September 23, 2018
It is hard to make truly good friends. It can be hard to make new friends. But Teri Leinbaugh tells about her seven year old son who, when they moved int a new home, made some fast friends. An hour after leaving on a tour of the neighborhood, he was back proclaiming that he had made two new friends.
Mom asked, “Are they boys or girls?”
“One is a boy and one is a girl.”
“That's great,” Mom told him. “How old are they?”
“Mom,” he replied, “that would be very rude to ask.”
That seemed odd to her, that a 7 year old would respond this way. But an hour later, he was back. “Mom,” he yelled, “I found out how old my new friends are. The girl is sixty-five and the boy is seventy.”
It is good that he didn't have an age limit on friendship. He seemed to have a handle on being a friend. As I was doing research for today's sermon on being a good friend, I googled friendship. I found list after list giving descriptions of what being a good friend looks like; the 7 qualities of a good friend, 25 ways to be a good friend, 11 signs of a genuine friendship, 10 tips on being a good friend, the 13 Essential Friendship Traits. And I wondered how to select the list that fits best with what we are doing with our Jacob's 11 list.
Take a few moments and study them for yourselves. I am going to shut up for a bit and let each of you consider those traits in terms of friendship.
Now either that was a brilliant bit of leading you all in theological thoughts about friendship or a good way to lose my job as a preacher. Silence can be uncomfortable, can't it? But one thing I have noticed, silence is not uncomfortable with a good friend. Patience, quietness, presence are parts of being a good friend. But they are also part of our friendship with the Lord. We will not grow closer to Jesus without quiet time just being in the presence of God. Bible study is good. Sermons can be helpful. Worship music can inspire our love for God. But time sitting and being with God is indispensable.
When this sermon is done, we are going to sing the most obvious hymn choice for a sermon on friendship, “What a Friend we have in Jesus.” How does the hymn writer explain that friendship? By the willingness of Jesus to hear our sins and griefs... and pain and trials and temptations. Prayer is the root of our relationship with the Savior. And prayer is best done in quietness in the presence of God. Thou will find a solace there! Prayer is not just asking, not just telling God what we want or need. Prayer is listening. And most all of those lists of traits of a good friend include being a good listener. How good are you at listening to God? I am not talking about waiting for an audible voice, but that still small voice within your soul that lets you know God's heart. We listen for God's word when we read the bible, we praise God in the hymns, we hear God in the silence. These are all a form of prayer; reading, singing, listening, speaking, being.
Today's topic is the last in our series of Jacob's 11. I have noticed that there was a lot of overlap in his list; gentleness and friendship; joyful and thankful, honest and fair, kind and understanding. There is also a great deal of similarity with our list of the fruit of the Spirit. Both lists include gentleness, kindness, joy and goodness. They are both lists about how we ought to live.
In our Bible Study on Tuesday, we talked about Ephesians 2: where Paul wrote, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God, not the result of works so that no one may boast.” We've heard that, I've preached on it. But the question came up, then what meaning do works have in our Christian walk? If it is all grace, (which it is) if our works can't save us, what difference does it make if we are a good friend or not? Or kind or patient or honest? And Paul explained in the next verse, it is because God created us for good works. We believe God is the creator, that we are not an accident of time and space. And we can believe that we are created for a purpose, to do good to others, to treat others with kindness, fairness, generosity. To be a good friend in this world.
Created for a purpose... that leads me to a somewhat difficult topic. Our nomination committee met this week. It is no surprise to any of us that as our congregation gets older, it is harder to find willing and able members to serve as elders and deacons. SanDawna Ashley, our Executive Presbyter who we heard preach in July, shared some thoughts and quotes about being asked to serve the church...and beyond our walls. From the Book of Order she quotes, “Presbyterians believe 'Membership in the Church of Jesus Christ is a joy and a privilege. It is also a commitment to participate in Christ's mission. A faithful member bears witness to God's love and grace and promises to be involved responsibly in the ministry of Christ's Church.'” Now obviously nothing gets done without the faithful involvement of our able bodied members. We need people to give and to usher and to bake and to clean and be present for worship. But we really need people willing to go the extra mile and serve as an officer in the church, to find that purpose in serving the church. SanDawna wrote, “It is common knowledge that (it) is stressful as nominating committees search for new leaders. The faithful also sometimes dread signing up for another term to do what others are unwilling to do.” Some of you have gotten or will get a letter and a call asking you to prayerfully consider serving. The first reaction is often to think about how busy we are, how we aren't as qualified as someone else, how we just don't want to commit to any more work. SanDawna suggests we think and pray about serving with this quote from Parker Palmer in mind, "Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent." What does the Holy Spirit lead you, in your life of faith, to understand about values and truth, about service and your purpose here? And as you think about the leadership in our church, give thanks to those who have been called to lead and have answered that call. We are indebted to their service.
