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I Thessalonians 5.11-24

Hebrews 10.19-25

Ah, Look at All the Lonely People

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

You may be familiar with the James Weldon Johnson poem I just read, The Creation, and the original way it describes the creation of the world.  It is so picturesque, so artistic, that we are likely to skate right by the mildly unnerving opening lines:  “And God stepped out on space, and looked around and said, ‘I’m lonely – I’ll make me a world.’”  And again, toward the end, God said, “I’m lonely still.”  “I’m lonely?”  God the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, was lonely?  This is an intriguing way for Johnson to frame his poem.  It is not, however, unusual, and indeed so much of the Bible is the story of God’s yearning for humanity.  It is a feeling echoed in the story of the creation of the first human beings.  Because after God created the first human being, God immediately realized that that being was lonely:  “It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helper as his partner.”  You remember the story:  God paraded all sorts of creatures before the man, “but for the man [himself], there was not found a helper as his partner.”  And then, I love the line, when the man first sees his partner, the first woman, he blurts out, “Now this – at last!  Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!”  At last!  As though man had waited an eternity for just the right person to be a helper and partner.  The man was lonely no more.

Loneliness has a long history, apparently going back to the beginning of time.  As I thought about it this week, a flood of songs came to mind that repeatedly return to the idea of loneliness, which I tried to mash up into a succinct paragraph comprised entirely of song titles and lines:

Hey there, lonely girl – Lonely boy – Are you lonesome tonight?  I’m so lonesome I could cry.  All by myself.  Sittin’ here restin’ my bones and this loneliness won’t leave me alone; and they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone.  Tea for one? Alone again, naturally… ah, look at all the lonely people!

You can probably name a few of your own to add to the mix, but the point is clear, I hope: in scripture, song and in verse, loneliness has a long track record.

So, it caught my attention this week that Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy has also noticed the creeping emergence and effects of loneliness and has introduced a bill to address it.  The National Strategy for Social Connection Act would create a federal office focused on improving quality of life in the US and establish guidelines for social connection.  Now, on the one hand, I do wonder if it is even possible to legislate social connection as a cure for loneliness; but as a health issue, it does begin to address some alarming statistics.  According to US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, health risks associated with chronic loneliness include a 29% increased risk for heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia in older adults.  Additionally, a lack of social connection increases the risk of premature death by more than 60%. Or to put it another way, loneliness is as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, more lethal than consuming six alcoholic drinks a day, and more dangerous to your health than obesity.  And we don’t need a surgeon general to tell us that the pandemic, which encouraged if not necessitated social isolation, has only exacerbated the situation as some folks are still living in isolation.

The passage from Hebrews I read this morning is a favorite of some of my colleagues who think it is a good idea to chide their congregations for spotty church attendance.  “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds” – I like that phrase, provoke one another to love and good deeds – but then comes the kicker, “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”  Not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some…  I get that clergy would like to see their pews fuller on Sunday mornings, but it seems to me the people who most need to hear it won’t, right?  Why chide the people who are in church about the ones who are not here?  Whatever the opposite of preaching to the choir is, this is it.  Besides, I’m not convinced this is the writer’s point.  I looked at that word that is translated “meet together;” it is episunagwgh, (episynagogé) a variation on the word that gives us “Synagogue.”  It does not just mean “meet together,” but rather a higher form of being together; epi,  a prefix meaning over and above, a manner of being together that raises the benefit for the whole.  In other words, meeting together in worship is not just for our own individual spiritual benefit, but it lifts up the entire body or the church.  Your presence makes a difference for all of us, at the same time it makes a difference for you.  Episynagogé – a higher form of being together, and a word that is a gift from our Jewish cousins; how appropriate on this second of Judaism’s High Holy Days!

And this is where the writer to the Hebrews offers perhaps a balm for loneliness, because here – in the church, in the synagogue, in the mosque - is one of those places where we can be together in a place where the sum is greater than the parts.  A couple of weeks ago there was a complementary pair of articles, one in the New York Times and the other in the Washington Post, about the causes and possible remedies for loneliness.  The Times piece is by Nicholas Kristof, who begins this way:  “Loneliness crushes the soul, but researchers are finding it does far more damage than that.  It is linked to strokes, heart disease, dementia, inflammation and suicide; it breaks the heart literally as well as figuratively.”  And he goes on to note that Great Britain, Japan and Sweden have all responded to the health issues posed by loneliness by appointing cabinet-level secretaries, or ministers, to combat the problem.  So Maybe Chris Murphy is on to something.  And it turns out the remedy is not a complicated one:  provide opportunities for people to come together.  Kristof notes that even during the darkest times our nation has faced, the Great Depression and the Second World War, one of the ways society continued to thrive was in the social arena.  People still came together to play cards, to enjoy sports, to read books, so raise funds, to share gardens, to volunteer in civic organizations – and yes, to attend worship.

So is this where our sermon is heading this morning?  The cure for loneliness is going to church?  Well, I’m not going to say that – I’ll let Kate Cohen do it instead.  Cohen wrote the piece for the Washington Post, beginning her article with the sentence, “Okay everyone:  It’s time to go back to church!”  Cohen writes about both church and theater as places where, before the pandemic, people would gather for a common purpose, but are now struggling to reach pre-Covid levels of participation.  In fact she quotes our friend Molly Baskette, a writer for the UCC writers group that publishes our Advent and Lent devotionals, and minister of First Church Berkely UCC in California.  Molly talks about “the participatory transcendence that you get when humans are in the flesh together.”  I like that phrase, participatory transcendence, and actually thought about using it for this morning’s sermon title, but then I decided that Paul McCartney looks much better on the board outside than some theological idiomatic phrase.  But we know what Molly means.  When you and I get together to do something in the flesh, whether it is to clean up the church grounds or pick up the trash along our rivers and lakes, to listen to music, to sing together, or to celebrate something – the crowds we saw at last December’s tree lighting and May’s Memorial Day parade are testament enough to our deep desire to be back together again after a long time of sequestering and isolation.  Whenever we get together in the flesh to do something as a group, as a body, we get more than a good feeling, we are in some ways restored as social beings, and as the surgeon general notes, we are practicing healthy habits.

Now it’s my turn to preach to the choir, right?  Of all people, you who are in this room regularly don’t need to be told how important it is to come together as a group to be part of something that is larger and greater than the whole.  There is a part of us that understands participatory transcendence, even if we would never use those words ourselves.  But it does remind us that the cure for loneliness is not a difficult one to attain:  we simply need to find ways of being together to create, maintain and improve community.  Paul got it right in his letter to the church in Thessaloniki:  “Encourage one another and build one another up, as indeed you are doing… seek to do good to one another, and to all… [and] hold fast to what is good.”

Remember James Weldon Johnson’s poem:  even God can get lonely.  And all that God needs to be lonely no more, is you.

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