A sermon for World Communion Sunday about being connected with each other. The text was John 15:1-8. For more information about Presbyterian programs like Solar under the Sun, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and Presbyterian Mission Agency and how you can help, just click on their names!
Pastor Gretchen Anderson in Lodi, Wisconsin told this great story about a newspaper reporter who’d been sent to interview a successful businessman. “How did you do it,” he asked. “How did you become such a great success?”
“Well, it’s actually a wonderful story. When my wife and I first married, we hardly had a roof over our heads. Between the two of us all we had was five cents. So I took that nickel, and I went down to the grocery store and bought an apple. Shined it up and sold it for ten cents.”
“Then what did you do,” the reporter asked.
“I bought two more apples, shined them up, and sold them for twenty cents.”
“Then what?” The reporter could sense that he was on the trail of a great rags-to-riches story.
“Then my father-in-law died, and left us $20 million dollars.”
The man didn’t find success because of his ingenuity. He found success because he was connected.
Friends, we like to believe that its best to do things alone. But the reality is that its much better to be well-connected. Being connected can make a big difference in a person’s life. It can be the difference between finding the job of your dreams and struggling to find a job at all. It can be the difference between feeling overwhelmed by your life and feeling able to take on anything. The same is true for a church. Churches thrive by being well-connected: to each other, and to other communities of faith.
Connectionalism is particularly important for Presbyterians. That’s why we come together each week to connect with God and each other through worship. And that’s why we celebrate things like World Communion Sunday, which help us remember that we are connected to so many beyond the walls of our church. And the reasons that Presbyterians value connectedness are that it makes us stronger, we can’t survive without it, and it is a fundamental part of Christian practice.
Rev. James Reese, an African-American preacher from Detroit came to speak with General Assembly while I was there. He was 90 years old, and he had been to every General Assembly since 1974. He knew a few things about being connected. And one of the things he said about his experience was this: “I have sat at dozens of tables of decision making, and things didn’t always go as I wished. I felt marginalized, separated, ignored. But one thing I have never done: I have never left the table.” He emphasized ten words. He even made us repeat them: We are richer with us, we are poorer without us.
This is a deep truth about life and a present reality for our church. When you fill your life with people you love and treasure and value, people of all walks of life and opinions and personalities, your life is richer for it. And when a church shares their resources and abilities, the life of the church is richer for it too.
So much of the church’s ministry is strengthened by our working together. For example, our Synod, one of the mid-councils through which we connect to other churches, runs a program called Solar of the Sun. It’s in partnership with the Synod of the Living Waters, who have a program to provide water purification in places where there is no clean water. But places with clean water are often lacking other things, like consistent electricity. Solar of the Sun provides training and support to build solar installations to power those pumps and more. Could one church start a program to build solar installations in places like Haiti all by itself? Probably not. But by connecting with each other, we make this ministry a reality. And a church like ours can be a part of it through prayer, through financial support, or through sending a person to be trained or a team to build a solar installation. Through this connectedness, we’re able to do more.
This isn’t the only such thing that Presbyterians are able to do because we’re connected. We have remarkable mission partnerships all over the world. Our Congo Mission Network works to provide hospital supplies to six hospitals in Congo founded long ago by Presbyterian missionaries. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is working across the country and on 6 continents through partnership and connection with local congregations and with us. The Presbyterian Mission Agency sends missionaries and partners with local organizations around the world. Presbyterians have huge effects in missions around the world because we value connectedness, with other Presbyterians and with partners around the world. In fact, Presbyterians believe so much in connectedness, that we allow other denominations to send representatives to our General Assemblies. Before every vote, General Assembly commissioners get an advisory vote to hear what representatives of other denominations and faiths have to say.
In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus gives us the image of the vine and the branches. He says that he is the vine and we are the branches. We should abide in him. In other words, we should stay connected to the vine. Branches that stay connected bear much fruit, and those branches that disconnect wither and die. One of the ways that we stay connected is through participation in the church, which is Christ’s body. When we stay connected to our church community, our faith is stronger and our lives are richer. When we disconnect, our faith often withers. How often have you known someone who stops attending worship and gathering with other Christians and soon has trouble finding faith or navigating life? How often has that happened to you? The same thing can happen on a bigger scale. Too often we hear of a major scandal with a pastor at its center. It is almost always a pastor who has rejected connectionalism in favor of a structure with no accountability.
It’s not that being connected makes one any more righteous than another. But the choice to be connected is an acknowledgment that all of us have flaws and failures. We know that we make mistakes, but we choose to be connected to others so that they can pull us back in when we go too far. When they wrote the Scots Confession, one of the founding documents of our church, almost 500 years ago, they wrote that the marks of the true church were not piety or righteousness or number of members. They proclaimed that the marks of the true church were true preaching of the Word of God, right administration of the sacraments, and “ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered.” In other words, one of the marks of the true church is that we stay accountable to each other. We choose to be connected, because we trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us through, even when we err.
Finally, I would tell you that we are more connected than we realize. Did you know that people are praying for us? Yeah. We are surrounded by prayer. Every week, churches all across the country pray for us, just like we pray for the other churches in our communion. Most likely, given the hour, a church is praying for us right now. One of the things that has come to mean a lot to me of late is the practice of reading the Necrology, which occurs every March in our Presbytery. We have a special part of the service to read off the names of all those elders in our churches who have died in the past year. I used to think it was boring. It’s just a list of names of people I don’t know. Until I realized that someday I would be on that list. When I pass, not just my congregation, but the whole congregation of the faithful, will pray me home. They will be praying for me. That’s the incredible part about being connected. It means that even though people worship in different places and in different ways, we are all one body, united in Christ, and gathered for his purposes. And that we gather not just by ourselves, but as a part of the great cloud of witnesses who forever surround us giving glory to God’s name. And through these connections and this one body that we make up, we are given the strength to run the race which has been set before us with joy.
 This story was told to Lodi First Presbyterian Church by Pastor Gretchen Anderson in her sermon titled “The Constant Gardener,” on May 12th, 2012.
 Rev. James Reese, “Speech at 221st General Assembly” (speech, Detroit, MI, June 15, 2014). You can watch the speech here: 221st General Assembly Sunday Afternoon Session Part 2
 Scots Confession, 3.18.