Sermon: “Friendship and Intimacy

Second in a “Life’s Problems” series
Delivered July 18, 2004 by Rev. John Schmidt.

Theme: God uses our relationships with other people for our good and our growth. We need to commit ourselves to the kind of relationships that allow us to take the masks off.

Sermon Text:
Colossians 3:12-17

Sermon Notes are at the end.

Well today I come with show and tell. I brought something from my house here. This is a mask. This is a Japanese mask that’s used in certain kinds of plays. This represents an older woman who is a symbol of prosperity. And you know during certain kinds of plays in Japan a person will wear this mask and it’s not considered a crazy thing to do. I might not be comfortable doing it, but they are just fine with it. But I do come from a place where people wear masks a lot. In New Orleans, every Mardi Gras there are tens of thousands of people that wear masks out on the street and they think nothing of it. But I can remember growing up as a kid, my mother always used to say, I don’t know whether its true or not, but she used to always say in New Orleans it’s illegal to wear a mask on the street when its not during Mardi Gras. You know, it’s fine to wear it during some of kind of festival or party out on the street, but if you go out on the street in normal life and wear a mask, people think you are crazy.

Now even though that’s true, most of us do wear our masks when we go out on the street. It starts real early on; certainly by teenage years we have learned how to put on a mask, to have a certain image when we’re in front of other people. So by teenage years, you have to have a certain image. If you like a certain type of music you dress a certain way. Have you noticed the connection there often-times? And you like a certain kind of music, dress a certain way and then you also want to make sure that you have the right friends and hang around with the right groups. This happens.

I can remember dealing with a student one time at Toulane University. He was from California and at the time the style was to have shorts and then have your underwear sticking out of your shorts at the bottom. And this is the first time we saw that and we had to make a comment about that. You know, hey what’s this? He said, “oh I just want to be myself. Everybody in California does it.” We’re like that. We’re like that. I was just like that as a teenager myself. I came from a lower middle-class background, but one time when I was a freshman at LSU, I was dating a woman who was the daughter of a medical doctor. I really liked her, but I sensed that we were from different social classes. So I dated her for six months and never ever drove my car on a date. I had a Volkswagen that had no floorboard in the back. It was in such bad shape. Every time I dated her I drove my best friend’s GTO convertible. Now there were plenty of reasons to drive that GTO, but my main reason was I wanted to impress her and I couldn’t impress her in my mind without wearing a mask.

Well, when we become adults we still wear masks. We wear them to church. You come in to a church like this and I don’t know whether you have read the News and Views yet, but Gail has written about the fact that she had this certain impression about people when she first saw them and we come into the church and we look around and we look at these other faces and we say, “whoa these people have it all together. They don’t struggle like I do.” But if you look closer at their faces you will notice the line of the mask on the sides. Because everybody, to one extent or another, particularly in large public groups, we are wearing a mask. And all of us are struggling on one level or another in our lives. That’s the truth of the matter, no matter what it seems to be.

But the problem is when we wear a mask, it gets awful lonely underneath it, because you really don’t know whether people like you and love you or whether they like the image that you are portraying. Is it really me they love or it’s just what I appear to be? So for me, is it Pastor John that you love or is it John Schmidt, the guy who is a father, who is a husband, the sort of guy that can bore you to tears with science trivia if given a chance? And we all struggle with that. The public face and the true reality behind it.

It gets lonely there because we don’t really know, we are not really secure about whether we are loved and God doesn’t want us to live that way. And so I’d like to look in to the Book of Colossians, Chapter 3 and take a look at just a few verses there that talk about our relationships with one another. Colossians, Chapter 3 and we are going to begin at Verse 12.

“Therefore as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you and over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. Since as members of one body you are called to peace and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Let’s pray. Gracious God we thank you for this word and we pray that you will help us to hear what we need to hear and see what we need to see and to respond with the obedience that comes through faith. For we ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Here’s a passage that deals with our relationship with one another, but take a look at verse 12 in this passage. It begins by saying, “therefore as God’s chosen people holy and dearly loved.” The passage that we are looking at begins with a declaration of what God thinks about us, what our position is before God. We are chosen people. Not because of anything that we have done, but God, out of his grace and mercy, has actually chosen us, just the way we choose one another in relationships, God has chosen us. And so because of that we are special and have a special place before God.

