“Subversive Friendships and Moving Beyond Timidity”
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On October 6th, 2013
II Timothy 1:1-7
Our scripture lesson for today is from the beginning of the Apostle Paul’s second letter to his young protégé Timothy. It’s a letter that is meant to provide encouragement to Timothy as he lives out his faith. Listen in these few verses for how the elder apostle affirms Timothy, telling him that his faith is sincere, that it is a legacy from his mother and his grandmother, and then asking him to rekindle the gift of God within him, so that he might live courageously.
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, To Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.
The other New Testament reading assigned for this day is from the Gospel of Luke, the 17th chapter. I’ll just read the 5th and 6th verse. “The disciples said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “be uprooted and planted in the sea” and it would obey you’.” Fred Craddock says of that passage that it is best translated, “If you had faith, and you do.” So that, as Craddock says, “Jesus’ response is not a reprimand for an absence of faith but an affirmation of the faith that they have and an invitation to live out the full possibilities of that faith. Even the small faith they already have cancels out words such as impossible (a tree being uprooted) and absurd (planting a tree in the sea) and it puts them in touch with the power of God. Faith lays hold of a God with whom nothing is impossible, and it is God who empowers the life of discipleship”.[i]
“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed.” Let us pray. (Prayer before sermon).
The Calgary Sun had an interview this week[ii] with a Canadian man named Mike Spencer Bown. Bown, a 44 year old Calgary native, just returned home after 23 straight years spent traveling to and staying in every country on the face of the Earth.
In his more than two decades of journeying, Bown met with witch doctors in Mali, lived in a leaf hut with a Pygmy tribe, outback bushwalked into the red center of Australia, explored ruins in India, Ghana, Cambodia, Peru, and Jordan, faced down a silverback gorilla in Rwanda, snorkeled with a million jellyfish of the coast of Indonesia, climbed high peaks on more than one continent, and found and ate the perfect mango in Sri Lanka…[iii]
Some of the countries he visited are and were quite dangerous. He flew into Mogadishu, Somalia back in 2010— Bown told officials who interrogated him that he was there as a tourist. They didn’t believe him. But they soon found out he was serious. According to Omar Mohammed, an immigration official there, “That makes him the first person to come to Mogadishu only for tourism.”
When asked this past week about what he had learned on his globetrotting adventures, Bown said, “People are basically good and worth knowing whatever the race or culture they hail from.” [iv]
Today is World Communion Sunday, a day when we celebrate the various races and cultures and languages of the world. It’s one of my favorite Sundays of the year.
Up on this chancel, we have artifacts from all seven continents. Woven baskets, a drum and a Maasai warrior club from Africa, Japanese bowls and other art from Asia, weavings from South and Central America, woodwork and pottery from Europe and North America, and other items from Australia and the Pacific islands. And this year, we even have a meteorite that Katherine Wendt’s father brought back from a trip to Antarctica.
The music for today represents all corners of the globe. A hymn of praise from Brazil, a doxology from Serbia, a Sanctus from Argentina, pieces from Poland and China and Jamaica and Tongo and Cameroon and Norway.
There is something about a day like today which reminds us of our fundamental connection with all humankind. We share the creative instinct. We belong to one human race. And though we worship today in a Christian church, and in some ways focus on our connection to others who are intentional about practicing our faith, we can, can’t we, acknowledge that our connection goes beyond religion? After all, the Gospel of John says, “God so loved the world,” not just a portion of the world. We are all of us caught up together in a web of humanity, whatever faith we happen to hold, or whether we hold a faith at all.
But this World Communion Sunday is also a day, during a week, when we mourn that this web of humanity tears and causes tears. It’s a day, and a week, when we acknowledge that all is not well. Despite our testifying to how God brings us together, and that we are connected to the whole human race, there is great division afoot in the world.
We see it near at hand in the halls of Congress, with the government shut-down. And in arguments over immigration policy, and gun control, and whether and to what extent tax dollars should be used for assistance programs.
Add to that tension the mall killings in Kenya that happened just a few short weeks ago, the religious violence that claimed the lives of Christians at worship in Pakistan and the truth that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on its own people, and, well…
All of that is enough to cast a bit of gloom and doubt over our proceedings today. We can decorate the sanctuary all we want, and sing hymns of various countries all we want, and speak of the universal brother and sister hood of humanity, but there is evidence of strife and discord and misunderstanding all around us. “Us/them” mentality has taken root in us.
To think that we could move beyond it would be like believing that you could say to a tree, be uprooted and planted in the sea and it would obey you.
So what can be done? Well Brian McLaren, who will be here as our Theologian in Residence in two weeks, says that in the face of that us-them mentality we have a missional challenge to practice what he calls “subversive friendships”.
By that he means friendships that cross boundaries that divide us; friendships that conspire to overthrow hostility, opposition, exclusion, fear and prejudice. Friendships that don’t just dream of a better world, but rehearse for it, practice for it in the give-and-take that goes along with relationships, living and talking and eating together.[v]
That is so easy to talk about, so much harder and scarier to live. Because it requires vulnerability—a willingness to take a risk. Wouldn’t it be easier just to hang out with people that think like me, talk like me, worship like me, believe like me?
So in fear we are tempted to draw the circle tighter and tighter rather than wider. The guy who puts up the Facebook posts that we don’t like, (and we all have at least one of those friends) well, just hit ‘defriend.’ Only watch and read the news from one perspective. The person who comes looking for help, don’t get too close. The ones who appear different, keep your distance.
You can find justification for that way of thinking in the Bible, by the way. Back after the people of Israel returned from Exile, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were written. They encouraged the people to build the walls higher, to identify themselves over against others, to avoid intermarriage, to keep pure at all costs.
