Alliance of Baptists Sunday
Text: John 15:12-17
I want to start by saying thank you to Brooks Wicker and to your pastor Nancy Petty for the invitation to preach today. I am grateful to be here for the first time. It seems hard for me to believe that today is the first time I’ve been here at Pullen. I feel like I know all of you. I recognize the faces of so many friends. And I’ve been fortunate to befriend many of your teenagers during the time I was the director of Baptist Youth Camp. So I feel like we are all friends even though I’ve never been in this sanctuary before today or met many of you.
But you should also know that I have a lot of friends. According to Facebook, I have 471 friends to be exact. Alright my ego is not that big, rest assured I recognize the absurdity of saying I have 471 friends. No one can have that many friends. But we do, or we say we do. I also confess that I know that I don’t have that many friends because I can’t turn someone down if they send me a friend request. Even if I don’t remember that we rode the bus together in the 9th grade, I’m still going to accept your friend request. Even if you are that uber-conservative cousin who I can hardly stand to be in the same room with, I’m going to accept your friend request. Even if you are the crazy ex-girlfriend from college who called me years after college to ask me if I thought she was the one who made me gay, I’m still going to accept your friend request. Even though I don’t really care about knowing what is going on in your life I’m going to call you friend on Facebook. Then I’m going to be really annoyed that I have to wade through your status reports and your farmville updates to get to the folks I do actually consider friends. So you should know that I don’t have a lot of friends, I definitely do not have 471.
I know this. You know this. Google knows this. Just a few months ago Google started testing their own social networking site called Google Plus in which you create circles. A family circle. An Acquaintance circle. And a friends circle. So I was really glad last week to discover that Facebook had finally figured out that all the people we were calling friends weren’t really friends. Now I have lists. A family list. A list of people who I went to high school with. A list of people who live in the same city. And then a list called close friends. This list of close friends. These are the people who I consider my real friends. The people who teach me what it means to be called friend.
“I have called you friends…”
These friends they show up. Recently I closed the church I had been pastoring in San Francisco. When I arrived eight years ago they gave me a less than hospitable welcome. On the Sunday I arrived and I asked them to see what would be my office, they told me that there had been a flood that destroyed the phone and the computer, but showed me the office and that office looked like the place where old office equipment came to die. They didn’t have any keys for me and couldn’t really tell me how to get keys. And then we walked out on the sidewalk in front of the church, on this my first day with them, my second day in a brand new city, on the other side of the country from everyone that I knew and loved–we walked out on that sidewalk and they said, “Well we are glad you are here” and walked away leaving me alone, completely alone. For eight years they continued to show up in this way. Or I should say failed to show up. Then finally one worship service the only two people present were myself and the pianist, the two people paid to show up, and it was then that I knew that it was time to close up shop. So we did that. We had a final celebration in July. All the folks who were still considered members were there. I invited local colleagues and churches and many of those folks came, to support me and to support the congregation. And I invited my friends, the people who I had met and loved over the last eight years that I had been living in the city. I invited my friends not because they had much of a relationship to the congregation but because they had a relationship to me. They showed up. And it was a beautiful celebration. At the end of the celebration, the congregation members began to trickle away, without much of a goodbye. But my friends, the ones who I invited because I knew I would need their support, said “what can we do to help?” And they helped, they put away chairs and cleaned up tables. Swept floors and bagged trash. They boxed up supplies and loaded them in my car. And then when we walked down the stairs of the space we had rented for the event–friends standing at my car, another friend taking the trash with the owner of the building–I was left alone on the sidewalk. Only this time, this time eight years later, I was not alone. Because my friends showed up. They were waiting for me.
They would wait for me to return if I went away. They would wait for me if I needed to wander in the desert for a while. They would join me in the garden when I was most afraid. They would grieve if I were gone and they would celebrate my return. And I would do the same for them. To be sure our friendships aren’t perfect. And at times we both fail in the ways we show up for one another. We aren’t always are best selves. But we are friends and we show up.
