September 9, 2018
The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
(James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37)
Friends. Who needs 'em?
Some argue that friends are the latest casualty of the lifestyle wars as we struggle to balance the full-time demands of career and family. With spouse, mortgage, kids, schedules, work and travel, or any plethora of other responsibilities, there doesn't seem to be room for anything else. Something's got to give. Friends seem expendable, so friends are the first to go.
A New York Internet executive once said, he's too busy, and friends are a luxury he can no longer afford. With a wife, a young daughter and a busy job, "I'm already at 120 percent, there really is no room for anyone else." No big deal. About twice a year, when he can't handle the guilt anymore, he sits down and answers neglected e-mails from a half-dozen pals he hasn't seen in ages: "Sorry I stink as a friend," he begins.
Or ... maybe it is a big deal. Recent research tells us what we've long suspected: friends are important. That's why so many organizations use the word "friend" in their name: Friends of the Sea Otter, Friends of Libraries, Friends of Israel, Friends of Freedom, Friends of the Environment, Friends of the Earth, Friends of the Ocean, Friends of Japan and the list goes on.
The medical community says, the value of friendships is dramatically underscored. Fewer friends lead to higher stress and a shorter life. In a study of 2,800 men and women over the age of 65, those with more friends had a lower risk of health problems, and they recovered faster when they did develop them. A Yale University study of 10,000 seniors showed that having friends reduced the risk of death by about 50 percent over a five-year period. Friends can help you reduce stress, improve the quality of your life, live longer, get a better job, expand your business, improve your marriage and derive more joy from your life.
There is value to having friends over the long term.
What is intriguing is the notion that our friends will come and go throughout life, and that this is absolutely normal. Dr. Jan Yager, in her book, Friendshifts, argues that it is very rare for a person to have a friend for a lifetime. Instead, we tend to shift our friends as our own needs and circumstances themselves shift.
Typically, adults today have one or two "best" friends, four to six "close" friends, and 10 to 20 "casual" friends. But let's be honest: Even these numbers seem high. Healthy friendships take time just to get going, up to three years according to some experts. Then they require nurturing and attentive planning.
But just when the friendships are in place, they vanish, victims of some new component in the social equation: new job, new school, new baby, new spouse, whatever.
The bottom line is that we not only don't have as many friends as we used to, but we're going to lose the ones we have. But that's okay. We will pick up new friends in a cyclical pattern of friend shifting that will continue for the rest of our lives.
Author James Allen takes the discussion to another level. Christians tend to exaggerate their claims of friendship. We've got the friendliest church in the world, but we'll walk right by the stranger in the narthex. We love one another, but we're just as likely as the next guy to badmouth a brother, or scandalize a sister.
We say we'd never stoop to the behavior of the nearsighted usher in today's text, but we forget that the church has a shady past. For example, the church must never forget its complicity in promoting slavery and segregation and in resisting their demise. Have we forgotten that there were plenty of Christians who had their hands on the ropes when they were stringing up a black man, leaving him swaying in the wind from an oak tree during the 1930s? (See the explosive book on this subject edited by James Allen, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America.)
But that was then; this is now, we say. True. But James argues that it is not enough to assert love and friendship. There must be signs of this friendship or else both the friendship and the faith are dead. Partiality is not a sign. Withholding forgiveness is not a sign. Refusing to feed and clothe the hungry and homeless is not a sign.
Moreover, James makes it clear that we can't be an enemy to our friends (neighbors) and still be a friend of God. To be a FaithFriend of God, we've got to keep faith with our friends.
And therein lies the lesson. We must keep faith with our friends. If we don't, we have neither faith nor friends. James is adamant. There must be signs. Friendship - whether with our neighbor or with God - requires faithship which requires workship and results in worship.
So who is our friend? Our friend is our neighbor. Who is our neighbor? See the Parable of the Good Samaritan. What does it mean to keep faith with our neighbor? Consider the following:
Shifra Penzias, a rabbi, tells of her great-aunt, Sussie, who rode a bus home on a snowy evening in Munich of Nazi Germany. Suddenly, SS storm troopers stopped the coach and began examining the identification papers of the passengers. Most were annoyed but a few were terrified. Jews were being told to leave the bus and get into the truck around the corner.
Sussie watched from her seat in the rear as the soldiers systematically worked their way down the aisle. She began to tremble, tears streaming down her face. When the man next to her noticed that she was crying, he politely asked her why.
"I don't have the papers you have. I am a Jew. They're going to take me."
The man exploded with disgust. He began to curse and scream at her. "You stupid (expletive)," he roared. "I can't stand being near you!"
The SS men asked what all the yelling was about.
"Damn her," the man shouted angrily. "My wife has forgotten her papers again! I'm so fed up. She always does this!"
The soldiers laughed and moved on.
Sussie never saw the man again. She never even knew his name.
If we must keep faith with our friends, we must also keep faith with God. This is one friendship that need not shift. If it does, it is not God who is doing the shifting. James describes our fidelity to God as a faith that is "active." It was characteristic, he says, of Abraham the patriarch, and Rahab the prostitute. They both, when push came to shove, kept faith with God.
The result: Abraham was called a "friend of God."
God may be omnipotent, impassible and transcendent. Wholly Other. Beyond Knowing. The I AM THAT I AM. But God seems to need, or value the friendship of his creatures. It's what he was after in the Garden of Eden, it's what he sought in Abraham. It's what he wants in us.
God wants - needs - friends who will keep faith with him.
No shifting allowed.
Let us pray.
That we do not take for granted our friendships and other relationships, by nurturing them and not allowing them to drift away. We pray to the Lord.
For the Church, that God will heal our deafness so that we may hear God’s invitations to service and recognize the cry of those who are suffering. We pray to the Lord.
For a spirit of listening, that God will free us from the noise that blocks our ability to hear the Word of God and the distractions that obscure the hopes that God has placed within our hearts. We pray to the Lord.
For a spirit of compassion, that God will help immigrants and refugees establish new lives and experience justice and respect in their new homeland. We pray to the Lord.
For a spirit of welcome and hospitality in our parish, that all who join us for worship, community or service may experience the love of Christ and a warm welcome. We pray to the Lord.
That as our nation recalls the attacks of September 11, we may renew our gratitude for the liberty we enjoy in America, under God. We pray to the Lord.
That those who are suffering may receive God’s peace and those who have died may be welcomed into God’s heavenly kingdom. We pray to the Lord.
We remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
God our Father, we offer you our prayers. Merciful God, you open the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf. Open our eyes to your truth and our ears to your word and grant us the courage to proclaim the Good News throughout our world. May we always cherish and stay close to those whom we call friends and loved ones in our lives, knowing that in so doing, we are loving you. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA