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We are Connected

April 28, 2018

One of the many fascinating things that amazes me about the Aspen trees in the Rocky Mountain National Park is their connectional nature. The root system in a group is all connected. The golden colors you see in this picture represent one or two connected systems. It reminds me of the reading from John 15:1-8. In this passage, Jesus talks about how we are connected to God to God and to each other.

As a lifelong Presbyterian, I have heard from a very young age how our denomination is connectional. Our form of government is so much more than simply the local church board or Session. Our churches are connected in regional bodies called Presbyteries which are themselves connected in larger regional bodies called Synods. All of us are connected at the national level in the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) which is our national church. If you want to take the connection to a worldwide level, we are a part of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.

This June I will be a Commissioner to the 223rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) at its meeting in St Louis. I have been to three prior General Assemblies as an observer and was always deeply touched by the connectional nature of our church. Especially in 2010 as I went to the Assembly in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I went to seminary and was initially ordained, it felt like I was attending a reunion. I saw people whom I had walked with during various phases of my ministry from 1970 – 2010 which included my growing up in the church along with ministry before the military and during my time as a Chaplain in the USAF. That reunion of sorts was just a taste of what I believe Jesus was talking about when he described us as being connected like vines and branches in a vineyard.

Today I saw another aspect of that connectional nature of our faith community as I officiated at the Celebration of Life service for a member of our church. Bruce was far more than a member to Denise and to me. He was a dear friend who we were getting to know and enjoy. His wife Lindi had been the Church Office Manager when we arrived in Estes Park. Bruce was the Administrator of the Urgent Care Clinic I went to as well. In addition to our working relationship, a really neat friendship had begun. All of the people who gathered for the service were from a variety of backgrounds. In addition to Rotary, other Civic Events, and the Medical Community; Bruce was a great musician who performed (guitar, banjo, and singing) at local events. Before, during, and after the service we heard so many stories about how Bruce had touched the lives of so many through his work and civic involvement along with his music.

His sudden death shortly after retirement hit us all so very hard. It reminded us of the fragile nature of life along with the way so many people can be connected. Family, Musicians, Health Care Professionals, Church Members, Civic Organization Members, and Community Members had all been touched in some way by Bruce’s love and life. Even though many were meeting for the first time, we all had a common connection. That connection was multi-faceted and deep. Yes, it fit the analogy of the vine and the branches.

If we were to stop with the John 15:1-8 passage that would be enough. When I was preparing the bulletin for tomorrow’s worship three weeks ago, that was my intent. However, much has happened since then and the Holy Spirit has been at work. And when She stirs the heart and the soul, the outcome can be mind-boggling! The companion reading for the Fifth Sunday of Easter takes this concept to a whole new level.

In Acts 8:26-40, we read the account of the Ethiopian Eunuch and his encounter with the Apostle Philip. Philip could not have come across another person with so many religious challenges. The Eunuch was from Ethiopia and a member of the Queen’s court. He was reading from the Prophet Isaiah in his chariot following worshipping in Jerusalem. As a foreigner and one who had been castrated for whatever role he played in the Ethiopian Queen’s court, this man was definitely an outsider! To worship in the Temple, he would have been restricted to the very periphery of the Temple. Even the Court of the Women would have been closer to the Holy of Holies than the place where he would have been allowed to worship. Yet here he was, a convert, struggling to make sense of the Prophet Isaiah.

If you noticed, Philip passed by and ignored the chariot on the side of the road. It wasn’t until the Spirit (She is, if anything, persistent) prodded Philip that he payed attention to the chariot and its curious occupant. Philip, as a Jew would have looked down his nose at this Eunuch who wasn’t really a Jew. This fellow was an outsider in more ways than one. Philip could have easily passed on by and come up with a perfectly rational and even “religious” reason for doing so.

Most studies of this passage (including your Padre’s study over the past 31 years of ordained ministry and preaching) focus on the Eunuch and his desire for Baptism. Tonight, however, I am looking at it from a slightly different perspective. What if the focus was on how Philip was challenged to look outside of his ordinary community? What if the focus was on how the Spirit was challenging Philip to look at an outsider in a new way. What if the Spirit was calling Philip to see how the self-defined and self-regulated nature of his faith was too small!

The Ethiopian Eunuch was, without realizing it, challenging Philip’s assumptions along with the assumptions of his religious community. This outsider was perhaps even studying harder than most of the religious insiders. The Eunuch was, thanks to the radical work of the Spirit (and trust me, she is radical!), challenging the assumptions of the religious insiders. At the end of the story, Philip baptizes the Eunuch. However, I wonder if Philip himself was transformed in an equally profound and life-altering way!

The outsider challenged the insider and as a result, a truly powerful connection was confirmed. What if we were to look at others through the lens of inclusion rather than the lens of exclusion. What if we were to see others who might be different from us as beloved children of God rather than someone to be feared. What if we spent more time building bridges of understanding rather than walls of fear and discrimination.

How are we connected, dear reader? If we open our hearts to the Spirit’s influence, we might be surprised. And I am pretty certain that God would be pleased.

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