It says then that we are holy, which means that we are set apart, that by God choosing us and calling us out of the world, that we are somehow different, we are set apart to have a special relationship with him and then because of that relationship that we have with him and with others we change and become more like Jesus Christ. We are a holy people.

And then it says that we are dearly loved. Now Paul didn’t have to say it this way. He could have said that you are holy and loved, but he doesn’t say that. He says that you are dearly loved. God looks at us with the sort of cherishing, deep affection that can only be expressed when you pile words on top of one another and say he doesn’t just love us, we are dearly loved people.

And so all of our call to relationship with one another begins first with what God’s attitude is towards us. We are dearly loved. We are set apart. We are chosen. And so it’s in that context that God calls us to a relationship with one another. And so there are certain responsibilities that come out in our relationship with one another and we need this relationship because even though God loves us like this, we need to hear it and experience it with other Christians. So for example, these Colossian Christians didn’t hear this in a dream each individually. Paul wrote them a letter, so they heard this word that they were dearly loved because another Christian said it to them and then they gathered together in a group and another Christian read it, read the letter from Paul and said Paul is telling us that we are God’s chosen people holy and dearly loved. And so they heard it together with other Christians. And then after they heard it they remembered it and told it to each other. Remember what Paul said, Paul said we are dearly loved. And so they rehearsed it together. These relationships they had were important and this is sometimes hard for us to see as Americans. It’s so easy for us to think that it is just me and God and that’s a majority and sure that’s a great bumper sticker, but we still need one another. There are some things that he has called forth in our lives that will only happen when we grow together.

And so often when we’re on our own and we believe that God loves us, we believe it in part because of our context, because things are going well. So when things are going well, “oh I am blessed. God loves me.” But what about next week when things get harder? Then it is so easy to start to think “well you know since my life isn’t going well, maybe God doesn’t love me anymore.” Or maybe I have done something wrong and at times like this we need to have people around us to support us. But most Americans don’t live in a situation where they can have a close relationship with other people. Let me just take a look at the listing here. Verse 12;

“clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

Think about the kind of relationships you have to have to bear with one another and to forgive one another. It’s not something you have to do with someone you are just acquainted with in this group. If there’s someone around in this group that you find talks too much, is a little tedious, looks boring or whatever, you just ignore them and go the other way. You don’t have to bear with them. The people we have to bear with and forgive and be patient with are people that were close to. And yet, far too often that’s not a characteristic of our lives. Don Mostrum, a Christian author put it this way.

“Most American Christians never enter a deep enough experience of community to even put passages like this one into practice.”

You’ve got to have some close relationships to experience the kind of community that God is calling us to in the body of Christ. Because it is only in a smaller community, in a big church like this it is easy to get lost in the crowd. 100 years ago you would have grown up with people and you would have stayed in the same community, so your family would be near by and the people you went to kindergarten with would still be living in your community. So you would have 30 or 40 years of relationships with some of these people, except those of you who are younger than that. So you would have these deep relationships, but we don’t have that anymore because we’re so mobile. So we have to face the fact that there is a certain artificiality that we have to actually create and commit ourselves to relationships that would have been maybe much more natural at another time in history. But we need it because there is certain things that God is going to do in a close relationship that’s not going to happen in a crowd on Sunday.

In the first place, in the small group, in a closer fellowship and friendship you can take off the mask. That’s the first benefit of being in a small group. The mask can come off. And that’s important, but if you do it there is a certain risk, because all of a sudden if you pull the mask off, then people are going to have to forgive you if you do. If you get close to somebody, all of a sudden that appearance that you have it all together and don’t need to be forgiven thank you because I am perfect, that’s not going to happen. Anybody, who knows me well, knows that I have to be forgiven. Some of you, who don’t know me too well, know that I have to be forgiven. But that’s a threat. But we are going to commit ourselves and grow close to people, that’s one inevitable result, is that you will do some things wrong.

