Image of God II: The Sacrament
But Ruth said, ‘Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well, if even death parts me from you!’ —Ruth 1:17
There are probably a thousand stories about friendship in the Bible, if you look carefully: a thousand stories of sacrifice; a thousand stories of two people walking together down the same road; a thousand stories of one helping the other; a thousand stories of meeting God in one another. These are two of my favorite stories about friendship, the first more ancient than the last.
The story of Ruth is the story of a family knit together with friendship. The story of Ruth goes like this: A family lived in a land that had a famine. Soon, there was hardly enough food for anyone to eat, and so they set out to a new place, where they would be strangers. In this new place, their sons grew up and got married. They married women who otherwise would have been strangers to them, but the family welcomed them with open arms, and vice versa. A cross-cultural family formed.
But then, disaster struck the family once more. The two sons and the father both died. Only the mother (Naomi) and her two daughters-in-law remained together. In the ancient patriarchal culture, these women needed to each seek the protection of their extended families to survive.
And so, Naomi told the two daughters-in-law to go home to their own people. The first said, yes, I will go back to my mother's house. But the second, Ruth, refused. When Naomi tells Ruth to go home to her people and her God (and Ruth’s reply is our scripture reading today):
Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.
The second scripture reading is from the Gospel of Mark. It is about a group of friends who found their way to Jesus:
A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them.
Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, “Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
I am the oldest child, so, when I was born, I was automatically a daughter, but not yet a sister. It wasn’t until three years later, when my brother Ben was born, that I became a sister. But, it only took about one month, 26 days to be exact, for me to become Hilary’s friend. See, our parents were best friends, so, of course, we were best friends. We were born in the same hospital, just 26 days apart.
For most of my childhood, up until age seven, so much of my life was defined by my friendship with Hilary. We walked to school together. We went on vacations together. We went to church together. Her phone number was the first one I memorized, after my own. My childhood is textured, literally, by my friendship with Hilary, the couch in her living room, the bedspread in her bedroom, the beanbag chair in her basement, the pots and pans in her kitchen. How there was ever that much time for us to spend together, I don’t know. But we did. She was, and always will be, my first definition of a best friend: the person who you equally do nothing with, and do the most important things with. But there’s more.
Friendships are miracles. Gifts from God. I see that now. Nobody ever talks about the miracle of Jesus having 12 close friends in his thirties. I read that this week, that nobody ever talks about the miracle of Jesus having 12 close friends. Something about that struck a chord. Do you have the miracle of 12 close friends? That you see everyday? Or every week? Or even every year?
Not that Jesus’ friends were perfect. When Jesus needed them to keep watch on the night he was in trouble, and all he wanted to do was find a quiet place to pray, Jesus’ friends fell asleep. Judas betrayed him. Peter denied knowing him. Thomas doubted him. Friendship is complicated. Maybe you’ve been betrayed, denied, doubted by a friend. Sometimes friendships blow up in a mess of drama and gossip. Sometimes friends backstab and fight. Sometimes friendships cause the deepest wounds, the most well worn scars. Friendship, when your whole heart is in it, true friendship, can hurt.
Friendship can impact your whole life: body, mind, and spirit. A friend can be a source of happiness in your life. A friend can know you so completely that stress falls from your shoulders when you are with them. A friend can help you cope with traumas like a big break up or a serious illness or the death of someone near to you. A friend can help you avoid unhealthy habits like drinking too much or smoking. A friend can change your life. A friend can save your life.
In this world of #metoo and #blacklivesmatter, we need friends now more than ever. A friend means someone who first hears your story, and believes you, whether it is a story of sexual harassment or racism, we live in a culture where those stories are dismissed or shrugged off.
- The sense that the security guard is following you around the department store because you’re the only person of color for miles around, the awkward comment at a dinner party that the person didn’t mean to come off as racist, but did, or the deeper, more systemic, quiet-but-glaringly-obvious impact of being a person of color in America that shows up in every part of everyday life: these are the things you tell your friend first, and they help you to find the courage to tell your story, to be who God has made you to be.
- Or, on the flip side, the time that you said something that you didn’t mean to sound as racist, but your friends all tell you that it was, or the ways that you want to be part of the solution, part of the end of racism in America, but as a white person, you know that will be hard and will take introspection and humility and hard work. These are the kinds of things you talk with a friend about, and they help you find the courage to tell your story, to be who God has made you to be.
- The dirty jokes, the meandering hand, the awkward hug that lasted for too long, the something-worse that happened behind closed doors: those are the things you tell your friend first, and they help you find the courage to tell your story, to be who God has made you to be.
Friends help us to figure out who we are. Friends help us to be who the world needs us to be. Friends tell us when we’re messing up, and when we need to stand up for ourselves. Friends tell us the truth in ways that we can hear, and if it is a painful truth, they tell it with love.
Everyone needs a friend, even Maya. For a parent, it’s easy to want to fix any problem in your child’s life. With every setback or stumbling block, it’s tempting to turn to an expert, a professional, someone polished and credentialed, to help diagnose, detect, and identify the disease or disorder, and fix it, make it right, find the right solution, and get better.
But with Maya, things were different. From the beginning, it was clear she was not like the other kids. Even in the earliest photos of Maya with other children, you could tell that other babies were smiling or even crying, but with Maya, she wasn’t quite all present. It’s hard to explain.
Maya took longer to develop, too. By the age of one, she couldn’t hold things in her hand, or sit up, and she’d only eat out of a bottle. But, soon enough, she learned to crawl, then walk, and then she started to talk. By the age of five, she had clearly bonded with her family, and could easily be the center of attention around other adults. She could name every dinosaur she’d ever heard of and entertain adults with freestyle lyrics about giganotosaurus having teeth the size of a banana, but in preschool and kindergarten, she never really made any friends.
Around kids her own age, things were complicated. “Okay,” her parents thought, “no big deal, she’s not really interested in friends yet.” But in first or second or third grade, the only time she went over to anyone’s house was when the whole class was invited. In the meantime, her obsession with dinosaurs turned to an obsession with horse racing, and she could tell you the name of every Triple Crown winner in order since 1919. And, by fourth grade, out of desperation and boredom, she went down the street in her neighborhood knocking on the doors of kids her age asking if they could play. Everyone was busy. Or so they said.
And then, everything for Maya turned sour. She stopped trying to make friends. She stopped reading. She stopped smiling. She would blow up at school. She punched through a window. In come the experts. And, don’t get me wrong, she needed the experts, she needed care, she needed the attention to what was at the heart of it all, and how she might move out of the darkness and into the light. She was diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder. She was briefly hospitalized. Her mom said that Maya was never diagnosed with autism, but she does exhibit almost all the classic mannerisms, including sensitivity to touch, lack of eye contact, obsessive interest in one single topic —in her case horse racing—and difficulty with social emotional skills, like conversation.
After all that time with the professionals, nothing quite made it right, that is, until summer camp. At summer camp, she met Charlotte. At summer camp, Maya made a horse racing joke, and Charlotte laughed. Charlotte understood. Charlotte knew what she was talking about, and the whole week long, they talked and talked and talked and talked. If Charlotte tried to change the subject to something else she was interested in, Star Wars or Harry Potter, Maya always brought it back to horse racing. But, even so, Charlotte stayed alongside Maya, Charlotte didn’t make excuses about why she couldn’t play. Charlotte and Maya became friends.
After summer camp, Maya and Charlotte found time to be together. For Maya’s thirteenth birthday, all she wanted was for Charlotte to come over for Maya’s first sleepover. At one point that year, Maya’s mom looked at Maya and thought something was weird, something was different. But then she realized, Maya was happy.
For Maya, her friendship with Charlotte changed everything. Maya is no longer getting in trouble at school. She does her homework. Washing her hair or simple chores are no longer a huge fight. She has not had one violent incident since Charlotte. B.C. and A.C. they call it. Before Charlotte and After Charlotte. For Maya, she didn’t need an expert, she needed a friend. For Maya, Charlotte was friendship as sacrament. For Maya, Charlotte was friendship making visible the goodness of God.
The concept is simple, really. A sacrament is an outward, visible sign, of an inward, invisible grace. And, for Augustine, one of the early theologians to write about sacraments, a sacrament is a sacred sign, a visible way to see an otherwise invisible sacred reality. For Augustine, we didn’t just have two sacraments, like we do in the Protestant tradition (Communion and Baptism) or seven sacraments, like we do in the Catholic tradition (Catholics add Confirmation, Reconciliation, Anointing of the sick, Marriage and Holy Orders to the list of sacraments). For Augustine, the number of possible sacraments was infinite: everything in creation could be a reflection of God, and so, even the universe itself is a sacrament, a sign of God. For Augustine, anything could be a sacrament, so of course, friendship could be a sacrament—a sign of God’s presence.
This sacrament of friendship is written across the pages of scripture. Ruth and Naomi find friendship among a broken family. Ruth vows to Naomi—I will be your friend: I will travel to the ends of the earth with you, I will go where you go, and I will be transformed enough by the friendship to say “yes” to the God in whom you place your trust. I will cross borders with you and for you. I will go to places that don’t speak my language and don’t follow the customs I grew up with. That is an extravagant love, a radical friendship—a way into seeing the image of God in this complicated world.
For the paralyzed man in today’s scripture reading, his friends never left him behind. Had the friends been a little less creative and a little less committed to their friend, they could have left the paralyzed man there in the crowd, and they could have used their able bodies to push their way to the front, to meet Jesus themselves. Certainly they had problems in their own lives that they were hoping Jesus could attend to, could heal, could work on.
But instead, for the sake of friendship, they stepped back, and looked for a way to stay together. It wouldn’t be easy. They’d have to tear the roof apart. It was extreme. But, the story goes that when Jesus saw their faith, not just the faith of the paralyzed man, when Jesus saw the faith of all the friends, there together, Jesus healed him.
In other words; your friends carry you along on the road toward healing. Your friends’ faith can heal you, on the days when your own faith is not holding you up. Your friends lift you up and carry you to places where you can be face-to-face with God’s love and God’s light.
I have seen you be friends to one another. I have seen you pick one another up. I have seen you pray for one another. I have seen you gather the forces of friendship for the sake of making God’s love known in this world. I have seen it whether you are a young child, or a teenager, or facing your 90th birthday.
Be friends for one another. Carry one another toward the good news. Bear one another up. Be the presence of God for one another. On this sacred day of baptisms and confirmation, may friendship bind you together in faith, may you carry one another into the presence of Jesus, and may friendship be a sacrament for you—a visible sign of God’s love here on earth.
 Joffe-Walt, Chana, writer. "Call for Help, Act Three: Horse of A Different Color." This American Life. NPR. May 9, 2014.
 MacKendrick, Karmen. Divine Enticement: Theological Seductions. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013.