May 6, 2018 // Narrative Yr. 4 Easter/Stewardship 1 // First Congregational UCC Ashland, Oregon // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // “Making Room”: Mark 10:17-22; Mark 10:23-31
I will not make you raise your hands this time. Maybe you can cross your toes, though. I’m curious. How many in this room this morning have felt lonely in the past six months? To be more specific, how many of you might answer “rarely” or “never” to one of the following statements:
There are people who really understand me and know me well.
I have meaningful, in-person social interactions with friends or family
on a daily basis.
I have a group of friends to whom I belong.
I can find companionship when I want it.
I wonder how many of us would have answered “rarely” or “never” in the last year. But it was the health insurance company Cigna that decided to measure, citing research that loneliness can cut our lives shorter by about the same amount as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Cigna surveyed 20,000 Americans and found that 46 percent of us feel lonely sometimes or always, and 47 percent of us feel left out sometimes or always. About half of Americans are lonely, and that’s true for every generation. Those 18-22 report the highest rates, and those 72 and older the lowest rates. And before we blame social media, this particular study found social media use could not reliably predict loneliness. With or without Facebook, about half of us on any given day in this country are lonely. (Pause)
That’s not only a health problem. It’s a spiritual problem. And it’s a special challenge for people of spirit and faith who want to proclaim a Radical Welcome, as we do here. The Catholic theologian and all-around wise one, Henri Nouwen writes, “As long as we are lonely, we cannot be hospitable because as lonely people we cannot create free space. Our own need to still our inner cravings of loneliness makes us cling to others instead of creating space for them.” (Pause)
More than 40 years ago, Nouwen already had his finger on the pulse of this spiritual and emotional deficit. In his book Reaching Out, he described the three movements of a spiritual life, and the very first movement is the movement from loneliness to solitude, from the restless agitation of feeling alone in the world to the compassionate acceptance of our own bruised heart and what is written in it. Nouwen wrote, “Too often we will do everything possible to avoid the confrontation with the experience of being alone, and sometimes we are able to create the most ingenious devices to prevent ourselves from being reminded of this condition.” In 1977, Henri Nouwen was predicting smart phones. It isn’t just our busyness that keeps us from moving out of loneliness to that place of accepting solitude, though. It’s also what fills our minds even when our bodies are in open spaces and empty places. “Preoccupations are our fearful ways of keeping things the same, and it often seems that we prefer a bad certainty to a good uncertainty,” he writes. When that avoidance keeps us from knowing our own hearts, with our own particular pain and longing. Nouwen pointed out, with those particular pains and longings, we miss the very gifts that allow us to freely connect with other human hearts in genuine ways, the ability to say, “I understand. I’ve been there.” Of course, it’s not simply sequential, like a pancake recipe, but these movements are interconnected. Easing ourselves into solitude grows our capacity for the other two aspects of the spiritual life, for example. It makes it possible to shift from hostility to hospitality, so that we don’t cling to other people, use them or compete with them. It keeps us from trying to make them see things the way we do. Embracing solitude also helps us move beyond our illusions about God to true prayer, which may be one of the hardest things in the world to describe to another person because the practice of it is so close to who we are. These three movements together make room for our souls to grow in wisdom, in truth, in compassion. They may be just the word we need to hear in 2018 as we grapple with this pervasive loneliness… and pervasive hostility. These three movements also correlate form me with our congregation’s vision of being a people transforming ourselves and our communities, who are reconciling people to one another, and who are equipping one another to together follow Jesus on the Way of Radical Love. So much harder to do than it sounds. These three movements help us make room. (Pause)
What’s all that got to do with a camel and the eye of a needle? This story [worship leader] read about the rich young man running up to Jesus is a great story to begin Stewardship season, but maybe not for the reason that feels obvious at first. It is a story about a young man who comes inquiring how he can inherit eternal life. He’s already inherited – by bloodline or business savvy – plenty of wealth. He doesn’t need any more in that department. What he is looking for, though, is what we might call the spiritual life. He is looking for what Nouwen might describe as that “free and friendly” relationship with himself, his neighbor and his God. He’s been faithful with his own religious tradition, with following Torah. Jesus’ advice for this young man is for this specific young man. Jesus sees that he needs a space to disarm himself. “You lack one thing,” Jesus says. “You lack room.” Jesus invites the young man back to poverty, poverty of heart and life that opens him up to receive the grace of God, which is a gift. As the story goes, the young many goes away, shocked, grieving. He has many possessions and this prescription is not going to work for him. He’s not the only one shocked. Peter is more honest than most when he names all he has given up in order to follow Jesus. It seems impossible, Jesus reassures him, but with all the suffering that entails, you’ll get as much and more back. You’ll get as much and more back, when you make room. You’ll receive abundant life in this life and the one to come. You have made room. (Pause)
It is true, of course, that in the material realm many of us could live with less so others could live with more. But this isn’t a Stewardship story because we should all follow Jesus’ advise to sell all our possessions and give the money to the poor. This is a Stewardship sermon because Jesus is inviting this rich young man to shed the baggage keeping him from eternal life. Jesus invites him to become poor again. Jesus invites him into a life of creative solitude, hospitality, and prayer – the kind of life that makes a “free and friendly space” where he can meet himself, his neighbor, and his god in truth and life. Did the rich young man wake up that morning and think, “No one really understands me.” “I don’t have anywhere I really belong.” “The people around me are with because I’m wealthy, they aren’t really connected to me.” “I feel so alone.” I don’t know. The storyteller tells us that he runs to Jesus asking how he can receive eternal life, and Jesus looks at him and sees there is so much cluttering up the space, both stuff and ideas. Jesus looks at him, and Jesus loves him. And he invites him to make room. (Pause)
“In the midst of a turbulent, often chaotic, life we are called to reach out,” Henri Nouwen writes, “…we are called to reach out.. with courageous honesty to our innermost self, with relentless care to our fellow human beings, and with increasing prayer to our God. To do that, however, we have to face and explore directly our inner restlessness, our mixed feelings toward others and our deep-seated suspicions about the absence of God.”
We come into this place lonely, hostile, operating with illusions about the divine. We come into this place every Sunday morning just as human as the next person. But in this place, we are invited to make room. Our stewardship practices are some of the ways we make that room. We let go of some stuff: some money, some things, some time, some irritations with the other people who are sitting in the pews with us, and our disapproval of what they’re doing. We let go of that to make room for the grace of God to enter in as a gift to us all.
“We cannot change the world by a new plan, project or idea,” Nouwen writes. “We cannot even change other people by our convictions, stories, advice and proposals, but we can offer a space where people are encouraged to disarm themselves, to lay aside their occupations and preoccupations and to listen with attention and care to the voices speaking in their own center.”
 Alexa Lardieri, “Study: Many Americans Report Feeling Lonely, Younger Generations More So,” U.S. News & World Report, May 1, 2018.
 Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out, p. 101.
 Nouwen, p. 26-27.
 Nouwen, p. 74.
 Nouwen, Forward, p. ii.
 Nouwen, p. 76.