Vital Congregations Initiative: Caring Relationships
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
September 18, 2022
We are created to live in healthy relationships, with God and with others. From our very first days after we are born until the day we die, we are not meant to be alone. We need other human beings to be whole and well.
Nathan Frambach, a good Lutheran, in his book Emerging Ministry: Being Church Today, writes, “The human reality is that people do have a deep desire and need for a place where one truly belongs— a safe place where one can experience genuine care and acceptance.”
This need for a place of genuine care and acceptance, a place where one truly belongs, has not changed since the first century, when Jesus nurtured a place of belonging for his disciples, and for many others who walked the dusty roads with them.
This need for a community of caring relationships, of holy friendships, has not changed since Paul began that congregation in Ephesus, a congregation to whom he wrote them letters, encouraging them to live together in faith and Christ-like love.
Before reading our text for today, first hear from Ephesians 6:21-22, at the end of Paul’s letter.
So that you also may know how I am and what I am doing, Tychicus will tell you everything. He is a dear brother and a faithful minister in the Lord. I am sending him to you for this very purpose, to let you know how we are, and to encourage your hearts.
Hear the Word of God from Ephesians 4:1-3,15-16,25-32.
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…
But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love… So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.
Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Gregory Jones and Kevin Armstrong, two impressive pastors who became higher education administrators, collaborated on a book about shaping faithful Christian ministry. The book, titled Resurrecting Excellence, focuses upon a “still more excellent way” of living as disciples of Jesus Christ. This book about seeking excellence devotes significant emphasis on nurturing “holy friendships”.
In holy friendships in the life of the church, we love and support, we give and receive, we inspire and build trust, and we enjoy appropriate levels of intimacy. In holy friendships, we discover accountability and support and the encouragement we need “to live more fully into our baptism.”
Holy friendships, they assert, help avoid the pitfalls of loneliness and isolation. Far too many people in this modern age are lonely and isolated. ffective congregations will nurture holy friendships, friendships in which members are growing together on the common foundation of faith in God.
As we have always known, everyone needs friends. And everyone needs support and encouragement in order to “live into their baptismal vows.” Holy friendships enable us to discern together a still more excellent way of living before God. Jones and Armstrong claim that one of the central purposes of the church from the very earliest days was to encourage healthy relationships with all and to nurture holy friendships with some.
Healthy relationships and holy friendships built upon a common foundation of friendship with God combine to make strong and healthy people, as well as strong and resilient congregations.
The Mark of Vital Congregations that we explore today is Caring Relationships. A vital congregation will be intentional about building caring relationships within the church and within the community. Congregations have always been places where holy friendships are nurtured, where people discover genuine acceptance, where people find a place where they truly belong. Belonging does not just happen; belonging takes some measure of intentionality and time and effort.
Nurturing caring relationships requires some measure of commitment to relationships as a goal. When Jesus began his ministry, he did not build a corporate style institution. Jesus did not create an organization chart or build a building to house his ministry. Jesus gathered people around him. He told them good news, and he invited them to follow him. He spent three years living among a relatively small group, walking the dusty roads together, fishing in their boats, cooking with them on the lakeshore, visiting with their families, often sleeping outdoors among the olive trees, and on the Sabbath, worshiping together in the synagogue.
Holy friendships like the ones Jesus nurtured take time; they require a sacrifice of effort. Reading between the lines in the gospels, we can imagine the strong bond of holy friendship between Jesus and Peter. From the first day Jesus stepped into Peter’s boat and Peter confessed that he was a sinful man, to that time when Peter blurted out: “You are the Messiah”, to that last encounter on the beach, when Jesus asked Peter three times, Peter, do you love me?”, no doubt Jesus and the Rock, as Jesus called him, had a special, meaningful, holy friendship.
Jesus and Mary Magdalene nurtured a holy friendship. From the first day that they looked into each other’s eyes, Mary Magdalene experienced amazing grace and pure, divine love, and Jesus saw someone who was pure in heart.
Paul and Timothy nurtured a special, holy friendship. Paul was Timothy’s mentor and traveling companion. They endured many dangerous trials and tribulations together; they enjoyed many successes in nurturing new congregations.
In the Old Testament, we recall the special bond between David and Jonathan. They shared a bond known by military men who fight alongside of one another. They probably saved one another’s life on more than one occasion. Their friendship of mutual respect and understanding was deep and real.
During the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, Moses, Miriam, and Aaron lived not only as siblings; they were also companions in faith and leadership. Though their bonds were strained from time to time from the stress of their circumstances, their holy friendship endured unto the end.
This congregation has witnessed many a significant relationship in the context of faith. Members of the Crusaders class enjoy friendships in faith that have lasted over 60 years. Over those decades, they gathered for worship and Sunday School regularly, they raised their children together, they shared holiday festivities, they upheld one another in good times and bad, through their greatest joys and their deepest sorrows.
A number of those who have traveled to Honduras or Nicaragua together over the years have nurtured holy friendships, friendships that go beyond acquaintance to deeper sharing in the context of faith and service. On Monday nights and Wednesday mornings, the participants in Vernon’s Faith in Real Life groups meet together for an hour and a half, bringing our worship text for the week in conversation with their challenges and questions of daily life.
The youth of the church return from the Montreat Youth Conference with new and meaningful friends, holy friends that have shared more than simple acquaintances. Ask any of these participants what these experiences have meant to their relationship with God and their relationships with others.
