On the way out of Cuba, we spent a day and a half in Havana, staying in the tight dorm space at First Presbyterian Church, just a ten minute walk from the Capital and a few more to Old Town. The church is active in its community and one of the offerings is a twice a week morning session of Tai Chi. Alison Whitacre and I joined around 20 older members or friends of the congregation along with a few others visiting from Santa Fe for the near hour long guided session. Our leader was a Cuban man, giving instructions in Spanish with hand gestures for those of us language impaired. We experimented with a form of Chinese martial arts turned into meditation and exercise, listened to Chinese music and ended the session with a song from the Taizé community in France. Cuba, China, France with guests from the States. What a wonderful world we are privileged to enjoy.
I love the connections of the church – global, ecumenical, grass roots - all the branches and vines that hold us together. And there is Jesus who talked of being a true vine and all of us as branches. Held together, bound together in love, tethered to the source of life. Thanks be to God.
John writes a great deal about the intimate connections with Jesus and, in turn, with God. “If you abide in me and my words abide in you,” he remembers Jesus telling, ask for what you need. There is a commitment involved. For, “if you keep my commandments,” Jesus also said, “you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” Now, to tell the truth, I do not believe at all in the face value of the line: ask whatever and it will be given to you, from verse seven. That makes God the grand bell hop with the vending machine view of faith (say the right words and the treat comes out). I have a serious argument with that one line. But I know well of the experience of vine and branches that give life. We are all connected and intertwined with the love of Jesus, the love of God and the love of humanity. Being connected is the key to this passage.
Just look at the ways that we are connected as a community of faith. I doubt that I would know anything of Robinwood without our ties to STAIR, the tutoring of children at that and nine other sites around the county. We have friends all over the county for we are the church that sponsored STAIR. We have friends in Letohrad, Czech Republic and new friends in that dusty small city called Caibarién, Cuba. A year ago I walked the one paved road in rural Haiti on my own simply with the words, “zanmi CODEP” (friend of CODEP) and was perfectly safe and welcomed. And because I am your pastor I am invited into living rooms and hospital rooms and intimate places of birth and death, sorrow and celebration. The ties are remarkable, the connections are powerful and life giving. When on the streets of Annapolis I am often treated with great respect for I come from that church that hosts the Red House, is a friend of AA and welcomes Winter Relief. The connections are real and life changing.
Over the years that I have traveled to rural Haiti cell phones have gone from non-existent to ever present. My pastoral career has spanned the days of children relying on the phone in the church office or pay phones to the constant buzz of cell phones. It is a universal – everyone, rich or poor, old or young, wants to stay connected to the people they love. Haitians skip a meal in order to have the money to go to the store that has a generator and can re-charge their phone.
Today we have the chance to welcome a new child into the community of the faith. Elaine is a fourth generation of women in the congregation, following mom and grandmother also baptized here. While her family ties are unique, the parents’ story strikes a very familiar cord. When I ask parents why they are presenting their children for baptism nearly all speak of the ties to a community of faith. They want the contact, the support, the community of the church to care for their little one, to share our values and to surround each other in kindness and prayer. We are made for community.
I vividly remember an older, quiet, introverted, single member who said that she much prefers Easter over Christmas. The reason: on Easter she is in the church. On Christmas day she is alone. We are made for community. We are hard wired to be connected.
Loneliness and isolation are the curse, community is the gift. What is fascinating about this observation is that it is the same for rich or poor. Often, in the church, we err by thinking that only poor people have needs. We are appropriately moved by physical needs but can miss the emotional and spiritual ones that are quite real yet, at times, harder to spot. Loneliness and isolation are real issues and ironically, wealth can complicate the problem as the wealthy often live in large houses, on large lots or in gated communities. With the advent of air conditioning many generations back, some can go days without being outside or seeing a neighbor. Real human connections can be the most important gift that we in the church can offer the world. Remember, the passing of the peace may be for some the only human touch that they receive.
Life giving connections. That is what the church is all about. And, that is the main reason why we are not shy at all to ask for your time, your prayers and your money. As I am entering into a rather nostalgic phase, what with my retirement now a month away, I am amazed, overwhelmed and grateful for the ties that the church has provided for me. I have met so many faithful, loving people, like you: folks who love God and love neighbor as best as they can, even with all our quirks and limitations. A new visitor to our congregation told me that when she mention to some Annapolis friends that she was attending First Presbyterian they responded, “Oh, that is that ‘bad ass’ church!”
I have been privileged to sit down for a meal or a drink with persons like Bill Coffin, Parker Palmer, Alan Boesak, Marcus Borg, Freda Gardner, Daniel Zenalty …………. well the list goes on and on of some the best and brightest that the church has produced in the last 60 years. The church has sent me to the Soviet Union to pray for peace and to South Africa to stand with those who fought to bring down the system of apartheid. You’ve sent me to form friendships in the Czech Republic, Haiti and Cuba. When our team returned from Cuba earlier this month I said, “Has it sunk in how fortunate we are? We have just experienced the grit and faith of Christians on the ground in Cuba!” And, many of you have welcomed me into your lives – with all the struggle and joy, laughter and tears. I have been so blessed --- by the church, by you.
My urging – and the urging from John in both the epistle and the gospel: don’t miss the chance. Seek the ties that bind; the connections that give life. Yes, it takes time and effort to connect with the vine called Jesus and all the branches called the church. It is not magic – it takes sweat and blood, tears and laughter, prayer and study, care and risk. Yet, what a gift it is to welcome the depth of life and to dwell in love. Don’t miss it.