Alone and Together

Passage: Mark 1:29-39
Date: February 4, 2018
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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A recent TED talk explored what lifestyle choices might enable a person to live to be a hundred. Developmental psychologist Susan Pinker studied the residents of a small village on the island of Sardinia where there are six times as many centenarians as on the Italian mainland, less than 200 miles away. There are 10 times as many centenarians as there are in North America. It’s the only place where men live as long as women. She then explored brain activity related to her findings and followed a study by a researcher in Utah. This is what she said about living a long life. 

“OK? So clean air, which is great, it doesn’t predict how long you will live. Whether you have your hypertension treated is good. Still not a strong predictor. Whether you’re lean or overweight, you can stop feeling guilty about this, because it’s only in third place. How much exercise you get is next, still only a moderate predictor. 

“Whether you’ve had a cardiac event and you’re in rehab and exercising, getting higher now. Whether you’ve had a flu vaccine. Did anybody here know that having a flu vaccine protects you more than doing exercise? Whether you were drinking and quit, or whether you’re a moderate drinker, whether you don’t smoke, or if you did, whether you quit; and getting towards the top predictors are two features of your social life. 

“First, your close relationships. These are the people that you can call on for a loan if you need money suddenly, who will call the doctor if you’re not feeling well or who will take you to the hospital, or who will sit with you if you’re having an existential crisis, if you’re in despair. Those people, that little clutch of people are a strong predictor, if you have them, of how long you’ll live. 

“And then something that surprised me, something that’s called social integration. This means how much you interact with people as you move through your day. How many people do you talk to? And these mean both your weak and your strong bonds, so not just the people you’re really close to, who mean a lot to you, but, like, do you talk to the guy who every day makes you your coffee? Do you talk to the postman? Do you talk to the woman who walks by your house every day with her dog? Do you play bridge or poker, have a book club? Those interactions are one of the strongest predictors of how long you’ll live.”

Well, as the pastor of a church where there is a lot of social interaction, I find this pretty interesting. And as a Christian who strives to follow Jesus, who was rather big on community, I find this encouraging. I’m not actually sure I want to live to be 100 – it depends on a lot of things, but still, I think the findings shared in this TED talk correlate with what we’re trying to do as a church. So I looked to see if going to church made a difference in one’s health.

A recent study at Vanderbilt University concluded that attending worship services is beneficial. “…researchers analyzed subjects’ attendance at worship services, mortality and allostatic load. Allostatic load is a physiological measurement of factors including cardiovascular …, nutritional/inflammatory…, and metabolic… measures. The higher the allostatic load, the more stressed an individual was interpreted as being.

“Of the 5,449 people of all races and both sexes who were surveyed, 64 percent were regular worshipers…. Non-worshipers had significantly higher overall allostatic load … than did church-goers and other worshipers.

“The effects of attendance at worship services remained after education, poverty, health insurance and social support status were all taken into consideration. The study did not address the effects of frequency of worship.

The researcher Dr. Bruce concluded, “We found that [these people] go to church for factors beyond social support. That’s where we begin to think about this idea … of compassionate thinking, that we’re … trying to improve the lives of others as well as being connected to a body larger than ourselves.”

Now let me be clear that I don’t think Jesus came so that we would live longer or have perfect BMI, cholesterol, and blood-sugar scores. Faith is bigger than that. You might say that Jesus came to save us, but in his day, in the world in which the New Testament was written, being saved meant being healed, and being healed had to do with the body and the spirit. I do think it’s fair to say that God desires our well-being.

In Jesus’ day, if people were sick – with a fever, with a blood hemorrhage – or if people were behaving strangely and presumably possessed by a demon, they were shunned by the community and they kept themselves away. To be healed – to have the fever or the demon leave – meant that they were restored to the community. In today’s lesson, Peter’s mother-in-law has a fever; she is alone in her home until Peter brings Jesus and a few others to heal her. She is healed and cured, and she immediately rejoins the community and enacts community by providing food and hospitality to those who made her well.

