Last month, we got a new puppy. There were people in my household that have been dreaming of this day for a while. Let’s just say I was the last holdout. But here we are. And it’s not clear yet how we’re all going to feel about this in the long run.
But, man, I will give Pepper this. He’s really cute. And he’s pretty fun. He gets us out of the house more. I’ve met more neighbors, more neighbor dogs the past two weeks than the previous two years. And he’s simple. This toothy little, meddlesome creature just wants to chew on things and get outside and be fed. But even more he really just wants to be liked and cuddled with and played with and then he’ll always be happy.
Yeah, when he’s not sleeping or eating, this dog’s whole world is like: See me. Talk to me. Smile at me. Play with me.
He’s just hungering for, always ready for connection.
He’s not alone.
The other big new thing in our family life this summer is that one of our parents had a major stroke. And we’ve all been waiting and praying as we see what kind of recovery is or isn’t going to be possible.
We still don’t know what the future holds here, but for over two months, my mother in law has been living in institutions, instead of at home.
And in a lot of ways, the defining question for her, even more than her physical recovery, has also been about connection, wanting to know:
Who sees me? Who’s praying for me? Who remembers me? Who will visit me? And if I’m losing my mobility and my independence, what will ensure that I am not alone?
As we age, whether we’re particularly introverted or extroverted, our hunger to not lose relationship and attention and touch, our needs to remain connected, become really important.
The scriptures of our tradition affirm this fundamental need. One of the first things said about people in the whole Bible is this:
“It’s not good that the human is alone.”
In the creation epic of Genesis, there’s this joyful litany of celebration about the goodness of the whole created order. Again and again, God calls things good. The Hebrew word is tov.
Sun and moon – tov
Earth and seas – tov
Plant life, animal life – tov.
Birds and fish – tov
The creation of humanity – very tov. So good. An amplification here!
But then, the idea that a human being would live in isolation, not connected to other humans at all, is not tov.
It’s not good for people to be alone.
Now here’s what that doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean you have to get married. Because the creation epic involves Adam and Eve – the man of the ground and the mother of all life – people think about marriage here. Get married, have a family, because it’s not good for humans to be alone.
But not all of us want to get married. And some of us want to, but it doesn’t work out for us. Or we get married, and our partner leaves us or dies. Or the marriage is hard and leaves us lonely more often than not. Or our marriage is pretty great, but we realize that even the best of marriages doesn’t by itself fulfill our needs for relationship, connection, and community.
Marriage can be wonderful, but it’s not the be all and end all for everyone. You don’t need marriage to not be alone. In fact, you don’t need a romantic partner or a sex life at all either.
Plenty of people live well and live wonderfully fulfilled lives without sex, without a romantic partner – married or otherwise – either for seasons of life or for all of life.
But none of us live well entirely disconnected. It’s not good for humans to be alone.
We need connection, and we need circles of different types of connection.
We need a lot of people to whom we’re very loosely connected, people whose names we’ll mostly never learn – our whole societies, our cultures, our economies in which we find our way.
And then we need our circles of acquaintances who create networks of belonging for us, the circles of people we work with and live around and share affinity with. These are the people that come and go over time. They’re not intimate, they are loose ties, but they are the networks of giving and receiving that help us understand ourselves and function and matter.
And then we need smaller circles of intimacy, friends and family and partners who don’t just know our names but our stories, people with whom we may have tension and conflict, but where we’ll also experience and offer affection and respect and even love.
And we even need some sense of connection that stays with us regardless of how other people come and go. We need a fundamental sense that we matter, that we are seen and known and loved, no matter what other people do or say.
We are profoundly social beings. We are creatures who don’t survive, and certainly don’t thrive, without a lot of connection.
Today we explore how we can pay attention to and value and engage most wholeheartedly with the people and communities where we offer and receive the most important, richest connection.
We do this as part of a five week series we call We Are Reservoir. Each week for the next five weeks, we’ll teach scripture and themes related to the five core values that guide our church’s pursuit of vibrant, inclusive, healthy faith.
These values are connection, freedom, everyone, humility, and action.
We do a version of this once a year in the fall, so that as a community, we can remember who we are and what we are becoming, and so we can welcome people into belonging and membership in this community and make sure that all of us who want to have opportunities to chip in to the life of this community as well, so we can be a healthy, sustainable church and so all of us who want to can feel connected here.
Today, as we explore connection, beyond the verse about not being alone, I want to read one other scripture. It’s one of my favorite encounters in the life of Jesus. And it’s a lot of things. But one of the things it is is a story about God making connection and belonging and meaning possible in new ways in a community.
Here it is.
Luke 19:1-10 (Common English Bible)
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through town.
2 A man there named Zacchaeus, a ruler among tax collectors, was rich.
3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd.
4 So he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus, who was about to pass that way.
5 When Jesus came to that spot, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.”
6 So Zacchaeus came down at once, happy to welcome Jesus.
7 Everyone who saw this grumbled, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham.
10 The Human One came to seek and save the lost.”
Zaccheus lived a life of achievement, of wealth, of privilege, but also of profound alienation and unhappiness.
