A sermon preached on January 6, 2007, based upon Matthew 2:1 – 12, entitled, “The Great Loneliness.”
As many of you know, my family of origin isn’t as close as many families in this world. My parents, having never been particularly connected to one another in the first place, divorced when I was 11, and over time we largely went our separate ways. Closeness with my mother has always come pretty easily for me; I am most like her, and we tend to understand one another instinctively. But easy connection has not come easily elsewhere in my family of origin. Over the years I have maintained some contact with my sister. My older brother married his high school girlfriend, getting caught up in her tightly knit family. Over the next ten years, I would see my brother and his wife occasionally, but as is all too common among families, misunderstandings caused a wall to harden between us, and for nearly twenty years, we had no contact whatsoever.
In recent years, we have begun again to have occasional contact, opened up by the grace of God using the fact that both my brother and I have sons who play soccer goalie, which in turn lead to an invitation being extended to me two years ago to attend the wedding of my brother’s daughter.
This year, several weeks before Christmas, my father conveyed the message to my sister, my brother and I that it was very important to him that we all gather together at his home in North Carolina some time over the Christmas holidays.
With the craziness that is Christmas, combined with the fact that I was scheduled to officiate at the wedding of my wife’s niece four days after Christmas, I must admit, I wasn’t very enthusiastic about the request. Clearly, however, it was important to my father, who, although in good health, finds himself at 86 pondering the unfinished business of his life as he approaches the end of his life. So I booked a flight for Christmas afternoon, with plans to return the next evening in order to be back in time for the wedding rehearsal.
Frankly, I resented having to leave my wife and children, as well as my mother who came to our house Christmas Eve, in order to travel down there on Christmas day in the midst of a sea of strangers.
As night fell, I found myself on my transfer flight from Charlotte to Greenville, SC where my father and my sister, who had driven down the day before, would meet me. I had a window seat, and as I looked to the earth below, my attention was captured by the little points of light — the people driving their cars on the roads, keeping their distance from one another, passing, as the saying goes, like ships in the night. The sight seemed to express to me the great loneliness that is the human condition. The little points of lights struck me as souls — people, stripped down to their essence.
I saw clearly what I think we all know in our heart of hearts — that our only hope is found in losing ourselves in a greater light — the light of God, the light that shines in and through every human being, if only we have the eyes to see it.
I felt a profound tenderness for all of us human beings, and for my very imperfect family in particular: I thought of my father in his old age contemplating his death. I thought also of my brother who, five years older, had always come across as macho and somewhat invincible.
A memory from almost thirty years ago came to me. Before the misunderstanding had grown that cut us off from one another, my mother and I were visiting my brother in his home one evening. My sister-in-law showed us a letter my brother had written her from China, where he had gone on a business trip, with the new market there having only recently opened up to Americans. In the letter my brother expressed how deeply he missed his wife; how alone he felt in the alien culture of China, where he could not speak the language nor understand the customs.
I imagined my brother also sitting in a plane looking down at the points of light, longing to be home.
I thought also of that star the wise men followed that led them into a culture alien unto themselves, and of the point of view that one might have looking down from that star, seeing the points of light — the lonely souls — longing so desperately for connection, but more often than not, passing one another like ships in the night.
I thought of the baby those wise men found at the end of their journey — the baby who was God, but who also, in some sense, represented everyone of us — so vulnerable, so alone, crying to be held, to be connected.
And I thought of the joy that the wise men felt when they held that baby in their arms.
Sitting alone in that plane in the dark night sky, I felt a sadness, recognizing that same deep loneliness in myself, and yet, paradoxically, I felt a peculiar connection to all human beings sharing together this same fundamental loneliness, evoking a great tenderness within me. I saw that even the King Herods of this world are acting out of their own frightened loneliness, feeling compelled to murder the baby whom they perceive as threatening their hold on the power they mistakenly assume makes them worthy of love. That in the end, our hope is in forgiveness, in tenderness, and our capacity to recognize in ourselves and in others that same helpless baby, so desperately in need of being held.
My sister has no children of her own; in place of children, she has cats, upon whom she showers love and affection. On her trip down to my father’s house one of her two cats, 13 year old Madeline, finally succumbed to an illness with which she had struggled for months. My sister often projects an image of emotional toughness, but from time to time throughout our visit she would openly weep like a little child, mourning her beloved cat, who was like a child to her, someone with whom she felt a redeeming connection in the midst of the loneliness of this world.
My brother and his wife came the next day. I’m glad we all got together. I wish I can say that all that separates us was overcome, but life in this world isn’t that simple. It is not easy for us to be with one another. Mostly we talked soccer, unable to find any other common ground on which to converse. But I knew I had seen something — experienced something — looking down from that plane at night at the points of light, that was true; something I needed to remember.
There is a lovely radio program that comes on NPR once a week called “Speaking of Faith.” On Christmas day the program featured an interview with Jean Vanier, the 79 year old man who founded what is called the L’arche movement, a series of Christian communities throughout the world that are made up of mentally handicapped people living alongside so-called “normal” people. They entitled the interview “The Wisdom of Tenderness”. I was struck by these words that Jean Vanier spoke:
“The big thing for me is to love reality: not love in the imagination, as in what could have been, or what should have been, or what can be, but to love reality, and then to discover that God is present.”
Last night twenty people came to our house to hear our daughter Kate show her slides and describe her experience of living among the people of Tanzania for the past four months. The strongest impression she left us with was of an innate joyfulness she encountered among the folks living there that seemed uncommon here in America. I thought of Jean Vanier’s words. Here in America we tend to be preoccupied with improving our lot in life rather than with simply loving life as it is, now, in the reality of the present moment. The Tanzanians tended to be far more capable of finding the joy that is already at hand.
Take having babies, for instance. Here we tend to be preoccupied with waiting until our lives are in order, particularly in regard to having our financial houses in order, before we have children. It seems, of course the only responsible thing to do. Not so, in Tanzania. Children are seen there as a great and absolute blessing, and they don’t worry about how the children will be provided for; they trust that the community will see to it that the baby will be looked after.
When we come into this world our essential vulnerability and loneliness is so evident: we are the baby that needs to be held. When we prepare to leave this world, that same vulnerability and loneliness once more arises to the surface of our lives, and with it the possibility of a great, redemptive tenderness. In a few minutes we will share again in holy communion, in which we remember Jesus in his great vulnerability as he approached his own death, sharing a last supper with his friends. In sharing this meal with Jesus, we are invited to lose ourselves in his great light.