October 3 2021 The Myth of the Marlboro Man
I want to call your attention this morning to a condition that is threatening the lives of people all around us. The dangers of this condition have been scientifically proven, but for one reason or another people haven’t taken it as seriously as they need to. It’s a public health crisis, something the whole community needs to address. And it’s the people who are most vulnerable, the most at risk, who are suffering. The more we ignore this problem the more victims there will be, the more suffering there will be, the more loss there will be.
A recent study found that nearly half of the people surveyed were affected by this condition, some very severely. The risks, compared with other public health risks, are alarming. It affects a person’s mental health as well as physical. It’s been linked with depression and poor sleep quality, a sharp decline in cognitive ability, poor cardiovascular function and weakened immunity – not only for the elderly, but for people at every stage of life. One study linked this condition with a 30 percent increase in risk of having a stroke or developing coronary heart disease. Another study associated it with a 40 percent increase in a person’s risk of developing dementia.
You might have guessed that I’m not talking about Covid-19 or the Delta variant. I’m talking about a public health crisis that God warned about at the creation of the world, when he formed the man, adam, from the clay of the river bank, and breathed the breath of life into him, and set him in the midst of a perfect garden to care for it. “It’s not good,” God warned on that day, “for the man to be alone.” The pandemic I’ve been describing is loneliness, and science bears out the truth of what God said. The effects of loneliness on human beings can range from harmful to devastating to fatal. Every day there are millions of people suffering the ravages of isolation. And by its very nature people suffering from loneliness mostly go unnoticed.
“It’s not good for the man to be alone,” God said, and he caused all his brand-new creatures to come before the man to see what he would name them. Woodpecker and mole, elephant and otter, aardvark and iguana, the man gave every one of them a name, but among all those furry and feathery and scaly critters, not one of them was quite what the man needed – a helper, someone to be his partner in this brand new world.
When we read the story of the creation of man and woman, we naturally associate it with marriage. It’s a perfect reading for weddings, because it tells how God created marriage at the very beginning of time, as the building-block of human community. But there’s more here, not only about marriage but about what it means to be human. In chapter one, we hear God conferring with God’s self about this special creature he is about to form as the pinnacle of Creation. “Let Us make humankind in Our image,” God muses. Notice that God is having a conversation with God, because God is a being who exists in community, in an eternal relationship of love. It’s that community that we’re trying to express when we describe the Trinity. And that means that we human beings, man and woman both, are also created for relationship. Part of our divine DNA is the need for community.
And we’re talking here about so much more than marriage. Churches have all too often tended to see marriage and the nuclear family as the norm. We offer retreats and studies for married couples. We generally expect our clergy to be married. We offer young people advice on finding the “right” man or woman so they can grow up and get married. And none of those things are bad in and of themselves. But people who are widowed, or people who are divorced, or adults who choose to remain single, have very often had a hard time finding real community in the context of the church. And that is a serious failing on the part of the Church.
This creation story speaks to the needs of all human beings, not just married people. When the man sees the woman for the first time and cries out joyfully, “This at last is flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone!” it is so much more than just a boy-meets-girl moment. This is the cry of a lonely human creature finding kinship with another human creature. Something is deeply, inherently satisfied by this encounter. It’s a cry for all human beings everywhere for all time; it’s about the need to know that we’re not alone, to find community with creatures like us, who share the same flesh, who are stamped with the same divine image. To be human is to need to love and to be loved.
We live in such a sex-obsessed culture that I think we get distracted by our traditional image of Adam and Eve, with fig leaves tastefully positioned to satisfy our Puritan squeamishness, and we imagine that Adam is awestruck by the difference between himself and the woman. But we miss the point. The joy of the man is not that he has found a sex object. Adam is delighted by Eve first and foremost because he has found kinship, because he has found someone like himself.
And this is such an important teaching in our time because loneliness is affecting our world in epidemic proportions, and it has gotten so much worse in this time of pandemic and social distancing. We know of the destructive loneliness that is suffered by elderly people who are placed in nursing homes. Nursing homes can be a good situation for a loved one whose family visits and monitors their care. But there are far too many older people who are shuffled away to nursing homes and forgotten, sitting day after day within the four walls of their rooms with no real human interaction.
But loneliness is everywhere. My brother works remotely and doesn’t see another human being all week long. He shops online, so his groceries and other necessities appear at his door, without a single personal contact. And I don’t think my brother’s situation is as rare as you might think. Social media and video games have replaced real human interaction for a lot of children, and adults as well. There are over 1500 online dating apps and sites for young people and single adults desperate for some kind of community.
People are dying of loneliness even when they are surrounded by other people. There are workers who are alone in crowded offices. There are husbands and wives who are alone in distant marriages. There are children who are alone at home or in crowded classrooms, ignored or bullied or abused with no one to notice. Last week we all saw the news reports of the 10-year-old girl who died of abuse and neglect at the hands of her mother. Social workers had been assigned to the case. Neighbors had called in reports. Other family members were living right there in her home. But in the midst of all those people, she was alone. Loneliness is every bit as destructive a pandemic as Covid-19, and even more difficult to fight against. “It’s not good for the man to be alone,” God said.
And then God said, “I will make a suitable helper for him.” Here God is instituting the marriage relationship. But God is doing more than that. He’s also saying that human beings are not created to be independent, self-sufficient entities. We’re created for one another. Over and over in Scripture God reveals that he has a special concern for the lonely. Psalm 68 says, “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families.” And Psalm 113 says,”He settles the childless woman in her home as a happy mother of children.” In Matthew 25, Jesus identifies himself with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the poor, the sick, the prisoner. “Whatever you have done for the least of these, my brothers and sisters,” Jesus says, “you have done it for me.”
God has a special concern for the lonely. And that means we, who are created in his image, also have a responsibility those who are lonely. And that can be an uncomfortable thing, because it means seeing one another, all other human beings, as kin, flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone – not just our spouses, not just our children or friends, not just the people we like – but the people we see at the grocery store; the people we pass in the hallways of the nursing home; even people who look and think and live differently from us. It means paying attention to the all of the people around us.
But there’s more to all this. Not only do our lonely neighbors need us, but we also need each other. And that might be even harder for us to deal with. Most of us have grown up being taught that we’re supposed to stand on our own two feet. We might know that we are supposed to help other people, but we’ve been conditioned to feel shame when we need to accept help. “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” we’ve heard. Except that’s not in the Bible. It’s a time-honored old American heresy. The idol we worship is the Marlboro man, out there on his own, in need of nobody. But the truth is, we are the farthest from being human when we cut ourselves off from one another. When we think we’re the most god-like, the most in control of our own lives, we are actually the least reflective of the divine image God created in us. Because God didn’t create us to stand alone; he created us to be like Himself, and he is the God who lives in an eternal community of love and mutual dependence.
You are flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone. I am flesh of your flesh and bone of your bone. God created us to be helpers fit for one another. That’s the full meaning of the story of creation. That’s the purpose of the Church. “It’s not good,” God said, “for the man to be alone.” It’s in our nature, as creatures made in the image of God, to need one another. And it is very, very good for us to love one another.
- Posted in: Sermons