Way back in 1966, The Beatles released a hit song titled “Eleanor Rigby.” The classic tune paints a sad picture of lonely people who live on the remote edges of the wider world.
As the lyrics go, Eleanor Rigby is the caretaker of a ramshackle country church – the one who sweeps up the rice after the weddings have come and gone, the one who rakes up the leaves in the parish cemetery come fall and sweeps off the snow from the walks come winter. The church’s pastor, Father McKenzie, writes the words to sermons that no one will hear because “no one comes near.”
Sadly, in the end, Eleanor Rigby dies in the church and is buried “along with her name. Nobody came.” And the song’s somber chorus wonders: “All the lonely people: Where do they all come from? All the lonely people: Where do they all belong?”
Indeed, look around in the world and in our community – maybe even here in this place, and if you’ve got eyes to see and compassion in your heart, you won’t have a hard time picking out all the lonely, aimless, marginalized folks whom no one ever talks to much less cares about.
A lot of us treasure our “alone time,” myself included. We create space in our busy schedules to unplug and decompress from the demands of everyday life and living. But what if “a table for one” is your daily reality?
What if you never go anywhere or do anything, because your phone never rings or vibrates with an invitation to “hang out”?
What if your postal mail, email, and social media never bring heart-warming contact from friends and family wondering how you’re doing and inviting you to catch up over lunch or dinner?
What if you and your life partner can sit in the same room but nevertheless feel like you’re a million miles apart?
What if you really and truly feel isolated and marooned all the time?
There are people like that here, there and everywhere – sad, miserable, and/or bullied souls who feel alone in a crowd 24/7/365! Maybe you’re one of them – maybe not lonely all the time, but surely feeling left to fend for yourself far more often than you’d like.
In our Scripture lesson this morning, the apostle Peter shares some good news for “all the lonely people” no matter where they come from. Peter offers hope for anyone and everyone who feels like a forgotten non-person.
As you grow and nourish your discipleship, drink in the spiritual truth that is the word of the Lord, as the story of God with us marches forward.
Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.
Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation – if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
For it stands in scripture: “See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,” and “A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:1-10)
“Once you were not a people.”
“Once you were no-people.”
“Once you were nobody” – a real nowhere man, as go the lyrics of another Beatles classic.
A real nowhere women, a real nowhere teen-ager, a real nowhere kid, sitting in his nowhere land, making all her nowhere plans for nobody, no point of view, no idea where you’re going to.
That, Peter says, is who they once were – maybe even a bit like you and me in the darkest moments of our most desolate of days: Nobodies belonging to no one in particular and going nowhere special in life. No-people, standing alone on the fringes and feeling like valueless naughts and meaningless cyphers who are ignored and forgotten, teased and belittled.
Peter’s sharp pen stabs the heart with the pain of quarantine and agony of isolation – long before COVID made those words familiar parts of our daily vocabulary. And if you take stock of the huddled masses who count themselves among the world’s most forlorn and rejected people, then you have to count Jesus among their number.
Jesus – the stone whom the builders rejected – really was the lonely man of his day. And the music continues its siren song: All the lonely people – where do they all belong?
Sure, Jesus always seems to be surrounded by people much of the time – his apostles, his other followers, the curious craning their necks to catch a glimpse of God among us, the hungry straining their ears to hear a tender morsel of his life-saving Word.
Yet, no one really understands him – not his mother, nor his family, not even his closest friends. Jesus is the lonely one, the man from whom plenty of folks turn away. Jesus is the one who knows deep in his soul exactly what it feels like to be counted among no-people nobodies.
But God doesn’t leave Jesus alone in the nowhere land of nobodies.
God picks up that rejected stone and morphs it into living stone. God, in heaven’s great mercy, takes what looked like a throw-away rock and turns it into a precious jewel. And this living stone that is Christ Jesus the Lord has, since then, been doing exactly the same thing for as many other rejected and lonely ones as he can grab and grace with his mercy.
