Mother Theresa saw some pretty horrible diseases in her lifetime ministering to the sick around the world, AIDs, cancer, leprosy, however, she would often say the biggest disease in the world today is loneliness.
Mother Theresa felt a calling to work among the poorest of the poor but she understood that material poverty is not the only poverty. There is the poverty of loneliness; the poverty of being disconnected, alienated and alone. And this poverty can be found in people of every race, religion and class.
One of the beatitudes tells us, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice for they shall be satisfied,” reminding us sometimes what we hunger for (and what we thirst for) is community, connection and love.
I spent a month of my recent sabbatical in France, a land where two-hour lunches are common but obesity is rare. Indeed, France, has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world. Why is that?
My observation from sitting down at some of these two-hour meals is that food is not the main course. These two-hour meals are about reconnecting with those we love. They are about feeding our hunger for connection, our hunger for community, our hunger for family and friendships. The food itself could be eaten in a much shorter period of time. However, it takes time to build relationships. It takes time to build connections with others. It’s a process that cannot be rushed.
You see, you can eat a healthy, well-balanced meal with lots of nourishing vegetables and still be malnourished. We need the nourishment of community, the nourishment of connection
Now there is a well known joke that is told about Unitarian Universalists, one that is familiar to most of us. The joke goes, “A group of people come to a fork in the road with two signs. One says, “To heaven,” and the other says, “To a discussion group about heaven,” and you can tell who the Unitarian Universalists are because they start heading for the discussion group.”
Now this joke can mean many different things, but at least one meaning, is that we are a denomination of people who connect through conversation. Because when we get it right a good conversation helps to build community, connection and it nourishes us. . Those of us who are a little French want a meal with that conversation also.
There is a legend about a man who dies and in the afterlife he is guided by an angel to one place where a group of people are sitting around a pot of soup but they are starving to death because their hand is tied to the end of a very long spoon and thus they can’t get the spoon into their mouths. “This is hell,” says the angel. Next the angel leads the man to a room that looks the same, a group of people sitting around a pot of soup, with long spoons but everyone is well nourished and content. “This is heaven,” says the angel. “I don’t get it,” says the man, “What’s the difference?” and the angel replies, “In hell everyone is struggling to feed themselves. In heaven everyone has learned how to feed each other.” The legend, suggests that even when we are going through hell we have all the necessary ingredients to make a heaven.
Today, in our country and in our city there are many people who are starving at a banquet. Many people are lonely in a crowd. Earlier in the service we sang the song, “Peace Like a River” and “Shall We Gather at the River,” songs of hope, however, sometimes we feel like the words of the old country song. We feel like we are “knee deep in the water dying of thirst.”
Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is one of the noted health professionals to identify loneliness as a public health crisis. He tells us that, “We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates for loneliness have doubled since the 1980’s….The reduction in life span (due to loneliness) is similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and it’s greater than the impact of obesity.” And he goes on to say, “So if you think about how much we put into curbing tobacco use and obesity, compared to how much effort and resources we put into addressing loneliness, there’s no comparison. Look even deeper, and you’ll find loneliness is associated with a greater risk of heart disease, depression, anxiety and dementia.” When we consider these facts you can see why Mother Theresa described loneliness as the biggest disease of all.
So what is the remedy? This morning I want to suggest that the church is an important part of healing this disease. Indeed, addressing this epidemic is central to our mission. But you don’t have to take my word for since I work for a church. You can listen to the voices of people who do not belong to any church.
For instance, the philosopher Alain de Botton has written a book called Religion for Atheists: A Nonbelievers Guide to the Uses of Religion where he notes that, “What is significant (about secular society) is the almost universal lack of venues that help transform strangers into friends.” And so he argues that human beings regardless of their beliefs need something like a church, a community that helps transforms strangers into friends.
