The Spiritual Practice of Friendship
Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Three years ago, I was living in a small hamlet in New York known as Hopewell Junction. The hamlet was without a town center and had the houses and apartments that were sprawled out and far away. It was hard to get to know people. While I was living in this hamlet, I had the opportunity to meet a young couple with a baby. As we chatted, they told me that they were active participants of a local church – that they attended church every Sunday and served on many committees – but that they had a hard time making friends there. They have been living in the area for several years but could count their friendships on one hand. It made me ponder about church and friendship: What does it mean to be a friend? How can God help us to deepen our friendships? And … hey! Why don’t we talk about friendship more in church?
These are questions I had on my heart this week as I read 1 Thessalonians Chapter 1. In it, was struck by the friendship between Paul and the Thessalonians. In the letter, Paul writes affectionately, “We love you so much … we were delighted to see you … we did everything possible to see you again.” Their friendship began one day when the Thessalonians were going about their daily business and Paul courageously came into their lives. He stopped at the town, probably nervous about what the locals would think about him, and shared the Good News with them. He embodied Jesus’ love for them. I can imagine Paul sitting down the Thessalonians, asking them about their lives and listening to their stories. Looking at the Bible, I am reminded that friendship is a spiritual practice. Who has been Paul to you? Who has been a friend to you? When I think of Paul and the Thessalonians, I start to think about the ways that the people of First Baptist Church have embodied the spiritual practice of friendship. In the ways that this community welcomes people in; in the way that it has welcomed in each person in this room. No matter who we are. No matter what walk of life we come from. This community has lived out the spiritual practice of friendship in the ways that people ask each other about their lives, listen to each other’s stories and hold one another in prayer. We don’t often talk about friendship during worship and yet, there is a deeply spiritual aspect to it.
Yet, in Thessalonians, although their initial friendship flowed and blossomed, we later read that Paul and the Thessalonians were torn apart from each other. In the midst of their budding relationship, a mob formed in opposition to Paul’s teachings. In Acts we read that the mob went around the city looking for Paul, accusing him and his followers of making trouble, condemning Paul for acknowledging Jesus as lord rather than Caesar the-then emperor of Rome. But in their searching, the mob could not find Paul. And so, later, after everyone left, under the cover of nightfall, Paul and his friend Silas emerged from their hiding place and were forced to skip town and leave their new friends.
So here are Paul and the Thessalonians, torn apart by this mob. After being separated, Paul immediately sends his colleague Timothy to them. Timothy listens to the difficult situation of the Thessalonians and shares their story with Paul. From Paul’s letter, we get a bleak picture of their situation. Paul repeatedly talks about their suffering. The Thessalonians were expected to worship the Emperor and were refusing – they are going against tradition, against the status quo, against what is expected of them. I can’t imagine the threats of violence and hatred that they might have experienced but I can imagine that they were in an uncertain place … not knowing what the future would hold for them. I imagine we each feel like the Thessalonians at times, unsure what the future holds … when we can’t stop worrying, when we don’t know what is coming next, when it feels like we are meeting obstacles at every turn. We like the Thessalonians face real struggles in our everyday lives. And it is into this space that Paul writes his response letter saying, “I love you. I thank God for you. I remember you in my prayers.”
Paul is teaching us about the spiritual practice of friendship – the spiritual practice of listening. Remembering. And praying.
Paul teaches us not only how to be friends but who to be friends with. He went into a town where he didn’t know anyone and offered his friendship to anyone who wanted it. He offered it to the lonely couples in the town with babies, to those who were popular and to those on that were on the margins of society. He offered friendship to Jew and Gentile alike. Paul’s actions propel us to ask, “Who is my friend?”
