Our worship video for this weekend contains a lot of “bonus” material- including Mother’s Day greetings from some of the folks I met with online this week.
Here is the script of the learning time:
That video gets a lot of views on Youtube. I’m sure some watch it ironically, and get a kick out of the late 70’s- early 80’s fashion. Some of us who actually dressed like that, back in the day, may not laugh so much. I can remember attending at least one wedding wearing an open-collared shirt and vest very much like the bass player. I probably didn’t leave quite as many buttons open as he did.
Sonseed was a pop group formed at the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Brooklyn, New York. They were not being ironic. They were clearly having fun, but were also sincere about their message.
One of the backup vocalists was a monk, Brother John Weiners of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, a religious order involved in mission work all over the world, often amongst the poorest of the poor.
The members of Sonseed sang to praise God, and encourage all who would listen, to think of Jesus as their friend. Their message was really not all that different from what we hear in the traditional hymn “What A Friend We Have in Jesus”.
Today’s Learning Time is part of an occasional series I am working on, to look at different ways people have thought about Jesus over the last two thousand years. How do we answer the question Jesus reportedly asked his friends, “Who do you say I am?”
Some of us might answer by saying we like to think of Jesus as our friend. Friend is one of those words, like love, whose meaning may be watered down, by over-use.
My online friend, Dictionary.com offers four definitions. Imagine you’ve just tossed a stone in a pond, and you are watching the ripples circle out, getting further from where the stone went in.
The closest rippling circle is like the most intimate definition:
A friend is a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard.
The next is a little further out from the centre, and slightly less personal:
A friend is a person who gives assistance; a patron; a supporter. The example given is “friends of the Boston Symphony”. In that case “friend” is a euphemism for those who make donations. I am a friend of a Jazz radio station in New Orleans, but they’d never help me move furniture, or come see me in the hospital.
The next ring out is even less intimate: “A friend is a person who is on good terms with another; a person who is not hostile.” Who goes there? Friend or foe? This is in the spirit of the old proverb that says the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
It has a distinct “them and us” flavour to it. It reinforces the idea the world is divided into those on my side, and those who are not.
The last definition from dictionary.com continues in that manner:
“A friend is a member of the same nation or political party.”
This last one manages at the same time to be both sectarian, and naïve. Anyone from my country, or political party is my friend. That still suggests that if you are not from my country, or share my politics, we can’t really be friends.
Jesus had a more profound meaning in mind, when he spoke to his inner circle about friendship.
“Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.”
The context for these words was the Last Supper. Jesus had already washed the feet of everyone there, and broke bread and poured wine for them. He told them they would need to wash each other’s feet, serve each other, and serve others.
Friendship as Jesus presented it was not about being first in line, or knowing the secret handshake to a private club. He’d had that conversation with the disciples when they argued about who amongst them was the greatest, or who would sit on his left and right sides, when he took his throne in heaven. Jesus dismissed the expectations his friends had of gaining privilege, or status, or authority- he was simply not about that.
I have good friends who are Quakers, a Christian denomination also called the Society of Friends of Jesus Christ. The Quaker movement was born in the 1600’s in England, and it took seriously the notion that we are all, equally, friends of Jesus, and by extension, of each other. Quakers rejected the idea that any person needed an intermediary- a professional pray-er between them and God, because the Spirit is present with, and within each of us.
To the early Quakers, the awareness that we are all connected to God by the Holy Spirit, and we are actually carriers, or vessels of the Spirit, also meant that no person should be considered any more important than any other person. We are all equal before God, and therefore, no more or less deserving of respect than any other person.
Back in the 1600’s the acceptable way to address a person considered to be of higher station was the formal “you”. “Thee and thou” were considered more familiar.
This spring, the American scholar of religion, Diana Butler Bass published an inspiring book called “Freeing Jesus”, in which she seeks to do exactly that- extricate Jesus from the cultural baggage with which he has become weighed down. She wrote:
“when a Quaker walked down a road in England, crossed paths with the local squire, and addressed his higher-ranking neighbor as “thou” instead of the more formal, expected “you,” it was akin to calling a member of the local nobility “mate” or “buddy,” a greeting to which the Quakers’ lordly superiors did not take kindly. Such practices of friendship—based on the belief that since we are friends of God, we are all friends of one another—were deemed radical, heretical, and a threat to the good order of society. Thus, the Quakers found themselves at odds with authorities, sentenced to prison, and exiled for the crime of being friends. As the movement spread, Friends advocated for all sorts of social justice causes, including abolition and women’s rights. It all seemed pretty obvious to them: friends do not let friends be held in slavery.” (Bass, Diana Butler. Freeing Jesus (p. 30). HarperOne. Kindle Edition)
It’s good, I think, to be reminded that our friendship with Jesus, while very personal, is in no way exclusive. We are not members of an elite, private club. We are friends of Jesus, who spent his time with the outcasts, those on the edge of polite society, or not even close to the edge. He ate and visited with people considered to be unclean, undesirable, unacceptable- and they loved him, and wanted to know more about the God he talked about, whose loving embrace was large enough to include everyone.
Who do you think of, when I mention are outcasts in our world today? Are some of them your neighbours, or family, or people you try to avoid? In those moments, do you ever wonder, what would Jesus do?
This weekend we celebrate Mother’s Day. As was said earlier in the service, Mother’s Day can evoke a mix of memories and emotions, depending on the nature, and health of our relationship with our mothers, and others who have been sources of nurturing love in our lives.
Jesus seems to have had a good relationship with his mother, and was inspired to compare his own love for the people of Jerusalem to that of a mother hen. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus laments the way Jerusalem treats those who would bring the Good News of God’s love, and says, “How often I’ve ached to embrace your children, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.”
I love the image of Jesus loving with the tenderness of a mother, and leaving no one out of that warm embrace. We are all, everyone of us, his friends. Amen