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Sermon for 6 May

FIRST READING Acts 8:26–40

26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

PSALM Psalm 22:25–31

25 From you comes my praise in the great assembly; I will perform my vows in the sight of those who fear the LORD. 26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied, Let those who seek the LORD give praise! May your hearts live forever! 27All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; all the families of nations shall bow before God. 28 For dominion belongs to the LORD, who rules over the nations. 29Indeed, all who sleep in the earth shall bow down in worship; all who go down to the dust, though they be dead, shall kneel before the LORD. 30 Their descendants shall serve the LORD, whom they shall proclaim to generations to come. 31They shall proclaim God’s deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying to them, “The LORD has acted!”

SECOND READING 1 John 4:7–21

7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. 13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

GOSPEL John 15:1–8

1 I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.


As a supervisor, one of my jobs was to ensure we were in constant contact with dependent families when the spouses were deployed. In essence we were to ensure the families were “plugged in” or connected to base services, to ensure they were taken care of while the service member was serving away from home. While the majority of the families need little if any support, we did find on occasion, families of the younger airmen who benefited highly from this effort. However, all the families, whether they needed our help or not, appreciated the opportunity to remain connected to the military community.
Very few will argue the fact that it helps to have connections. Whether it’s advice on the best place to get your car serviced, who to call for a home repair or for help in getting a job, it’s always nice to be part of a community that takes care of each other. The old adage is far truer than we’d like to admit, that it’s not always what you know, but who you know that makes a difference. This is especially true in this competitive world where it’s so difficult to land a job. Often it does pay to know somebody who can help you on your way. And while being connected may not help you actually land the job, it does at least mean you’re more likely to be considered if you know the person in charge. And that’s important. You can see how difficult this might make things for people who are not connected, who don’t know people in strategic places. Nevertheless, it is a reality and there’s no use fighting it. That’s the way things are. It pays to be connected.
About thirty years ago there was a wonderful book which was later turned into a powerful motion picture titled Schindler’s List. Most of us have heard of the book and many have seen the movie. If you have, you may be interested in knowing how that book was first published. A shopkeeper named Leopold Page was a survivor of the Holocaust. He survived through the efforts of one man, Oskar Schindler, a Roman Catholic, who saved not only his life, but the lives of 900 of his fellow Jews. Page was determined to find a writer who would be interested in telling the story of Oskar Schindler.
One day a novelist, Thomas Keneally, came into Page’s shop to buy a briefcase, and Page told him his story. Keneally was intrigued and agreed to commit Schindler’s story to print. What resulted, was a moving story of a man who helped hundreds of Jews escape certain death at the hands of the Nazis. The book was dedicated to Oskar Schindler and to Page’s “zeal and persistence” in getting Schindler’s story told. But that’s not the end of the story.
Page, the zealous and persistent shopkeeper was connected; he had some friends who had some friends . . . and somehow he was able to get his book to the attention of a director named Steven Spielberg. I’m sure you’ve also heard this name before. Spielberg at the time was fresh from making the blockbuster film, Jurassic Park. “Stop playing around with dinosaurs,” Page told Spielberg when they first met. “I promise you, you’ll get an Oscar for [telling] Oskar’s story.” And he did.
Spielberg turned Schindler’s List into a major motion picture. The book and the movie, which won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, more than fulfilled Page’s lifelong dream. “I didn’t know how I would do this,” Page said, “but I promised Oskar Schindler I would make him a household name.” And he did. By the way, Leopold “Paul” Page was number 173, on Oskar Schindler’s list. He was number 173 of the 900 people who were spared death at the hand of the Nazis thanks to Oskar.
Leopold Page was a shopkeeper, not a writer. But his commitment to his friend, led him to connect with people who could bring his dream to reality. It’s important in life to have connections. If you don’t have connections, many things in life become difficult so it’s important to be connected. In many ways it’s good advice to make prudent use of the adage, it’s not always what you know, but who you know. It’s also important to follow this up with, who you know might get you in the door, but it’s what you know that keeps you connected. So the question is, how connected are you?
Of course, when I ask the question about being connected, many of you will immediately think in terms of social media like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. This is a brave new world, and being connected has taken on a whole new meaning. One woman said their new high-speed computer was in the shop for repair. This meant that her son was forced to work on their older model with an obsolete dial-up modem. “Mom,” he complained to her one day, “this is like we’re living back in the twentieth century.” For some of us, that’s a reality check back in the twentieth century. It’s a time I can recall vividly; 1985 was the year my older brother Phil brought me into the computer age.