When Jesus was asked a similar question of “who is my neighbor”, Jesus did not focus on numbers or criteria, Jesus responded instead by telling the story of the Good Samaritan, a story about how someone stopped and took care of a stranger. In other words, someone asked Jesus to “define neighbor” and Jesus responded “this is how you act like a neighbor”. In the same way, instead of determining “who is our friend”, our call is to grow in our ability to act like friends (Reference: Friending by Lynn Baab).
Tim Madigan, author of I’m Proud of You, shares a story about what it means to embody friendship even when you are not yet friends with the person. In his book, he recounts the story of how he met Fred Rogers, a well-known Presbyterian minister who ran a children’s show. One day Tim, a journalist, comes to Pittsburgh and interviews Fred Rogers. Fred tells Tim about a dear friend, Jim, who had recently died. Fred talked about the anger he felt and how he pounded extra hard on the piano keys whenever he played. Fred told Tim about his childhood, growing up, and how he met Jim. Fred had been bullied regularly and teased about his pudgy figure. In the midst of his difficult times at school, he became friends with Jim. Jim had placed in the hospital for a football injury to his kidney and Fred took his books to the hospital every day. Jim had believed in Fred and that confidence had helped him to grow. Fred now grieved his friend and spoke openly about the anger that he felt. And then, right there in their conversation, Fred turned to Tim and said, “You’re ministering to me Tim. By listening to me, you are ministering to me.” After Fred says that, the two men go on to have a soulful friendship. Yet in that moment, Fred is not thinking, who is my friend? Fred is thinking about how this person in front of him is acting like a friend. The comment catches Tim off-guard. That’s the way the Spirit works – like the Thessalonians and Paul – Tim was caught by surprise by Fred’s friendship. From that moment of sadness and grace, Fred teaches us that friendship is about listening, really hearing with your heart what the other person is experiencing.
And so, as Jesus followers, our call is not only to listen deeply to our closest friends but also to listen deeply to the community around us, that we might discover the hunger and need that is all around us. Just like Paul did. And just like Tim Madigan did.
And so how like Paul, like Tim, might we stumble onto the need all around us? The Scripture today invites us to go forth into the world and listen, really listen, to the needs of the community around us. How might we practice good listening? How might we create opportunities for the community around us to speak?
-Thinking about our immediate neighborhood, we could listen to our neighbors by hosting a potluck or dessert time and invite our local neighbors over – neighbors from Prospect and High and Grove and North Main Street
-We could take an informal stroll around the block as a way to listen and pay attention and tune into our neighbors and neighborhood.
-We could go into the community – either Essex or the Shorelines communities – as individuals or as pairs and talk with local teachers, police, librarians and bar tenders as a way to listen to the needs of the community. You may or may not have done stuff like this before. Yet, I am reminded of a famous theologian who said, “Our love for others is learning to listen to them.” And so we find, like so many other things, that listening is a continual process.
It is in our listening that we carve out space for the Holy Spirit to work. It is in listening that Tim Madigan unexpectedly ministers to Fred Rogers. It is in listening that Paul hears fully the story of the Thessalonians and is able to write a heartfelt letter in response. Upon receiving his letter, I can imagine the Thessalonians thinking:
“You are ministering to me Paul. By ministering, you are listening to me.”
Paul’s deeply thought manner of friendship teaches us how to approach the practice more deliberately, intimately and lovingly. Paul teaches us to listen, remember, and pray. Listen, remember and pray. As we do this, we hold our fellow brothers and sisters – both near and far – in our hearts and walk with them on their journeys. Amen.
(This theme of listening is one that the Scriptures seem to keep coming back to. In August, we talked about listening to God when I preached on the story of Elijah hiding in the cave and how he heard God’s voice in the sheer silence. In September, we talked about listening to ourselves and our unique gifts and graces when I preached on the Romans text that celebrated our many, varied gifts. And today, I have preached on listening to others. Last Sunday, I was officially installed here as the pastor. As we embark on our new journey together, I suggest that this theme, this theme of listening to God, listening to ourselves and listening to others is one that we use to guide us in the coming year together.)