A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, September 11, 2016
Proverbs 27:9-10; 18:24 CEB; Reading from Ralph W. Emerson’s essay “Friendship”
One of the blessings we celebrate on Homecoming Sunday is friendship. Friendship—perhaps more so than worship style, theology, the music program, or the quality (or lack thereof) of preaching—is what brings a lot of people here, some practically every time the doors are opened. Not only do friendships and fellowship constitute a big reason for our Wednesday on the Hill gatherings, but for Sunday morning worship, Sunday School, and Coffee Hour as well.
The ancient book of Proverbs has some things to say about friendship. And so does American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. And so, I thought it most appropriate on this Homecoming Sunday to spend just a few minutes thinking about and celebrating friendships. As Emerson observed, “Friendship should be surrounded with ceremonies.” And what better ceremony than Homecoming Sunday? So today’s sermon—rather than being a deep, theological treatise—will be words of affirmation and celebration.
The truth is, it often is easier and more natural to feel closer to friends in this United Church than it is to some family members. Some, in fact, may consider this United Church family their family, so close are the bonds of friendship that have been forged here over the years. Truly it is here in this United Church, as Proverbs says, “there are friends who are more loyal than family” (18:24 CEB). Or as the English Standard Version renders it, “there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”
Why do you think that is so? Why is it that there can be a friend who sticks closer than a brother or sister? Maybe one reason is we tend to forge friendships with those of like mind; with those of like outlook upon life; those of like philosophies about faith, religion, and/or politics. My outlook upon life, my worldview, my religious views, and so on are much closer to those of my friends here at the United Church than with most of my extended family members. In fact, it would be impossible for me to even have a conversation about faith, religion, or worldview with some of my extended family members. We wouldn’t even be speaking the same language. Some of you may be able to identify with that.
And friends are available in the hour of need. When we have a personal or family crisis, it is our friends here at the United Church who are there for us to support us and walk through the crisis with us. Whereas for many of us, family members live far away and often aren’t even aware of the severity of the situation we are going through.
A few years ago, when our family faced some real crises, it was some of you—members of this United Church—who were there at the hospitals and stepped forward in other ways to show your support. As already noted, for many, this United Church is a family away from family. For others, for all practical purposes, it may be their only family—period.
Another thing about friends is they are the ones who allow us to be ourselves. Or as Emerson put it, “A friend is one before whom I may think aloud.” A friend is one with whom we can pour out our souls, share our deepest fears or inner pains or greatest disappointments, or reveal our wildest dreams. We allow true friends to see that side of us that no one else may ever see.
True friends become our confidants, our advisers, our sounding board, or just a good listener as we pour our hearts out. Most of us probably could think back to times in our lives when talking with a friend proved to be a crucial help at a difficult time or turning point in our lives. I could name several friends, but I think of my good friend, Lawrence, who is a retired minister and pastoral counselor who lives in Smyrna, Tennessee. When I was struggling with the decision of changing denominational affiliation, and which denomination would be the best fit and best move for me, time after time Lawrence was there to listen and gently ask questions and try to assist me in discerning the path I should follow. That is the nature of true friends.
And friends are one primary measure of our personal wealth. I once titled a funeral homily “The Wealth She Had,” noting that the person whose life we were celebrating died a wealthy woman. And in saying that she was a wealthy woman, I was referring not to material wealth or monetary holdings. Because I had no idea how much financial wealth she left behind. There are many ways to measure a person’s wealth, you know. Remember that Jesus said, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12;15 ESV). I noted in that funeral homily that one way that her life was enriched was by her friends and neighbors. In another place Emerson said: “God evidently does not intend us all to be rich, or powerful, or great, but He does intend us all to be friends.”
A poet put the same sentiment in verse, when he said:
“Of all the many blessings that our gracious Father sends,
I thank Him most of all today for loyal hearted friends.”
The bottom line that really matters, when all is said and done, is the quality of friendships we have nurtured and the wealth of true friends we have in our lives.
And so, with all of that having been said, if a church is being what it ought to be, it will do whatever it can to foster friendships. It is a proven principle in church growth studies that many people will not stay involved in a church if they do not make and enjoy the company of friends in that congregation. And there is only a window of opportunity for those friends to be made.
As often happens when I am working on a sermon—coincidentally or providentially, you decide—an article comes my way that speaks to the topic I have already chosen. This past week it was an article in The Washington Post on how to attract young people to your church. I printed off the article to see what it had to say, but as I started reading it I soon realized that it also speaks to today’s sermon about church friends.
As the article points out, “it turns out cool [rock bands, flashy worship services, etc.] isn’t what young people want. . . 1,300 young churchgoers, ages 15 to 29, told us what they want: authenticity and connection.”1 When the authors of the article analyzed “the terms that young adults used to describe the churches or parishes that they chose, we [the article’s authors] noticed repeated words: welcoming, accepting, belonging, authentic, hospitable and caring.” And “warmth is more than superficial community. It’s ‘like family’” young people told them again and again.
The authors cite five ideas to help churches become warmer communities: meals, intergenerational worship, envisioning your worship space like a family room, peer friendships, and helping newcomers assimilate.
So the bottom line is, when it comes to church, and when it comes to life in general, nothing compares to, and nothing can take the place of, true, genuine friendships. Perhaps Emerson said it best for all of us: “I awoke this morning with devout thanksgiving for my friends.” Isn’t it so on this Homecoming Sunday? Amen.
1Kara Powell, Jake Mulder and Brad Griffin, “To attract young people to your church, you’ve got to be warm. Not cool.” The Washington Post, September 6, 2016.