This is a sermon on Friendship I shared with First Friends meeting on 2023-04-23.
This text is based on the story known as the “Walk to Emmaus” in Luke 24:13-35.
Why Did We Choose Loneliness?
In a recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show titled “The ‘Quiet Catastrophe’ Brewing in Our Social Lives.” Klein and his guest Sheila Liming, author of “Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time,” discuss how lonely Americans are becoming.
Between 1990 and 2021, there was a decrease of 25 percentage points in the number of Americans who say they have five or more close friends. 25 percentage points. And that can just collapse into common wisdom. But…that’s a big drop. Young adults feel lonelier than the elderly. You should not look at data like that and not just say, well, that’s too bad. It should make us say, where did we go wrong?…
There is an interesting turn in the episode when they suggest that at least some of loneliness is structural, it is the result of a series of choices we’ve made, and the way we’ve built society.
[Lonlieness is] also an outcome. It is the result of a structure. It is imposed, in some ways, by culture. We make choices as a society about what we value. We chase our jobs. We live far from our families. We move away from our friends. We spread out into suburbs and into single-family homes set back behind fences and lawns. We sprawl out with automobiles. We design for atomization and isolation. And so, no wonder we get lonely.
Klein asks a powerful query saying: [all of this] raises [a] deeper question of, why did we choose that? And what would it then look like to choose otherwise? Not just as individuals but as a society, what would it mean to structure for community?
“What would it mean to structure for community?”
The pandemic, with the need to socially distance, its dramatic politicization, and the proliferation of Zoom and hybrid everything, has undoubtedly exacerbated a distance we already felt.
It has sped up a culture of isolation, which is impacting all of us:
I see this relational distance impacting our kids,
students and the colleagues I work with at the college,
And I, too, struggle with it.
Questions about our self-worth and value are, in part, questions that require friendship and community for proper reflection.
I want to explore this a little with you this morning:
What resources do we have to counter-act this growing loneliness and what would it mean to structure for community?
The Journey Within the Context of Friendship and Community
At the end of the Gospel of Luke, we read this strange story about two disciples walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus.
You won’t be surprised to learn there’s some disagreement among scholars on why they were going to Emmaus and the distance it took to get there. During this time, there were at least three places referred “Emmaus” they could have gone to. One possibility is that they were headed to one known for its hot springs.
I like the image: after all, they have been through, a couple of friends cross a long distance to a place of rest and recovery.
The rest of the story unfolds in some weird ways:
- Cleopos is identified, but the other disciple remains without an identity. (Like a Waldorf Doll, you can read yourself into the role of this story)
- Jesus approaches them in his resurrected body, but they are “kept from recognizing him.” We don’t know why. Is he walking a little ahead of them? Is he wearing a hoodie? Is he disguising his voice?
- There’s this strange dialogue around what’s just taken place. Jesus plays coy, pretending not to know, and then calls them foolish.
- They invite him to dinner, but he is the one to break the bread, offer a blessing, and pass it around. And it is this pattern that allows them to recognize him.
- And then, as soon as they recognize him, Jesus vanishes. He disappears.
What if we were to look at this strange post-resurrection text – with all the various directions we could take it – and asked it what it could tell us about friendship and community?
These disciples were individuals who had become friends and are together after a difficult experience.
Here they are walking a long distance together, discussing what they just witnessed: the trauma of Jesus’ death by the Roman empire, their friend and teacher – an innocent person murdered as though he was a threat to empire. They would have been sharing their pain. I bet there were tears. Anger. Maybe laughter as they shared stories of the things they learned and the weird things the other disciples said and did. I bet they struggled to know what to believe, wondering if they were delusional and what if what they saw and heard didn’t really happen.
There was the sharing of vulnerability with a trusted friend.
Everything that happened to them and to Jesus happened in the context of friendship and community.
It is easy to isolate Jesus as a kind of superhero, the wandering sage alone and unequaled. But that’s not actually what happened. Throughout his ministry, he continually organized communities of people wherever he went. He brought them together from various walks of life. They shared stories and meals together. They walked together. They cried and prayed together.
These post-resurrection stories give us a little glimpse into the aftermath of his death and its impact on his closest friends.
Friendship is an undervalued spiritual practice throughout the biblical tradition because it has sustained people in the small things and in the big things, in the face of huge distances and great horrors.
