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Sermon – September 27, 2009: One Another

Sermon for Sunday, September 27, 2009 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

One Another

Esther 7: 1-6, 9-10; 9: 20-22; James 5: 13-20; Mark 9: 38-50

“Father McKenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear; no one comes

near; look at him working, darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there, what

does he care?” The Beatles are back; there’s a new video game, there are remastered

musical releases, so why not a sermon illustration? The lyric’s from the song “Eleanor

Rigby,” and Father McKenzie, the lonely priest of a religion unable to address human

loneliness, is Eleanor Rigby’s counterpart and ineffectual minister.

We know he doesn’t get anything useful done because he writes his sermons for

nobody, and nobody comes to hear them, and when he’s done his duty by presiding over

Eleanor Rigby’s burial, nobody’s been saved. The wedding, perhaps, has the promise of

solving loneliness, but the priest and Eleanor Rigby are outside of it, apart from it. She

picks up the rice, he, presumably, has performed the service before retiring to his enforced

solitude. They are emblematic lonely people, people seeking an answer in religion to the

questions “where do I come from? where do I belong?” They would like to fit in to a

human world, a world of meaningful connections and interactions, but it doesn’t work out for

them. They are part of a vast throng of lonely souls.

You and I are part of that crowd, at least at times; and there may have been a part of

our lives when it was more true, and there may yet be a part of our lives when it will be

more true, than it is now. Solitude is sometimes best society, as Milton’s Satan says in

Paradise Lost, but not always. The Bible conceives human beings as social, as enjoying

defining relationships, not only with God but with other human beings. It is not easy to be

alone.

What we want is for someone to care. Years ago I learned this at a nursing home. I

was visiting a woman with whom some members of the church had been friendly, and they

realized that she was without many supports in the world, and wondered would I see her

when I went to the home, so I did. She was parked near the receptionist’s desk in a chair,

and she was unhappy. “Why? What was the point of her life?” she wanted to know, and it

was a wise question, though she had lost much of her faculties of mind as well as of body; it

was a more wise question than my answer. Because I tried to answer it, without platitudes,

embarrassed like a veritable Father McKenzie to represent an institution that had so little to

say in the face of isolation and eclipsed hopes. I don’t know what bland and weak

philosophies I suggested, or how I wrestled with the topic, but it wasn’t going anywhere.

It’s not a question that got answered by reasoning.

It got answered a different way. The receptionist took pity on both of us, and rolled

her chair back from the desk, and got up, and bent over the woman. “Would a hug help?

she asked, and she gave the woman a hug, and it was the right answer. Age, decay, loss,

tedium, discomfort and alienation weren’t going to change, but a hug helped. Someone

cared.

The Eleanor Rigby lyric about nobody coming to her grave reminds me of another

example of the importance of social institutions which establish relationships. The Rev.

John Howard Harris had been president of Bucknell over the turn of the last century. Some

years back I got a call that his son had died out of state, but was being brought back to be

buried in the family plot. A time was set to meet the undertaker from somewhere in Virginia,

I think–anyway, I was there, and the undertaker, and the deceased’s daughter, who’d ridden

along for the burial service. It was a nice day, and we were negotiating getting started when

a car approached, which eventually clearly seemed to be joining us. It stopped. An old

man got out, in a white shirt and tie and jacket, and introduced himself. He was from Milton.

He had been in the same fraternity as the dead man, sixty-five years or more before; he’d

seen the notice in the obituary column, and felt that one of the duties of a fraternity brother

was to pay last respects. The daughter was very pleased, and she and man stood sideby-

side while the service was read.

The common thread I find in today’s scriptures is the importance of community. The

tale of Queen Esther, of unmerited persecution of a people being avoided by a member

of that people’s having access to power, shows two things about community. One is that it

defines, it provides an identity. The other is that it can be the source both of vulnerability

and safety.

Our current culture seems to focus on the vulnerability of identifying with a group.

There is a resistance to commitment of many kinds, and a suspicion of institutions, and it

seems reasonable to conclude that both of these result from increased individualism. There

may be a corresponding increase in virtual belonging, with people connecting by internet

and texting and spending more time on the phone, but those ways of relating, when they

aren’t compulsive, offer a great deal of individual control.

Queen Esther is expected to be tempted by the personal freedom and supposed

safety of acting as an individual. Since her Jewishness has not been disclosed, she can

choose to keep it hidden and avoid her people’s fate. Her refusal to let personal

advantage overrule loyalty to her group is what makes her heroic. She takes responsibility

for the well-being of a huge number of strangers, at risk to her own life. It works out well for

her and the Jews.

Taking responsibility for others is part of the gospel message. These drastic

warnings about how better it is to go through life without hand, or foot, or eye, if that could

prevent one from sinning, are framed by references to one’s social obligations. This

suggests that sinning matters most in its social consequences. Who are “these little ones”

who, if you were to tempt them to sin, you’d have been better off to have been cast into

the sea? Whether it’s their newness in the faith or physical age or something else, they

have a lower status, which increases the responsibility of anyone who may influence them.

The concluding teachings about having salt in oneself and being at peace with one another

are a little confusing, too, as the metaphor of salt is obscure. The point seems to be that we

as individuals have to maintain helpful qualities for the benefit of others, and that by

preserving the right inner virtues we can maintain community peace.

It’s not as though individuality didn’t exist, or we didn’t each begin as separate,

independent souls. Queen Esther, by her position, has attained to a manifest freedom to

act as she chooses for herself. The disciples to whom Jesus speaks in Mark, chapter 9, are

being told to look to their own individual integrity first. In both cases, however, the

expectation is that the individual is a conscious, constructive part of a collective. One is a

person, but being a person is expected to be being part of a people.

In the New Revised Standard this relationship between individual person and the

community is obscured because one way to get rid of male or female pronouns is to make

persons plural. In the Greek the Book of James has an individual who is either suffering,

cheerful, or sick, and is given advice about what to do in each case. If you are suffering,

remember to pray. If you are cheerful, remember to sing praise. If you are sick, remember

to seek the prayers of the community. That’s what the person on his or her own has to do,

and notice that praying, singing praise, or requesting a visit from the elders all are ways to

address solitude. Prayer explicitly recognizes the companionship of God, as would singing

praise, and of course if you bring in the elders of the church to lay their hands on you, that’s

leaving personal space issues far behind. The existence of God and the existence of a

community of God’s people are resources with which to meet the ups and downs of life.

The Bible conceives community as an extension of family, just as the Chosen

People begin as tribes. In the Old Testament one’s fellow Jew has something of a family

claim on one, and it becomes more true in the New Testament. The New Testament

knows of “little ones” who are the responsibility of their elders, and the term “elders” itself

comes to designate the most worthy and responsible individuals in the church. Men are

“brothers,” and women “sisters.” The requirements of respect for those who have greater

status than one in the family, and responsibility for those with lower status, are transferred to

the life of the church.

That effort to order society so that everyone fits in fulfills Christianity’s purpose as a

religion based on love. The question for us, who believe that we have come from God,

and belong to God, is how well we have achieved a community of belonging here. Do we

as a church address the fundamental human problem of loneliness by believing deeply

enough in our connection with God, and our duty to each other? Can we, by our life of

prayer and praise, and our attention to human needs, create a church of caring relationships?

In a culture dismissive or suspicious about a God Who is love, do we consciously seek to

show regard for others’ worth, and are we willing to take responsibility in order to do good to

those whose claim on us is that we have announced that we all together are children of

God?