Everyone in Jericho knows Zaccheus is rich, but no one likes him. They dislike, despise, resent this man so much that not only is he not welcome in their homes, they’re troubled that Jesus would enter his home.
Zaccheus is unwelcome in their community because he’s collaborating with their oppressors. He’s the Jewish face of the Roman taxation system that strains their families to pay for the armies and the glory of Rome.
And not only that, but they are aware that he’s gotten wealthy himself collaborating with Rome at their expense. See, the only way that the empire could maintain a force of local tax collectors would be to turn away at their overcharging to enrich themselves. Corruption and self-serving schemes are part of every violent empire, and Zaccheus is the face of that greed and selfishness to this community as well.
So Zaccheus is wealthy, but he is not connected. Rejected by his people, and a tool but not a member of the colonizing society, he doesn’t belong. People who interact with Jesus in the gospels are often mentioned with reference to their parents, their children, their friends or spouse, but Zaccheus appears to be solo. He’s alone, which is not tov, not good.
Whose fault is it? Well, it’s his fault to be sure. He most likely didn’t have to be a tax collector, could have found an excuse to not serve in this role even if called upon, or could have done it while not ripping off his own community so badly.
It’s the fault of a powerful, dysfunctional society as well. Rome encouraged isolation and alienation to keep its economy and power structures moving the way they did.
Maybe it’s even Jericho’s fault to some degree. Who knows? I’ve always wondered if Zaccheus experienced isolation and alienation before his life as a wealthy, corrupt chief tax collector. Maybe he’d always been teased for being so unusually short. Maybe he’d been socially isolated because of other differences or disabilities.
Whatever the reason, Zaccheus is hungering for connection that he’s driven out of his life, or perhaps that has been driven from him as well.
And Jesus initiates connection and care. He sees Zaccheus, who’s simply been trying to see Jesus, and he invites himself over for lunch.
I’m coming to your house, he says. And as surprised and angry as the rest of the community is, Zaccheus is honored and thrilled.
And it seems like something of the light of God gets in through the cracks in him. Some part of his underlying pain breaks open maybe, and he can own the harm he’s done in his community. And some part of him, in this new circle of connection and care, lights up. A yearning for connection, a yearning for justice and restoration, a sense of agency returns to him.
And so over the meal, likely with folks eavesdropping outside the windows, he says to Jesus:
I’m going to make things right. I’m going to make things right. And he makes this extravagant beginnings of amends for the harm he’s done.
It’s justice, it’s the right thing, but it’s also a pathway to restoration of community.
Restoration of wealth to poor, fleeced community members.
Restoration of justice to angry, embittered neighbors.
The possibility of restoration of social connection and a place in the community for Zaccheus to.
And so it’s no surprise that Jesus says:
Salvation has come to this house.
Salvation came to this house. He’s not just talking about eternal membership in God’s family, even if he is talking about that as well. He’s talking about healing, wholeness, restoration for both perpetrators and victims, reintegration into community – everything we can mean when we say this word salvation.
God has done it. Jesus has done it. Zaccheus has done it.
Salvation has come – and while salvation comes from God, it’s always a team sport.
Jesus is the initiator here. He establishes the community of connection and care.
But Zaccheus was looking for it too – he was hungry, up there in that tree, looking for God.
Connection and care produce a shift in Zaccheus’ consciousness, as care and forgiveness and acceptance and connection always do. Zaccheus is more free, he longs to do right now. Which is good, because connection can be started through care, but it’s only sustained through safe and just practices in community relationships.
Communities don’t work if people don’t do right by one another. So Zaccheus does the good work to partner with God in his own salvation and restoration, which protects his community as well.
And then at the end it’s amplified, magnified by Jesus when he says: look at this, this man is a real son of Abraham, isn’t he? He’s restoring Zaccheus to community, calling him a good Jew, one who truly belongs among his people.
After all, Jesus is the human one who came to seek and save the lost. The human one – Son of Man – is an insider lingo kind of title for Jesus but it also means what it sounds like, like he’s the most truly human one who’s ever walked among us. And he looks for people who are disconnected, alienated, lost, and he longs to restore them, as he does here.
Man, this is a good news story. And it resounds for me in all kinds of ways in our times too, makes me long to keep seeing more of this.
I think of the nearly one in 50 men who are currently incarcerated in this country. They’re like one in five of the world’s incarcerated men. And if you count the formerly incarcerated too, it’s far more.
And these are like the poor versions of Zaccheus. In most cases, they’ve done wrong to somebody in society, they’ve caused disconnection in communities. But more often than not, their criminality was proceeded by all kinds of alienation in their lives, all kinds of ways they’ve been done wrong and severed from healthy community.
And I think of how our society’s systems of so-called justice and punishment isolate and sever people from community, not just while incarcerated but often for many years afterwards. And I long for more cycles of salvation and restoration in this so broken area of this country.