The best of friendships are those that have multiple layers. That is, meaningful relationships are those that form when there is a multiplicity of interactions. Deep friendships are built over time when individuals share a variety of experiences in a variety of contexts.
I am certainly biased, but at least on a personal level, I have found that friendships which include the context of faith tend to go deeper. Conversations tend to move more readily to more meaningful or personal topics. Some of my holy friends over the years have been fellow pastors, colleagues with whom I have shared the joys and challenges of ministry, as well as educational travel or annual reunions. Other holy friends have been elders of the church who share not only leadership roles, but shared meals and shared hopes and shared commitments for the sake of the body of Christ.
With other holy friends, I have shared early morning runs or late night soccer games, or weekend adventures. The word “holy” means different, set apart, sacred. A holy friend is one that you could call this afternoon, and even though you haven’t seen them in months or even years, when you talk to them, it will feel as if you just saw them yesterday. A holy friend is someone who sees you as you are, with all your faults, and loves you still. A holy friend is someone who appreciates your good points, probably more than you deserve. A holy friend is someone with whom you have a connection, a connection deeper than a surface relationship.
These intimate connections may be difficult to put into words, but you know it when you experience it. In holy friendships, we will struggle together with the deep questions, and turn together to the scriptures to seek meaning for our lives. In holy friendships, we will support one another when someone is grieving or ill. We will hold each other accountable when one treads a path that is not good.
Dear Adelaide Owens, who is hospice care today, nurtured along with her husband, Bill, a holy friendship with Phil and Betty Noble. The two couples shared life and laughter together, including several RV trips across the country.
Shorty Orth, whose memorial service is this afternoon, nurtured holy friendships with others, often in the context of attending sports games or running. One of his running partners wrote about how meaningful the Saturday morning running group had been to him during the challenging times of his life.
Looking forward to gathering with Shorty and others at 7am on Saturday morning for a 7 mile run would help this doctor get through his week, because he knew that he had others who cared about him and who would engage in conversations with him about things that matter.
Paul Sherer, whose memorial service will be Saturday, shared a holy friendship with his wife, Beryl. From their first meeting, their relationship was grounded in the faith that they shared.
As human beings we are created to live in healthy relationship with God and with others. We could argue that the most important thing to do in life is to nurture caring relationships. We could argue that the most important thing to be in life is to be a good friend. Everything else in our lives might fall apart when troubled times come, but holy friendships, caring relationships built upon the foundation of God, will stand and will give us solid ground to stand upon as we hope together for a peaceful future.
Living in healthy relationships enables human beings to be resilient in work and family life. Healthy relationships nurture trust and mutual understanding. Without mutual trust and mutual understanding, any person or family or church or institution or corporation will ultimately falter.
Author James Hunter is a consultant to Fortune 500 executives. Hunter teaches CEOs that the simple truth is that leadership and life are about people and relationships. Max Dupree was the chairman of an extremely successful furniture company. His belief in the intrinsic value of all persons, based upon the belief that all persons are created in the image of God, led him to build healthy relationships within his company.
His goal was to develop “high quality relationships”, as he called them, at all levels within the business. What he discovered was that, while it took significant time and effort to develop high quality relationships among the people of the various departments of his organization, over time the productivity and employee satisfaction went through the roof. His company became rated one of the best to work for, as well as one of the most financially successful in his industry.
We all want a place to belong and to spend time with people who care about us. For many in the congregation, this is the primary reason we gather together – to welcome and care for each other. In caring relationships, we see people the way Christ sees them; we do not make surface judgments or hold to preconceived perceptions. In caring relationships, we walk with others, responding to their needs, desiring their well-being.
We are there for each other in tragedy, and we rejoice in each other’s triumphs. In caring relationships, people feel allowed to be real in sharing their stories, without hiding or holding back, and feel loved, even in their imperfect parts. In caring relationships in the church, conflicts are confronted, crucial conversations of forgiveness are held, and reconciliation is sought, and people of God are transformed by experiencing Christ-like love from one another.
One of the sweetest of holy friendships is being nurtured each Sunday and Wednesday in our children’s ministry. Emily and Drew Wilmesherr’s daughter Evie and Tully and Natalia’s daughter, Elinor, both three years old, are nurturing a holy friendship in faith. And this friendship has already survived a collision on a playground slide at the church picnic that ended with a broken arm.
Often, our holy friendships are people of a similar age, but age is no barrier in a holy friendship. Some of the most meaningful or sweetest friendships span the generations. Some of my dearest friends and confidants have been 20 or 30 years or more older than me. Holy friendships transcend disagreements and differing backgrounds. Holy friendships transcend race and gender.
Holy friendships transcend politics and religion.
I met a Catholic priest once whose best friend in life was a Jewish rabbi.
From our very first days after we are born until the day we die, we are not meant to be alone. We need other human beings to be whole and well.
Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Life abundant means life in God’s kingdom where wholeness and wellness reign, where one experiences some measure of shalom, peace, with God and others. One of the central purposes of the church from the very beginning was to encourage caring relationships. May we continue to nurture here, in this congregation, caring relationships and holy friendships. May this congregation always be a place where true belonging is known, and where all those who enter may experience genuine care, acceptance and love.
To God be the glory as we do so. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church