May 14, 2023

"That’s What Friends Are For”

Rev. Scott Landis

John 14:15-21

Many years ago, my spiritual director gave me the gift of an icon. Being relatively new to spiritual direction and very new to the world of iconography I didn’t quite know what to do with it or what to make of it so I graciously accepted it and asked him for some guidance. A picture of the icon I received is on your bulletin cover. I invite you to refer to that now. [Allow time to refer] I’ll offer you the same guidance my spiritual director gave me. He said, “Simply look at the icon and silently reflect on it. What do you see? What are the first things you notice? What seems strange? What seems comforting? What message do you think it is trying to communicate to you? Does either person depicted remind you of Jesus? If so, which one? Who might the other person be?

If you have ever or never seen or used icons before in your spiritual practices, you should be relieved to know that there are no wrong answers to any of those questions. Icons are merely a tool to take you deeper in your understanding of who God is and how you relate to the Holy One given your current life circumstance. Icons are not intended to be “great art.” In fact, they are not art at all. The one who creates an icon is said to “write an icon” not “paint” an icon. In the writing, the creator prayerfully uses paint and some surface (in this case wood) to write a description that may draw us closer to God.

The reason I chose this one of Jesus and Abbot Menas is because (to me) it depicts the lesson we read just moments ago from John 14 – Jesus’ description of “The Friend” (in Greek the paraclete) the one who comes alongside and walks with us on our life journey.

In the Message translation of John 14 that we read today, Eugene Peterson intentionally uses the word “friend” to help us understand God’s relationship – through the gift of the Holy Spirit – to us, God’s beloved children. The paraclete – is the one who comes alongside of US – as if to put reassuring arms around us – and remind us we are not alone. [pause]

You may have read a recently published report by the United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy on the detrimental effects of loneliness. He states, “When I first took office as Surgeon General in 2014, I didn’t view loneliness as a public health concern. But that was before I embarked on a cross-country listening tour, where I heard stories from my fellow Americans that surprised me. 

People began to tell me they felt isolated, invisible, and insignificant. Even when they couldn’t put their finger on the word “lonely,” time and time again, people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds, from every corner of the country, would tell me, “I have to shoulder all of life’s burdens by myself,” or “if I disappeared tomorrow, no one would even notice.” 

It was a lightbulb moment for me: social disconnection was far more common than I had realized. 

He continues, “In the scientific literature, I found confirmation of what I was hearing. In recent years, about one-in-two adults in America reported experiencing loneliness.  And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic cut off so many of us from friends, loved ones, and support systems, exacerbating loneliness and isolation. 

Loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling—it harms both individual and societal health. It is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death. The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and even greater than that associated with obesity and physical inactivity.” [pause]

Loneliness – one in every 2 adults – as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. That was shocking to me and begged my own questions, “how have I avoided this dire feeling” – OR – “what did I do when I did … feel lonely?” 

We all feel lonely from time to time. You know, when everyone’s gone, there’s nothing to do, your left looking at the 4 walls or the television or a good book. Hmmmm – may sound like heaven but too much of all that alone time is proven to have some critical and detrimental effects. And unless you are blessed with the contemplative sprit of a monk, it is something that we ought to pay attention to as we ponder who or what is our paraclete or friend to us?

Take another look at that icon if you will. You may have noticed that the eyes of both figures are intentionally exaggerated. And if you look carefully enough, you may even see that they are – ever so slightly – looking toward one another while maintaining their focus straight ahead. Jesus’ arm is gently placed on the shoulder of Abbot Menas as if to comfort or reassure that he is not alone. You may sense that they are walking toward you as you view the icon. And they are apparently not talking. Just walking … together. 

Is this not what we need when we are lonely? Just a person to be with. A little reassurance of Presence. To walk on the beach with one who cares. Perhaps someone who will listen to us when we are in a dark place and need reassurance. [pause]

As Jesus reiterated in this portion of his farewell discourse, “I will not leave you orphaned. I am alive and you are about to come alive. At that moment you will know absolutely that I’m in my father, any you’re in me, and I’m in you.” 

Just as Jesus reminded his disciples, we are reminded as well. We are never alone. Through the mysterious gift of the Holy Spirit, God is always with us, and we are united through this grace gift of God’s. A gift that ought to be evident in the church. [pause]

 I realize that the church has taken some rather severe criticism in recent years – a lot of it is well-deserved. We have too often veered off course from much of what, I imagine, Jesus originally intended. But there is something that, I hope, the church will never lose – the offer of community to all who enter AND to all we invite to share in the love we say we have for one another. 

We say it in our mission statement each week – in English and ‘ōlelo Hawai’i: “we welcome all, love all, and accept all into our ‘ohana.” But that does not just happen. We must work at it. Heck, if 1-in-2 individuals are experiencing loneliness – a feeling that can kill them – it is up to the rest of us to ever so gently “walk alongside” as best we can. We don’t have to have the answers. We don’t have to even ask any questions.  All we need to do is be fully present — to walk with – to welcome – to offer our aloha – to ALL. [pause]

One of the sobering things we learned in doing our research to write our initial church profile in the search process for a new Kahu was feedback from some who visited Keawala’i and said it was not a friendly church. That was hard to hear, but I hasten to add we are not unique. I’ve received similar feedback in every one of my previous congregations. None of them were intentionally unfriendly. It’s just that when we get together, we get so excited to see those we know that we inadvertently overlook the one who may be here for the first time. If no one greets them – guess what, it doesn’t feel like a friendly place. And that is what they will remember. 

You don’t need to be the paraclete like Jesus in John 14 or the icon on your bulletin cover. Usually all it takes is to look another in the eye and to greet them. Let them know you are glad they are here. Offer your aloha. It may be a life-saving gesture. 

I think Jesus said it best in the opening words to today’s passage. “If you love me, show it by doing what I have told you.” How? By being a friend. Because that’s what friends are for. 

Dear friends in Christ, we live in a world that desperately needs someone to notice, someone to care, someone to live in ways that make a difference. By loving, by offering aloha pumehana, the aloha o ke Akua, we help to dissolve loneliness and create true ‘ohana. And that is precisely what it means to be the church and may make a world of difference to those clinging to hope, seeking healing. 

May it be so. 


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