When Friendship Fails


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

October 7, 2018

Texts: Psalms 54 and 55

        “I awoke this morning with devout thanksgiving for my friends, the old and the new,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in his classic essay “On Friendship.” He went on to say that friendship was “not glass threads or frostwork, but the solidest thing we know.” The two major elements of friendship, he continued, were truth and tenderness: The first because a friend is someone with whom we can be sincere, as Emerson phrased it; the element of tenderness, the willingness to be vulnerable to the friend.

       Emerson noted that the “glory of friendship,” as he called it was not “the outstretched hand, not the kindly smile, nor the joy of companionship” but the “spiritual inspiration that one has when you discover that someone else believes in you and is willing to trust you with a friend-ship.” Emerson, like some others, believed that true friend-ship was rare; like Montaigne he would have said that others with whom he was friendly were only acquaintances and companions.

       This is a far cry from Facebook where we are encour-aged to “friend” half the world. As Facebook grew, its man-agers realized the need to provide guidelines for “Facebook etiquette,” perhaps the most important being not to type something you wouldn’t say in real life.

        What is friendship, anyway? Aristotle, perhaps the first to define the word, divided friendship into three cat-egories. There is the friendship based on utility, where people draw benefit from each other; however, if that mutual benefit fails, what then of the relationship? There is the friendship based on pleasure, where people are drawn to each other and whose company you enjoy. That could cover a variety of relationships. And then there is the friendship based on mutual respect and admiration. All three of these described could also apply to acquaintances.

       However, all three of these writers asked the question: what is true or perfect friendship? And they each agreed in true friendship, friends love each other for their own sake and wish good things for each other. Lorenz Hart may have gotten it right in his song “If I could write a book.” Friend-ship is truly loving the other.

         Friendship fails from time to time, of course, as in the lament in the second Psalm we heard this morning. What really troubles the Psalmist here is more than the noise of the enemy and the clamor of the wicked. It is the betrayal of his familiar friend with whom he had kept pleasant company, and, as he says, even walking together in the house of God.

          The seventeenth-century wit Samuel Johnson essayed on the decay of friendship and the pain that such decay or destruction of this singular kind of relationship causes. Unlike David’s lament, Johnson does not bewail the betrayal by the friend, but the decay of a relationship sometimes caused by long absences, the growing diver-gence of opinion, and ultimately the slow decay which can-not be reversed as much as we bemoan the loss of the relationship.

          For many years my closest friend was a woman named Estelle. We had met through our mutual opposition to the Vietnam War. There was a special quality about her even apart from her self-deprecating humor. When Bob died, she was there for me, listening to my almost insane grief, and caring for me and my boys in so many ways.

        When her beloved Gerson died, I had her come over to my home every work night for several years because I realized she could not bear to go into her own home without the sound of Gerson’s clarinet playing some old Glenn Miller love song, the way he had always welcomed her home from work.

           Known as “Auntie E” to my sons and my grand-daughters, she was funny, eccentric, and a woman of strong political opinions; her feminism was based on how she saw her own mother treated in a life threatening illness. After a bad fall, she went to live with her daughter in California but we kept in touch by phone until she could no longer communicate. She told me shortly before she died that her one regret was not living long enough to see a woman elected as President.

           Friends are soulmates; in friendship we love the other for who and what they are with all their gifts and blemishes because they spark something special in us. Good marriages are also based on friendship and come from the discovery of a certain quality without which we would find it difficult to live life to its fullest. We invest our own selves in the other. That is why betrayal is so terrible.

Like many of the Psalms we have heard over the past nine months, the Psalmist calls on God as helper and deliverer. “Hear my prayer, O God; give ear to the words of my mouth,” the Psalmist cries. Beset by enemies, the Psalmist wishes for wings like a dove to fly away and lodge in the wilderness to find shelter from the raging wind and tempest.

           How often we have wanted such wings to fly away from the distress that besets us. How often we have wanted the ear of a friend, the person who will listen to our own lament no matter its cause. And when that friend is only a friend for our sunshine days and not those of dis-tress, we are bitterly disappointed. To be sure although we may have fear and trembling for the terrors of death, we also feel anguish when we are betrayed by those in whom we trusted.

         When friendship fails, we often do not know where to turn for solace. Here the Psalmist turns to God. Before I begin to deliver a sermon, I say: "May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock, redeemer, and friend.”  

         Truly, God is the friend who is always ready to hear our prayers even when we are in the bitterest of distress. The Psalms often use poetic language to talk about how we cry to God: “Give ear to my prayer,” the Psalmist often cries. The use of metaphor to describe the fact that we want God to respond to our distress has a hint of the old images of God. The Psalms are really at the cusp of a new way of thinking about God. God is now more than a warrior thunder Lord, a physical deity who sits in the heavens and looks down on humankind.

          In the Psalms the ancient Hebrews are beginning to see God as essentially different than the stone idols wor-shiped by other civilizations. True, we could say that the idols are representations of the power of the many deities worshiped in the Levant, but for the most part, people be-lieved that the little stone household gods and the towering idols contained magic and power in themselves.

          The God of the Hebrews was never represented by idols; in fact, the ancient Hebrews were prohibited from making graven images of not just other gods but of the Lord as well. The Psalms reflect a development in our vision of God. That is one of the reasons they still speak to us today.

           Some parts of Psalm 55 sound like a scene from a Shakespearean play: “My companions laid hands on a friend and violated covenant with me; with speech smoother than butter but with a heart set on war.” My mind went to poor Richard II as he realized that Bolingbroke had turned his friends against him unleashing a war that lasted almost a hundred years.

          Perhaps when our friendships fail they do not bring about war and desolation as in the case of David or Richard II, but the impact of their failure is just as great on us. When a friendship – the intimate relationship with a particular person – fails, we are sorely grieved. The friendship can be tied into another kind of relationship such as marriage or family; sometimes it’s a relationship with a person we considered holding the deepest part of our-selves, sometimes a part we do not want to even admit exists.

          The Psalmist here expresses more than hope – indeed confidence – that when we cast our burdens on God we will find solace, peace, and respite from out downcast feelings that arose because the friendship did not stand the test required of it. Few friendships do, but when God is

our ultimate confidant, then we are not abandoned or betrayed.

          There are times when we find God to be silent in the midst of our anguish, something the Psalmist reflects in many of the Psalms including the two we heard this morning. The Psalmist’s hope that God will “repay” the enemies of whom the Psalmist complains is a cry for re-compense. And that cry is often reflected in how we feel and think when beset or betrayed. We may not use the warlike language of these two Psalms but they certainly reflect how we feel from time to time.

          Betrayal not only makes us despair; it can also make us angry. Look at the women who went to Washington this week. The betrayal they feel is more than the loss of friends; it is a betrayal of the promise by a civil society that promised to protect them from sexual violence or at least punish the perpetrator.

          The depth of betrayal is much like the betrayal by a person supposed to be a friend. David’s anger is reflected by the statement: “let death come upon them…”  David and the Psalmist call for a recompense from God. The anger of women betrayed by our society will result in more than just a cry to God.

         Much like Samuel Johnson’s comment on the decay of friendship, women and others historically marginalized have seen the decay of the promise of our Nation over the years. There have been bright spots from time to time which brought hope for the fulfillment of the promise, much like the promise of true friendship. Let us hope that Johnson’s comment that once broken, the friendship could never be repaired is wrong and that the promises of our Nation, like friendship, will not fail.

        Let us pray: Eternal and holy God, be with us as we strive to be true in our friendships with each other and to be true to the promise of justice and equity in our Nation. In the name of him who is our true friend, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.