Sermon: The Gift of a Friend
Sermon: "The Gift of a Friend"
5th in the "Wisdom: Tools for Living Well" series.
Delivered May 29, 2011 by Rev. George Antonakos.
Sermon Text: Proverbs 17:9,17;18:24;27:5,6,10
I want to thank Katie and Tina for all the work that it takes to create. They actually wrote that. They rehearsed it. They were here this week in the sanctuary, in the Worship Center, and performing it. I mean, they did an awesome job, and as you were looking at it, I wondered how you were taking that all in. Each person's perspective in the drama, their questions, their regrets raises a lot of issues around the topic today on friendship.
We're in the fifth of six weeks of a "Wisdom" series, wisdom from Proverbs, and one of the reasons that we do this in the time following Easter is that we want to learn in practical ways what it means to live out the resurrection life of Jesus, what it means to see the resurrection life, love, and joy of Jesus in our relationships and in all quarters of our lives.
There are so many things we could say about friendship that we literally could do a whole series on the subject, but if we were able to talk, if you and I were just able to sit down and chat and able to just one-on-one, I would say to you, "Well, you looked at that drama. Was there anything in the drama that struck a nerve? Was there anything that you related to personally? Was there anybody who came to mind as you were listening to those words?"
I wonder how many of us would say, "Yes." I'm guessing we all have stories to tell of false friendship, friendships that went wrong, no friendships, difficulty in maintaining friendships. And some would say, I think at this stage of your journey, that you're just tired of trying to make these kinds of friendships, that you will just stick with acquaintances, and that will be it.
Or maybe the extent of your friends will be confined to Facebook. Maybe you'll just have your friends there. I did a little research and found out that there's a guy by the name of Jake Ludwick who has 25,000 Facebook friends. Not fans, mind you. Friends. That somebody actually confirmed the friend with him. What is the quality of those 25,000 relationships I wonder? I'm not sure, but sometimes that's the limit of friendship.
The simple fact of the matter is (and this is confirmed by clinical research) that those who have no friends have a diminished capacity for loving in general. It is the friendless person who can go through a succession of marriages, can feel estranged from members of his own family, and who has trouble getting along at work or at school. And that's not what God wants for us because God did not create us for isolation. God created us for relationship and meaningful ones.
And the strongest of relationships have God right at the center, but even with God empowering us in the church or the family, it's still a challenge, and it takes work. I love this quote by Thomas Merton in the book New Seeds of Contemplation:
"As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another because this love is the resetting of a body of broken bones."
Because we're all imperfect and we're all broken, it's no wonder that we're going to have trouble in connecting. So let's pray that God would be present with us now so that as we look at different verses in Proverbs, we might be led to new insights on how to develop friendships and how to help them to flourish.
Let's pray: our Lord we ask for your Holy Spirit now to sweep over us. There's a lot of hurt in our lives. There's a lot of brokenness in our lives, and this can be a touchy subject. And so I pray, Lord, as we look at the wisdom of your Word, as we think about it, that you would help us make adjustments so that our discipleship will be more pure and sincere, that we'll become more like you. We ask it in your name, Amen.
Now I'm just going to read through a series of verses starting in Proverbs 17:9. A couple in 17, one in 18, and a few in 27. So if you'd like to follow along (they'll also be on the screen), you can turn to page 592 where we'll start. And we said all along that Proverbs is not to be read as a narrative. You're just supposed to take in a couple and ruminate on them a little bit and think about them. So here we go.
Proverbs 17:9: "Whoever would foster love covers over an offense, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends."
And 17:17: "A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity."
In 18:24: "One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother."
And then over in 27:5: "Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses. Do not forsake your friend or a friend of your family, and do not go to your relative's house when disaster strikes you - better a neighbor nearby than a relative far away."
Now the word for "friend" in Hebrew is "rea?." Anybody whose name is "Raya," your name means "friend" in Hebrew. And there's double translation. Sometimes the word "rea?" can be translated "neighbor." Sometimes it's "friend." When it's translated "friend," the context usually gives some evidence of close companionship. And that's why it's translated in 18:24, "There's a friend who sticks closer than a brother." When a closeness is emphasized, it's usually translated "friend."
