Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Sermon: On Loneliness

I preached this sermon, or something like it, at last week's Healing Service at American University. We did the service outside and there wasn't a whole lot of light so I ditched the manuscript and did the best I could, so what you're reading is what might have been preached. It's a possibility. 

John 15: 12-15

Psalm 88

 “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness.” -- Ps 88

As many of you know, about a year ago I had what might politely be described as a nervous breakdown. I would find out later that I had been living with undiagnosed bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder for years, but at the time I didn’t know any of that and I was just really, really scared.

I had to be hospitalized, and in the hospital there were social workers who led group activities on topics relevant to our mental illnesses. One day, the social workers led an exercise on support systems. They asked each of us to make a list of 5 supports in our lives, 5 people or things that we could rely on in times of need. Now you have to know that at this point in time I was nearly incapable of thinking of positive things in my life. Everything seemed awful and everything hurt. But 5 supports? I could do that. Heck, I could do that with just Methodist clergy. Let’s see. There’s Mark Schaefer, here at AU. He drove me to the hospital and then stayed with me for 8 hours while I got checked in. So that’s 1. There’s Mary Kay Totty at Dumbarton. She came and visited me every single day that I was in there. So that’s 2. There’s Jimmy Sherrod, the pastor of the Crossroads worship service that I attend in the summer. So that’s 3. There’s Kate Murphey at Wesley UMC. She served me communion in the hospital and we shared the extra bread with another patient who spread butter on the body of Christ. So that’s 4. And there’s Charlie Parker at Metropolitan, who called to check up on me when I told him I wouldn’t be able to come to work. So that’s 5. I wouldn’t even have to include friends and family. Piece of cake, right?

I was the only person in the group who could name 5 supports. One person could name exactly 0.

“You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness.”

I remember being shocked by this. I was feeling incredibly isolated, painfully alone. But if I, with my legion of support, was feeling alone, what did I have to say to these fellow patients that I was sharing a table with? Did I have anything to offer to people who experienced such loneliness?

Loneliness is a ghost. It haunts the halls of psych wards and prisons, of high powered firms and of American University. This week I asked some students whether they ever get lonely at college. All answered yes. Several of them looked at me like I had two heads. Of course the answer was yes. Homesickness. The loss of a carefully built support system back home. Busy schedules preventing quality time being spent with one another. The expectation that being surrounded by so many people on campus will cure loneliness when in reality it can’t. Loneliness, it seems, is present here on campus at American University.

Loneliness, I think, is one sign, one symptom, of the brokenness of the world in which we live and move and serve. By loneliness I don’t just mean being alone. We all need alone time, and solitude is a powerful spiritual practice. But that ache. That hurt. That desperate longing for someone else to share intimate time and space with. That is something beyond just being alone.

Our scriptures witness to the power of loneliness. The psalmist whose words we just heard cries out to God: “You have caused my companions to shun me, you have made me a thing of horror to them…You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness.”

I want us to stop here, on these words. Think about how incredible they are. These are the words of holy scripture, words which we call “the Word of the Lord.” These are words that have been affirmed by generation upon generation of Jews and Christians as being holy, representative of God’s work in the world. And they are blaming God for loneliness. They are not just describing loneliness, they are throwing loneliness at the foot of God and saying, “God, why have you done this to me?” And this, we say, is an acceptable form of prayer. This is a Psalm, what in Hebrew is called tehillim: praises. Somehow this psalm of desperation and loneliness praises God. We have permission, Biblical permission, to cry out to God in the midst of loneliness and pain. God can handle, not only our feelings of loneliness, but our feelings that we have been victimized by loneliness, that this loneliness Should. Not. Be.

