Preached on February 5, 2017 (Epiphany 5A), at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Seattle.
Have you ever lost a friend?
I’ve lost a few.
I don’t mean the kind of loss we suffer when someone dies, though I know most of us (myself included) have lost plenty of friends that way. And I don’t mean the kind of loss that happens when people just drift apart, or go their separate ways for all the ordinary reasons. I mean this: the loss of a friendship … for cause. The loss that happens when it becomes clear to one of you that the friendship simply needs to end.
On a (mercifully) small number of occasions over the past twenty years, I have experienced this kind of friendship loss. It does not come easily to me. The details don’t matter: you don’t need to know which one of us ended the friendship, or why. There were just times when it needed to happen. We couldn’t be friends anymore. And each time, that has made me very sad.
I feel fortunate that as far as I know, my old addiction behaviors in years past didn’t unilaterally destroy any of my friendships. I try to lead a life that makes friendship with me possible, even desirable. (Though I sometimes greatly strain the patience of my friends.) My husband and I share a close friendship, my closest one actually, and our deep bond as friends remains the bedrock of our life together.
But I’ve lost a friend or three over the years, and I know I played my part in each of those stories.
Here’s one way to describe why this kind of loss occurs. It comes from the work of a couples therapist named David Schnarch. He’s talking about couples when he says this, but it applies to friendships, too. (And happy couples are happy primarily because they are good friends.) Schnarch says that there are really only two things your partner (or your friend) can do to you, two things that, if they do them, you can’t do anything to stop them: they can break up with you, or they can force you to choose between staying in relationship with them and keeping your integrity.
Let’s look at that again. Your partner or friend can break up with you, and you are powerless to stop them. But they can also force you to choose between staying in relationship with them and keeping your integrity: if they act badly enough, you can’t stay friends with them with your integrity intact.
If you keep the friendship, you’ll have to say or do things that you shouldn’t say or do; you’ll have to compromise your principles, or betray other people; or you’ll have to harm yourself, or your friend.
But if you keep your integrity, it will cost you the friendship: your friend won’t thank you for standing up for what’s good, or healthy, or just. Or you’ll slowly discover a growing chasm between the two of you, a chasm that grows whenever one of you tries to do the right thing.
If you’re like me, all of this will make you feel very sad.
Today we hear God, first in the prophet Isaiah, then in Matthew’s Gospel, and again in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, challenging us to be in right friendship with God, a friendship of integrity. And since a high-integrity friendship with God always means we have to have a high-integrity friendship with our neighbor, well, we’ve got some problems. We often make it difficult for others to be in right friendship with us. And God seeks nothing more than friendship, because all peace and justice flows from it: this is the whole story of salvation, the story of God relentlessly pursuing human beings. This is the whole story of creation, the story of God creating and re-creating the world, one reconciled relationship after another, toward the day when all people will be restored to unity with God.
But we often do low-integrity things in our complicated friendships with God and each other. We misunderstand the point of feasts and fasts, the purpose of temple practices, the meaning of liturgy and prayer. “Is not this the fast that I choose,” God in Isaiah rants, “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”
Jesus piles on. He tells us to be salt and light, and that we are to be righteous. He says that if we lose our saltiness, we are good for nothing and may as well be trampled underfoot. Saltiness: saltiness is a good metaphor for integrity.
Think of integrity as you would think of salt: salt tastes good, but it is powerful, even irritating. Salt is not sweet, but it brings out sweetness that is present alongside it. Salt deepens flavors. Salt enhances, salt preserves, salt saves: it’s the base of many medicines. Salt is hard to see, and inert until it is consumed, until it touches the tongue. Salt fills the sea that gave birth to all life. Salt melts ice, making my path clear and safe.
We are supposed to be salt of the earth, people of integrity, people who are in right relationship with God because we are in right relationship with our neighbor. Paul teaches that we have received the Spirit that is from God, and that we have the mind of Christ.
God is not kidding around.
And I don’t know about you, but I feel like I need all the friends I can get these days. There is so much chaos, so much discord, so much rancor. A friend of mine said the other day that the world is the same as it was last October, but we just know more about it now because of the revealing and disturbing events that followed the national elections. Racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, violence, environmental destruction, religious discrimination – all these social illnesses existed in abundance last fall, last year, last century, for time out of mind. Recent events have led to a global crisis, and a flourishing of anxiety and anger. And personal integrity seems to be scarce, as we all retreat into our bubbles and bar our doors (and our borders) to keep our neighbors out.
This is not what God wants. It is not what God so deeply desires for us and for all creation. God is always and forever attempting to repair God’s friendship with us, and for that to happen, God wants to create and re-create us as the salt of the earth. Good friends have grit: they are powerful (and sometimes irritating). They may not always be sweet, but they are stout of heart. Their saltiness is life-giving, life-restoring.
They work hard to be authentically good friends, even -- or even especially -- with people who are very different, or very difficult to like.
God in Jesus is a salty friend for us, and wants us to be that friend for one another, and for this whole frightened and angry world.
Hear this good news: when we gather here around this broken loaf of bread, when we gather as Christ’s Body, when we pray to become the salt and light that God so deeply desires us to be, then when we call, God will answer. When we cry for help, God will say, “Here I am.”
We have the Spirit of God and the mind of Christ. God is our friend, and the Trinity is our model of friendship.
And friendship may be the world’s only hope.
Biblical Text: Isaiah 58:1-9a, [9b-12] Psalm 112:1-9,  1 Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16] Matthew 5:13-20