The Real Social Network sermon series – #2: Finding Real Friends

SCRIPTURE – Mark 2:1-12 – When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them.Then some people[a] came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? 10 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— 11 “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” 12 And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

The Real Social Network sermon series
#2 – Finding Real Friends
Jan. 17, 2016

A recent statistic I read says that Facebook, the online social network that was born in a college dorm, now has over one billion users worldwide. It would now be the second-largest nation in the world, after China. And that means, if you are a Facebook user, there are over a billion opportunities to make a new friend. But does a Facebook friend count as a real friend?

Last week, we started our sermon series called “The Real Social Network,” in which we are contrasting the communities developed through social media with the community to which God calls us in the Bible. Today, we’re going to look at what it means to have friends. Don’t worry, if you’re not a user of Facebook or Twitter, I assume you still have friends of the old-school variety, so hopefully this sermon will still speak to you.

As a former journalist and word nerd, I love to watch how language changes over time. Take the word “dude.” In the 1880s, it was used to refer to a man who went overboard with his fancy for fashion. Then, in the early 1900s, it changed to mean a city-dweller visiting a ranch. As the century progressed, it slowly morphed to be a term of familiarity, used for either a man (“dude”) or a woman (“dudette”). And today, it can be a greeting (“Dude”), a question (“Dude?”), or an exclamation of excitement (“Dude!”). Words like “cool” and “bad” have gone through similar metamorphoses.

The same thing has happened with the word “friend,” defined as “a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard.” I believe the meaning of the word stayed pretty static until 2005, when Facebook was created. Then, “friend” took on a whole new meaning. In fact, it took on a whole new function: it became a verb! You can now “friend” someone, or participate in the act of “friending.” You can also “unfriend” someone, or be “unfriended” by them. Being a friend suddenly became a lot more complex. But how does a Facebook friend compare to a real-life one?

Granted, there is overlap there. Some of my best real-life friends are also my Facebook friends. But I think the Facebook phenomenon has exacerbated a problem with friendship that has grown increasingly prevalent as we have become busier and more pressed for time. Let me explain it with an illustration. For many years, there was a game you could play on Facebook called “Farmville.” The concept was that the user built a farm with supplies they were given by their online friends. You could make requests of your friends to gift you a bale of hay or a sheep, and your online farm would grow as you got more things from your friends.

And just like that, the wonderful, life-giving, beautiful concept of friendship became quantified. The more Facebook friends you amassed, the more asparagus seeds you could plant, the bigger your farm grew. Friendships became a commodity, and friends were only advantageous to you if they could provide some sort of value.

This wasn’t a new concept; Facebook just made it more explicit. I believe we are conditioned to look for the benefits in all our relationships. It’s called the transactional model of friendship. In this model, each friend adds something of value to the relationship. When one of the friends stops adding value, the friendship ceases. I had one of these friendships. My friend called me up on the phone several nights a week, used warm and caring tones, called me by name, asked how my day was, and then demonstrated genuine concern about my choice of long-distance carrier. When I finally told this new friend that I wasn’t interested in spending money with him, the friendship came to an abrupt end. For many of us, our friendships have come to be defined by what other person can do for me.

Which makes our Bible story all the more remarkable. This paralytic has absolutely nothing to offer. His whole world is a 3×6-foot mat. That’s the size of his world. No surgeries, no rehab, no procedures. The popular wisdom of his day was that he had done something wrong to bring this illness upon himself. There was absolutely no good reason to be this man’s friend. And yet, he had four of them.

These weren’t just Facebook friends. These four were devoted to this man. One psychologist defined a friendship as “two people who demonstrate an irrational commitment to each other’s well-being.” I would say what these four did for their friend would count as irrational. They carry him to Jesus, hoping to get an audience with this miracle-worker, but the place was so packed that they couldn’t even get a foot in the door. Oh well, nice try. But this was their friend, and so one of them said, “Hey, I’ve got an idea,” and the next thing you know, bits of mud and straw are falling on Jesus’ head and the owner of the house has a new skylight. Mark tells us that when Jesus saw their faith, he healed the man.

