1. How Friends Will be Known
In the thirteenth chapter of John’s Gospel, we witness an exceptionally tender and vulnerable moment in the Christian story. Jesus, cognizant that his death is at hand, that the Accuser is present, and that he would soon reunite with his Beloved, has washed the disciple’s feet.
He put an apron on. He poured water into a basin. With his fingers, he washed their dirty, blistered, stinky feet—and then he dried them with his apron.
In doing so, Jesus has shown us what it means to love and care for the world. Humble service and small but profoundly meaningful acts of good.
Jesus has also told the disciples that one of his own friends, who we later learn is Judas, will betray him. I often wonder if that was the cruelest wound Jesus bore in his passion: betrayal from an intimate friend.
It is also in the 13th chapter of John that the disciples receive a new commandment, a commandment which, if enacted by the disciples after Jesus is gone, will demonstrate Christ’s continued presence in the world. We, Jesus says, are, in a very mystical kind of way, to become His Presence.
“Let me give you a new command,” Jesus says. “Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my friends—when they see the love you have for each other.”
Our wise teacher and friend knew that love is a confusing and complex challenge. That loving requires guidance, direction, and practice. In John 15, Jesus gives clear instruction on how divine love will be possible through them.
5 “I am the vine; you are the branches,” Jesus says. “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
We, the friends of Jesus, are to be the fruit for the world—fruit that nourishes and leads to abundant, everlasting life. Bearing such fruit requires a real rootedness in Christ.
2. The Streets
I love city streets. Downtown streets in particular. Even more particularly: I love the downtown streets of Spokane.
The stores in downtown Spokane are pretty neat. In the mall, there is a relatively new store that sells products created by local artists. Forgive me for forgetting the name, but I can tell you it’s on the second floor and that I recently bought a sticker which reads, in rainbow colors, “Spokane doesn’t suck.”
There’s also a lot of fun coffee shops and restaurants in downtown Spokane. A new brewery just opened up on Main. You can go in there, bring a pet, play a game—and watch one on TV. Have ya’ll seen the new Pavilion at River Front Park? It is quite a site. I am excited to see a concert there at night under the lights.
The downtown library, which will sadly soon close for two years for renovations, is also a remarkable place. A literal treasure of knowledge available for free—unless, like me, you tend to acquire late fees. And what a remarkable view. Standing from the library you can look out at Spokane Falls and observe, as one of my neighbors put it, “the most beautiful thing in town.”
If you know me, you also know that I have a heart for people who are homeless. I love that people who are homeless are on our streets (though, of course, I don’t love why they are on our streets) and, while not turning them into objects of inadequate charity, that they offer us evidence of cultural woundedness and a chance to create social healing so that no one is left behind in the economy.
- A Scene
Last summer, I attended a funeral service for a man named Tom Meenock. Tom was a man beloved by many in the community of Spokane and someone who functioned like a father to Veronika. I am not exaggerating when I say that I have never attended such a beautiful and loving memorial. At a pizza joint on the edge of town, person after person spoke about how Tom touched their lives with care and joy. How he served. How he cared.
Near the end of the service, Harold, a man who I later learned is a Jehovah’s witness, stood up and said what we had all come to learn. The presence of this man, Tom, had been loving. He had acted like Jesus and thus had lived a life that really mattered.
A few months later, in the Fall, I noticed Harold on the streets of downtown Spokane. Curiously, he was playing drums. And he wasn’t the only one playing. There was a person who seemed homeless shaking a tambourine and an elderly gentleman with powdery white hair on guitar. After every few minutes of playing, Harold would stop and tell people why he was playing. He is doing it for the kid’s he’d say. To raise money for underserved kids in Spokane who need resources in order to have the tools they need to create a good future.
Since Harold is not here, I can be candid with you. His music is not terribly good. In one way, actually, it’s not very pleasant to listen to. It’s loud and crass. Safe to say I’d never purchase one of Harold’s CDs. But, on the other hand, I’ve hardly heard and seen such a beautiful thing in the past few years. Harold is not mopey when he plays. He is infected with joy and happiness and, as such, he infects others with joy and happiness. It is hard, I think, not to listen to Harold play and talk about raising money for the kids and not smile and be lifted up.
