Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this sermon.
There are reasons a person would get up, get dressed, and come into a UU building or find a way to Zoom in on a Sunday morning.
It may be the same reason have come today, or we Zoomed in.
Perhaps you checked us out on social media and liked what you read. The experts say more than half of the world’s population uses social media now. That is nearly 5 billion internet users!
You’d think that would mean that most people on this planet would be better connected than ever before. Where are they? There is certainly more available knowledge than there ever has been before.
You don’t really have to try hard to find where the nearest UU congregation is—if you already know what UUism is, and you know to look at uua.org to find that congregation. You have to know where to look to find us if you are searching.
Statisticians report that this year, even with all the social media opportunities, at least 52% of Americans report feeling lonely. Some 47% report their relationships with others are not meaningful. These self-described lonely people, which these same experts say is about 57% of all Americans, report they don’t have a best friend, and 12% say they feel they have no close friends at all.
Perhaps the rising statistics indicating loneliness is in part due to how our engagement in face-to-face social circles has grown much smaller than it used to be. There was a time when neighbors chatted on porches and big families gathered for meals and cookouts. Not that long ago, lots of people belonged to a church, a synagogue, a mosque. Not so true anymore. Reports tell us that as a society we have increasingly been spending more and more time with fewer and fewer people.
Many people are totally alone most of the time.
A little time alone is good, but when being alone is how we spend the majority of our time, when being alone takes the place of face-to-face time for community building, there is less and less of a sense of being held or cared for by others.
Social networking sites provide a lot. But so called “networking” is far too often a one-way form of expression. A one-direction post is not a replacement for the relationship-building conversations that are needed to create a sustainable society. Too often social networking is a place to make a report, or share an observation, or take an opposing view, but not a place to create or to really sustain a relationship.
We human beings crave relationship. We are built for embodied togetherness, for being known and cared for.
Social networking sites are not likely to lead to “awakening, deepening, connecting.” For those, you need the back and forth of engaged conversation. Whatever pain, hurt or need you might be feeling, whatever you may be experiencing, it isn’t likely you will be feel truly known or cared for without community.
How many of you have ever heard of Job, the character from the Bible who seems to be the hapless victim of a bet between God and the Devil? The story goes that God made a bet with the Devil that the Devil couldn’t make a righteous man like Job turn into a wicked man, no matter what he was made to suffer. The Devil tries to prove God wrong, and takes all Job has and leaves him in complete destitution. Job suffers, and he suffers greatly; he is left alone, lonely, stripped of all he once had: all his connections to family, friends, the way he made living. All of his life-giving connections are totally gone.
Let’s imagine Job’s story set in our day.
Let’s call this modern guy Joe. Joe leaves his home in the morning to go to his favorite coffee shop, he sits down to Zoom into his job. He is well-off, has plenty of savings and all the latest electronic gadgets. He donates to charitable organizations, he is well-read, and always online. He has a large family, seven sons and seven daughters. When he drives, he dries the latest energy-efficient car. He recycles, composts, and buys locally grown organic food. He’s not yet a vegan, but he’s been a vegetarian for over 20 years. He is a well-liked, well-paid manager of a big database firm that helps people in developing countries. He is busy, works most of the day, sometimes late into the night. His spouse is busy, too, with their own job, and manages to get all the still-at-home kids to school and to all their afterschool activities. On the weekend or late at night, Joe, his spouse, and his kids all are online, gaming, or catching up on sports or news. Not thinking of themselves as very religious, they aren’t part of an organized church, or synagogue, or mosque. Joe doesn’t have time for that, and neither does anyone else in his family. He never has time to participate in his neighborhood association. He loves his spouse, but they are both so busy they don’t talk much, they don’t touch much, but they do text their kids and each other nearly every day, sometimes more than once.
Then, one morning when he sits down to work, he gets a message that his job has been eliminated, the business he has worked with for years has been sold. His boss tells him not to worry, something else will come along. His boss advises him not to take it personally. It is the times we live in. There is nothing that can be done, except to move on.
So, Joe goes back home. There he finds the internet is off, so he goes to the refrigerator for comfort food. In the kitchen, he finds a note that says his spouse has left him. The kids have gone to stay with the grandparents, except for the oldest two who are away at college. Joe is not sure how he is going to manage by himself, or how he is going to pay the bills. They have always spent all they had on what they needed and wanted in the present, relying on the future to be the same as the present. Now the future looks so uncertain. Then all the power goes off for an hour or two.