A friend loves at all times, good times, bad times, strained times. A friend is somebody who we feel close to most of the time and vice versa. And if we don't, then we try very hard to close the gap with that person. That's why one of the great things about marriage is when husband and wife can be friends. Ellen and I are best friends, and we love that fact that that's the reality for us.
And yet the sad reality can be that many times people will be in a marriage, but friendship exits, and the marriage remains. And for those of you who are married or have been married, you know that nothing is quite so miserable than being in a relationship with someone yet disconnected from them at the same time. It doesn't feel right because it isn't right. God didn't create us or design us for disconnected relationships.
And as great a friends as Ellen and I are, there are times when we feel disconnected, and it does not feel good at all. The qualities of friendship that Proverbs extols apply to every level of friendship, including marriage and relationships in families as well. And so as we read through Proverbs, we see that there are three qualities that seem to emerge in the general wisdom of Proverbs about friendship. And these are the qualities of kindness, loyalty, and honesty.
And so we're going to consider these three qualities today in this sermon called "The Gift of a Friend." Now when you heard that sermon title, "The Gift of a Friend," you might have thought, "Well, the friend is the gift," but the way I want you to think about it today is here's the gift of a friend. And if you give this gift to people, you will have friends.
So the first one is kindness. A friend loves at all times. Kindness is the proof of love. When the apostle Paul started to define love in 1 Corinthians 13, it wasn't very long before he got to this word. He said, "Love is patient, and love is kind." It's the simplest actions that can begin kindness. Mother Teresa always would say that love begins with a smile. How you just encounter people in the beginning is just a way of demonstrating kindness. A handshake, eye contact, warmth, all those things. An affirmation. A good word.
Kindness is observed. Kindness expresses itself in observable actions. People half-jokingly say that you really know who your friends are when you have to move. Those are the people that show up because that's tough. When people are there for you in stressful times, that's the stuff of kindness.
Many years ago, a guy by the name of Pepper Rodgers was the coach of the UCLA football team, and he was experiencing the opposite of kindness when he needed a friend right within his own family. He was having a dreadful season. It seemed like everybody was turning their back on him. And it got so bad it even upset his home life, even with his closest relationship with his wife. In recalling that time, he said, "My dog was my only friend. I told my wife in complaint. She said, 'Honey, a man needs at least two friends.' So she bought me another dog." That was how bad it was for him.
Dr. Stephen Johnson lists what he thinks friendship really looks like, and he asks these four questions that reflect the issue of kindness. Do you have at least one person nearby you can call in times of personal distress? Do you have a few people who you can visit with little advance warning and without apology? Do you have several people with whom you can share recreational activities? Do you have people in your life who will lend or give you money if you need it or those who will care for you in practical ways if the need arises?
It's interesting how most of these questions center around the ability to get help when you need. And let me tell you, every single person in this room, there are days when you need more help than others. And when there's a person that's there for you, that's a friend.
And you notice that these questions would have to be answered in a larger context of relationship usually to be considered a friend. I mean, somebody can help you, anybody can help you in one of these ways, but is there a relationship of responsive kindness that you can count on? People will give you their time, their space, their resources, their understanding, and their shared experience.
Are there a few people, even one person, you believe you could call on in these types of moments? Are you the kind of person that people would think of calling on you when they are on the opposite side of the need? When my father died in early 2009, I was not sure who we would ask to preside at his funeral. He lived in New Jersey. He was not connected to the church even though he was a believer, and we were stumped.
And I know Pastor John would have done it, but I was trying to think of somebody who had a little bit of history with my dad. And so grief and clear thinking do not usually go together. And so I was encouraged when Ellen said, "Pat Hartsock will help us." Pat was a coworker even in this church back in the '70s and '80s, and we've kept touch over the years. Just this past February, he and his wife and Ellen and I got together for a weekend and just kind of rekindled our friendship.
