“Thank You…For Being a Friend”
John 14:15-21~ Rev. G. Scot t Turnbrook ~ Northwood United Church ~ May 17, 2020
Thank you for being a friend…thank you for being a friend…thank you for being a friend. As we have now been living this new reality for 8 weeks now, this anthem by Andrew Gold has been singing in my head: “Thank you for being a friend”. A lot of musicians have lifted up the virtue of friendship over the years. Andrew Gold would join notable musicians like the Beatles, Carole King, Dionne Warwick, and Queen. Friends would become among the most popular television shows of all time, and the theme of friendship continues to be the tapestry weaving meaning into our lives and hope into our tomorrows. They say you can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends. And friends are those who comfort and support; those who guide and love; those who are with us through the ups and downs. And so, as we have faced some very odd days in our world these past 8 weeks, I’ve been singing ‘thank you for being a friend’ to all those who have been friend, spiritual companion, caring comrade to us through this journey.
Artistotle was one of the first to put forward the consideration that we need friends. Writing 3 ½ centuries before the time of Jesus, the famous Greek philosopher argued that we are “political animals”, not solitary beings. He saw us as flourishing when we live in community. Solitary living is something that we were never meant to endure. And in fact, only bad things come out of such isolation. A “bad person”, as he named them, came from a life in isolation without friendship. For, it is our friendships which make elevate us into the moral beings we increasingly become. Our friends tell us truth about ourselves that a stranger would never begin to say. Friendships cause us to consider the needs of others, to make sacrifices, and to contribute to the betterment of our overall community. Aristotle warns of the sad results of isolation: brokenness in families, abuse and neglect of children, and the fragmentation and unravelling of our society. I imagine Aristotle to have been a serious Greek philosopher, but I also imagine him to have been the imagination behind the sentiment and depth that allows us to sing: “thank you for being a friend”.
I wonder if you have been singing this chorus lately? I wonder if others have been singing this about your friendship? Thank you for being a friend. Thank you for being a friend. There is, of course, no ‘right’ way to be a friend, you just have to make that initial effort and let the unique ‘you’ take over and do the rest. Author Lydia Denworth’s makes some interesting observations on friendship in a recent book. In her book “Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life's Fundamental Bond” Denworth begins with the challenges on developing friendships in our modern day. She argues that we should prioritize the people who matter most. In our busy world, with so many distractions, our friendships are at an all-time threat of extinction. We must, like never before, prioritize our friendships lest they suffer, wither away and die. Related to this is our wise use of time. Taking a cue from the bonding rituals of animals, she argues that we too need to take time to allow bonds to develop and deepen. Biologists note that 20% of the waking hours spent by monkeys is in friendship as they groom their closest allies. They spend this time with one another because that’s how they bond and how they later count on one another when a predator shows up. Do we allow ourselves the gift of time to care and develop our friendships with one another? Do we have solid friendships that help us through times of trouble? Denworth continues noting the value of laughter, storytelling and song. Do we create opportunities for these beautiful areas of life to unfold? Laughter, song and storytelling release hormones which create joy. I’m increasingly saddened by our culture’s separation from these areas. Why do we allow them to be professionalized? The younger people are, the less they want to sing, tell jokes to others, tell stories. These are being left to those we name as ‘the professionals’ ~ we don’t sing, we don’t tell stories, we don’t share life as we could! And we are suffering. And finally, Denworth notes the importance in considering the lonely in our midst. Friendship, within in, carries the antidote to social isolationism, depression, aggressiveness and stress.
In one of Martin Luther King’s famous sermons, he challenges his listeners in dealing with the suffering and discrimination that they were facing. When faced with racial injustice, the church would respond by out-loving its enemies; when faced with injustice, the church would out-suffer the perpetrators of violence; when faced with injustice, the church would out-live those who show hate. Out-living, out-suffering, out-loving. When faced with challenges and hatred and suffering, those who follow the way of Jesus will live our ways of friendship out!
And this moves us to this morning’s text. Jesus sang one of the original friendship choruses here. This text is a call to living the way of Christian friendship! He begins “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”. This is an ethical outline for living the Christian life. It is an “if / then” statement. If you do this, then this will occur. “If you love me, then you will keep my commandments”. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz, in his book “The Interpretation of Cultures” argues that this text is a seminal example of how Jesus is commissioning his followers to go against the culture and make a new way. There was a deep challenge to the early followers for moral complacency. In fact, there is always a challenge to moral complacency, isn’t there? It is much easier to ‘go with the flow’, ‘follow the herd’ and ‘fit in’, rather than doing the right thing. Geertz argues that the “if” part of Jesus’ teaching: “if you love me” is the time where one discerns their particular worldview and what they choose to love. Where do our friendships lie? where are our loyalties? who do we befriend? The second half of the equation is the creation of the ethos ~ the particular community you will choose to live in. If you want to live in Jesus’ community, then you will love him. If you want to be a follower of his way, then your ways will be reflected in your living. If you want to embrace the Kingdom of God, then the ruler you bow down to will be the Prince of Peace.
As I read this part of the text, this is where things begin to get very real for Jesus’ followers. John can be, at times, very philosophical and almost esoteric. The opening mysterious entry of God’s arrival: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things came into being through him…” John proceeds to introduce us to characters who cross the path of Jesus: the Samaritan Woman at the well, the Blind Man, Lazarus, Doubting Thomas. They may catch our eye…or not. They may inspire and challenge us…or not. But today’s text, cuts directly through two millennia to each and every one of us in this odd year of 2020. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”. Hear those words spoken to you…because they are! Open our ears and hear them anew: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”.
And the challenge…as we feel it with a ‘gulp’ in the back of our throats, is a huge one! As I introduced the reading prior to Kay offering this passage for us, comes with an assurance. Jesus will not leave us as orphans to complete the task. The Spirit of truth is being given unto each of us. We have received the advocate, the spirit of truth, the comforter, our help in ages past. As Jesus prepares to leave his friends, he assures them that he sends this Spirit of truth unto them…and unto each of us as well.
There was a story this week that really touched me, as I am sure it did you as well. It spoke to me, especially, as I think of this text. Earlier this week, on Monday, COVID-19 claimed the life of its first Registered Nurse. Brian Beattie, a 57 year old nursing professional working as an RN at Kensington Village, a long-term care facility in London, Ontario. Brian died at home on Monday. He is remembered for his sharp sense of humour and his devotion to helping others. This seemed even more poignant as it occurred amidst the week that is remembered as National Nurses Week. We think about the calling that so many receive to place themselves in harms way in their service of others; we think of the way they care and serve; this is a true level of commitment, of friendship.
Friendship can be expressed in so many different ways. Thank you for being a friend. Martin Luther King preached a call to out-loving, out-suffering, and out-living in our ways. Thank you for being a friend. Brian Beattie donned surgical scrubs of a nurse. Thank you for being a friend. And in the following chapter, Jesus would teach: “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”. Thank you for being a friend.