A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sermon (May 3) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Staying Connected"

     Whenever I stay at my brother’s house in south central Pennsylvania, I know that calls on my cell phone are going to be a major problem. He lives in a terrible spot for cell phone coverage.
     He acts like it’s no big deal. He says that if you sit on a particular chair at his  kitchen table and stay absolutely still without breathing, you will be able to have a conversation for at least two minutes. What he doesn’t tell you is that even those specific instructions are hit or miss.
     I wish I had a nickel for every time he has ended a phone call conversation with these words, “I’m starting to pull up my driveway so I’m going to lose you. I’ll talk to you when…” There have been many a phone conversation where my brother never finishes that sentence.
     And I don’t even want to think about the places that don’t have a wifi connection or the signal is really weak. Those can be frustrating times. I know there are much bigger problems in the world, but it’s difficult to get anything done when you’re not connected.
     Penny and I have friends who went to France for vacation one year. They chose to stay at a hotel that offered free wifi according to the hotel brochure.
     When they arrived, they tried to connect to the internet but couldn’t. So they asked someone at the desk how to access the hotel wifi. The hotel employee looked confused and told him that they didn’t have wifi. My friend was disappointed but went on with his vacation.
     During the last night of their vacation, he finally figured out that they don’t call it “wifi” in France. They call it “wee-fee.” I wonder if that hotel worker thought my friend was looking for a wife instead of wifi.
     Staying connected is a basic human need. It doesn’t matter if it’s cell phone coverage, a wifi signal, or our landline phone. There’s this basic need to be connected.
     I think this is what Jesus is getting at in our Gospel reading for today. He uses the image of a vine and the branches that grow from that vine. He tells his disciples, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself but must remain in the vine.”
     And just in case we might not get the point he’s trying to make, he says, “I am the vine. You are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit.” Jesus is saying that all we need to do is stay connected to him.
     So what do you do when you have a weak connection or when you see the dreaded “no service” status regarding your faith? How do you get connected again in your relationship with God?
     Well, the good news is that God offers free spiritual wifi service. All we need to do is click on the little button that says, “connect.” OK, maybe it’s not as simple as that, but we often make it more difficult than it needs to be.
     The problem in having a strong connection in our faith isn’t because God doesn’t provide a strong enough heavenly signal. The problem is on our end. Sometimes, we just don’t connect when we can easily connect.
     The Washington Times carried a story about Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. According to this newspaper article, Dr. Rice once described to a Sunday school class at National Presbyterian Church in Washington, how she had drifted from her Christian faith and how God reached out and brought her back:

     "I was a preacher's kid," says Dr. Rice, "so Sundays were church, no doubt about that. The church was the center of our lives. In segregated black Birmingham of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the church was not just a place of worship. It was the place where families gathered; it was the social center of the community, too.

     "Although I never doubted the existence of God," Dr. Rice continues, "I think like all people, I've had some ups and downs in my faith. When I first moved to California in 1981 to join the faculty at Stanford, there were a lot of years when I was not attending church regularly. I was traveling a lot. I was a specialist in international politics, so I was always traveling abroad. I was always in another time zone.  