My first computer was an 8 mhz, 8088 with 1 megabyte of internal memory. It had a single low density 5 ¼ inch floppy drive and no hard drive. It ran on DOS 3.11, there was no such thing as windows and as an upgrade I spent $150 on a 14” color monitor. As for connectivity, I spent an extra $75 to go from a 1200 baud modem to a 2400 baud modem. I was the talk of the block. Compare this with my current out of date laptop which has a triple core 2.2 ghz processor, 8 gb of internal memory and has a 500 gb hard drive. Today I wouldn’t think of using an old dial-up modem, instead I remain constantly connected to the internet through a gb Ethernet connection. We’ve really come a long way in the past 27 years. Computers have even changed the terminology that we use.
For example, a group of young children were sitting in a circle with their teacher. She was going around asking each of them questions. “Davy, what noise does a cow make?” He said, “It goes moo.” “Alice, what noise does a cat make?” “It goes meow,” she answered. “Jamie, what sound does a lamb make?” “It goes baaa,” he said. “Jennifer, what sound does a mouse make?” Without hesitation she answered, “It goes click!” It’s true, a computer mouse does go click.
So the question I ask this morning, “Are you connected?” can mean different things to different people. However, I must point out that there’s a danger associated with electronic connectedness that we need to remain aware of. Despite all the hype about being connected through the Internet, a number of studies suggest that this technology is actually disconnecting many of us from those around us.
A study of the Stanford Institute found that: 13 percent of regular net users, that is, those who are on the web five hours or more a week, reported spending less time with family and friends; 8 percent said they were now attending fewer social events; and 26 percent said they talked less to friends and family by telephone. I’m sure that if you were to include texting in these statistics it would change the results some. However, these statistics are still disturbing. Being connected to family and friends is what gives life meaning.
As another prominent researcher noted recently, many people have a swarm of friends on Facebook. But “friending” is not the same as “befriending” or being a friend. Instead of creating a global village, the Internet has distracted and distanced us from each other. One impact is that lonely people have no one to turn to in hard times. Of course, not all or even most of our personal isolation can be blamed on the Internet. The average American today already has only a third as many friends as they had 25 years ago, and one-fourth have no close confidants at all, according to recent research. Sadly, we’re becoming a disconnected society.
This is troubling because staying connected is important to our health and general well-being. That’s what medical studies are showing us. One study compared 12,000 Japanese men living in Japan with Japanese men who had moved to Hawaii or California. The researchers looked at smoking, diet, exercise, cholesterol levels, and social support (the maintenance of family and community ties). The group with the lowest social support (the California group) had a threefold to fivefold increase in heart disease. The researchers concluded that social networks and close family ties help protect against disease and premature death. Stay connected to other people, the research shows, and you will be healthier.
In his book, Real Age, Michael Roizen calculates how different factors affect one’s life expectancy. For socialization he cites three factors: 1) being married, 2) seeing at least six friends at least monthly, and 3) participating in social groups. The “real age” for a 55-year-old man who meets all three criteria married, has at least 6 friends, and goes to church, is 46 in terms of life expectancy. And you thought being married made you older. Not so, in terms of life expectancy, it makes you younger. If the 55-year-old man meets at least two of these criteria, his real age is 49. If he meets just one criterion, his real age is 53. The real age of a 55-year-old man who meets none of these criteria is 63; eight years older than his chronological age. And the same holds true for women. For a 55 year old woman the real ages are 49, 53, 59, and 61. Presumably, says researchers, the effect is a little stronger for men because women in our culture are better at social networking. Need more evidence? When a partner’s spouse dies, his or her risk of illness or death skyrockets for the first year. Retirement also changes social networks and can be very stressful. The point I’m making is, that it’s very important at any age in life to stay connected.
Of course our most important connection is to Christ. In our gospel lesson for today, Christ says to us, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
“I am the vine; you are the branches . . .” Here is where staying connected is most vital. Christianity has two central foci, staying connected to our neighbor and staying connected to God and without either of these, we are not whole people. In his book, A Blue Fire, psychologist James Hillman describes a condition among “primitive” people which anthropologists call “loss of soul.” In this condition a person is unable to make an outer connection to other humans or an inner connection to himself. He is unable to take part in society, its rituals, its traditions. They are dead to him, he to them. “Until he regains his soul, he is not a true human.”