- The great trials of Abraham and Sarah
- Escaping Egypt with Moses, Miriam, Aaron
- The deep love of David and Jonathan
- Jesus grieving the loss of his friend Lazarus
- The close relationship between Jesus and Mary, “the Tower,” Magdala
- The missionary travels of Paul and Barnabas
There’s all these pairings that show the importance of friendship for sustenance and survival.
Our tradition shows us that in order to resist empire, in order to become the people we are called to be and participate in the building of the kingdom of God here on earth we need each other.
The risk of relationship is not just worth it; it is necessary.
In the Quaker tradition, there are all kinds of pairings, here are three that come to mind just involving George Fox:
George Fox and Elizabeth Hooten, the early General Baptist preacher who is credited with teaching and mentoring Fox.
George Fox and Margaret Fell together are the “mother and father” of the Quaker movement.
There’s the friendship of Fox and James Nayler. It is in the breaking of that friendship that completely transformed early Quakerism.
I’m reminded of a more recent Quaker: Bayard Rustin, who not only became a close ally to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he trained him in nonviolence.
A student, this semester in my Quakerism class, did a paper on the friendship of Howard Thurman and Louise Wilson – a NC Quaker
Quakers have a practice of “traveling in the ministry together,” where individuals travel together. This past week, I had the opportunity to travel to Philadelphia to preach at an American Friends Service gathering. I invited a couple of students to travel in the ministry with me.
That old Quaker practice is itself a practice, a “structure” of spiritual friendship with a specific goal or task of ministry in mind.
There are so many instances of these kinds of friendships that appear when you start to look for them.
When I think about this, I see that I, too have pairings of my own:
People who have invested in me. Been there for me. Helped me survive. Helped me change and grow. They helped me to recognize God, and because of them, my story is different.
What and who comes to mind when you look for these kinds of pairings, these friendships in your own life? Who is someone who has helped you see?
Recognizing God and Rebuilding Community
This message could easily become a list of how to make friends – or three things that will make for a great friendship – but I don’t want to patronize you.
What I do want to do is say clearly that in our tradition, “Friendship is a spiritual practice.”
It is a practice of sustenance and survival.
It is a practice of becoming.
And it helps us see.
Because it is a practice it means it cannot be left to chance or the winds of inevitability.
It must be nurtured, tended to, a held as an important part of our own spiritual development.
We need friendship if we are to grow and flourish.
In the walk to Emmaus, one of the things that happened between the two friends and Jesus is that while at first, they are unable to see fully, it was in the context of their friendship that “eventually their eyes were opened and the recognized him.”
This may be the most important part of what makes for the kind of friendship I am talking about here: the ability to share in vulnerability, to hold the soul of another carefully and with patience. And when we can, we speak truthfully and help one another see.
see what is true and what is in front of us.
even when we don’t always want to look.
I love what the poet David Whyte says about friendship:
In the course of the years, a close friendship will always reveal the shadow in the other as much as ourselves; to remain friends we must know the other and their difficulties, and even their sins, and encourage the best in them, not through critique but through addressing the better part of them, the leading creative edge of their incarnation, thus subtly discouraging what makes them smaller, less generous, less of themselves.David Whyte, Consolations
An Aside: At this point in the sermon, I cut this last part and skipped down to the last query. The service was running long, and I thought that maybe I was losing people. So this last part was not in the live version. However, a member of our meeting stood up and shared out of the silence the basic point you will read below. I take that to mean that this was supposed to be part of the overall message! I guess you could say that although I tried to make this part disappear, it showed up anyway!
What do you make of the Christ who vanishes in the context of friendship?
Here is one idea:
Jesus as a member of this community, traveled with these two a ways – joined in the storytelling, revisited what had happened, and shared some of their own tradition. He pointed and reoriented them where he could, and then, he participated in the shared practices of gathering, blessing, and eating together.
It is in all of this that they recognize Jesus. It is in the work, and the practice of these things, that makes the presence of Jesus identifiable to us throughout time.
In other words, now, in the disappearance of Jesus – friendship and community become a practice that makes and keeps Jesus recognizable in our midst.
In friendship as a spiritual practice, Christ is present. This is one of the ways we recognize him today.
The practice is the structure of community that Klein talks about.
I’ll close with a line from David Whyte:
Friendship transcends disappearance: an enduring friendship goes on after death, the exchange only transmuted by absence, the relationship advancing and maturing in a silent internal conversational way, even after one half of the bond has passed on.David Whyte, Consolations
What resources do we have to counter-act this growing loneliness, and what would it look like for us to structure for community?