great places to stay” but “We’ll definitely have to connect when you’re here” friend. Or –
A “Here’s a link to a Visit Scotland website” friend.
Or maybe a “Darn, we’re going to be out of town during that time” friend.
Two of our “You’re staying with us” friends have a niece who is a vocalist in a band. The band is from Philadelphia, but its name is “A Sunny Day in Glasgow.” Our friends said that A Sunny Day in Glasgow was doing a European tour and would be in Glasgow. We should go hear them.
Okay, going to hear someone’s niece in an indy rock band calls on a certain level of friendship. I normally don’t go into the city center on a Saturday night, but for a staying with us friend, sure, why not. I bought four tickets for the gig at a venue called “NiceNSleazy,” and collared my colleague Jay and his date to go with us.
I suspected that I might be the oldest person in attendance at this concert venue. My wife Lindsay was probably the second oldest person in the room. We weren’t trying to fit in so much as to just blend into the background scenery.
A good time was had by all. I kept my earplugs in. Being the oldest person in the room, I noticed something about the others in attendance – the “young people.” When the band would finish a song or between sets, almost to a person everyone brought out their phones and checked them.
“Who has texted me in the last few minutes?” Better check and see.
“Who do I need to text?” Better do that.
When the music started up again the phones went back to their resting places.
People were there with groups of friends or with dates. What also seemed important was the possible communication from someone who wasn’t there. What I saw was more than just a love for the latest technology. What I saw was a basic human need to be connected to other people.
That is the way life is now. We are in touch; constantly in touch. That’s the world we live in now and we hardly give it a thought.
Technology can reinforce our tribal instincts. We’re part of a group of friends, collections of pals, and a network of common interests. We want to know where our friends are, where they are going to be and what they will be up to. Let’s meet up, I’ll see you there, I’m on my way. It feels good to belong. It feels good to be connected to a social network.
Right now, around 2.7 billion people are on Facebook. I logged onto Facebook about ten years ago. Now I have Facebook friends; some of whom I’ve never met in person. Who are these people?
They live all over the world. Some of them are people I knew in grade school and who are grandparents now. A few are girls I was too afraid of to talk to in high school – but grandmothers now. Some friends are friends of friends. My children are my Facebook friends. Their partners are my friends. Some of my children’s friends are my friends, too. Nieces and nephews are my friends. Colleagues from then and now. Lots and lots of interconnected friends.
That’s the way life is now. We live in friend-filled world. Technology is a tool. It enables us, but it is only virtual. A text from a friend is different from being with a friend.
And what technology giveth, technology can taketh away. Over the time I’ve been on Facebook the occasional friend will decide to “unfriend” me. Sometimes when that happens, you hardly notice, or care. And I admit to unfriending a few friends along the way. There’s never any explanation; there’s no need to explain. You just push a button and off that friendship goes into the unknown ether.
One of the best descriptions of friendship comes from the poet Kahlil Gibran. He published a series of poems in 1923, one of which is on friendship. Listen to these words and consider whether they stand the test of time – does this fit the description of anyone you know?
On Friendship Kahlil Gibran
“Your friend is your needs answered.
He is your field which you sow with love and reap with thanksgiving.
And he is your board and your fireside.
For you come to him with your hunger, and you seek him for peace.
When your friend speaks his mind you fear not the “nay” in your own mind, nor do you withhold the “ay.”
And when he is silent your heart ceases not to listen to his heart;
For without words, in friendship, all thoughts, all desires, all expectations are born and shared, with joy that is unacclaimed.
When you part from your friend, you grieve not;
For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.
And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.
For love that seeks aught but the disclosure of its own mystery is not love but a net cast forth: and only the unprofitable is caught.
And let your best be for your friend.
If he must know the ebb of your tide, let him know its flood also.
For what is your friend that you should seek him with hours to kill?
Seek him always with hours to live.
For it is his to fill your need, but not your emptiness.
And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures.
For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.”
Because the Spirit of Christ is here today, we are among friends. We go from back into our lives where we live, work and play. We share our lives on various levels of friendship.
Sometimes you need a shoulder to cry on or a shoulder to lean on, remember, ‘what a friend we have in Jesus,’ as well as what friends we have in one another. Amen.