The Power of Befriending
Sep 27, 2020
For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”
For the spiritual practice led by Ivy Anthony, related to Steve’s sermon, click HERE.
To view the online service and sermon, click the YouTube link above.
Yesterday was Samaritans’ annual 5K for suicide prevention. Though I captained a team again, I did not technically run the 5K, or even walk it. It was a virtual event, so nobody knew whether I ran or not, until now, that is. But I promise, I will jog my 5K before the month ends, likely on my birthday, this Wednesday. And since that too will be virtual, you are all invited to my birthday party, in your hearts.
Anyway, some of you did in fact run the Samaritans 5K yesterday. It was Adam Bakun’s first 5K ever – go, Adam! And many more of you contributed to one of our teams, helping fund Samaritans suicide prevention work. Reservoir Church sponsored the event. Butcher Box, a company founded by a Reservoir member, also sponsored the event. We at Reservoir have in fact been connected to the work of Samaritans for years now.
It’s partly because of suicide. Sadly, death by suicide has touched our community before, as it has almost every community, and Reservoir loves life. The joy of living is part of our mission because we love God revealed in Christ who said: I came that you may have life abundantly. So Reservoir loves Samaritans mission of helping us find hope and resilience no matter what we’re facing.
But there’s another thing I love about Samaritans work. It’s that they believe in and practice befriending. Offering friendship to everyone. Samaritans volunteers are trained to recognize the risks of suicide and to encourage life and safety, but they are especially trained to be good friends, even to strangers. To offer respectful, non-judgmental listening and support to everyone.
This particular form of love, befriending, is at the heart of the good news of Jesus expressed in Beloved Community. We all need a few good friends in our lives. And it’s good to have a good friend and to be a good friend to a few people in your circles. But I’m talking about something bigger and deeper than that. To befriend widely, to befriend across difference, to befriend in private and in public, to grow ever-widening circles of befriending that touch more and more people – this heals lives and communities and reveals the goodness of God.
I’ve been praying about what I have to say in this Beloved Community series. You’ll hear from Lydia again as well as Ivy, but with two more sermons to give myself, as I pray and search the scriptures, I have realized I have two things to say, one sermon on power and privilege which I’ll give in a couple more weeks and one today on befriending.
I’ve been reading the letters of the Bible’s New Testament a lot this year, notes to little house churches from a founder or a coach, encouraging them to keep discovering and living the good news of Jesus. These letters have lots to say about power and privilege (more on that next time). And they have an awful lot to say about Jesus’ vision of the Beloved Community and the importance of a deeper and wider befriending than many of us have yet practiced or experienced.
Let me read a couple excerpts from the end of the letter called Romans.
Romans 12:1-5, 9-18, 21; 15:7 (NRSV)
12 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.
9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 15:7 (NRSV)
7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
I lead a Saturday morning Bible study, one of Reservoir’s community groups. Yesterday, we were in person here on the church property to share communion together. But most weeks, we talk and pray and read the Bible while gathered online. And last year, we read Romans together, all year. One of the many bits of scholarship that helped me prepare was a little book called Reading Romans Backwards. The idea there is that in Romans, and in some of the other letters that Paul – the author – wrote if you only read them forwards, you can think they’re little works of theology – abstract ideas about the God we see in Jesus Christ – and that at the end, they have some random instructions, dos and don’ts for life together.
But if you read these letters backwards, if you start reading them with their end in mind, you realize that the main thing Paul is doing is coaching these early churches to be healthier communities, to be the kind of places of love and belonging where people and communities will live better and discover what God is like.
These communities were super diverse, best as we can tell, probably the most diverse community gatherings in the first century Roman empire. Like our own times, their society was enormously divided, people stratified and separated by culture, creed, class, sex, power, money. The pyramid of privilege in the Roman empire was clear and powerful.
And so these house churches were some of the only places in the whole empire where men and women, migrant day laborers and wealthy landlords, people of opposing culture and religion came together on equal terms. Which, as you could guess, would have been as complicated and hard for them as it would be for us.
Romans 14 and 15 are a long discourse on making right an old, painful story of injustice and exclusion. Roman house churches would have likely been majority Gentile, minority Jewish. And Jews were an often persecuted, oppressed minority in Rome. Not long before this letter was written, Jews had just been allowed back into the city, after a previous emperor had scapegoated them and kicked them all out. Now that they were back, these house churches probably didn’t know what to do with their Jewish members, who were like them in faith, but had some their own customs and practices and values.
And Paul gives them a roadmap, which is so much deeper than “be nice” or “try to get along.” He talks about even-ing out the power dynamics, about honoring people who have experienced exclusion and dishonor, about living with difference respectfully, lovingly. At the heart of these instructions is the verse I read: Welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you. Include one another, as Christ has included you. Embrace one another, as Christ has embraced you.
When we welcome, include, embrace another, we reveal to the other and ourselves and anyone that is watching what God is like, the one who welcomes and includes and embraces us all. And when we welcome, include, and embrace the one who leasts expects that from us, we especially reveal the welcoming, including, embracing love of God.