     One Sunday I was in the Lucky's Supermarket not very far from my house. I was standing near the spices section and an African-American man walked up to me and said he was buying some things for his church picnic. And he said, 'Do you play the piano by any chance?'
     "I said, 'Yes.' They said they were looking for someone to play the piano at church. It was a little African-American church right in the center of Palo Alto. A Baptist church. So I started playing for that church. That got me regularly back into church going.
     I don't play gospel very well. I play Brahms and you know how black ministers will start a song and the musicians will pick it up? I had no idea what I was doing and so I called my mother, who had played for Baptist churches.
     "'Mother,' I said, 'they just start. How am I supposed to do this?' She said, 'Honey, play in C and they'll come back to you.' And that's true," says Dr. Rice, "If you play in C, people will come back. I tell that story," she goes on, "because I thought to myself, 'My goodness, God has a long reach.' I mean, in the Lucky's Supermarket on a Sunday morning."
     This is a story about reconnecting in our faith. God is always available to us. God is always reaching out to us. God is always extending his love and grace to us. It’s doesn’t matter what we have done or what we have left undone, God’s grace signal is always at full strength for us. There’s zero chance for a dropped call.
     God can always get through to you even if you are walking through the deepest valley of your life. Just ask the person who wrote Psalm 23. He’ll tell you the same thing.
     While God’s signal strength is always at full strength, sometimes we are the ones who don’t stay connected in our faith. The good news is that there are many ways for us to stay connected to Christ.
     These are all covered in our Means of Grace core course that we are offering through our church, but I’ll go ahead and list some of these ways quickly.
     We call these ways of staying connected, “Means of Grace” because these are tried and true ways that people over the centuries have been able to stay in a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.
     So here’s a quick list. Prayer, reading and meditating on scripture, fasting from meals, attending weekly worship, sharing our faith with others, group bible study, share groups, classes, serving through the church, seeking justice, Christian conferencing, healthy living, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, being a generous giver, doing good, baptism renewal, receiving the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
     John Wesley, who was the founder of what we know today as the United Methodist Church, emphasized the importance of staying connected to Christ by participating in these means of grace on a regular basis. Yes, God can meet us in chance encounters in a grocery store, but God also will meet us through the holy spiritual practices of our faith.
     Today, when we receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion, know that the risen Christ will meet you in that holy moment. That devotional booklet that you will read tomorrow will serve as a means of grace to help you begin your day with God. When you share a little of your faith story with a next door neighbor, God will be at the center of your conversation. When you help serve a meal for those in need, I would be very surprised if you don’t encounter the presence of God.
     The means of grace are what help us to have a strong connection in our faith. When we drift away from God, they help to bring us back. When we lose a signal, these are the ways that we get connected again.

     Our family has a cottage in the mountains of Central Pennsylvania. My dad had built this place to stay during the deer hunting season many years ago, but today it’s a place where we can get away for a few days.
     It’s a beautiful place that is nestled at the base of a mountain range. It’s a secluded area with a state park nearby. When you wake up in the morning, you can see the mountain fog hovering over the valley right in front of the cottage. I always feel close to God when I go there.
     In a place like that, you really shouldn’t care about getting on the internet, right? You shouldn’t worry about making calls on your cell phone. But I can’t help it. I do.
     There is absolutely no cell phone coverage where the cottage is located. The mountains around the cottage will not allow any phone calls to be made.
     My brother and I spent a weekend there about a year ago. We enjoyed the quiet and much slower pace of what we like to refer to as God’s country.
     Near the end of our time there, my brother and I decided to go find the place where dad liked to take us for deer hunting when we were teenagers. It was about a twenty-minute drive from the cottage.
     We found the little one lane gravel road at the base of the mountain and up we went to the very top. When we got out of the car, my brother said, “This is it. This is where dad liked to go hunting. Remember it?”
     We went down a path where dad would set up camp and wait patiently for the deer. It was a holy moment for us as we remembered how much dad loved to hunt and be out in nature.
     I took out my phone to take a picture of the beautiful scenery of the valley below and that’s when I noticed that I had full cell phone service. All of my cell phone bars were showing. I was at full strength.
     All of the sudden, emails and text messages starting flooding into my phone after having absolutely no service the past few days. I told my brother that I was connected again. And that’s when he told me to turn around.
     And there, right behind me at the top of that mountain was a ginormous cell phone tower. I couldn’t have been more connected than I was in that moment.
     You know, sometimes, all we have to do is turn around to see that we are already connected to the creator of the universe. Sometimes, all we need is that one person on top of a mountain or that stranger by the spices in a grocery store to simply point out that God is right there.
     Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit.”

     Just look over your shoulder. God isn’t that far away.

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