First Unitarian Church of Worcester

Sermons, Memos and other writings from the newsletter and worship services of the First Unitarian Church of Worcester. The First Unitarian Church is located at 90 Main Street, Worcester, MA 01608. Our phone is 508-757-2708 and our webpage is A audio CD is produced for almost every one of our regular services. Call our office or send a note to the office at our website to request that one be shipped to you.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

"Lonely, No More" by Rev. Barbara Merritt January 7, 2007

First Reading: - John 5: 2-9

Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.

Second Reading: — from “Moral Proverbs” by Antonio Machado (Robert Bly, translator)

To talk with someone,ask a question first,then—listen.
Look for your other halfwho walks always next to youand tends to be what your aren’t.
In my solitudeI have seen things very clearlythat were not true.
What a the poet is searching foris not the fundamental Ibut the deep you.
Pay attention now:a heart that’s all by itselfis not a heart.
When I am alonehow close my friends are;when I am with themhow distant they are!
I love Jesus, who said to us:Heaven and earth will pass away.When heaven and earth have passed awaymy word will remain.What was your word, Jesus?Love? Affection? Forgiveness?All your words wereone word: Wakeup.

Sermon: “Lonely, No More”

I have never understood Florida. I mean I have never grasped the appeal of a place where for five months out of the year you are faced with oppressive heat and humidity, mosquitoes, fire ants, and what I have always called cockroaches, but which Floridians have renamed “palmetto bugs.” A rose by any other name…it’s still a cockroach to me.

But my recent five-day trip to Florida for a family reunion has revised my opinion of the region, and for the first time, I believe I know why some people retire there. At least why they go to Longboat Key, a small island in the gulf, close to Sarasota and Tampa. The Key is exceedingly narrow—a five minute walk from the bay to the gulf. And on the particular street where we were staying, every house had its backyard bordered by a canal. A vast series of canals had been dug between each residential street so that every house was “on the water.”We stayed at the home of my sister- law’s parents. They had inherited a small bungalow from a grandmother. Because the location was so beautiful, most of the modest houses on the street have been torn down and replaced with large and impressive mission-style homes. Believing this was the right investment, they demolished the bungalow and rebuilt “in the Florida fashion,” fully intending to sell it and go back to their large home in Marin County, California. Instead, after living there for a few months, they decided to sell their family home in California and become permanent residents in Florida. Why? Because they loved the community.

And community is exactly what you get on Rountree Drive. In the five days I was there I met 10 of their neighbors (and most of the residents were away for the holidays.) Everyone on that road takes walks and chats along the way. As I sat out on the back balcony/deck to read a book for one hour at least five boats went by in the canal and warmly waved to me. And while most of the houses are enormous, the lots themselves are tiny (no more than a driveway space between them.) Plus the close canal allowed me to eavesdrop on all the conversations of those who live on the other side of the water (and to watch them play with their dogs and pick oranges from their tree.) It is much more difficult to feel isolated and alone in that neighborhood, than it is where there are large lawns and busy traffic and hectic schedules keep people apart, separated and completely independent from their neighbors.

There is no question that some neighborhoods are more likely to engage you in human contact than others. But I doubt there is any place on this earth where loneliness has been banished.
This condition of feeling separate, alone and not in right relationship with one another (or with God) is part of what it means to be a human being. And yes, I know there is a difference between being alone and being lonely. But what I am talking about is not about counting how many people you are with at any given moment. It is about a fundamental estrangement that is universally recognized by almost all cultures, religions and times.

Kathleen Norris wrote about a different neighborhood, the great desolate plains of the American West, where neighbors live miles and miles apart. She writes about her native North Dakota: “Some have come to love living under our winds and storms, some have come to prefer the treelessness and isolation, becoming monks of the land, knowing that its loneliness is an honest reflection of the essential human loneliness. This willingly embraced desert fosters realism, not despair.”

Most of us live somewhere in between isolation and a neighborhood that functions as an extended family. But all of us should know what T.S. Eliot meant when he wrote, “Hell is the place where nothing connects.” Loneliness can be such a hellish experience—where suddenly, and sometimes for no apparent reason, you feel that your friends and family have disappeared, and you are a stranger in a strange land. Albert Schweitzer, a man who dedicated his life to being connected to his fellow human beings, said that sometimes it feels like “you could die from loneliness.”

Enter the quick fix. “Lonesome No More” was the way the author Kurt Vonegut put it in one of his book titles. It turns out he genuinely believed that churches and congregations were places for people who simply couldn’t handle the essential loneliness of the human condition. (As if being a part of a religious community could make that aspect of human existence disappear! Not so I’ve noticed…) Lord knows, we strive to be a place of connections to one another and to God, but hopefully we also are quite truthful about loneliness. Although if you look through our gray hymnal for hymns about loneliness you’ll discover, with very few exceptions, that we’re all about community, all the time…together completely, one voice, one song, one family joining, loving, forward through the ages in one mighty living whole… That’s what we’re willing to sing about.

And it’s not that surprising that we’ve become “Johnny One Note.” The culture is reinforcing the view that “togetherness” will solve all our problems. Whenever I do pre-marital counseling I am always alerted when a new, young couple explains to me that once they are married they won’t ever experience loneliness again. I always reach for one of my favorite classic books about relationships entitled, “The Mirages of Marriage” by Lederer and Jackson, and read to them from chapter six, False Assumption No. 6: That Loneliness Will Be Cured By Marriage:Lonely people who marry each other to correct their situation usually discover that the most intense and excruciating loneliness is the loneliness that is shared with another.Loneliness cannot be cured by Marriage. Loneliness is better tolerated by those who live alone; they have no expectation, and thus no disappointments.