Before this, Romans 12 and 13 talk about the healing power of the good news of Jesus, as it is lived out in community. Every time we read the word “you” in Romans, or pretty much anywhere in the Bible, it’s the plural you – you all, not just an individual. The Bible, after all, was written to communities, not to individuals. And that is especially explicit here.
The transformation that Paul has in mind for followers of Jesus is to be active participants in a community that loves God by moving from coldness to kindness, by finding and practicing love in a world of division and hate, by countering enmity and hostility with wave after wave of befriending.
There’s a lot of texture in here, again way beyond calls to be nice. The privileged are to learn to be humble, we are all to honor people who in other places are dishonored. In a world where touch and affection are used to manipulate and abuse, we’re told practice safe and holy affection, and to be radically hospitable and to counter hate with love, evil with goodness.
Let me zone in for a minute on just one line, the line that tells us that love is built on empathy. That says friends rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.
It sounds basic, right? When your friend is happy, celebrate with them. When your friend is sad, share in their sadness. But remember, Romans is not a private letter teaching us how to be nice to our best friends and family.
It’s a call to love in public. It’s a message to a community of people that will not be able to hold together without the power of God and the healing love of community.
Friends, we do not do this well. When people who are unlike us weep, we ignore it. We secretly or not so secretly say or at least think: it is their fault. Or if we have some measure of power or privilege, if in any way, it’s our fault, we get defensive. This is more the American way. I read a powerful piece of Israeli journalism this morning, written for the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur which begins tonight. On the eve of this holiday of atonement and forgiveness, which encourages even forgiveness of enemies, the author was like: can we take a pass this year? Because our enemies are truly awful now. Beyond forgiveness. We all feel that way these days. For good reason. This is the way of our world now.
But God is not like this. God who is revealed in Christ rejoices with those who rejoice, and weeps with those of us who weep. God lives in radical, loving empathy with all God’s children. So when we befriend, when we offer the best non-judgemental, compassionate, listening ear that we have to offer, we reveal what God is like. That’s what happens every time Samaritans practices befriending. Every time Samaritans listens kindly to a lonely old man living by himself, and shows him he is not alone, they show him what God is like. Everytime Samaritans encourages a scared, depressed kid wondering how to come out to his parents or friends, and let him know he’s going to be OK, they show him what God is like. Everytime Samaritans listens to someone who’s cut herself, or hated herself, or given up on herself, that she is worth listening to and knowing, just as she is, they show her what God is like. Without a single word of theology or religion.
The healing power of befriending shows us the nature of God.
We find this healing power even among our friends, when we share our stories truly, and rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. My wife Grace and I met up with friends outdoor for dinner the other week, and prompted by an issue one of us had had with a parent, we each for the first time shared the stories of the families we came from. There was a lot of good there, but oceans of hurt too.
And as we shared our sadness, as we celebrated the impossible joy of who we’ve become despite our pains, this thing happened. A month that for me had been a real bummer – lots of desolation – started to turn from despair to hope, from lifelessness to energy. There is healing power in beloved community.
Friends, there is so much invitation here, but let me just name three.
When I see American citizens joining undocumented neighbors working to get them drivers licenses so they’ll have safety and security, I see beloved community. When I see my daughter, busy with herself in college, spending time every week in friendship and tutoring with a peer of hers in the slums of Delhi, India, I see beloved community.
The befriending of Beloved Community encourages new levels of empathy and solidarity. If you are not learning to advocate for the needs of others unlike yourself, if you have not found a way to be in meaningful relationship across significant difference, if you can’t share the tears of people whose sadness is not your own, then the good news of Jesus hasn’t fully found you yet. Pray that it will. Beloved community invites us into the life of Jesus, where we learn to understand and love those who we used to misunderstand or ignore or reject.
Secondly, beloved community utterly rejects scapegoating. Scroll your social media, talk to some friends about the state of the world, and you’ll be convinced that everything that is wrong with the world is someone else’s fault. Often some particular person or group of people. And there’s an irony that the faith – Christianity – that in Rome was constantly scapegoated has now become an serious force of scapegoating. Christians are sometimes the worst at this, blaming things on other people all the time. We can’t do this. Whether heaping our rejection on innocent but powerless people, or even thinking that if we can just get rid of such and such person or such and such group of people, we’ll be good. This is always a lie, and it’s not part of the Beloved community Jesus calls us to.
Lastly, beloved community invites us to find God and offer a reflection of God by growing a local version of beloved community among ourselves. By actively participating in growing community of powerful love and belonging, as we read about today.
We’re paying attention at Reservoir to becoming a community of befriending, to making sure this church is a safe place to befriend. We invite you to be part of that journey. The body of Christ needs you.
In the terrible loneliness of a spiritually poor and hostile world – to practice and experience beloved community, the befriending of God and our reflection of that befriending to others, this will save us. Beloved community will heal us all.