A few weeks ago, Richard Greer came into my office with a newspaper tucked under his arm ready to share it with me. It was an article written by Doctors Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz, directors of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. This study has been ongoing for 85 years! Since 1938, Harvard University has had an astonishing 84% participation rate in this longitudinal study to determine patterns of happiness and health. 724 men started the study and since then, more than 1,300 of their male and female descendants have taken part. The result is quite clear, the single most important factor in long-term health and happiness is good relationships. On the other hand, there is growing evidence that loneliness can suppress your immune system, lower you brain functioning, and make sleep less effective. For older people, this and other studies suggest, loneliness can increase the odds of a person’s death in any given year by 26%.
Digging into the data and looking at the nature of human beings, this makes sense. The authors give the example of a women who lived fifty thousand years ago. “An isolated person’s body and brain would have gone into temporary survival mode. The need to recognize threats would have fallen on her alone, so her stress hormones would have increased and made her more alert. If her family or tribe were away overnight and she had to sleep by herself, her sleep would be shallower. If a predator was approaching, she would want to know, so she would be more easily aroused and experience more awakenings during the night. If for some reason she found herself alone for say, a month, rather than a night, these physical processes would continue, morphing into a droning, constant sense of unease, and they would begin to take a toll on her mental and physical health. She would be, as we say today, stressed out. She would be lonely.” Chronic loneliness is like living in a house with the smoke detector going off all day, every day.
It is a scientific fact that human beings are designed to be in relationship. Of course, humans have known this since long before the scientific method existed. In the first creation story in Genesis 1, we read that God created human beings in God’s image. There are a few ways you can understand what it means to be created in the image of God, but the way I read it, our Trinitarian God is perfect relationship and so, to be made in God’s image means to be made to be in relationship. Since we aren’t three in one like the Godhead, we live into the Imago Dei by creating healthy relationships with God and our fellow humans. It’s why I continually harp on the idea that the mission of the Church is to restore all of humanity to right relationship with God and with each other. Later, in the second story of creation, we read the first thing that God says isn’t good. In Genesis 2:18, God looks at Adam, whom God had created to till and keep the land and very quickly realizes that it is not good for human beings to be alone, and so God began to create all kinds of things to fill the void in Adam. Cows. Chickens. Fish. Cats. Dogs. God created all the animals of the land and the air and the sea, but still hadn’t made a suitable partner for Adam. Finally, God created Eve as a companion for Adam. Right relationship between human beings had been established, and it was good.
Which brings us to our very challenging teaching from Jesus in this morning’s Gospel. Jesus makes it pretty impossible to live up to the standard of the Kingdom of God. “If you are angry at your brother or sister, you have committed murder.” “If you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the fires of hell.” “If you look at a woman with lust, you have committed adultery.” “If you divorce your wife for any reason but unchastity, you commit adultery.” “Don’t swear by heaven, earth, or your own life, just let your yes be yes and your no be no.” With all due respect to Jesus, this is just plain crazy. There is no way anyone can live up to the vision of right relationship that Jesus sets forth in this section of the Sermon on the Mount.
No, none of us can live a perfect life. We’re going to get angry occasionally. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been behind the wheel of my car and yelled at a fellow driver, “you idiot!” 75% of the ads during the Super Bowl this afternoon will be based on getting men to look lustfully at something or someone in order to get them to buy a product. We are all guilty, on some level, of breaking right relationship, of failing to live into the fullness of the image of God within us. God knows this about us. As with most of the difficult things Jesus had to say, its impossibility is precisely the point. So why does Jesus take such a hard line against what he knows, full well, we human beings are going to do?
The simple answer is because Jesus cares. Humanity is the only part of God’s creation that was made in the Imago Dei. We bear within and upon us the image of God. We are chief stewards, the managers of creation. We are, for all intents and purposes, God’s best and most beloved handiwork, and because of this, God is mindful of us. And because God is mindful of us, the things we do and the things that happen to us matter to God. And because these things matter to God, the pain we feel is known and felt by God. In the Incarnation, Jesus took the pain of this world into the Godhead so that today, God can walk alongside us in our hurt and heartache. Jesus takes such a hard line on relationships because when relationships break and people are hurting, it grieves God.
Relationships are hard. Divorce is messy. So is cancer. Violence breaks God’s heart too. All of this is true. The tearing apart of human relationships hurts, no matter the reasons. The good news is, God is there. God is here. God is with us every step of the journey. God values relationships. God made us to be in relationship. God understands that good relationships are the key to a healthy and happy life. God also knows that relationships don’t always last. Whether our relationships are full and satisfying or difficult and challenging, God is there because God loves us and God is the creator of right relationship. Life is hard, but the Good News is God is here, always. Amen.