So when Ellen said, "Pat will help us," I knew she was right. And he not only said, "Yes," but he said, "Yes," with such kindness and compassion and love. He is our friend. He is our friend. Responsive kindness is the first mark of friendship, and there's an interesting proverb in 11:17 that talks about the reciprocal benefit of kindness. And you know that every relationship is reciprocal, right? You get back what you give. Everyone.
If you're feeling some distance from somebody, probably they're feeling it too. Every single relationship is that way, but here's what it says in
11:17: "A kind man benefits himself; a cruel man brings trouble upon himself." Okay, so that's the first one is kindness.
The second quality of friendship is loyalty.
Proverbs 18:24: "A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother."
You know, it's one thing to have a lot of people to hang out with, but sometimes those folks will scatter to the wind when the chips are down. A friend stays. The main reason that church folks get emotionally sunburned around friendship is because the person who they thought was going to stick with them didn't. They didn't stay.
There's a few verses in Psalm 55 that probably rank right at the top of sheer pathos when it comes to unrequited friendship. And it also reminds us that we're not the first people ever to experience a fickle friendship. In
Psalm 55:12 to 14, it says, "If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were rising against me, I could hide. But it is you, one like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship as we walked about among the worshipers."
I'm not sure if this was David's description of his feelings of betrayal in his relationship to King Saul, or if it was some other comrade. But listen to what he is saying, "You were a man like me. We kind of felt like we were in equal footing. You were my buddy. You were my guide. Kind of we helped coach each other a little bit in life. We hung out in church together."
There's an old saying, "There ain't no hurt like church hurt" because you expect people to be there. And when they let you down, that brokenness comes forth, and it can make you sour. It can make you turn away from the possibility of ever trying again or even trying to reestablish that relationship. But as disloyal as that experience was for David, there was a friendship that he had with Saul's son, Jonathan, that was the polar opposite.
Jonathan loved David from the first day that he ever met him, and the Bible says that he loved him as he loved himself. They formed a bond together that couldn't be broken. And when Saul was suspicious of David in an angry rage, it was Jonathan who spoke a good word for David. And when suspicion turned to attempts of murder, Jonathan took risks to his own life to protect and warn his friend.
You see, true friendship, true friendship, is revealed by the depth of your desire to protect the other person. A person is your friend when they're protecting you even when you do not know that they are protecting you. That was part of the pain that came out in the drama. Becca realized that Abby was talking to other people before talking to her.
In 1 Samuel 19:4, when Saul in again a murderous rage, insanity almost, was after David, Jonathan spoke well of David to his father. And for a long time, David was safe, but not for long because then not just a few days later, Jonathan and Saul are sitting around dinner, and Saul asks where David is. And Jonathan says something, and just Saul goes crazy. He almost kills his own son. He takes a spear and almost thrusts it through his own son, Jonathan, he is so enraged and so crazy.
Listen to how Jonathan responds in 1 Samuel 20:34.
"Jonathan got up from the table in fierce anger; on that second day of the month he did not eat, because he was grieved at his father's shameful treatment of David."
The thought of his friend being vulnerable gave him no rest. He couldn't eat, and he was angered in a deep way at his friend's trouble. His trouble was his friend's trouble. His friend's trouble was his trouble. That's the portrait of loyalty. It's a portrait of a desire to protect.
Now very few of us are going to be called upon to protect somebody's life physically, but there are times when our friends may be needing protection from character assassination. When innuendo or rumor creates an aura of suspicion, a loyal friend will be like the motto of a police car, "Defend and protect." Right?
Pastor Laura mentioned a few months back one way that she thought about protecting one another on staff. She said when someone is talking to somebody else about somebody else on staff that one of the ways that we can be loyal to each other is say, "Well, that's not the Pastor George I know. That's not the Pastor John I know." Just that little, simple phrase will just say, "There is an alliance here." One person put it this way: "A friend is a person who does his knocking before he enters instead of after he leaves." We don't betray our friends through disloyalty.
So that's the second one. Kindness, loyalty, and now honesty. If the first two points made you feel like it's all comfort and no challenge, this third one sets the record straight because
Proverbs 27:6 says, "Faithful are the wounds of a friend." The TNIV says, "The wounds of a friend can be trusted, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy."
