Easter 6 Year B: “Friends”
May 6, 2018
One year ago, our son, Ryan, was in a horrible accident. He was hit by a car crossing the main street in Scotch Plains, and an ambulance took him to the closest trauma center in Newark. A policeman came to our house to deliver the news – every parents’ nightmare – so off we drove to Newark, not knowing whether he was alive or dead. When we arrived, we found Ryan – thankfully alive but - in very bad condition; lacerations from head to toe, a broken pelvis, and the CT scan showed a bleed in his brain. Mercifully, Ryan has no memory of this, but as the brain began its work of processing the injury, things went from bad to worse. He thrashed and fought, and was in real danger of possibly hurting himself further. So, for this time, the nurse’s only recourse was to restrain him to the bed, and forcefully demand that he stay in place to heal.
I was beside myself; it was the most desperate I have ever been. So in my despair, I left the room, collapsed onto the hallway floor and just sobbed. Loudly. I shared this desperation with my friend, Anne, who lives in Dallas.
The next day, she dropped everything, got on a plane, and came to be by my side. She cleaned up the messes our 3 month old puppy made, and bought Chelsea her very first nametag and collar. She did laundry. Grocery shopped, cooked meals – and if you ask her, she says she doesn’t cook. She sat at the hospital with me. She sat at home with Bunker. She took care of our other boys. No job was too big or too small, too dirty or too demeaning. She put her life on hold, staying for 2 entire weeks, until we managed to find some footing and stability. It was the most selfless, sacrificial gift a friend has ever given me.
Then, two months ago, as you know, I needed surgery to place my feeding tube. Bunker had to be out of town, so a friend took me to the hospital. My plan was that she would drive me there, make sure I was checked in and prepped for surgery, but then she could go on with her life – it was her birthday, after all. But she stayed hour after hour, pacing the floor, (a former nurse herself), pushing for updates as my surgery had obviously encountered complications. She kept Bunker in the loop as he flew home from California, and ended up staying all day. Worrying. Praying. Being present. Rubbing my feet in recovery. And, on a day when the focus should have been the celebration of her birthday, she selflessly focused completely on me.
Then, this weekend, knowing how dramatically my life has changed over the last year due to my health, my entire group of high school friends – all 8 of them - who now live in California, Virginia, Tennessee and Texas – dropped everything in their incredibly full and busy lives to fly here – to New Jersey - to be with me. One left relatives and house guests at her home. Another left a critical season in her job. They put children’s birthday celebrations on hold. Family responsibilities. Graduation preparations. You name it. Sacrifice upon sacrifice, just so we could be together. This weekend has been all about lifelong, selfless sacrificial love.
All this, in one year. I can say that for the first time in my 51 years, I have been present to – and profoundly experienced – Jesus’ words for his disciples, “I call you friends.” And the character of this friendship – which as I’ve come to understand is a key, concrete, theological category throughout John’s gospel – is revealed, no less, on the eve of his crucifixion, as Jesus gathered with them one last time before his betrayal and death. Jesus was preparing his disciples for his departure, but – this is important - rather than readying them for his absence, he is assuring them of his presence. They are friends. That’s what friends do. There is nothing syrupy or sentimental, or shallow – as in Facebook “friends” – about it. But it is sacrificial friendship which reveals that there is no length to which God will not go to love us, to embrace us, to hold us. And it’s THIS love that forms the basis of Christian community. Friends step into our pain and suffering. Friends are present to despair. Friends love selflessly throughout times of weakness. And that is the gift Jesus gives his disciples – the gift he gives to us. It is the central piece of Jesus’ living presence in our world.
So, what is the greatest gift a friend has ever given you? I asked this question to a bible study group a few weeks ago. They confirmed today’s Gospel truth. A friend reminds us that we are loved and that we are worthy of that love. A friend is present in the seismic shift after a family death. A friend offers respite and presence as we walk through pain and loss. So yes, this is friendship – but even more fully described – this is love; a choice to go beyond yourself for the sake of someone else. It is sacramental. It is mutual. And it is for all of us.
Growing up in the South, it was common to hear people refer to Jesus as “my friend.” (or “co-pilot!”) We’d sing songs like “What a friend we have in Jesus,” and “. . . I walk with him, and talk with him . . . .” But I really couldn’t relate to that – until this year. Because I now know Jesus as a friend through my friends.
As friends to one another and friends of God in Christ, we are the sacrament. We are the outward and visible sign and symbol of God’s love; a sign and symbol of love and life in this world, a world that so desperately needs it. For “I have called you friends.” Amen.