My friends don’t give me easy answers either. They don’t tell me what I want to hear–well okay sometimes they tell me what I want to hear. But there is equality in the way we communicate with one another. The servant sometimes has to tell the master what he or she wants to hear. But not friends. They’ll tell you the truth even when that truth is hard to hear. They’ll tell you how you really look in those pants. They’ll give you an honest opinion about your new haircut. They’ll laugh at you when you fall down, while they are offering you their hand to help you get up. And when there are not answers or truths to be told, they’ll just hold your hand.
Three years ago, my twin brother died of colo-rectal cancer. He was 36 years old, with three children under the age of 13. There was no history of cancer in our family. He just had really crappy luck. When he died family flooded in. Family that I didn’t really know. Cousins of my parents, nieces and nephews of my grandmother, great aunts and uncles. Families show up. Well most families will show up. They’ll be there whether you need them or not. But there is not necessarily an equality. There are levels of authority. So when Aunt Ruby says that my brother is in a better place, or my mother’s cousin Ronnie says God must have had a reason to take him, or my Grandmother says that now he can take care of us from Heaven, I can’t really say to them what I want to say to them. I would be in big trouble if I told my Grandmother that she was full of crap. And “full of crap” is tame compared to what I want to say. There isn’t an equality in families and sometimes you simply have to smile and nod when family members speak words as truth when their is no truth to be spoken.
But friends don’t offer easy answers to hard questions. They don’t have to. There is an equality. We can speak honestly and frankly without repercussion. My brother died on Good Friday in Florida. A week later I was in New Orleans at the Alliance of Baptist Convocation. Because there was no place I wanted to be except among my friends. I knew that the folks who gathered that weekend, wouldn’t try and tell me that my brother was in a better place. They’d just hold me. They’d listen. They’d acknowledge the great tragedy of what just happened. And they would let me be angry and they’d be angry with me. No platitudes. No answers. No words. They would simply be.
We would just gather after the loss, after the death, gather in a room in New Orleans in the midst of my fear and anxiety about what the future looked like. We would just be.
I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing.
Equals. No mother. No Father. No Grandmother. Just friends.
And friends, they aren’t afraid of change. This week Facebook has seen a lot of changes. Not just the one about being able to create lists of close friends. Lots of changes. And Facebook users don’t like change. But friends aren’t afraid of change. A member of the Alliance staff came out to participate in my congregation’s final gathering. As I was taking them back to the place they were staying, we were talking about the future of the church. And they said, “I don’t know what the church is going to look like. I don’t even know what the Alliance of Baptists will look like. I suspect that it won’t look like it looks now.” They didn’t say this with fear. It was just said. A few years ago, Chris Copeland, Minister of Leadership Formation, caused a bit of a ruckus because of an article he wrote about the ways that he wasn’t feeling, at the time, called to traditional church but instead was finding community more in a coffee shop or a yoga class. But that is what friends do. They are honest even when it isn’t politically expedient to be so and in that honesty there is no fear of change. Counter that with the folks who I interact with on a regular basis. They are members of the Pacific Coast Baptist Association. Good folks who are committed to the church. They are really committed to the church. In that they can’t stand the thought of it changing at all. It has to stay the same. They are holding on with clinched fists to everything that they worked hard to build. They were leaders in the American Baptist Churches USA and by God they are going to fight to keep it.
Friends will stand by when you turn things upside down. They aren’t afraid when you storm into the temple and throw all the moneychangers out. Okay maybe they are a little afraid. But they won’t let fear prevent them from change and growth. They won’t be afraid of life. When the world you live in has changed, when a death has occurred, and then behold out of death comes resurrection, when all of that changes your world they’ll walk with you into that new world, with confidence, boldly sharing in the good news.
In the end my friends–They show up. They stand by me. They are my equal. They don’t try to give me easy answers. They aren’t afraid of change. They follow this great commandment. They love. They are the church.
Well sometimes. Sometimes the church are all of these things. At their best they are. So consider this my friend request. Be my friend. Not because I need more friends, but because the world does.