Okay, off topic there for a bit, but we do need people to step up and lead. In today’s gospel, the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest. I just noticed this time, it doesn't say the greatest what. The greatest leader, the best apostle, the most loyal, the smartest, strongest, bravest, or favorite of Jesus? The Pharisees loved to show off their faith; that very human desire is shown in this argument about being the greatest.
And we do well to note how Jesus responded to the apostles. He had just told them that he came to suffer, die and rise. His journey to the cross was not about earthly glory or power, but about laying aside his glory and giving up his power... for a time. They didn't hear, didn't understand. Perhaps they dreamed of power like they saw in the rule of Augustus and Herod; power that controlled, that separated leader from subjects. And Jesus tured their ideas of glory and power upside down. “He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, 'Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.' Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 'Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me'.” Jesus teaches that power is not about control or separation, but about servanthood and connectedness.
A child does not have much control over their environment. I write that and I think of examples where the children rule the nest... we've all seen it. But especially in first century Judea, children had no power. So for Jesus to suggest that welcoming a child was an example of greatness, well it made no sense. Bruce G. Epperly writes for Christian Century concerning this passage, “The concern we middle-class American parents have for our own children is apparent in the rise of child-rearing books, after-school sports, and wall-to-wall activities to help them get ahead in the world. Yet we often neglect their deepest needs. When I pick up my grandchildren from school, it is commonplace for me to observe parents talking on their phones rather than emotionally engaging their child after a long day.”
In today’s passage, Jesus asserts that greatness involves empathy and compassion. Greatness is embodied in caring for the most vulnerable members of our community, first of all by embracing them with love, hearing their stories, and responding to their cares.
One more sidetrack before I finish. This focus of Jesus on the vulnerable and on children is the focus of our Christian Community Committee. Just a year ago we had Patty Wetterling speak to the community about caring for our children. Now this week her wounds were reopened by the release of the Stearns County report. I think it is fitting as we conclude our series on Jacob's 11, as we consider our care for the vulnerable in our community, that we look back on the tragedy of Jacob's story. From the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center two years ago when Jacob's remains were found: “We are in deep grief. We didn’t want Jacob’s story to end this way. In this moment of pain and shock, we go back to the beginning. The Wetterlings had a choice to walk into bitterness and anger or to walk into a light of what could be, a light of hope. Their choice changed the world. This light has been burning for close to 27 years. The spark began in the moments after the abduction of Jacob Wetterling, when his family decided that light is stronger than darkness. They lit the flame that became Jacob’s Hope. The light spread state-wide, nationally and globally as hearts connected to the 11 year old boy who liked to play goalie for his hockey team, wanted to be a football player, played the trombone, and loved the times he spent with his sisters, brother, and parents.
Our hearts are heavy, but we are being held up by all of the people who have been a part of making Jacob’s Hope a light that will never be extinguished. It shines on in a different way. We are, and we will continue to be, Jacob’s Hope.”
We are inspired by the hope expressed, inspired by the reference to the light... Jesus is the light of the world. We remember the hope that Patty shared in her talk. We seek to live in that light and to share that hope. That means that we are friend to those in need and to those with whom we share fellowship. That means that our greatness comes in obedient service to the Lord. That means we work to protect the vulnerable, the disenfranchised, our children. That means that we need to grow in friendship with Jesus, to know and understand how Jesus would have us live. But more than friendship, we understand that if Jesus is Lord, we have a responsibility to live out the love and grace he has shown us. May the vision of greatness that Jesus gives shape our friendships, our vision of justice, ethics, politics as well as our commitment to church, community and family. And may we bring light and hope into our corner of the world through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Hymn: What a Friend We Have in Jesus 403 PH