Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life.
These were the opening words of a piece that Marina Keegan wrote for the Yale Daily News, the student newspaper at Yale University. This edition of the paper was published on the day that Keegan and the rest of the Class of 2012 were finally graduating from Yale, and it was the ending of her impressive collegiate writing career. But only five days after graduating, she was killed in a car accident, and this piece, entitled “The Opposite of Loneliness,” became her final work, perhaps her defining article in her tragically short life.
In two days—on Tuesday—I will have officially lived in New York City for four years. Like many of you who are not New York natives, I came here with wide eyes and an expectant heart for life in the Big Apple. I read all of the articles online about what it was like to live in Manhattan, and I had meticulously planned the layout of the 240 square foot studio that I was moving into. While I knew that there would be many aspects about the New York lifestyle that would surprise me, I thought that I was prepared. I was moving into student housing at my seminary, and I had already made connections with a church in the area. I was as ready as I could be for this move.
But what I was not prepared for was that, even in the midst of a city of 8 million people, it’s far too easy to be struck by the overwhelming sense of loneliness. The sensation that, at times, makes it seem like you’re on your own. That weird feeling of feeling lonely while rarely being truly alone.
And I wasn’t sure what exactly prompted it. Sometimes it seemed like it was moving from one life stage to another, and other times it seemed to come from moving to a new city. Sometimes I was convinced that it was moving from the culture of Nashville to the infinite cultures here, and other times I was convinced that I was spending too much time on Twitter and not enough time in the “real” world.
And while I wasn’t able to explain that feeling, I at least found solace in the fact that I wasn’t alone in those bouts of loneliness. I began to speak to people who lived in New York all of their lives, people who moved here like I did, and people who never have and never will live here, people who were still in high school and people who had long sense retired. I saw people that I knew and loved in a different light, a new way of seeing them that I had never encountered before.
I found all around me a kind of hunger, if you will, for something far deeper than daily greetings and respectable conversations about the weather. It’s a hunger for companionship, for the kind of true and deep connection so grounded in mindfulness and care that we as a society seem to be so bad at cultivating. It’s that desire for a relationship that cannot be provided by one person alone, no matter how deeply attached you may be to them romantically. It’s that hunger for something real in the day-to-day, the authenticity in which we can bear all of our faults and flaws and still be accepted for who we are. It’s the hunger for love that asks the hard questions of us, that challenges us, but still is grounded enough that we keep coming back. It’s the deep, deep yearning for something that just isn’t there.
And whether we call it some kind of hunger, a deep yearning, or a feeling of unfulfilled love and loneliness, we like Marina Keegan want the opposite of that in our lives. We do what we can to fill that emptiness with whatever it is that we can cram in there.
We try to satiate this hunger with food, and sometimes we try to starve it away. We think that enough sex, drugs, alcohol, technology will fill the void, or sometimes we bury ourselves in work or school to avoid thinking about it. And this may work for a little bit. But sooner or later, we find that we need more and more because those coping mechanisms take more and more from us. What we think is helping us is dragging us further from what we actually need.
As you likely have noticed, our Gospel lessons over the past couple of Sundays have been a bit repetitious. Over and over again, we have heard a variation of the same theme: Jesus is the bread of life, the eternal bread come down from heaven. We even have one more week of this message, and it’s for a good reason: in John’s Gospel—and in many other parts of our lives—repetition is a sign that whatever is being said is crucial.
In our text today, we read that his audience is just not getting it. The Judeans who have been listening to Jesus since he fed them with the five loaves and two fishes begin to dispute among themselves, asking what it is that Jesus means. How is it possible to eat this man’s flesh? It seems ludicrous and revolting, and then he later goes on to say that they must drink his blood as well. Absurdity at best, cannibalism at worst. Even still, it transgresses important food laws that God gave their ancestors.
Because we know the full story of Jesus, we get what he’s talking about. It’s not literally eating his flesh and drinking his blood, but he’s instead pointing to the bread and wine of the Eucharist. But the audience that was around him would not have understood; Jesus is trying to stretch their imagination a little bit; in the same way, John is trying to get us to expect more. For this is the gospel that starts with the grand narrative of the Word of God taking on flesh and dwelling among us; this gospel’s focus is that, since God’s self has taken up residence in our midst in the Incarnation, anything is possible. As absurd as it may seem and as counter to our intuition as it may appear, God has chosen to meet us and save us in the flesh, in the bread that comes down from Heaven—in Jesus Christ.
And this is the good news of the Gospel: God is with us. In the murkiness of life, in the depths of despair, and in the anguish of mental illness, God is still with us. Even when it feels as though we are completely alone—when we’re feeling that existential loneliness—Christ is given to us in the same way that manna was given from the heavens. And we receive the bread that is Christ with the hope and the wild expectation that it is enough to more than fill us; it is enough to completely satisfy us.
But that’s not the end of our story. For as we receive that bread, there is something mystical and holy—something sacramental—that happens where we then become bread given for the life of the world; we become part of the body—blessed and broken to go and fill others. Blessed and broken to go and love that we may somehow open the way to the opposite of loneliness.
Marina Keegan ended her final piece with these words:
We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I’d say that’s how I feel…right now. Here. With all of you. In love, impressed, humbled, scared. And we don’t have to lose that.
We’re in this together…Let’s make something happen to this world.
Family of God, we are in this together, bound together by the grace and love of Jesus Christ. Let’s make something happen to this world.