Have you heard about the new appointment in Great Britain? On Wednesday, Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a Minister for Loneliness. The move came in response to a 2017 report that “more than nine million people in the country often or always feel lonely.”
“For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life,” Ms. May said in a statement. “I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones — people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with.”
When I saw this report, I did a double-take to see if I had clicked on The Onion instead of the regular paper. I hadn’t. The UK’s undersecretary for Sports and Civil Life, Tracey Crouch, is now the country’s Minister for Loneliness.
Don’t get me wrong. Prolonged loneliness can be devastating–physically, emotionally, perhaps even nationally. “Government research has found that about 200,000 older people in Britain had not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month.” And former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy notes that loneliness brings with it “a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression and anxiety.” It’s true. Loneliness can quickly diminish our quality of life. It’s even been known to shorten lives.
But can a cure for loneliness be legislated? Can a government appointment solve a spiritual problem?
On the same day I read the article about the UK’s new Minister of Loneliness, I read this in Psalm 68: “God creates families for those who are alone.” (Psalm 68:6)
That rang a bit truer for me…largely because of what I have experienced here at Pilgrimage. It’s not so much that this church is a family. Churches that call themselves “family” often become insular and hard for newcomers to feel a part of. That’s not been the case here. I’ve seen you be there for each other in every aspect of your lives–through the births and baptisms of babies, through marriages, deaths, and everything in between. At the same time, you welcome newcomers as if they already are family. I remember hearing Neil Clark once say this to a newcomer: “We don’t know you, but we love you.” That about sums it up.
There is something special about this place. It’s not just that you’re a church. It’s not just that you’re ONA. It’s not just that you’re small enough for “everyone to know your name.” Somehow, it’s all those things together. Somehow, somewhere along the way, Pilgrimage United Church of Christ decided to become a community of Jesus’ followers. You are such a gift to the wider community! There are so many people who are looking for a community just like this one.
…which is why it’s disconcerting to learn that folks like Trudy and Cathe drove by here for years without knowing who or what we are. How did that happen? Who’s driving by right now who would love to participate in a church like this one? How do we get folks up the hill?
Based on what guests to Pilgrimage tell me, at this point there are two things that work hardest to bring folks up the hill–the website and the sign down by the road, the one that says, “Jesus didn’t reject people; neither do we.” I’m telling you–when that sign wears out, buying a new one will be well worth the investment. Just look at who it’s brought up the hill! Cathe, Carlos and Richard…
So, how do we—how do you–get more folks up the hill? How do you let them know that, even though you don’t know them, you love them? That even though you don’t know them, you do know that God has, does, and will always love them?
Last week, we eavesdropped on Jesus’ call to Nathanael. When Philip told Nathanael about his encounter with Jesus of Nazareth, Nathanael cynically responded: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Jesus reached Nathanael by reminding him of some private thing that had happened while he was sitting under a fig tree. “Before Philip went to call you, while you were sitting under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael immediately responded: “Rabbi! You are God’s Own; you are the ruler of Israel!”
Jesus takes a different tack with Peter, Andrew, James, and John. He goes out to the lakeshore and watches them ply their trade of fishing. Then he invites them to “Follow me. I will make you fishers of humankind.” The minute he says it, the two sets of brothers drop their nets and follow Jesus.
On the face of it, Jesus telling some fishermen, “I will make you fishers of humankind,” sounds like a cute turn of literary phrase. But maybe it went deeper than that. Maybe in extending the invitation to “fish for people,” Jesus was inviting Peter, Andrew, James, and John to use their work in helping them to follow Jesus.
How might the work of fishing for fish have shaped their work of fishing for people?
It probably gave them a ready pool of co-workers and clients with whom to share the good news. Because they were fishermen, they knew how to talk with fishermen. Because they knew fish, they knew how to talk with people who bought and ate fish. Their jobs as fishermen gave them specific knowledge of the area, of the people, of the weather, of the economics of the region… When you think about it, Jesus’ selection of these fishermen as part of his band of disciples probably wasn’t random. I suspect he knew exactly what he was doing. He knew that their work life, their unique skills equipped them to do the work of sharing God’s vision for the world. When it came to acting the world into wellbeing in God’s name, the skills and contacts of the fishermen were going to be crucial.
But of course, Jesus didn’t only call fishermen. He also called a tax collector, a zealot, and probably a couple of tradesmen. As Jesus created his community of confidants, he seems to have given some thought to the diversity of gifts and skills of those he was calling. It’s a theme the Apostle Paul will take up years later when he describes the church as the body of Christ. We can’t all be hands or feet or eyes or ears. If we were all feet, where would the seeing be? If we were ears, where would the smelling be? We all have gifts to use and skills to employ in helping to build up the body of Christ…and together as the body of Christ, we have the opportunity to use that diversity of gifts and skills to act the world into wellbeing in Jesus’ name.
So, what is your gift? What are your skills? If Jesus were to watch you at work–or see you engaged in your favorite hobby–how would Jesus call you? “Follow me and I will make you…what? for people. Administer? Write? Teach? Code? Account? Nurse? Sing? Serve? Organize? Clean? Exercise? Paint? What are your gifts? What are your skills? How might God be calling you to use those gifts and skills to act the world into wellbeing in God’s name?
And how might God use the diverse array of gifts and skills in this community to act the East Cobb area into wellbeing? How might you as the body of Christ here on Sandy Plains Road communicate who you are so that the people who are desperate to find a place just like this will know you’re here? How will you use your wide diversity of gifts to proclaim from this hilltop that the community for which so many are longing is right here?
I got most of this sermon written early last week. By Saturday, it still wasn’t finished. About midday, Allen asked if my sermon was done. (He’s a brave man.) I told him no, I hadn’t finished it. “I don’t know how.”
I was trying to inject some humor into the process…but late yesterday afternoon as I stared at the blank page on the computer screen waiting for something to emerge, it hit me—I really DON’T know how to finish this sermon. We’ve gotten far enough in this goodbye process that I really don’t know how you might use your wide diversity of gifts to proclaim from this hilltop that the community for which so many are longing is right here. Offering a vision of where God might be leading Pilgrimage…that’s no longer my job. Now that job is yours. And as I said last week, you’ve already gotten a good start on living into your future as a community of Jesus’ followers…which is exactly as it should be.
I might not know precisely what direction you’re heading now, but I do know one thing that will help guide you as you discern the way forward. In both worship services today, we’re baptizing children—Emily and Carson Stoddert at 8:30 and Josephine at 10:00. We all pledged our support to Trudy and Carlos and Richard to assist them in any way we can to nurture these children into faith until they are able to claim it for themselves in confirmation. In the simple ritual of baptism, we acknowledged the lives of these beautiful children, welcomed them into this community, and promised to be there for them.
I want to suggest another pledge you might make—not just today, but with every child’s baptism. Perhaps you might also promise to learn from these children. As you consider their lives—their futures—what might that say about the future of faith, the future of this community? One of the Christmas Eve Scripture texts ends with these words: And a child shall lead them. What if that’s not just about the Messiah being born, but about all children? All youth? Might these children—Emily, Carson, and Josephine…all the children in our midst—might these children be leading you into the future God has planned for you? There’s only one way to find out….