And then word gets out and the proverbial floodgates open and Jesus is surrounded by those who need healing. It’s no wonder he goes off to pray by himself – we might say that his resources are depleted and he needs to recharge his batteries. We might say that he needs to reconnect with the source of his power, his God.

Lutheran pastor David Lose asks some good questions about this story. He writes, “What did the man from whom the unclean spirit was cast out a week ago do after his healing? What did all the people Jesus heals in this week’s story do once they are freed from the various ailments of mind, body, and spirit that had captivated them? Some, I imagine, were simply so grateful to be made well – so grateful, that is, that they had been freed from something debilitating or destructive – that they returned as quickly as possible to their old lives and routines and relationships. But some, I’m willing to bet, including Simon’s mother-in-law, recognize that they weren’t only freed from something, they were also freed for something, for lives of purpose and meaning and service and generosity and more.”

So let me ask a different question: if you live to be 100, what will your life look like? When you die, will people look at your life and have a sense that something bigger than you impacted your choices, or that your commitment to an ideal or an ethic or to faith shaped how you lived?

A few years ago New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a piece about the difference between résumé virtues and eulogy virtues.

He wrote, “About once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.

“When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day. But I confess I often have a sadder thought: It occurs to me that I’ve achieved a decent level of career success, but I have not achieved that. I have not achieved that generosity of spirit, or that depth of character.”

What good is living to 100 if that long life is filled with self-service? And what good is being healed if the one who is better does not in some way offer healing to someone else?

At last week’s meeting of the Interfaith Alliance on Poverty, county chair Deborah Kafoury shared her reflections on poverty in Multnomah County. What she described was both grim and hopeful, the way so many of our societal issues can be. But something she said really stuck with me, maybe because I was in the middle of writing this sermon. She reminded this group of about 40 of us representing 10 or 12 congregations that no one person can have as much impact as inspired, creative, passionate community members can have together.

I know that sometimes the work we do seems fruitless; sometimes it feels like no one can see the difference we’re making. But remember that people with good social interaction have longer lives, and people who attend worship services have better health. We understand that together we have power, and we can get things done, and we can make a change. Maybe that’s why healing is important, because healed people are able to come back to the community, and the community is always stronger than the individual.

It’s interesting to me that in this story from Mark, and in so many stories like it, Jesus doesn’t stick around to see the fruits of his labor. He doesn’t stay put and establish a center for healing. He doesn’t become the Dr. Feelgood of Galilee. He moves on. But the community that was there before he arrived remains after he leave.They have experienced healing, and take on that work themselves.

I want to give the benefit of the doubt to communities and say that most know what the right thing to do is. I hope that’s true for churches and for our congregation. We have received so much from God – so many blessings, so much help, so much healing – that we take on that work, sometimes without being asked. It’s natural to us. And we stay in the community not because we’ll live longer or happier lives, but because it’s our place, our people, our tribe. It’s here where we’ll be our best selves, and where if we’re our worst selves, we’ll be forgiven. It’s here we’ll do good work, not for ourselves, but for God and other people.

I heard a wonderful prose-poem by Brian Doyle this week, and in it I think he captured what I’m trying to say, so I will give Mr. Doyle (may he rest in peace) the last word.

“The Kid with the Blankets”
A cold snap this morning, frost on the cars,
And I remembered the merchant in Chicago
Who, when it got to be twenty degrees or so,
Would silently send a boy out with blankets
For the guys huddled in the alleys for maybe
A two-block radius. I saw this happen. What
Struck me powerfully was that the kid didn’t 
Even ask. The boss just nodded and away he
Went, the kid with the blankets. The kid told
Me later he collected the blankets back when
The temperature went back up over freezing.
Once a year the dry-cleaner around the block
Washed the blankets for nothing. Things like
This just seem to be everything. There’s a lot
Of stuff like this. There is more stuff like this
Than anyone could ever measure; maybe that
Is another reason why we need God, to keep track.
(Brian Doyle, How the Light Gets In and Other Headlong Epiphanies)