What Mark provides us here is good criteria for assessing a true friendship. How do you know someone is a real friend? Simple. Would they carry your mat for you? Because we all have a mat, right? We all have something that keeps us down, that we let define us, that holds us back. Maybe it’s a bad temper, or an addictive behavior, or a lack of self-worth, or a prejudice. We all have our mats, and they can be really heavy.

So who would carry your mat? To whom do you show your weaknesses? Who do you ask to pray for you? Who sees your brokenness, your faults, your ugly side, and yet still loves you? For me, one of those people is Kevin.             I remember the moment when I knew we had a true friendship. It was in a Steak-n-Shake. Lots of good things happen in a Steak-n-Shake. We had just seen a band in concert, and were grabbing a bite to eat. I don’t remember the specifics of the conversation, but I do remember during the course of our four hours there feeling like God had brought into my life a true friend. We’ve been carrying each other’s mats ever since.

The challenge with building these kinds of relationships is it takes time, and that’s something we feel like we have so little of. These friendships don’t happen by accident. If you think you can squeeze a friendship into a few quick checks of your computer screen, you can’t. You can’t click the “Like” button on someone’s status a few times and form a real friendship. You can’t listen in a hurry. You can’t empathize in a hurry.

I think what Facebook has done is allowed us to confuse being friends with being friendly. Online, we develop affinities with others, we find common ground, we learn more about them (at least what they are willing to show us). We are friendly. But friendliness has a transient quality to it. You can be friendly with someone, but an edgy comment or controversial political post can quickly turn that friendliness sour. Online, we can begin and end friendships like throwing a light switch. But in real life, friendships endure through all of life’s circumstances. One writer said, “A friendship that ceases to be was never truly a friendship. He said, “To end a friendship, you need to unstitch it little by little.” Yet you can end a friendship with the click of a button.

In Tuesdays with Morrie, author Mitch Albom tells about a former professor of his, Morrie, who was stricken with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and the lessons Albom learned from spending time with Morrie. In one part, Albom tells about a conversation Morrie had with Ted Koppel for the show “Nightline.” Koppel asked Morrie, who was losing his ability to speak, what it would be like for him to spend time with his good friend Maurie Stein, who was going deaf. Morrie said, “We will hold hands. And there’ll be a lot of love passing between us. Ted, we’ve had 35 years of friendship. You don’t need speech or hearing to feel that.” That’s what it means to carry each other’s mat. That’s real friendship.

How do we move past being Facebook friends to making real friends? It takes intentionality; it takes vulnerability; and it takes time. It takes you being willing to show your mat to someone, and then to allow them to help you carry it. C.S. Lewis had this great line about friendship. He said a friendship is born at the moment when one person says to another, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one!” We have to be willing to be vulnerable with someone in order for a friendship to develop.

I asked the Sermon Talkback group what characteristics made a true friend, and the first response was, “Someone who will actually do something.” I assume she meant something more than clicking the “Like” button or posting a brief platitude. Friends are people who show up, who pick up your mat, who carry you to the place where you can find healing and peace. They have an irrational commitment to your well-being, and you to theirs.

A 12th-century monk said, “The best companion of friendship is reverence,” which means that a characteristic of a true friendship is that each person in it realizes how lucky they are simply to be the other person’s friend. There is an indescribable joy in being with someone with whom you don’t feel compelled to add value. True friends are accepted, not for the value of what they add, but for the value of who they are. After all, that’s how we are accepted by our God.

Who would carry your mat? Who would you call when you didn’t have anyone else to call? Who knows you, I mean really knows you, and still likes you? That’s your friend. Don’t let Facebook fool you; friendship is qualitative, not quantitative. My prayer for us is that we seek to make the same kind of irrational commitment to each other that those four friends made to the paralytic, and that God made to us when God sent his only son to earth so that we would know the true meaning of life. Friendship is not a commodity; it is a blessing. May God give us the friends we need, and give us the courage to be the kind of friend our friends deserve.





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