In the Unitarian Universalist Church we welcome people of all faiths and beliefs. We aspire to be a church where people of all faiths can find common ground and feel empowered to work for the common good. We may differ in our theology but we share a common mission to create a community, where we can break down the walls of isolation and build bridges of community. When we say the affirmation, “Love is the spirit of this church and service is its law, to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love and to help one another, this is our great covenant,” we are saying that we can have different beliefs and still share common values. One of those values is our desire to build what Dr. King called the Beloved Community, both in this room and outside in the world.
The Catholic Monk, Thomas Merton, lived up the road in a monastery in Louisville, KY, but he spent time in Asia where he had a chance to study Buddhism and Taoism and other Eastern Religions and he felt a bond with people practicing a faith other than his own. He wrote about this bond saying, “And the deepest level of communication is not communication but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. (It is) Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers and sisters, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. So what we have to recover is our original unity.”
There is a Hindu legend, a creation story among millions of other creation stories told by cultures around the world. The story tells us that in the beginning human beings were gods but the other gods became jealous of their power and decided to steal the divinity away from humans. Once they had the divinity they had to find a place to hide it. “Shall we hide it on top of the tallest mountain?” asked one god. “No,” said another, “Humans will one day be able to climb the tallest mountain and so they will find it again.” “Shall we bury it deep in the earth?” asked another. “No,” said one of the goddesses, “Human are resourceful and will eventually be able to dig that deep.” “Shall we put it at the bottom of the deepest ocean?” asked another, “No,” someone said again, “Humans are inventive and will one day be able to go down to the bottom of the ocean.” Finally a goddess said, “I have an idea let’s hide the divinity deep down inside of each person for no one will think to look there.” And so it is said, that since that time, people have been climbing, digging and diving for something that is already in themselves. (As creation stories go that’s a good one.)
When I was a young adult I came to this church in part because I was lonely. I had studied at the University of Tennessee but many of my close friends were international students so after school I was sort of left high and dry.
So I decided to come to this church were I signed up for an adult education class called BYOT Build Your Own Theology where we were invited to write out our personal definition of the word God. Because we are a UU church no one was going to make us do it or force us to do it, instead we were invited to do it. This is what I wrote, “Whenever two or more are gathered to love and support and encourage each other there is a power greater than ourselves that can renew, restore and sustain us.” That’s my definition of the word, but I don’t have to use that word. The most important thing is not the words. The most important thing is the experience of that power.
I am sort of enamored of the Jewish idea of minyan. A minyan is a group of at least ten people with whom one participates in a ritual. Without the minyan you can’t do the ritual. The idea of a minyan seems to tell us that we cannot be spiritual alone. We cannot be religious alone. But I would go even further and say we can’t be human alone. We need community. We need one another.
So let me say, that one of my goals in ministry has always been to help people find their minyan, a core group, call it what you will. Call it a discussion group about heaven. In my time here I have seen people find their minyan at the potluck dinners, at the church retreats, in a small group ministry or a heart to heart group. I’ve seen people find their minyan in the choir or an adult education class or a youth group or the Personal Beliefs and Commitments group or at Tai Chi or Science Fiction night or an AA or NA meeting, wherever two or more are gathered. Indeed, at the end of our service we have a ritual where I say, “As our last act of worship I invite you to turn and greet your neighbor,” and it is my hope that through that ritual we can advance our work to turn strangers into friends and help each other find our minyan.
“Welcome the stranger for by so doing you may be entertaining angels unawares.” That’s a biblical teaching. There is another biblical teaching that “we are all made in the image of God.” Which reminds me of something a character on Saturday Night Live called Father Guido Sarducci used to say, “If we are all made in God’s image then why aren’t we all invisible?”
Indeed, why are we not invisible? Well the reason is found in the story for all ages we heard earlier this morning about the invisible boy; love has the power to make invisible people visible for as Gandhi once said, “If we do not see God in each other, it is futile to look elsewhere.”
And so let’s work together to help cure the biggest disease of our age. Let’s work together to build community, until all who are invisible are made visible and we can say in the spirit of the beatitudes, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for community for we shall be filled.”
(Rev. Chris Buice delivered this sermon to the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, September 8, 2019)