Hillman tells about an experience he had one day in Burgholzli, the famous institute in Zurich where the words “schizophrenia” and “complex” were born. Hillman watched a woman being interviewed. She sat in a wheelchair because she was elderly and feeble. She said that she was dead, for she had lost her heart. The psychiatrist asked her to place her hand over her breast to feel her heart beating: it must still be there if she could feel its beat. “That,” she said, “is not my real heart.” She and the psychiatrist looked at each other. “There was nothing more to say,” writes Hillman. “Like the primitive who has lost his soul, she had lost the loving courageous connection to life . . .”
We lose our heart, we lose our soul, when we lose our connection to God. “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world,” said Jesus on one occasion, “yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36) We know the answer to that. Lose your connection to God, and nothing else you accomplish will have any real meaning. Lose our connection to God, and we lose the meaning to life.
Back during the days of the Cold War a woman named Svetlana Stalin, daughter of the cruel former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, shocked the world by immigrating to the United States seeking a new life. She explained her change of allegiance this way, “I found it was impossible to exist without God in one’s heart.” Ms. Stalin was right. It’s impossible to exist, as a full human being, without God in one’s heart. So how connected are we to Christ?
It’s important to note that, if we lose our connection to God, it won’t be God’s doing. God’s love for us is everlasting and unconditional. The popular radio Bible teacher J. Vernon McGee once told about a little piece of wood that he kept on his desk. He explained that he took this small piece of wood from a vineyard in the San Joaquin Valley. The small piece of wood consisted of a section of a grapevine out of which grew a branch. The owner of the vineyard told McGee that if two people were to have a tug of war with this section of vine, it would break. However, it would never break where the vine and branch are joined together. The place on a grapevine where the vine and the branch are joined together, is the vine’s strongest point. “Now if you pull on a branch that goes into a tree,” the owner explained, “it will always break at the trunk of the tree; in a tree that’s the weakest place. But in a grapevine, that’s the strongest point.”
No wonder Christ used the analogy of the vine and its branches to explain His relationship with us, His followers. The strongest place on a grapevine is where the branches are attached to the vine. In other words, we don’t need to worry that our connection to Christ will be broken, at least not from Christ’s side. That connection is a powerful one. And when we remain connected, we’re not only strengthened spiritually, but God will use us and we will bear fruit for the kingdom.
Emil Peterson was the plumber in Kirkland, Ill., during the Great Depression. He attended the local Lutheran parish and always sat in the second pew, holding a hearing assist to his ear. At times he would fill in for the pastor and when he did, he would shout so that he could hear himself. He began each day at his desk, where he would read his daily devotions and pray for those whose pictures or letters were tacked on his bulletin board. It was this prayer routine that led Emil to walk in on the pastor and his family while we were eating breakfast. The pastor had just announced that the coal company had cut them off. Since the depression left everyone struggling, the church wasn’t always able to pay their pastor and consequently the coal and grocery bills were not always paid on time.
“What do the Nelsons need?” the plumber shouted as he came in the back door. “What are you talking about?” Dad replied, clearly taken back. “Well I was talking with God this morning, and God said, ‘Stop at the Nelsons. They’re in trouble.'” Later, the pastor’s wife looked in the icebox and tucked away on one of the shelves was $10. Not a lot of money by today’s standards, but in the early 30’s the pastor was only paid $60 a month. That day they were able to order the coal they desperately needed.
You see Emil was attached to the True Vine. The pastor and his family tasted of the fruit. How connected to the vine are we? Philip in our Acts reading was connected and God used Him to minister to the Ethiopian official. And John tells us in our Epistle reading that the only way for us to know love is to be connected. John says that if we love one another, God lives in us and His love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us His Spirit. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.
There are children, teenagers, adults and seniors who have somehow become unplugged and we are called to help them get reconnected. Isn’t it interesting that when God wanted to save the world, God sent a person, Jesus of Nazareth, His own Son to form that personal connection? Christ says to us, “If you want to find life, be connected to Me. I will never leave you or forsake you. Where you and I are connected is the strongest place on the vine.” And so I must ask one last time: how connected are we? It’s a question not only of our own spiritual and eternal health, but maybe of the welfare of others.

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