Or in subtler ways, I think of myself.
Middle aged Americans, especially middle aged men in America, often don’t have many friends. And it’s our own fault, right? Putting career and other stuff over time with friends, awkwardness about affection and need, low emotional intelligence sometimes maybe.
But it’s also kind of not our fault too, right? This late capitalist culture has its demands and expectations and norms about work and family and long commutes and all kinds of other stuff that make it hard for middle aged men to make and sustain friendships.
There’s a cost, though, to all this – a cost in social cohesion, a cost in risk for what we call deaths of despair – suicide, alcohol abuse, and drug addiction that have driven down men’s life expectancy in recent years. With lack of connection being one of the risk factors in these things.
Anyway, in a smaller way, a few years ago, I was feeling these costs.
A few years ago, I realized I could really use a couple more friends. I was also thinking I could use another spiritual friend or two, people that would understand my faith and values, and with whom I could pray. I love my spiritual relationships here at Reservoir, but I’m always a pastor here, and I wanted a couple more relationships like this outside this church.
But it’s not like you can order friends on Amazon, right? Like hey, I’ll search for local prayer partners that are available.
So what’d I do? Well, I thought about the local pastors I knew. And I thought of this one guy, who I’d only had a couple short conversations with before, but I knew him by reputation, and we’d been around each other at a few events and meetings. And I liked him, he seemed like a good person too, someone I could connect with and trust.
So I made an appointment to see him, and I was like: hey, I need another pastor friend, and you seem like a good guy. Wanna be friends?
Don’t get me wrong, it was hella awkward at first, for me at least. But he wasn’t awkward at all. In fact, he was like: hey, thanks for thinking of me. And it turns out that another pastor we both knew had reached out to him earlier in the month about getting together a couple times a month to talk and pray together, and he was like maybe you should join us?
And I did, and for a few years now, we’ve been friends, meeting up a couple times a month for open, candid conversation and prayer. And these friendships have been great. They’ve been useful – I’ve learned about some great resources through these guys, gotten some ideas professionally. They’ve helped me network, gave me advice on a grant I won. And I think I’ve been useful to them too.
But more than these instrumental benefits, the connection itself in this circle has been tremendously life giving. It’s been a place to be real, to be honest, to get support and affirmation and sanity checks, and to give the same.
This making of connection started with God growing an awareness in me that I needed it and a sense of where to turn. And then it took my risk and initiative to do something to connect and open up as well as the grace and kindness of a couple folks interested in reciprocating to make this circle of connection and care.
And it’s gotten deeper because one of the guys wanted this to move beyond just a light social thing and make this a community of practice too – a place where we talk about what we’re doing to be more healthy, wholehearted people and pastors. And that’s given us more reasons to keep getting together and has made these friendships one of the places where for me too, the light of God can get into the cracks for me.
In a lot of ways, friends, that’s what this church is here for.
God values for each of us the life-giving connections that will help us pursue God’s wholeness, love, and leading in every area of our lives. And we like to try to encourage that happening.
We affirm here that to have a good life and a good faith, we don’t need to be particularly rich or beautiful or favored or lucky in any other way.
We just need help discovering that we are connected, that we are seen and known and loved by a living God. That the goodness and loving kindness of that God follows us wherever we go. And that these experiences of divine love and connection can be mirrored and reflected in rich human to human connections as well.
Now this may or may not be your experience of church today, but my invitation today is to see if this can’t be true here, if you’d like it to be.
Our membership agreement at Reservoir is pretty simple. You fill it out online at our website, and you’re a member, period. And it doesn’t start with telling you what to believe or what to do, it starts with connection, with saying I believe God has good things in the life for me and others, and that this community can be one of the places in life that encourages those good things.
The membership invitation invites you to, in metaphorical terms, attend Jesus’ party. In literal terms, it says
“I will simply be there, through regular participation on Sundays and through participation in a community group as able.”
We invite you to participate in these ways because this kind of participation for most people stimulates greater connection, community, and belonging. Church is a rare place to be a contributing, participating member of a community that doesn’t sort and define us on the terms of capitalism, but of beloved community.
And it’s a place, particularly in our community groups, where some real depth of connection is possible over time. Many of our groups encourage a community of practice, as our pastor of community life Ivy has talked about – places where we try practices that deepen our experience of God and develop a rich spiritual life.
But all our groups start by trying to be communities of connection and care, places where we can show up authentically just as we are, and find that others are glad we’re there, and glad to be part of the connections that help us not just not be alone, but experience the goodness and encouragement and gift of community that we need.
Our sense as a church is that after all we’ve been through the past couple of years, a lot of us are eager for a little more connection in our lives. Maybe God is stirring that hunger for you too. If so, I hope you’ll pay attention to that, lean into the opportunities around you.
It’s not good to be alone. You’re all worth better than that, I promise you. And if this community can be part of your circles of connection and care and practice, know we’re here for that.