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The Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 14, 2023

The Rev. Samuel Torvend

Sermon for May 14, 2023 | Easter VI

On Tuesday, May 2, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General of the United States, released a lengthy and alarming report on “our national epidemic of loneliness and isolation.”  The report begins with Dr. Murthy recounting a trip he took across the nation to listen to ordinary Americans discuss their experience as the pandemic began to ease. “People told me they felt isolated, invisible, and insignificant,” he writes. “People of all ages, [from all] socio-economic backgrounds, and from every corner of the country would tell me, ‘I have to shoulder all of life’s burdens by myself.’”

These anecdotal statements are confirmed by the scientific literature in which more than 50% of all Americans report experiencing loneliness – and this percentage existed prior – prior – to the onset of the pandemic and its required isolation. The biological effects of loneliness and isolation, Murthy notes, include “increased risk for premature death by 29%. In addition, poor or insufficient social connection is associated with increased risk of disease, including a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke. Furthermore, it is associated with increased risk for anxiety, depression, and dementia.” And those who are most at risk, Dr. Murthy writes, are young adults who constitute the highest percentage of those who report loneliness, isolation, and little energy.

And, let me say, I think he’s right. I’ve seen it in the classroom every day over the past two years: university students who report a sense of malaise and subsequent absence from class and work; students who find it difficult to connect with others students; students with their heads in their cellphones sending a text or speaking to a small circle of people they rarely see in the flesh. “I wish I had friends,” one bright and pleasant student told me a few weeks ago as tears streamed down her cheeks, “but I just don’t know how to make friends.”

All of which brings us to the promise offered by Jesus in today’s gospel reading: “I will not leave you orphaned.” It is a troubling word, “orphaned,” as in alone, without guidance or support, without parents, without anyone. Indeed, the original Greek word – orphanos – can also mean “comfortless,” can also mean “bereaved.” Perhaps you’re little different than me: that when hearing the word “orphan,” the image of a child comes to mind. But, in truth, any of us can be orphaned at any age.

I imagine the disciples of Jesus felt little differently: that the one they followed and then learned to love would soon depart, leaving them. How important, then, to hear these words: I will not abandon you. And how striking, then, that the antidote to loneliness and isolation, to being orphaned, is love: not love as attraction to another person; and not love as friendship between two people; but love as agape, as a commitment to the wellbeing, the welfare of others. And the energy, Jesus says, that makes this kind of love possible is the energy of the Spirit.

Like its counterparts in Hebrew and Greek, the Latin word spiritus, our English spirit, originally meant “breath,” as in respiration, expire, respire. Let me state the obvious: Breath is what you have when you’re alive and don’t have when you’re dead. Thus spirit means breath means life, the power of your life. And so to speak of your spirit is to speak of the power of life that is in you. But here’s the trick: when your spirit is strong, when the life in you is unusually alive, you can breathe it out into other lives – and guess what? – become literally in-spiring. You can be that loving spirit that serves as the antidote to loneliness and isolation.

But notice that Jesus usually speaks in the plural: not you singular, not you the individual (something we might assume as American individualists) but rather you all together, y’all. I will not leave y’all orphaned. I will come to y’all, says Jesus the preacher from Mississippi. One of our Christ Church members told me recently that one of the greatest things this parish can offer to isolated and lonely individuals is the experience of belonging to a community that actually cares about the wellbeing of others … for together we are a body that breathes in the Spirit and when our spirit is strong, well, we can breathe it out into other lives.



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