God can do more than just handle our feelings of loneliness, though. God expresses a radical solidarity with our experience, with our hurt. We read a passage from the Gospel of John in which Jesus calls the disciples, the people he has gathered around himself in community, his friends. His friends. Now Christians make a rather bizarre claim about Jesus, a homeless rabbi who was tortured to death in a stinking backwater of the Roman Empire. Christians make the claim, the absurd claim, that in this Jesus we see the very face of God. This is a shocking thing to say. It is so shocking that the early church spent centuries arguing about what exactly it means. I’m in a class in seminary right now that is dedicated largely to learning about these arguments. There was a lot of name-calling, a lot of excommunicating and anathematizing, attached to disputes over such questions as: How can Jesus be both human and divine? How is Jesus, God the Son, related to God the Father? Did God die on the cross?

So we have this claim, this ridiculous claim, that Jesus, the Human One, is also somehow divine. And this Jesus, this Human and Divine One, calls to himself a group of friends. Friends. People to intimately share time and space with. Which to me, begs a question. If God needs friends, does God get lonely?

I believe in a God who, through Jesus the Christ, expresses radical solidarity with the human condition. A God who knows what it is to be lonely, knows what it is to need friends. Knows what it is to beat back the silence of seclusion, to gather companions to shed some sort of light into the darkness of isolation. A God who not only hears the broken cry of the psalmist, “You have caused my companions to shun me,” but who deeply understands that cry, who has even spoken aloud the words of another psalmist “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

So we have this God, this God who hears the cry of the lonely, the God who even bends so far down into the human experience so as to experience loneliness. And furthermore, we have this God who makes some sort of demand on our lives. A God who calls us to follow, to follow after this Human One, this homeless street preacher, this Jesus. So what are we called to do? How are we called to follow, in this world haunted by loneliness, on this campus, in this community?

Community. What a word. Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker communities that continue to serve the poor and the hurting to this day, once wrote: “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.” In the face of the power of loneliness, in the midst of a society in which, despite our access to communication technology and our iPhones and our Facebook profiles people experience increasing individualism and increasing isolation, we are called into community. Not just any community, either. A counter-cultural community. A community that pushes down walls of division. That throws it’s arms open to include, to embrace, undeterred by barriers of class or of race or of gender identity or of sexual orientation or of religion or of age or of mental health or, or, or, the list could go on and on.

Friends, God is forming us into that community, into that kingdom, even as we speak. But we are called into cooperation with that formation of community. We are called, yes, to work for that community. And we have a lot of work to do. Religious communities still divide themselves along racial lines. Along class lines. Along age lines. Many religious communities still exclude, explicitly or implicitly, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people from their life together. Many religious communities still exclude those on the margins of society, those experiencing mental illness or addiction or chronic homelessness. And many religious communities are simply microcosms of societal loneliness. People arrive to church lonely and walk away lonely, with the walls hardened around our hearts unchallenged by genuine community. So yes, we have a lot of work to do.

But I see that work happening, here on campus at American University. I see conversations with people coming to a Methodist service for the first time. I see hospitality bags being assembled and distributed. I see the passing of the peace taking a central place in the worship service. I see a reconciling statement making it clear that LGBTQ worshipers are welcome here. I see people responding to Facebook friend requests and visiting people who are sick, often with soup in hand. I see people gathering around this simple meal of bread and wine that we will soon share together, made one by the grace of God. I see people lighting candles in the face of the darkness of loneliness.

Our work, the work of community, is not done. It is not done because there are still people in the psych ward at Sibley Hospital just up the road who cannot name a single support in their life. It is not done because there are people on this campus contemplating hurting themselves or killing themselves because they just do not see any way out of the loneliness haunting their lives. And if you are sitting here listening to this and you are haunted by loneliness, if you are hurting and you are feeling the pain of brokenness, know that this community is here for you, that Mark is here and I’m here and the person sitting down the row from you is here, that we will do what we can to break open the shell of isolation and to sit with you and to be with you in the midst of what you are going through.

Friends, our work is not finished. But our work is begun. And as we move forward, candle by candle in the face of the darkness of loneliness, we are accompanied by a God who is not a stranger to loneliness. A God who accepts us in the midst of the isolation that we inevitably feel. A God to whom it is acceptable to cry out in separation and in fear. And yet a God who calls us to not only be disciples, but friends. Friends of each other. Friends of those in need. Friends of God. And that, friends, is good news indeed.

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