Over against that temptation to live out of fear, and to demonize those with whom we disagree we have the Apostle Paul’s words and Jesus’ example.
Paul, saying, “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”
Jesus, literally hanging in there with people who hated his message of love and welcome for all, regardless of the trappings of religion, especially those who were most different. Hanging in there for and with people who hated his message enough to want to see him dead.
There was no timidity in Jesus. He reached out to the Samaritan woman. He ate with the self-righteous Pharisee. He touched the lepers, and let foreigners, like the Syro-Phoenician woman teach him about his own message.[vi] He engaged the powers that be, and he did it all with a spirit of power, and love and self discipline.
So much of what gets in our way is fear, right?
But that fear of the other did not come from God. It is the Spirit of the God we know in Jesus that causes us to transcend barriers, to develop genuine friendships, to extend real hospitality to people of other races, cultures, creeds and viewpoints. Look at the steps we take in that direction as seeds of a world made new.
A few weeks ago I was talking to my mom on the phone and she shared with me that she’d been to the urgent care the day before. Because her breathing is compromised, she has to be very careful about respiratory problems.
She said it was about eight in the morning when she went in, and there was only one other patient in the waiting room. He was wearing a leather vest, with tattoos up and down each arm and he looked kind of scary. But something told my mom to overcome her instinct to sit as far away from him as possible. She plopped down in a chair just a seat or two away. Making conversation, she asked him, “Tell me about your tattoos.” (By the way, I think this is probably not a bad way to start conversations with heavily tattooed people!)
He pointed to one arm with ivy vines going down the inside and the outside of it. There were dates and two first names on each vine. He put his finger on the outside vine and said, “This here is for one set of my grandparents.” The red horse at the top, there, that’s a Dala horse, a symbol of Sweden, which is where they were from. (Here I pointed to a wooden carved Dala horse on the parson’s table) These are their names, and this is the date of their wedding anniversary.
He turned his arm to the inside and pointing to a drawing of the state of Texas at the top of ivy vine on the inside he said, “This here is for my other grandparents. They were from Texas. These are their names and this is their anniversary.”
With tears welling up behind her eyes, my mom asked, “Are they still living?” “No Ma’am, they’re not,” he replied. She told him, “It seems like they were very important to you.” “Yes, Ma’am, they were and they are.”
My Mom told me she felt like getting up and giving the guy a hug, but it was the urgent care, and she was afraid that he might be infectious! If he’d been bleeding, she might have done it, she told me!
As she shared that story with me, I thought, “That’ll preach. That’s an infectious story!” It’s a story about moving beyond timidity, moving beyond difference to connection around something we have in common, despite our apparent differences.
It seems to me that there are at least four different areas in which we could stand to move beyond timidity into connection, four different fronts on which we might practice subversive friendship.
The first is religious. Find someone who practices a different faith than you, and really get to know them. Not for the purpose of trying to convert them, just in the interest of developing a friendship where you learn from them.
Lock Swift’s friend, Dan McInerny, is a Presbyterian pastor in the Chicago-area. Dan has been doing some great work in the area of interfaith understanding. He’s put together groups of people from the Christian community and the Islamic community for intentional fellowship. It’s not just a one-off thing, however. To be in those groups you have to agree to meet together once a month for a meal and conversation so that you really get to know each other. It’s about going deep.
The second area is racial-ethnic. We’ve done some work as a congregation in that arena through our involvement in Anacostia, our partnership with Garden Memorial, and our work with the Dreamer program. But there is always more work to do. Really get to know somebody of another race. Listen to them. Begin to try to understand what it’s like to live in their shoes.
A third area is socio-economic. There is a lot of wealth here in McLean and poverty is not as readily apparent as it is in other communities nearby. But you don’t have to go far to encounter those who have significantly less in terms of material resources than you do. Take the time to come to know what their life is like. Move beyond timidity into friendship.
The last area is political. I guarantee it won’t be hard to find someone who has a different political point of view than you do. Spend time with them and hear their perspectives without being dismissive. Look for what you have in common and focus on that.
After I shared this message in the service this morning, a number of people said to me, “Yes, but how do we do that? How can we practically develop these kinds of friendships?” And I told them, “Well, that’s a great question for Brian McLaren when he comes.” But the other thing I’m thinking is that to do so requires moving beyond fear and just making the effort.
We just have to move beyond fear. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
[i] Fred B. Craddock, Luke (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching) (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), p. 200.
[ii] My attention was drawn to Mike Spencer Bown through this article on the Hufffington Post “World’s Most Traveled Man, Mike Spencer Bown, Heads Home after 23-Year Journey.” October 4th, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/04/worlds-most-traveled-man-mike-spencer-bown_n_4044490.html, which then led me to the original article in the Calgary Sun: Michael Platt, “Calgary Man Becomes World’s Most Traveled Man after finishing 23 Year Odyssey” Calgary Sun, October 2nd, 2013. Link here: http://www.calgarysun.com/2013/10/02/calgary-man-mike-spencer-bown-becomes-worlds-most-travelled-after-finishing-23-year-odyssey and I also found his top 80 travel experiences at the weblog Backpackology, which you can find here: http://backpackology.org/2012/07/18/guest-blogger-michael-spencer-bown-the-top-80-highlights-of-the-world/
[iii] Combining thoughts from the Huffington Post article and the Backpology guest post.
[iv]From the aforementioned Calgary Sun interview.
[v] Brian D. McLaren, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World, (New York: Jericho Books, 2012). See in particular, chapter 24 “How Subversive Friendship Can Change the World”, pp. 223-231.
[vi] Mark 7:25-30, Matthew 15:21-28