It is not yet even afternoon. He is home in an empty house. There is no one to talk to. When the power and the internet come back on, he posts his status on Facebook and waits for responses. He takes a beer out of the refrigerator and turns on the TV. It is all bad news, all sad news.
Suddenly the power goes out again. Trying to find out why, he discovers that his utility bill is long overdue. Long lonely days pass into months and he falls behind on his mortgage payment. He uses up all his savings and has sold all of his nice things. He realizes that not only is his family gone, but also all of his friends.
He asks Why? Why did all these awful things happen to me? Wasn’t I a decent person? Why am I being punished? Didn’t I deserve all I had? Why has this become my life? It is almost as if some universal force is playing with him.
He walks to the library now to post of his despair on Facebook. A few social media connections, most of whom he doesn’t really know, respond with words of support and encouragement. A few “like” his status or send a cry emoji. Joe is not sure what it all means. When his car is repossessed, towed from his driveway, his nameless neighbors just stare; no one reaches out to him. He is sure they are talking about him, but he is hurt that they are not talking with him. All alone, he is positive he is the only one feeling what he feels, experiencing what he is experiencing, which is powerlessness and isolation.
Here is Joe, a man once surrounded by the world’s riches—a home, a family, all the latest electronics, a car, a job—who has lost it all. Why? he asks.
He doesn’t know anything about a bet between God and the Devil.
He doesn’t know what to do expect or what to do except to cry out in misery.
In the Biblical story, there is a destitute and hopeless Job, left without family, without friends, who seems to be at the end of his resources.
He cries out and says to God, “I cry to you, and you do not answer me; I stand, and you merely look at me. You have turned cruel to me; with the might of your hand, you persecute me. You lift up the wind, you make me ride on it, and you toss me about in the roar of the storm.”
Both the biblical Job and the present day Joe feel subject to forces beyond far beyond their control.
The only difference is that we know that Joe, unlike his Biblical counterpart, is surrounded by many, many other Joes who are also suffering from isolation, loneliness, and the feeling that they have no control, being tossed about by the roar of the storm.
At the very end of the Biblical story, God comes to Job and simply says “I am here. I am here.”
Some think the ending was added later, not part of the original story. How can you make sense of a God who makes a bet with the Devil, and then a God who says “I am here,” and everything is restored?
The ending is very powerful. It is powerful enough to restore Job’s faith in himself. It is what he needed to hear, “I am here!”
Long ago, in undergraduate school when I was studying the Old Testament (what we used to call it), the professor explained that the original story was a tribal understanding of God, a kind of prosperity gospel that went wrong. You are going to get all this stuff if you just treat me right, says that God. I will make sure you are blessed. The tacked-on piece at the end was the more universal understanding of God. Just open your eyes, in the storm, after the storm. You will see, I am Here.
This month our theme is awe. It is not necessarily about a god sitting on a cloud saying, “I am here [up here].” Or a god appearing in robes. It is about whatever happens afterward that makes you say OH, THIS IS WHY LIFE IS WORTH LIVING.
After some awful something, when you have asked “why?”, “why me?”, “why us?”, “why this?” no one can give you the answer that would satisfy you. But we know in religious community that the I am here is the answer that people are seeking.
That’s what churches are for! That is what faith communities are for! What any real community is for! That is what being a member here means. We say, “I am here,” “We are here.”
Like God appearing to Job, we can also be that powerful presence for someone who is lonely, who is in despair, who is needy, who is destitute.
You are not alone. We are here.
We may not be able to bring back what once was, if there ever was a “once was.” We may not have all the answers when the questions come, or tears come.
But we are here. Doing our work; some might say God’s work.
But we are here, offering community, welcoming Joe and Job, and Jane and Jay.
That’s what this congregation is for. That is why we exist. This is the place where relationship, companionship happens. This is where we share our sense of awe with each other.
Wow, everything was just awful and I opened the window and there was a double rainbow and now I am okay. Whatever your awe is.
This is not a one-way form of entertainment, but rather a two-way love building, a sustainable, society-creating laboratory that can restore your faith in yourself, in faith itself, can heal you when you are lonely, when isolation robs you of dignity, of personhood.
There is nothing wrong with posting on social media. There is something so sad when someone out there posts “Why?” in whatever way without response, without a response that is a welcome to relationship.
Membership in this free and progressive faith community is about restoring richness to your life whenever it feels that you are being played with, or your life is beyond your control; joining with others to make promises and take action so that we are not alone in this world, but here and there, powerfully present with and for each other.
“…may we strive to recognize the indwelling presence of God in all people, in all living things, and even in ourselves.”