The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
“It’s About Friendship”
Scripture Reference: Matthew 7:13-14
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
Bill Barden called me the other day. Bill called to say our friend John Sudduth died. This had been coming for a while, but it was still hard to take. The world lost some luster.
It was good to hear Bill’s voice. Bill has a silky voice. If you didn’t know his life, you would think that was how he got the nickname “silky”. He has been called Silky Barden forever because of his golf swing, very smooth.
As we talked, we joked about John’s love of giving inspirational talks; maybe he should give his own eulogy. As we talked, I waited for Bill to call me my nickname. Finally, he said it. “Well, neighbor, I’m going to let you go.”
Bill and I were neighbors; four houses apart on Ten Eyck Street. John lived on the same street, down a block. We were neighbors. I was the new kid. John and Bill graduated from high school together; both came back after college and raised their families together for 50 years. Both were elders of the Presbyterian Church and most importantly, both were members of the Ives Hill Country Club.
John was the club historian. He knew all the flights, the club champions, the city champions. I grew up playing golf; have golfed with both Bill and John. I thought I knew the game. In their friendship I realized how thin was my knowledge. One of the many talks John gave to me was to explain the difference between a golf course and a golf club. The former is a place to play, the latter a place of friendship.
John was the guidance counselor of the local high school. I loved his response to a youth initiative of the Presbyterian Church. The denomination wanted pastors and guidance counselors to encourage youth to consider ministry. John said, “guided a lot of young people through the years, listened to their hopes. Met many young men who were hoping to play for the Yankees. Baseball, yes; ministry, no.”
John loved to make top ten lists. If this were a eulogy, I would try to offer such. There are, though, two moments that will help us and guide us through our passage today; they would both make a top ten of John Sudduth’s life for me.
The first top ten moment was a long car ride. I picked up John and we drove three and a half hours; sat through a presbytery meeting; drove an hour to the campground of his youth, Camp Dudley; we walked the camp; we drove the three and a half hours home. Here is the moment: we never stopped talking. We talked for nine hours. Talked about schools, families, children, wives, moments of joy, moments of disappointment.
Never did a moment cry out for silence; no lull in conversation needed to be filled. It was a beautiful moment, a brief encounter. When I dropped him off at home, I realized, our lives were intertwined, we were sharing a life. He didn’t give a sense of this, but I knew I was getting the better bargain. I was being brought into the narrow path, the narrow gate, the place only a few get to find.
The second moment was after a sudden death in the church. We lost a man in his seventies. His name was John, too-John Bell. This John had grandchildren, a loving wife, a career where he saw the world, and he was an elder.
John Sudduth knew him for more than thirty years. Yet, when John Bell died John Sudduth said something that changed my life. He said, “there was so much more I wanted to know about him; I really don’t know anything about his father.”
When I met with John Bell’s family, I asked his sister about their father. Who was he? What did he mean to her brother? What poured forth revealed a whole other part of a man I knew for more than a decade. I could understand things and see things heretofore unseen.
What changed my life was this: I realized the narrow way, the narrow gate, is found in friendship. Few, very few get what John and Bill have. That is true. More than seventy years of friendship where you pray together, golf together, raise your children together, and, most important, you laugh and cry together.
Most of us, if we are lucky, get a taste of this. Rare is the one who finds this life.
There was so much more I wanted to know; I don’t really know about his father.
That is the stuff of the narrow path, the narrow gate. I don’t mean that metaphorically. It is the physical clue of the passage. The broad gate is the opening to a city during the day. This is how the commerce comes and goes. The narrow gate is the night gate, the one you enter only by being known. To enter the narrow gate, you need to be citizen, a part of the community.
To say this teaching is about friendship is not poetic; this is practical. That the narrow gate is rare is the metaphorical part. The rarity is the definition of a friendship and love that is both restrictive (only a few) but inclusive (always shared).
Our teaching today of Jesus is often likely to be poorly interpreted. Rarity and the image of narrow is where most exegesis falls apart. The temptation to speak of extremes or to conjure an elite is a trap into which too many have fallen.
To avoid this pitfall, we need only look around at the other teachings of Jesus, how much he calls upon us to be the least. If we look to his exchanges with the Pharisees it is easy to see zealotry is the path of destruction. This is the easy path. When we talk about winners and losers, or to be great at the expense of others, to be the real believers or the few who get it, all of this is far from Jesus. The few here are not a religious elite.
When I thought about how to end this sermon, I tried to imagine something that John Sudduth would have liked. John loved analogies, examples that illumine; and John loved golf, had one of the largest golf ball collections I have ever seen. So, this is for my dear friend. He would like an analogy of golf as the way to make it through the narrow gate.
Golf requires the mastery of three things. You must master the components of the swing; you must master reading the course; and you must master anger. If any one of these are missing, then golf is truly a waste of a good walk as Mark Twain so aptly suggested.
The golf swing seems a form of torture. Head down, left arm straight, left shoulder rising toward your downward chin; right arm crooked, passive; fingers intertwined around a narrow shaft; weight shifting from back to front, ultimately being concentrated on the outer left side of the left foot. And this is just the first half of the swing. We can appreciate the complexity here without venturing into the follow through.
In order to enjoy the game, you must master this swing. Hence the driving range. This is a very complex contrivance. But so is life. There are lot of parts to parenting and marriage and friendship and faith. Yes, we can reduce life and say, “be nice” or “everything you need to know you learned in kindergarten.” But that is not true. To live well we must master the art of forgiveness, sacrifice, the order of things, truth, and mostly see what is beautiful.
If you fail in any of these, you lose the narrow path. If any part of the golf swing is off, it all falls apart.
Second, you must learn to read the course. Challenging courses demand a constant reading. Every shot has an element of danger, distance, hazard, and the likelihood of embarrassment. If you master the reading of the course, the contours that would have hurt actually help. But this takes time and a great deal of attention.
The elements of reading a single golf hole are many. That each course is designed to offer eighteen different sets of challenges is why you utterly fail unless you learn to read. If you play the game, you know I am leaving out the most difficult part, the reading of the green. Better left for another day; this is meant to be inspiring.
Living our life together is the same. There are many elements we fail to read. Like John and his desire to know more of a friend after thirty years, there is so much of the course of our life we just fail to master. We fail to pay attention and then wonder why we are in the water, the sand, the woods, the fescue.
The most important thing to master in golf is anger. If you lose your cool in football or tennis, the play stops. You might lose a point or lose a down. But in golf, if you lose your temper, you lose a lot. If you lose your composure in golf, you put the ball so many times you want to give up the game. If your anger gets the best of you, golf becomes a torture.
Again, miss hitting a tennis ball, lose the point. Swing like a gorilla because of the last hole’s humiliation and you are walking hundreds of yards in the wrong direction; or worse, you gaze at a ball supposed to go hundreds of yards and it only went ten. You must master your anger to play the game well.
We are near the end of the Sermon on the Mount so it might be right to remember the first teaching of the Sermon where the disciple is given something to master. The first teaching of the Sermon where we are called to gain mastery is: don’t be angry.
If you want to find the narrow way of life, to keep to the narrow way, then you must master anger. As Jesus says, this is very hard, and few find it. But it is the way.
I wish John were here to have heard this. I say this because I know his critique would have been witty and his suggestions for improvement of the analogy would have been thoughtful. Mostly, I wish he were here because he was my friend. He showed me how to live the life of Jesus as a long walk and good conversation. Amen.
- Micah 4:1 - 5
- Matthew 7:13 - 14