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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on February 15, 2009

VALENTINE’S ARROWS: A Sermon on the True Nature of Friendship

Ananda, the beloved disciple of the Buddha, once asked his teacher and friend about the place of friendship in the spiritual journey. "Master, is friendship half of the spiritual life?" he asked. The Enlightened One responded: "Nay, Ananda, friendship is the whole of the spiritual life." Jesus had his beloved friend, John; King David had Jonathan; St. Francis enjoyed the constant companionship of Brother Leo and his special friendship with St. Clare, who led the Poor Clares, the Second Order of St. Francis. Aristotle regarded friendship, along with contemplation, as one of the highest goals of ethics. Cicero, the Roman writer, showed in his treatise on the nature of friendship that the Romans valued it as much as the Greeks. (And) Plato discoursed on friendship in his dialogue the Lysis.

—Wayne Teasdale from A Monk in the World.

Sometime last year I received an email from a member of the congregation I was serving in Massachusetts. It was an invitation to become his Facebook friend. As everyone here is not under forty, let me explain. Facebook is a “social networking” website like “Myspace,” although I think the Facebook demographic skews to a slightly older crowd. Social networking is what it says, people exchange notes and pictures and in general keep in touch on line.

Anyway, while I’d never before given any thought to joining a web based social network, I thought that this invitation was sweet. I mean how long has it been since you’ve been asked by someone to be their friend? And so I followed the link that had been provided and filled out the required form. However as I came to the part that asked if I would like to invite my email address book to be Facebook friends, before I actually had finished reading the question and absorbing its meaning, I had pushed the yes button. I now have three hundred and eighty-five Facebook friends.

Another aspect of my electronic life are the various list serves to which I belong. Among these is one for Unitarian Universalist ministers. I don’t follow it closely. Actually I tell seminarians to join as soon as they are allowed, if for no other reason in following what people post will assure the seminarians that if some of these characters can be ministers, then there should be little doubt, so can they. Now, not everything that is posted is silly or worthless. And I quickly scan the daily digest of messages to at least see if my name has appeared, hopefully without an epithet attached. Doing so occasionally I see something else that catches my eye.

Recently, and I’ll let you judge where it fits on the silly scale, a number of sincere questions have arisen as to whether ministers should respond positively to “friending” requests, friending is the term of art on these social networks, from congregants. The concern is that in seminary they’d all been told there are two opinions about whether a minister can have friends within the congregation they serve. The majority opinion is that one may not. The minority opinion is that it is excruciatingly difficult. I’ll be returning to this in a bit. But first, back to the question. These writers were worried whether becoming Facebook friends would or could compromise their ministries.

A dear friend once gave me a good working definition of friendship. He said a friend is someone who will help you move. Being of a somewhat jaundiced nature he added how a real friend will help you move a body. I suggest as sweet as the Facebook term friend is, no one should assume a Facebook friend will ever help you move, furniture or body. It’s all pretty lightweight stuff. Or, is to all but the most naive

But this also raises some interesting questions about the nature of friendship. No doubt friendship is a mutable term with casual and more profound meanings. But I suggest today and will explore today the thesis that friendship is in fact a part of that larger whole we call love. Friendship and love are connected, deeply. And here in the season of the festival of St Valentine, I want to explore this. I think it might be useful for us.

The Greeks, as anyone who has studied the New Testament knows has four terms for aspects of what we in English call love. The big ones are eros, romantic or erotic love and agape, what we usually think of as Divine love. Given less attention, but nonetheless in the family of love are storge, affection or familial love, and philia, or friendship.

The Christian apologist C. S. Lewis wrote a delightful if occasionally eccentric study of these titled the Four Loves, which if you’ve not read, I commend to you. One of his theses is that these loves each inform the other. And I am really taken with that. I believe as we look at one kind of love, each of the others are illuminated and illuminate the whole of the dynamic human experience of intimacy. And that’s what its all about, intimacy. Intimacy. As we explore each aspect of our intimate encounters I believe we’re on the way to meaning and purpose and direction.

Anyone who watched the Clint Eastwood weepy “Million Dollar Baby” where a friend is asked to help someone die, or any of that litany of movies and books and songs and poems that address the weight of friendship, understands how complicated intimate human relationships are and what its cost might actually be. Which brings me back to that caution we would-be clergy were given in seminary.

A parish minister as the minister has a peculiar set of relationships, which makes it difficult to pal around, to spend a lot of social time with any small set of people. Much of this has to do with how we need to not be identified with a particular set or clique. But really it’s most of all about time. Frankly, I feel guilty when Jan and I take a weekend away, like I’m stealing time from work that must be done. That acknowledged what kind of person do I become if I don’t find time for friendship? And what kind of person do I become if I don’t hazard the dangers in trying to be friendly within this community, the place I live, and carve out a little time, and have some friendships?

And here’s a point for you. We’re almost all of us busy beyond reason. But… What kind of people are any of us going to be, are we, if we don’t hazard the dangers, and carve out some time and try to have and to be a friend? We come here, most of us, because of some pressing spiritual question. We are here in quest of a spiritual life, a life with meaning and purpose. Well, the Buddha tells us friendship is in fact the whole of the spiritual life.

Of course a big question is how is that so? Well, as I’ve said, it appears all the aspects of love inform each other. Agape, which for me is that sense of the greater - without grounding in specific instances, in my encounter with you or your encounter with the person next to you, is at best something arid. It’s a dream until it manifests within actual relationships. And this continues. Erotic love without a sense of affection inevitably becomes abusive. Familial love that doesn’t extend beyond the boundaries of the house is narrow and tribal.

And friendship that isn’t informed by all these aspects, all the dynamic variations of affection, misses its real value. Divine love informs erotic love which informs affection which informs friendship which informs all the others. We live in a multi-causal universe, and nowhere is this truth more obviously true than in how we engage and must engage our friendships.

In the spiritual life nowhere do our ideals meet the actual than in how we relate to each other, in how we make, sustain and are friends.

So, what does this look like in real life? How are we friends? What does friendship look like? Is it the friendship that the Clint Eastwood character finds in Million Dollar Baby? Is it taking time to sign up for the care crew? Is it noticing someone you know here at church hasn’t been around for a while and giving her a call? My auntie asked what I was writing about. I said friendship and asked if she had a thought? She said sometimes being a friend is knowing when to say no. It is complex, no doubt. And there are no real lists of how one can do this. Boundaries are part of it. As is abandon. But knowing when which is which, is part of that dance we must engage, even if it means stepping on a toe now and again, or having our own foot trod on. We learn by doing.

But if we do this, it can count for so much. Our UU minister at All Souls in Washington, DC, Robert Hardies has one suggestion. In a 2002 sermon he wrote how “There's an old Talmudic story about a rabbi who is on death's threshold. In Jewish thinking he has become a goses, which is Hebrew for a soul that is trapped between life and death. The rabbi is ready to relinquish his hold on life, but he can't die because his students are kneeling around his bed, praying fervently for him to live. (I can't tell you how many times I saw this poignant story take place when I worked as a chaplain in an Intensive Care Unit.) Finally, a sensible woman climbs up on the rabbi's roof; she takes a clay jug, and throws the jug crashing to the ground. The noise disrupts the students just long enough for their master's soul to slip quickly into heaven.”

Robert then adds the midrash, the commentary. “Because she helped the students let go, the Talmud notes, the woman will have a place in heaven, too.”

Here’s a suggestion. No one without friends can get into heaven. Our friendships, no doubt in my mind and heart, are the soul of our spiritual exercises. Our intimate relationships reveal our lives right now, here, as we really are. And let me tell you heaven and hell are nowhere other than here. And from that a bottom line: don’t have time for a friend? Well…

So, a caution, but also an invitation.