Galore
Healed

Found

Found

Psalm 84; Luke 24:36-43

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

21 April 2024

               Have you read the beautiful children’s book The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy?  It was published in 2019.  Our copy was given to us by Charlene Wozny, who often finds wonderful books she passes along to me and Sebastian.

            The book is about friendship and learning how to live well despite all that happens in life.  The book is filled with wise tidbits accompanied by beautiful art.

            Near the end the boy whispers to his animal friends, “I’ve realized why we are here.”  To which the mole responds, “for cake?”  Cake has been a running theme of the book, particularly for mole, and how cake can help many situations.

            But that isn’t the boy’s answer.  He says, “To love.”  To which the horse adds, “And be loved.” 

            Then the boy asks, “What do we do when our hearts hurt?”  The horse answers, “We wrap them with friendship, shared tears and time, till they wake hopeful and happy again.”

            And then, very near the end of the book, the boy declares, “Home isn’t always a place is it?”

            This beautiful book is about being found—being found in our relationships with others, particularly our friends.

            And being found is a vital human need, one of the keys to a flourishing life.  Last year the Surgeon General declared that our nation is facing an epidemic of loneliness, that had risen to be a national emergency, requiring that “rebuilding social connection must be a top public health priority for our nation.” 

            Dr. Murthy wrote,

At any moment, about one out of every two Americans is experiencing measurable levels of loneliness. This includes introverts and extroverts, rich and poor, and younger and older Americans. Sometimes loneliness is set off by the loss of a loved one or a job, a move to a new city, or health or financial difficulties — or a once-in-a-century pandemic.

Other times, it’s hard to know how it arose but it’s simply there. One thing is clear: Nearly everyone experiences it at some point. But its invisibility is part of what makes it so insidious. We need to acknowledge the loneliness and isolation that millions are experiencing and the grave consequences for our mental health, physical health and collective well-being.

            And those consequences are well documented.  Back in 2020 the Nobel-prize-winning economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton released their book on the epidemic of what they termed “deaths of despair.”  How in American culture in this century there has actually been a lowering of life expectancy because of a sharp rise in deaths, largely among middle-aged people, from suicide, drug and alcohol addictions, and other illnesses that their research revealed were all a result of despair.  Despair brought on by social isolation, loss of job, lack of meaningful relationships, and an increase in physical pain.

            Surgeon General Murthy’s emergency declaration last year pointed out how loneliness increases a person’s risks for anxiety, depression, heart disease, dementia, and stroke.  The effects are not just individual, loneliness has social effects, harming our institutions, rending our social fabric, making our lives together more difficult.  So the response must be both individual and collective.  He was quite strong in the language he used to describe the situation and what we must do:

Every generation is called to take on challenges that threaten the underpinnings of society. Addressing the crisis of loneliness and isolation is one of our generation’s greatest challenges. By building more connected lives and more connected communities, we can strengthen the foundation of our individual and collective well-being and we can be better poised to respond to the threats we are facing as a nation.

            Now, in some ways, talking about this subject at a church is preaching to the choir.  For the evidence shows that church-goers are among the least lonely people in our nation.  And that the crisis of loneliness actually corresponds with the decline in church attendance in the last quarter century.  So, that you are here on a Sunday morning means that you are among the people who are taking steps to build social connection.

            But given that, my guess is, even all of us have had our periods of loneliness, especially four years ago when we were locked down at home.  And those effects are still with us, still shaping so much of our thinking and interacting.

            Surgeon General Murthy wrote about his own struggles with loneliness.   During his first term as Surgeon General during the Obama administration he said that he let most of his personal friendships suffer, replacing his time, energy, and focus with his job.  But when that job ended, he suddenly lacked friendships, began to feel lonely, and ultimately experienced depression.  He wrote that it took a year of hard work and intentionally reconnecting with folks to return to health and well-being.

            Fortunately, there are some simple steps we can take.  Dr. Murthy said the medical evidence shows that even taking just fifteen minutes each day to connect with another person can have a significant impact.  That’s as simple as one phone call or one visit with a neighbor.

            And even if we church-goers are among the folks already prioritizing social connection, we need to be aware of the epidemic of loneliness all around us, and look for the people in our lives—family, friends, neighbors, co-workers—who might be suffering and in need of a little extra connection.  Take a moment and think of one person you know who could benefit from your contacting them this week to check in and see how they are doing.

            According to Marcia MacFee, whose worship materials we are using this Easter season, Psalm 84 is “for pilgrims who are far from the Temple.”  She writes that the Psalm “expresses the yearning of one who would give anything to just sit at the threshold of this sacred place.”  For “the temple is a home” and “God is in the Temple.”

She points out that when we are on a pilgrimage, we are often alone, but not really alone, as there are often many other pilgrims taking the same journey.  Melanie Naughtin some years ago walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain and shared all about it when she returned.  She was on the trip alone, but every day ran into other pilgrims, spent the nights in hostels with other pilgrims, and routinely relied upon the kindness of other people to ease her journey. 

Marcia MacFee writes, “I think a word of encouragement we can offer to the lonely and isolated is to look up and notice the other pilgrims around you and to recognize that loneliness and isolation are not what we are meant for. And also to remember that ultimately, God is with us always! We are not alone.”

This week Facebook reminded me of a Christian Wiman poem that I had posted four years ago during the Covid lockdowns (I read and posted A LOT of poetry that spring).  The poem ended:

Lord, suffer me to sing

these wounds by which I am made

and marred, savor this creature

whose aloneness you ease and are.

            Just last night I was talking with one of our youth who told me that she’s seen how God can fill a person’s need, giving them a sense of meaning.

            Of course, the way that God often comes to us, easing our loneliness, is in the flesh of another person doing the most ordinary of things.  For example, the story in the Luke’s Gospel is revealing.  Marcia MacFee writes,

Perhaps the most beautiful moment in this story is the simple question Jesus asks as they pepper him with questions, dumbfounded that he is alive and with them: “Have you anything here to eat?” Meals are one of the best ways to be with people. Something about sitting down together and eating just loosens up the things that might keep us from interacting and connecting with our neighbor.

            The theologian Wendy Farley, in her beautiful book Gathering Those Driven Away, connects this moment to the church’s teaching of the harrowing of hell that I spoke about in last week’s Resurrection Stories sermon.  Farley writes,

The Incarnate One, upon returning from the harrowing of hell, does not make a lot of moral demands or give another inspiring speech or tell confusing parables.  When Jesus wanders again among his friends after the upheaval of crucifixion, he asks: “Is there anything to eat?”

Let me pause here, because this is so simple and so profound at the same time, and I don’t think we actually draw attention to it.  After torture, crucifixion, spending a couple of days in hell, and then rising again, Jesus shows up and asks “Is there anything to eat.”

            Wendy Farley continues:

No great moralism here, no miraculous pyrotechnics, just the pleasure of food and friends, pleasure, admittedly, in the midst of terror and grief.  Eating and drinking is just the ordinary pleasure we take in one another.  Eating and drinking together, we look directly at Christ.  We see Christ in ordinary pleasures, in everything we do.

            This Easter Season we are exploring the ways that the power of the resurrected Christ is made present and available to us to help us rise again from all the things that would hold us back and keep us down.  Whatever has us locked up, the Risen Christ provides the keys.  And one of the simplest ways that divine power comes to us is in the daily, ordinary acts of connecting with one another. 

            This week may you experience resurrection.  And, in turn, be the power of the risen Christ for someone else, some lonely person in need of your connection.

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