Worse than that, they are going to have bear with you. In other words, some things about you aren’t going to change fast enough and they are actually going to have to, “oh my goodness, there he goes again talking about it for the 50th time.” My kids have this certain look on their face when I start a story that they have heard 1,000 times, they kind of glaze over and go into this alternate state of consciousness. They have heard it all. They have to bear with me. If you get to know some people well they are going to have to bear with you and that’s threatening.

Probably the most threatening part of all though, it says in this passage that we are to admonish one another with all wisdom. If we get close, that means that somebody else is going to earn the right to say, “you know you were dealing with this a year ago, have you tried anything different?” And can kind of hold us accountable. And that is probably the most threatening part of it all because all of a sudden we’re in this together and someone else is caring about the fact that I am not growing.

But we need groups because it’s in that place where you are going to pull that mask off because its only when we are known as we really are and supported as we really are that we have that security that right now, where I am, as I am I’m not alone. I am not forsaken. God loves me and I am still on the path that God wants me to be on to become like Christ. We find that out as other people gather around us.

The second thing is, is that in a small group we are going to discover what our own gifts are. It’s in that sort of environment that you realize “hey you know more than most people I have a gift of hospitality. I don’t mind working three hours to get everything ready to have people over to the house and two hours later cleaning it up” and everybody else in the group is so thankful that that’s your gift. Other people realize in that relationship that you have a teaching gift, that God really has more than others given you this capacity to explain it, to make it clearer and so you get that joy of knowing hey I really have a contribution to make. Your gift might be encouragement. When somebody is down; you always can find the right words to say or the right thing to do to perk up their day. It’s a wonderful place to discover what an incredible blessing you are to the rest of us. It’s a great experience and it begins in those small, close relationships. God then might call you to bigger and bigger groups to exercise those gifts. But it begins there.

The third reason is, is it’s because in these sorts of relationships, God is able to show us his own love again and again. We can’t just take our cues from our emotional state. Sometimes we don’t have the discipline to believe the word of God as we read it if we are feeling down and we certainly can’t take all our cues off our circumstances, but no matter how these things get bent out of shape, through these relationships we have that are closer, God again and again can show us that he still loves us, because we see it in the love he has given for people who surround us. So these closer relations are incredibly important and like I said earlier, to a certain extent we are in a society where we have to artificially jump into those relationships because we haven’t had 35 years to cultivate them. So we need to push a little bit.

Well I want to tell you a little bit about a relationship that we had in a small group. The person is named Carla – that’s not her real name. But Carla was an interesting person. Carla was the sort of person that on first meeting you said, “whoa, sort of bruque, little edgy personality, the sort of person that would meet you and say “oh you are a Presbyterian minister, well are you one of the ones that believe in God or not, tell me, you know?” Not the sort of person that I would ask to be a counselor or a Stephen minister, okay? But, we formed a small group and she was in it and we discovered that first of all the whole small group came into existence because of her connection with all of these people and because of her vision that this needed to happen. These were all American people living in Japan. So it was her vision. And then as we lived together, we got underneath that bruque exterior and started to notice that you know of all the people in the small group, Carla was the one that, when she was traveling, would spend her time on the plane writing letters to each person in the group, encouraging them and telling them the good things that God was doing in their lives and prayers that she prayed for them or scripture verses she thought might be an encouragement to them. She was the one who was spending her time doing that. And when two young women in the group had difficulties, she was the one who gave her time to help them walk through these circumstances. So it took being in a small group like this to see beyond that exterior and at the same time she was able to see that she really had these gifts of encouragement. She still had the other side and there was still those times that she would tell me to get on the stick, come on John you know better, but that was part of her gift too, to us as a group. So she had this experience of struggling to understand what her unique gift was to the body of Christ.

