What does your Friend list look like?
Thanks to twenty-first century technology (and Facebook), most of you instantly assumed that I was talking about the way that social media quantifies our influence and popularity. We can “friend” people or “accept their friend requests,” and further measure how awesome they think we are by the number of times they “like” our posts or pictures.
[Ironic side note: many more people ‘like’ pictures of my children than actually read my sermons… I think that should tell me something.]
But the use of the term “friend” has become watered down, diluted, misunderstood because of this Facebook phenomena. Some have even lost sight of what it means to be an actual friend.
Back in high school, I remember the subject of friendship coming up one day around the lunch table. While being “friendly” is a necessary social grace (one many of us are still in progress working through), friendship was, and is, different to me.
When it was my turn to answer what I thought of friendship, I said that I had many acquaintances and just a few friends. It turns out there is empirical data to back that up!
Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist, proposed that there was a finite number of relationships that could actually be maintained by any one person, that there was a limit to the number of people that anyone could actually know and relate to. Dunbar said we knew 150 people we’d invite to a large party, fifty people we’d invite to a group dinner who we’d call close friends, fifteen people who are the inner circle who we’d confide in most things, and five with whom we are truly close. Dunbar also noted that the circles were fluid – including five hundred people in the acquaintance level and fifteen hundred as the most people we might put names to faces.
There is no way I’m hitting fifteen hundred people’s names accurately. I don’t even know who all of my Facebook friends are!
But rather than focusing on all of our acquaintances today, I want to instead ask you who you’d uproot yourself for? Who would you let motivate you and send you in some new direction? As we continue in our Character Counts series, let us look at the story of Ruth and Naomi from Ruth 1:1-18.
We can see immediately that famine is a motivator, again. Like Jacob’s family, Naomi and her husband relocate from Bethlehem (the land of the Jews) to Moab (the land of the Gentiles) because of the scarcity of food. Naomi’s two sons married Moabite women, but soon, Naomi’s husband and two sons were dead.
Naomi is left widowed and alone in a strange land. With no way to make money and no male family to care for her, she determines to return to her homeland. Her two daughters-in-law decide to go with her but she knows there is more for them if they stay in Moab, their own country. She tries to convince them to turn back, even saying that “the Lord’s hand has turned against” her.
One of the daughters-in-law, Orpah, takes this as an opportunity to stay in Moab. While we praise Ruth for going, Orpah makes the perfectly correct, absolutely understandable decision. She can find another husband among her own people, or live in her parents’ home. It makes no sense for Orpah to go with Naomi.
Naomi tries one more time to dissuade Ruth from going. She says that Orpah has returned to her family and her gods. And it’s at this point that Ruth issues her modus operandi, the life-changing status update that will put her in line to be an ancestor of baby Jesus. That’s right: if Ruth doesn’t go with Naomi now, the way the story plays out is completely different.
Ruth says, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”
Ruth proves to be a friend. Ruth proves to be the one with staying power. Because Ruth stays, and accepts Naomi’s God as her own, she becomes the great grandmother of King David, part of the line leading to Jesus. Ruth’s decision to go along with Naomi proves significant from a Big Picture perspective but it’s also powerful because it shows us some things about how friendship matters.
Friendship is hard to pin down sometimes. Even some of the brightest minds don’t always agree…
“There are three faithful friends, an old wife, an old dog, and ready money.” ~ Benjamin Franklin
“My friends tell me I have an intimacy problem. But they don’t really know me.”- Garry Shandling
“The imaginary friends I had as a kid dropped me because their friends thought I didn’t exist.”- Aaron Machado
“An old friend will help you move. A good friend will help you move a dead body.” ~ Jim Hayes
“Friends are God’s ways of apologizing for our families.” ~ Anonymous
“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.” ~ C.S. Lewis
Ruth, well, Ruth has a good idea about what friendship is supposed to be.
First, Ruth sees her mother-in-law suffering and stays. Ruth is constant, not bailing at the first sign of trouble.
Second, Ruth puts her friend, her mother-in-law, in a position to be the decision-maker. Ruth recognizes Naomi’s experience even while society would tell Ruth that Naomi was insignificant or nothing as a widow without living sons.
Third, Ruth reaffirms Naomi’s life of faith even if in the moment she is doubting, or at least struggling to understand God’s purpose for her life.
Steady. Encouraging. Faithful.
Wouldn’t all of us want more friends like that?
While this weekend was devoted to the romantic pursuit of happiness, I hope we can reframe it to focus on friendship regardless of gender or outside pressure.
We all want friends we can count on. We all want to be supported, and encouraged, and built up in our faith.
But what kind of friends are we?
There was a guy – you might have heard of him – he hung out with twelve men for three years, sharing his perspective and friendship. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
Who would we lay our lives down for, literally or metaphorically?
Who do we love like that – and how do we show it? As individuals? As the church?
In Acts 2, the history of the early church is laid out as they wrestled with what it meant to lay their lives down. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
The early church was steady, encouraging, and faithful, focused on each other rather than themselves. They made being together a priority, not an afterthought or a habit. They shared what they had and treated each other with respect.
It doesn’t say that the early church was full of people who liked each other all of the time or who always agreed on political issues or who thought they were raising their children the way that they would do it, or … you get the point.
But it does say that they were there for each other. It says that the church was where God was personified in the body of Christ as Jesus’ hands and feet. It’s where the call to “bear each other’s burdens so that you may fulfill the law of Christ” comes from (Galatians 6).
My favorite image of this deep friendship comes from the waning moments of The Return of the King as Frodo has made it to Mt. Doom. He can’t remember the Shire anymore – but Samwise Gangee reminds him. Frodo can only see the evil of the One Ring but Sam reminds him of the good. Frodo can’t take another step to get the One Ring up the mountain to destroy it. He’s about to fail, and fail mightily.
But then Sam says, “Come, Mr. Frodo! I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you.”
That’s bearing one another’s burdens.
It’s a friendship runs deeper than what comes easy, that faithfulness makes friendship stronger, that the church is supposed to be the kind of place where friendships grow over time.
It shows us that church should be a place where someone recognizes that they are not alone, that their life has purpose, that they are loved, and that God has shown up.
But for that to be true, for that friendship to count as a character trait, those of us who are already here must be willing to look past their frustration, their grief, their broken dreams, and their sense that none of those attributes could possibly be found in a place or a person, and say:
You are not alone and you’re welcome here.
Where two or three are gathered, there I am, God says. It’s an invitation and a reminder.
We are not meant to be isolated and alone.
We are not meant to be forgotten or ignored.
We are not meant for the condemnation or rejection.
We are meant for more.
We are meant to bear each other’s burdens.
We are meant to encourage, challenge, and inspire.
We are meant for the “oh, yeah? Me, too!” moments of life.
We are meant to be friends.
So, Church, what kind of friend are you?