“Once you were no-people. But now you are the people of God. You belong to me!”
In that belonging, we, too, by grace and mercy, become living stones, flowering stones – like lithops, succulent plants native to South Africa. Lithops look like living, breathing, colorful stones – miracles of God’s creative goodness. When they flower, the “stones” break open and burst forth with color.
Faith flowering from broken-open hearts: The Gospel declares in no uncertain terms that this is very-much possible and that it absolutely happens all the time. Nobodies become somebodies. The lost and isolated are found and included – invited to participation in something grand, and new, and known as the people of God.
The once-lonely who used to cry themselves to sleep, or who have grown accustomed to drifting off to sleep watching endless TikTok snippets more nights than not, they are the ones who receive mercy.
It’s what they’ve hungered and yearned for all along!
Every time they sob in loneliness, every time they see a couple strolling by hand in hand, every time they stifle a cry when they spy a happy family pass by on the sidewalk, it reminds them all over again how all alone they are by comparison. Their tears are loud cries – Lord have mercy! – even if they don’t realize it.
“Once you had NOT received mercy,” Peter writes, “but now you have received mercy.” For all the lonely people who know deep down that being lonely is not the way God intends things to be – for all those who weep and mourn for lack or loss of relationship, the Gospel of Jesus, the rejected one, is this:
Those who are no-people – those who cry for a mercy they’ve not yet found – are the very ones who will be the first to be lifted up to gaze eye to eye into Jesus’s loving face. Just one look into those eyes, and you’ll know in an instant that he understands.
Jesus comes to all the lonely people – and surely to the lonely person who finally lives in unwarranted seclusion deep in the heart of each one of us. Loneliness pours into our cracked, broken hearts like rainwater gushes through a leaky roof – it always finds a way in, no matter how hard we try to patch the leak.
And Jesus comes to these friendless, isolated people whose phones never ring, whose social calendars echo with empty space, whose numbers never seem to come up, whose names never get called. And in his great mercy, Jesus invites them – and all of us – to his holy table of relationship: “I was wondering, would you like to have dinner with me?”
All who know that once they were a no-people can respond to Christ’s gracious invitation in just one way: “Yes, Lord, I’d love to have dinner with you. I think that would be very lovely indeed. I would love to taste and see that your goodness comes in knowing that you are mine and I am yours.”
Taste and see that good news whenever you come to the Lord’s Table.
Hear and believe that good news when we sing “Be Not Afraid” in a few moments.
For loneliness rears its ugly head in lots of different ways, and some of the loneliest people out there might just be the ones who most need to hear the great mystery of faith: “This my body, broken for you. This is my blood, shed for you. Be not afraid.”
All the lonely people, where do they all come from? From north, south, east and west to gather around the Table of abundant mercy.
All the lonely people, where do they all belong? Here in this place, where the Lord’s hospitable love welcomes all in the breaking of bread and the pouring of juice, in the streaming waters of baptism, in the assurance that all are welcome in this place – no matter who you are, no matter whom you love, no matter whose campaign signs dot your front lawn.
Ancient words, ever true, particularly in these our days, when those fields of faith into which we’ve been planted seem littered with landmines and choked with rocks. But ours is not a time to cast away stones but to gather them together. Ours is not a time for exclusion but for inclusion.
Set yourself close to Jesus – lean upon the Christ. Lay down your life in the loving, compassion hands of the Lord. For whoever believes in him will never-ever be disappointed or put to shame.
All the lonely people: Where do they all belong? Right here, right now – counted among the beloved members of the community that just is the body of Christ.
Amen, and amen.
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, October 16 2022, as part of his current sermon series, “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God with Us.” Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by David L. Bartlett, Scott Hoezee, and John C. Tittle inform the message. “Eleanor Rigby” written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC. “Be Not Afraid” by Bob Dufford and Theophane Hytreak, © 1975, 1978 Robert J. Dufford and New Dawn Music, sung by John Michael Talbot.