Last week, when we got our first snow, after Veronika and I drove her nephew home after we made gingerbread houses together, I saw Harold and Company playing on the streets. Strikingly, he doesn’t just do it when it’s easy. He does it even when it’s cold out.
3. What Ignites you?
Last week we had a great service. We did something experimental in that we tried to create a safe space for people to express anger. I referred to it as holy anger because, expressed well (that is, safely and constructively), it can be a force that helps us love others and build God’s kin-dom here earth. That is why I think creating spaces for holy anger to be expressed and embraced is an important form of spiritual friendship in our world today.
Near the end of the service, Tina made an astute observation. She also raised important question. Her observation was that lot of what was expressed was anger at God’s people not doing enough to care for the world and for those who are suffering. And her question was about how we might respond to that rather than just talk about it. She said we should consider what ignites us, lights us on fire—and go and do it.
5. On What we Do Well
At Spokane Friends, we do a lot of things well. For example, we spend time in quiet. We create space within ourselves, that is, to listen to God speak. This is a remarkable practice that I hope I never tire of. It was what most drew me to the Quaker tradition in the first place. When I spoke at a seminary class two weeks ago in San Diego, at the Franciscan School of Theology, my professor told me that she was moved to attend a Quaker service after I began the class in a moment of silence and said I’d do so because of what I have been learning from Quakers. She, a distinguished professor of spirituality and history, said that Quakers can help us learn a healing language in our loud world.
Another thing we do well is create social space for others. We do that by showing up at our meetinghouse. Last week, we created a beautiful room with Christmas warmth. It was so lovely to see people hanging lights and putting candles together. And when we come here, we welcome people. No matter who people are and where they are at on their journey, they are welcome here.
It is good that we go inward. That we create space in ourselves to hear God speak. It is also good that we show up here. That we come to church to create space for people to feel welcomed and fed. Here is an area in which I think we can grow. I think we need to work on stepping outside of ourselves and our church in order to learn how to befriend the world together—in order to learn how to be the presence of Christ to our own community of Spokane and work for justice.
6. Church Growth
Once in a while, we talk a lot about church growth. We realize that, in order to survive as a church, we need to grow. It’s an important conversation because we believe in the healing power of Quakerism, and we believe that people would be encouraged if they learned more about it and sometimes joined us here.
Let me make a bold proposition. Our greatest chance at survival and growth will be in how we befriend the public. Not in the church, but outside the church. At the dog park. In the grocery store. At the mall. Wherever we are in our ordinary, everyday lives. Our most compelling way to grow will be in the fragrance we leave over the world and whether we have successfully befriended a world that lives in deep need of spiritual friendship. Let me make an equally bold proposition. Nothing is worse than loving in order to grow a church. Our public love must be given without expectation of return.
- A Street Meeting
Since I began serving as part-time minister six months ago, I have raised the possibility of doing a Street Meeting. I am going to begin doing something like that in January. Once a week, for an hour. Join me if you’d like. It’s going to be nothing formal. There will be a moment of silence, then walking about with God in the cold of winter to explore how to befriend and love the world. Maybe pick up trash, maybe get lost in prayer in nature, maybe talk to a local business owner about her needs, maybe hand out warm gloves to people who are homeless, maybe strike a chat with someone who looks sad. The most important thing will be being present in public and prayerfully raising the age-old Quaker question of how to walk joyfully over the world and answer that of God in everyone.
Perhaps, in the next few months, if the meeting discerns it is a good idea, we can discuss having a more official presence of Friends on the streets of Spokane. A regular Street Meeting, if you will. Or perhaps we will discover another way in which we can, together, as Friends, befriend the city of Spokane. I believe God is calling us to take our spirituality public. To create justice which, as Cornel West says, is what love looks like in public. How we do that, however, is a question we need to bring to the presence of Christ.
What is stirring you to life—and ignites your passion for justice? How, in this Advent season, in which we wait for the presence of Christ that is already here, might God be calling our meeting to demonstrate Christ’s real presence in public?
This message was given to Spokane Friends Meeting on Sunday, December 8, 2019 by Paul Blankenship