At the same time, I was getting an incredible experience being in this group, because this was about the lowest point in my Christian life, because I felt totally rejected. I was seeking a position of ministry, felt called to pastoral ministry and the door was slammed in my face and I was sitting there and God wasn’t opening up another door and I am wondering what is going on. And every week as I sat around with ten other people, I had affirmed to me week after week that even though my circumstances were not good, that I was still called to be a pastor. I still had the gifts to be able to open up the word of God. I still was the sort of person that God would use in helping other people develop their walk with Jesus Christ. It was only ten people, but every week that was the signal that they gave me as we gathered together around the word of God. And that was important for me to hear because I wasn’t hearing that from my circumstances and I didn’t have the faith and self-discipline to read it just out of the scripture for myself. I needed to see it in the face of other people. And so when I was leaving Japan and looking at the possibility of actually going into a pastorate, these were the people who were praying for me, people who knew me, who had seen the gifts and were saying you know we really believe you are cut out for this, we are praying for you and expect God to open up this door. So when we went to the United States to get an interview, they were praying for us.

And then later when we were actually moving, these people rallied around us in other ways. So for example, Carla decided to help us. We found out that to get our dog back to the United States was going to be an incredible expense. It was going to cost $400 just for that little fiberglass kennel to bring the dog back. That was the cost in Japan. Well Carla said, “no you don’t have to do that.” She went and talked to a friend who had a kennel and she said, “hey your dog is dead, let’s use this kennel and put it to good use. We got somebody who needs it.” It worked. So she brings that gift. And then I needed to accompany the dog back to the United States on a separate trip and so someone else in the group had frequent flyer miles and he gave me the frequent flyer miles so that my trip would be free. So now it’s $400 to pay for the dog’s flight. Now it happened that on that flight there was a person in our small group who was on the same flight. He was in the fancy part; I was in the cattle car in the back. But we were on the same flight. When we got out at Los Angeles, he happened to meet me at the door of the plane and said “look I have been through customs here before, let me walk you and the dog through this and I will show you how to get through all of this.” So he waited with me until the dog finally came and showed me the way through the airport and right as I am getting ready to walk through the spot where I enter customs and he can’t go in because he is still going on to another city, he reaches over and he drops four $100 bills into my hand. Exactly the cost of sending the dog and he said, “God has shown me that this one is on me.” And then he says goodbye. That was something that I needed to hear. I needed to see God’s love and care in a human face. And we can’t experience that unless we build closer friendships and pursue this issue of intimacy with one another.

So how about you? Are you making the commitment to develop these sorts of relationships? We’ve got a whole passage here verses 12 to 17 that talks about us admonishing each other in wisdom. That’s not just my voice to you on Sunday, it’s our voice to one another. Are you going to obey that? Are you going to put on compassion and gentleness and kindness? Are you going to forgive each other and forbear one another? Are you going to do all of these things? If you are going to do that you first have to get to know somebody. You have to commit yourself first to these relationships. There has got to be a place in our body for you, but you are going to have to make some effort. If you want to get good at doing pottery, you’ve got to go to pottery classes. If you want to get good at music, you are going to have to take music lessons. If you want to develop these sorts of relationships and experience what God wants you to experience, you are going to have to make the time and make this a priority in your life. I believe that God wants to bless you through the relationships of other people and for many of you here, this is already a part of your experience. God wants to bless you. God wants to bless other people through you and you are far too valuable to get lost in the crowd.

Let’s pray. Gracious God, we thank you for your word and we thank you most of all that you really are building a community in the church that can in some small measure meet the deep needs in our hearts. God we are not perfect. We will hurt one another. We will sin and yet even that, imperfect as it is, is part of the deep blessing that you will give us in this life. So we pray now that you will help open doors for us so that we can pursue deep friendships, maybe in small groups, maybe with mentors or other individuals, maybe in a ministry team, maybe on a mission trip, but God help us to take next steps. For we ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sermon Outline Notes:

“Most American Christians never enter a deep enough experience of community to even put passages like this into practice!” –Don Mostrom
In close relationships the masks can come off.
In close relationships we learn what our gifts are.
In close relationships God shows us his love.
What about you? Is the mask on or off?
How have you committed yourself to deeper relationships with Christians?