What will cure loneliness? If you watch the advertisements on television, you might conclude that using “Chinette” paper plates will cure loneliness (by bringing you together in constant family reunions, parties and celebrations.) Apparently certain cell phone plans promise you 24-hour contact with adoring friends. Certain Caribbean islands claim that if you vacation there you will be surrounded by friendly welcoming natives. There are commercials that can bring me to tears as one touching, rapturous reunion after another is made possible through the grace of using your credit card.

Advertisers and marketers aren’t stupid. They know how to get our attention. Even if we don’t mention it in polite conversation, or at cocktail parties or at professional meetings, they know about the human condition and they attempt to use our vulnerability to sell products.

Of course you can use an endless supply of Chinette dinner plates and still feel pretty lonely at a family reunion. The persistence of our feelings of estrangement and separation and disconnection are (to a greater or lesser extent) a part of human consciousness. They will not go away, no matter the particular housing arrangements, relationships or lifestyle. So where does this longing and loneliness find expression in modern culture?

There is one song that musicologists trace back to early American songs of the 1780’s. The origin is unknown, but it’s likely home was Appalachian. Nevertheless, the song has been claimed as an African American spiritual, a Southern hymn, and a blue-grass classic.

The lyrics are simple: “I am a poor wayfaring stranger. This world is rough and steep and oft-times a place of woe, but I have a real home just over the river Jordan, a place where there is no sickness or toil or danger, and it’s there, in that heaven of connection, that I will meet my father and my mother; I’m going home.”

You won’t find this song in our hymnbook, or in any other that I know of. (Although it was in hymnals in the South in 1870.) Where will you hear it now? In Country and Western music, in pop culture, on the radio—listen to just one verse of Emmy Lou Harris singing about the universal longing for a place of connections and boundless love.

I am a poor wayfaring stranger
While traveling through this world of woe;
And there’s no sickness, toil nor danger
In that bright land to which I go.I’m going there to see my Father,
I’m going there no more to roam;
I’m only going over Jordan,
I’m only going over home.

“I’m going there to see my Father.” I have the faith that somehow, somewhere, I’ll be home, healed in a bright land where love will be waiting.

Jesus told this story, not as a promised land beyond time and space, not as delayed gratification in a heaven far away, but rather as an experience to be had in this life—right here, right now. If you read the parable about healing carefully, while other patients waiting by the pool of Bethesda are suffering from blindness, being lame and paralysis, the one nameless man is described as having been “ill” for 38 years. And why has he been waiting for 38 fruitless years when everyone else seems to be cured except for him? He describes his own illness: I have no one to help me. I have no one to put me into the pool when its curative powers are operating. I have no one…when I try to go forward under my own power I get pushed to the back of the line. Jesus doesn’t let him continue on alone. First, Jesus listens to him, and then he speaks to him saying, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”

My translation and interpretation? This cure was all about connection and relationship. In that man’s engagement with the Rabbi Jesus, he found again his health and his power—his connection to the whole. And this was what enabled him to walk.

The poet, Antonio Machado echoes this truth with simple eloquence. Waking up means (among other things) that we ask a question, and then listen—that we are seeking, not so much what makes up our egos, our fundamentally unique “I’s”, rather we are longing to be in relationship with a deep and profound you…”a heart by itself, is not yet a heart.” This is not ultimately about whether we have a lot of people around us most of the time, or very few. It is about waking up. It is about becoming aware of real and sustaining relationships.

Even after waiting for 3, or 23, or 38, or 78 years trying to get to where you need to go under your own independent power, you can wake up to something greater than yourself.

Here is my fantasy…my imagination at work. “What if”…what if everyone of us right now was enveloped and surrounded by all the joy and love and goodness and connection that we’ve been longing for and seeking our entire lives! And yet we had carefully constructed (with invisible bricks) a solid fortress around us that didn’t allow us to experience any of this reality. What if we had (additionally) put a bunch of cotton in our ears so that we couldn’t hear the words and music of love being spoken? And then put blindfolds on our eyes so that we couldn’t see our companions and all those who wanted to help us and bless us? We would say very loudly, “I am all alone …and no matter what you say, it sounds like I’m alone, and it looks like I’m alone and I feel like I’m alone.” How sad would that be!

Religious communities, like this one and so many others, exist to wake us up…to gently remind us that what we seek is nearby—closer than our own breathing. And slowly hopefully, we are persuaded to listen to one another (to take the cotton out of our ears) to see one another (to remove the blindfolds) and to realize that we have a lot of company on this steep, rough road. And then patiently to attempt to deconstruct, brick by brick, our judgments that separate us, our beliefs that divide us, our fears that move us into isolation.
In church we practice not being alone, not feeling alone, not acting alone. So that whether we are in a noisy crowd or living like a monk in the desert:
We know that we are connected.
We know that God is near.
We know that love is stronger than death.
We know that all of our wanderings will take us in the direction of our true home. Home: a place where we will wake up to the love and mercy and joy that will make us whole and complete and at peace.


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