It struck me in my study when Jesus was betrayed in the garden of Gethsemane. He said to Judas, "You betray your Master with a kiss? You betray your Master with a kiss?" He was trying to help him understand. He was trying to help him just honestly even in those last moments to think about what he was doing.
I've quoted Oscar Wilde very often. "A friend is a person who stabs you in the front." They let you know what's going on. There is definitely an art to that kind of move, and many of us are scared to make it. The last time someone said to you, "I need to talk with you," were you thinking, "Oh, she is probably going to pull me aside to tell me how much she appreciates me"? Or were you thinking, "Oh boy. I'm in trouble"?
When we consider having "the talk" with someone, we wig out. When we feel like we're on the receiving end of something like that, we can really be frightened. I want to recommend to you a book called "Boundaries Face to Face." And its subtitle is, "How to have that difficult conversation you've been avoiding." Do you think anybody could be helped by this book? I don't know. Maybe a few of you could be helped by this. I wish I'd had the foresight to buy about 100 copies and have them out there for you, but you can pick it up. It's Cloud and Townsend, Zondervan Publishers.
And let me just share one quote from the book with you. The authors state it this way kind of right in the front:
"Many of us live in two words when it comes to relationships. In one world we have friendly conversations in which we avoid all disagreements. And in the other, we have major conflict-type conversations that tear everybody and everything up. In the first world, we have connection without truth, and in the second, we have truth without connection."
They go on to say that God doesn't want us living in two worlds. He wants us to live where love and truth coexist together in his world, not where there are adversaries. And conversations work best when people care for each other and tell the truth to each other. That's why the Scripture says, "The law came through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." Both at the same time.
In other words, his friendship was about being kind and loyal and telling us the truth about who we are. And that's why we're told in Scripture to speak the truth in love and thereby grow up in Jesus. That's the gift of a friend: kindness, loyalty, and honesty. And if the first two are there, the third is going to be much easier.
But we can't end this message without thinking about the best Friend that this world or anyone who has ever encountered him could ever have. Jesus is the model for true and selfless friendship. At the end of his earthly life, he gathered his closest friends around him, and he said something very interesting to them. He said, "I no longer call you servants because a servant doesn't know what his master is doing. Instead, I've called you friends, for everything that l learned from my Father I have made known to you."
Jesus uses friendship to think about that as a metaphor of describing our relationship with God. And you can tell who your friends are by the level of information that you share with them. Stuff that's tight to the vest you're going to share only with the people you feel closest to or that you trust. People who are friends share secrets, and they keep secrets.
And through Jesus, God is sharing with us the deepest secret, so to speak, the deepest thing on his heart for each and every one of us, his age-old secret plan. Here it is. And he shares it as a friend. Here's the open secret from the Son of God to anyone who needs a friend. Regarding kindness, he said this: "Greater love has no one than this that a man lay down his life for his friends." That's what Jesus did for us. He proved his love for us by dying in our place. He laid. He gave it all for us.
Regarding loyalty, he said, "I will never leave you or forsake you. I will be with you even to the end of the age." You never have to worry about your commitment to him and his commitment to you. He is for you always. And lastly, regarding honesty. "You are my friends if you do what I command you." His friendship is based on clear boundaries of loving obedience, and he always will receive anybody who will align themselves to his truth.
The famous hymn has it right: "What a friend we have in Jesus." So in his power, be a friend to those in your life. Sacrifice for them, stick with them, and stay honest in your relationship with them. That is a wise lifestyle, and that's what friends are for.
Let's pray: Lord, I thank you for loving us so much in a way that we don't even realize the depth of it at times, but that love is expressing itself in the closest kind of words as we think about companionship and friendship. You are the friend who sticks closer than a brother. You are the brother who sticks closer than a friend.
Lord, we thank you that you are here with us now today, that you want to speak into the heart of each of us who feels the wounds of betrayal. And so we ask, Lord, for your grace and for your mercy to flood us, to sweep over us now even as we continue to worship you through Christ our Lord, Amen.
© 2011, Rev. George Antonakos
Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD 21204 410/823-6145