I recently met Mark, a Chippewa of Rama First Nation elder, when he spoke to us last weekend as a guest speaker at a meeting of Bishops, Ministry Directors, Deans and Synod Council on the eastern shores of Lake Couchiching outside Orillia.
Mark spoke to us about how difficult decisions are made in his aboriginal community, when there are many opposing opinions on a certain matter.
He spoke about the importance …
… of slowing down … of taking as much time as needed – without rush, hurry or pressure – to truly listen to each other …
…to mull over, ponder, and sit with others and their ideas, before making any decision…
…and if no decision is immediately forthcoming, to be ok with “sleeping on it” …
… while always striving for a consensus, for a decision that many if not everyone could live with …
This reminded me of how our relationships really matter.
And how even our very own faith tradition, our Christian spirituality, is fundamentally relational in nature…. That our faith is lived out, experienced in community.
Any notion of having a “private faith” or a “private religion” really doesn’t match with the Christian spiritual faith tradition, as revealed in the Bible, and practiced throughout the centuries.
Celebrated theologian G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “A [person] can no more possess a `private religion’ than he can possess a private sun or moon.”
In the same way as God is fundamentally relational, so too are we as human beings.
We find our very identity and existence only in the vibrant network of the whole human family – indeed the whole web of created life itself.
The very fabric of society itself depends on good, healthy relationships – of continually exercising mutual support, co-operation and respect.
The health, stability and functionality of any society anywhere in the world depends on everyone willing to respect and work with others; especially others having different opinions, backgrounds, and personalities.
The beautiful vine imagery Jesus uses in today’s Gospel text evokes the imagination of mutual relationship, connection to life-giving energy, and utter dependence on God, and one another.
“I am the vine” Jesus says, “and you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…”
The neighbours behind our house have a wisteria vine.
And every Spring, that vine awakens, and greens, and the branches break out and grow fast and furious, curling around the chain link fence, stretching out along the top of the fence, aggressively extending its branches every which way.
There’s life in that plant. Vital, vibrant, strong life!
Connected to God and to one another, we find robust life-giving energy and strength to move on, grow, and continue in the ways of God.
… because we’re not just one branch, but many branches (in the plural) growing together, mutually depending on, and receiving strength from each other, and getting the necessary food and nutrients from the process of photosynthesis happening on the leaves of the many branches going to support the whole plant.
The giant sequoia trees (or “redwood” trees) are the tallest trees on earth, measuring a hundred metres or more in height, and are thousands of years old.
Yet surprisingly, redwoods have very shallow root systems.
But the way they withstand the many winds and storms over the centuries, is that they intertwine their roots with the roots of other trees, thus drawing their strength from each other.
Connection. Inter-relatedness. The Web of Life.
Here’s the thing though. And what I find more to be the case in everyday life.
That more often than not, we feel more disconnected than connected, more separated and cut off from God and others than not … much like a dead, withering and browning branch.
Even if some of us don’t struggle with depression or anxiety disorders, our technological and materialistic society leaves many of us feeling fragmented, exhausted and alone.
How much many of us would yearn to feel “closer to God” more often, and closer to others in a compassionate, non-judgemental, accepting community of friends!
Funny thing is, this is exactly how the Ethiopian in today’s first reading from Acts
Not like a vital branch connected to the vine, but rather cut off, and separated from the source of life and love.
This particular Ethiopian that Philip ends up baptizing was a “eunuch”, meaning a person physically unable to procreate and have children.
His physical condition automatically excluded him from entering the Jerusalem temple, and from Jewish worship, according to a very clear law given in Deuteronomy 23:1.
He was essentially “cut off” from being a part of God’s people and faith community.
And obviously he was troubled by that.
That’s why he asked Philip about Jesus – of how Jesus himself was rejected, killed and cut off by the religious and political authorities.
Jesus himself was a “dead branch” cut off from the life source.
The Ethiopian could relate.
And Philip was right there to help explain about Jesus – and about how God in Jesus shows an inclusive, all –embracing love especially to those who feel cut off and rejected.
How God especially turns his face toward those who feel abandoned and suffer.
A young dad was struggling the day of his wife’s funeral, trying to put his son to bed.
Both were numb with sorrow.
The little boy asked, “Daddy, where’s Mommy?”
He tried to answer the question, but the boy kept asking, “Where’s Mommy? When is she coming back?”
After some attempts to comfort his son, the father finally picked him up and put him in his own bed.
The boy reached out his hand through the darkness and placed it on his father’s face, asking, “Daddy, is your face toward me?”
“Yes it is.”
Assured, the boy said, “If your face is toward me, I think I can go to sleep.”
The Dad then whispered quietly a prayer: “O God, the way is dark and I don’t see my way through right now, but if your face is toward me, somehow I think I can make it.”
It’s a real gift to know that no matter what we may be going through – and many of us go through quite a bit – to know that God’s face is turned toward us.
And – and this is what we experience in our own faith community here at St Matthews – that we keep turning our faces to one another – that simple yet powerful and life-giving gesture that makes all the difference in the world, and for which we are so grateful.