A COMMUNITY OF RADICAL HOSPITALITY
Our Spiritual Companions
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. Robert D. Flanagan for the
Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C, Luke 4:14–21
“Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”
Last year, a survey reported that nearly half of Americans sometimes or always feel alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent). The study also noted that one in four Americans (27 percent) rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them. Why are so many people lonely today? To be an American in the twenty-first century means to be or be around those who are lonely.
One night when I was a hospital chaplain, a nurse asked me to visit an elderly woman, who had been crying incessantly. She said that there was no medical reason for the woman’s discomfort and hoped that I could calm her down. As I approached the room, I heard the woman. I cheerfully entered the room, ignoring her initial complaints. I sat down next to her bed, and we spoke. She lamented to me that none of her family could visit her. They didn’t live nearby. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said that she felt all alone.
A 2017 Psychology Today article suggested that there are two reasons for loneliness. It first said that loneliness is contagious. When people interact with a lonely person, they also feel lonely. Scholars stated that lonely people cut-off others in social networks which impacts everyone connected, causing them all to feel more lonely. Do you remember when a kid in grade school would says that another kid had the cooties? What happened? Everyone in the class, then, felt like they had them too. Loneliness is like that. It’s socially disruptive.
The article also suggested that the Internet makes loneliness “viral.” While interacting on social media gives people a short-term feeling of connection, it’s superficial and can’t replace the value of a close friendship. Being online causes people to lessen their real-world interactions.
While these may be reasons for loneliness, there are other reasons. Busyness can cause us to be isolated. How many of us have long to-do lists every day? How many of us commute long hours by ourselves? We rush to get everything done, but is having a deep and meaningful conversation with a friend or loved one on the list? I suspect not. Or we may feel bored with life, which makes us feel alone. We may have spent years working, and now in retirement, we’re not sure what to do? We’ve lost a sense of purpose and meaning. One person recently told me that when she retired, she was so bored that she began to drink, quickly becoming an alcoholic.
Grief is another reason for loneliness. When someone loses a close friend or life-partner, he or she may suddenly feel desperately alone, no longer able to share life with that person. Grief and loneliness can lead to despair.
We, however, have a way to overcome the feeling of loneliness. There is a way to free ourselves from the dis-ease of isolation. In our reading from Luke this morning, Jesus stood up in the Nazareth synagogue and read the portion of the sacred scroll from Isaiah. He said to his neighbors and family “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
In examining what he read, we can easily say that Jesus’s message was a political one of social reform: good news to the poor; release to the captives; sight for the blind; and freedom for the oppressed. But if we look at Jesus’s ministry from that point of view, we see that he might have brought good news and cured a couple of people with blindness, but he didn’t kick out the Romans who held the whole region in captivity and oppression.
So what was Jesus pointing to? If we look at it from a spiritual vantage point, we see what he wanted and did. Jesus wanted to reorient people’s view that God was only found while at worship in temples and through animal sacrifices. He also wanted people to be free from the mythical capricious gods of Roman and Greek cultures. Jesus was ushering in the one true God, who no longer needs sacrifices and is ready to be with everyone everywhere.
For us, today, this means that we are not alone. We never have to feel lonely. As Christians, we always have God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. The Bible affirms this assertion. In Joshua 1:9, it reads, “ Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” In Isaiah 41:9-10, God said, “I have chosen you...do not fear, for I am with you.” At the end of Matthew, Jesus said, “And behold, I am with you always to the end of the age.” And in John, Jesus said, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate [the Holy Spirit] to be with you forever.”
I told the woman in the hospital that she is never alone. Jesus is with her. God is with her and the Holy Spirit is too. When I stood up, I told her that she should imagine Jesus is sitting right next to her. When her loneliness crept back, simply turn to the chair and speak to him as if he was right next to you.
We are not alone. We never are. When we feel lonely, we must remember that Jesus is always with us. In our loneliest times, in fact, the Divine is closest to us: right next to us, walking with us, even carrying us.
Take heart. God is with us wherever we go.
CIGNA. “New CIGNA Study Reveals Loneliness at Epidemic Levels in America.” CIGNA (May, 1, 2018). https://www.cigna.com/newsroom/news-releases/2018/new-cigna-study-reveals-loneliness-at-epidemic-levels-in-america (accessed 1/24/19).
Beaton, Caroline. “The 2 Reasons Why So Many People Are Becoming Lonelier: Loneliness has gone viral.” Psychology Today (February 23, 2017). https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-gen-y-guide/201702/the-2-reasons-why-so-many-people-are-becoming-lonelier (accessed 1/24/19).