In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. God starts with the sky, the seas, the earth, and plants of all kinds. God then moves on to separating the light and the darkness, creating day and night, the sun and the moon and the stars. God fills the seas with living creatures and then the dry land with many more, and with each new creation, God looks and sees that it is good.
The next part in the creation story is when God creates a human being in God’s image. Now, there are 2 versions of the creation story in Genesis. In the first, God creates human beings plural, male and female together. In the second, God starts with just one human, whom we remember as Adam.
But after God creates this incredible new being whom God calls not just “good” but “very good,” God notices that even though Adam had been given the whole creation, all the plants and animals for his care and sustenance, he was alone, and, to paraphrase Genesis 2:18, “It is not good that a person should be alone.” Though Adam had all he needed, until Eve came along, Adam was lonely.
We human beings are made for relationships. And not just romantic relationships—friendships, community, and partnerships. That is who we are. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “A person is a person through other persons.” Whether we have many friends or just a few, whether we are introverted or extroverted, we all need other people to help us become more of who we truly are.
I want us to take a few minutes now for some conversation. Split up into groups of 3 or 4 and share with them about a good friend you’ve had, whether it was in childhood or someone you know now or whoever it might be. Tell your group a little bit about that person, what makes him or her a good friend, and how that person helps you to be yourself.
[This is where you, gentle reader, get to think about what you would share.]
My best friendships and relationships are with people who both support and challenge me. I need people who love and care about me but who can also tell me when I’m off base. But those things have to go together—if I don’t have faith that someone loves and cares about me, it is hard for me to receive criticism from him or her; conversely, if someone I think supports me never challenges me, I wonder whether they actually care about my wellbeing or are just trying to please me.
Our passage from Ecclesiastes is quoted everywhere from motivational posters to country songs. “Two are better than one.” “A threefold cord is not quickly broken.” I’ve even seen the verse about two lying together to keep warm superimposed on an image of two fluffy puppies cuddling together adorably. It’s one of those inspirational passage that gives us warm fuzzies.
But most of the rest of the book of Ecclesiastes is not that way. In fact, if the author of Ecclesiastes had a thesis statement, it would be, “Life is meaningless.” Before this section on friendship, the writer laments how neither the oppressed nor the oppressor has anyone to comfort them, how the dead are better off than the living, how all of our work is meaningless—and I quote, “a vanity and a chasing after wind.”
The book of Ecclesiastes is, frankly, depressing. It seems like a strange place to find these encouraging words about the value of a friend.
And yet, we probably all know that is it precisely when we feel lost and without purpose that a good friend is most important. This passage isn’t about the good times—it’s about the times that we fall, the times that we grow cold, the times that we face adversity. It is precisely in those difficult times when we most need a good friend, and often our times of trial can show us who is a true friend and who is not.
Let’s take another couple of minutes to share again—and this time, I’m going to encourage you to get up and move around the room, find a different group of 3-4 people to talk to. This time, share with the group about a time when you were facing difficulty and a friend came through for you, or if you’re a really awesome friend and have been there for someone else in hard times, feel free to brag on yourself.
[Yet again, take a moment to think on this topic.]
I spent the last couple of days in Washington, DC at a young clergy forum. I got to meet and get to know young United Methodist pastors from all over the country. One young woman is a pastor in Iowa and told a story about a small, rural church she used to serve.
The church was located in a town of 200 people. That’s about how many people we can seat in this auditorium. You would think that everyone would know everyone in a town of 200, but the residents had begun to be disconnected from one another. The effects of this were made frighteningly clear when a woman died and it took her neighbors 6 months to find her family because no one knew her. This was a jarring experience for the town, and so when the pastor I met arrived, she was told that what the church and the community really wanted was to know their neighbors.
The church started small: they identified 12 families they knew struggled with poverty and began delivering boxes of food once a month. As the deliveries continued, the church members began to see the insides of house they had never seen before in this very small town.
They began to learn more about the families they were helping. And soon they began to see that the poverty their neighbors experienced wasn’t just about hunger—it was about education. The church has now put several of the children of these families through college or trade school in an effort to help them get out of generational poverty.
Real change is beginning to happen in that community because the town stood up and said, never again will anyone have to die alone or go hungry or lack education in this community, because we commit to knowing and caring for our neighbors as friends and children of God.
There are times in our lives when we simply couldn’t make it through without friendship and community. But to bring us full circle, it’s not just in the hard times that we need relationships. We need other people all the time, and we need to be building relationships in the good times so that we have those connections of love and care when the hard times come.
There is an old story of a man who had stopped going to church and was spending most of his time alone in his house. The pastor went to visit him and found him sitting by a fire. The man welcomed him, and the pastor came in and had a seat but said nothing. As they sat, the pastor moved to the fire, took a pairs of tongs and removed a single ember. He set it off to one side of the hearth.
The two men continued to sit in silence, watching the ember that had been pulled out of the fire. In a matter of minutes, the ember’s glow faded, and it grew cold while the fire blazed on. The man turned to the pastor and said, “Thank you for that sermon. I’ll see you on Sunday.”
We are made for relationship and community. God created us that way, and when we isolate ourselves from other people, we are missing a huge piece of our humanity. “A person is a person through other persons.”
Remember we started by talking about the creation story? There’s a poetic retelling of the creation by James Weldon Johnson that I love, and I thought of it today because it also points to a moment of loneliness in the narrative.
But it’s not the loneliness Adam feels before Eve arrives. It comes before that. James Weldon Johnson imaginatively recalls each day of creation—God smiling so that light breaks through the darkness; God rolling the light around in God’s hands to form the sun; God’s footsteps hollowing out valleys and pushing up mountains; God spitting out the seas, blinking out lightning, clapping out thunder, and wrapping a rainbow around God’s shoulders. And again and again, God cries out, “That’s good!”, delighting in the creation as it springs forth.
And then comes that moment of loneliness. Here’s how James Weldon Johnson tells it:
Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that He had made.
He looked at His sun,
And He looked at His moon,
And He looked at His little stars;
He looked on His world
With all its living things,
And God said, “I’m lonely still.”
God delights in the whole creation, but God delights in humanity in a particular way. Human beings, made in God’s image, are creatures made for loving relationship, friendship, and community, not just with one another, but with God.
In Christianity, we believe in the Holy Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These are three persons but one God—it’s mathematically insane but theologically important. God is three-in-one, and the three persons of God are not random—the three persons of God are intimately connected in a relationship of divine love. When we say, “God is love,” we mean that God is literally made of love. We serve a God whose very being consists of relationship and community.
There’s a fun Greek word for this: perichoresis. Perichoresis refers to the way in which the persons of the Trinity are intertwined in holy love. And it’s not a closed circuit--perichoresis can also refer to how God intersects with all creation. We are invited not just to imitate the love and community that God is made of—we are invited to participate in it ourselves.
“Two are better than one,” and “a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” Whenever we fall, we will be lifted up; when we lie down, we will be kept warm; and when we face adversity, together we can prevail. Time after time. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell