Belly Buttons, Subway Cars, and Deep Connections

By Rev. Scott Summerville

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.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.

John 15:4-5

In the gospel reading today from the 15th chapter of John, Jesus asks his followers to use their imaginations. He asked them to imagine that they are a branch on a vine. He asked them to imagine how the branch draws its life from the vine and cannot have life, if it is broken off from the vine.

It is intriguing that this particular gospel lesson happens to be read on Mother’s Day this year. If we use our imaginations a bit further, we will realize that each of us was once a little branch connected to a larger vine. As each of us came to life within our mother’s womb, we were connected to her and received our life from her; our whole existence depended upon that fragile living tissue connecting us to our mother’s body.

I was three years old when my youngest brother was born. I remember my mother bringing him into the house. I remember wanting to hold him. I also remembered that there was some discussion about a cord that was connected to the baby. I was in the room when he was being changed one day, when I heard someone say, “umbilical cord.” By coincidence there was a standard brown electrical cord on the ironing board next to where my brother was being changed. In my childhood brain I concluded (quite logically) logically that this brown electrical cord was in fact my brother’s umbilical cord. I simply accepted that all human beings are born with one of these. They are exactly the same as the ones you buy at the hardware store, and after you are a few days old they unplug it from your belly button. I held this belief for many years – one of those odd little things that get planted a child’s brain and stays there.

Each of us was once a branch on a larger vine. And each of us has a belly button to prove it. I once gave a sermon on belly buttons, or navels, if you prefer. Navel-gazing is generally synonymous with wasting one’s time. I disagree. I would say that it is a profound thing to contemplate your navel. And what better time to do it than on Mother’s Day?

It is spiritually useful to contemplate our navels and to consider why they are there, and thus to remember that our umbilical cords were once attached to that spot. It is spiritually useful, because it centers us in the middle of our bodies; it reminds us that no matter how independent we think we may be, we exist only because other life has given us life, and we can continue to exist only if we are in tune with and respectful of the system of life that we are part of.

Interdependence is the most crucial concept on the planet Earth in our time. We will grasp our interdependence as the human species, and we as a species will grasp our interdependence with all other life, or we shall have no future. Especially on Mother’s Day, remembering that each one of us once had an umbilical cord and that each one of us still bears the imprint of that cord right in the center of our bodies is a very direct and powerful way to contemplate our dependence upon a system of life larger than ourselves.

“I am the vine; you are the branches.” Jesus offers himself as the vine, as that which draws nourishment from the soil and transmits it to the branches, so that they may bear fruit. Jesus offers himself as a living connection between his followers and the Holy One. In our time we cannot separate this spiritual truth of our living connection to God through Christ from the biological truth that we are a living part of the living Earth and completely dependent upon the earth to sustain us.

I have been talking with a number of people lately about what it means to be a member of a church. One way of thinking about being part of a religious community is to emphasize the differences that a particular tradition has as compared with other denominations or traditions. That can be a useful thing to do. But more than anything, becoming part of a spiritual community in the 21st century should mean that we are seeking deep connections with other beings on this earth. Our primary concern is to become more deeply connected with others and with God. Our primary concern is not what makes us different from others; it is finding our common humanity.

I attended the annual district conference yesterday at St. Mark’s Church in Harlem. The preacher for the day was Rev. Richard Rice. Richard is finally trying to retire as a pastor in our conference after serving more than 50 years. He was ordained when I was two years old, in 1954. Richard has preached here at Asbury church. We have another connection to Rev. Rice in that he as much as any single person is responsible for the fact that our beloved Camp Olmsted is still in existence. In his message yesterday Richard spoke of a time that he was riding on the New York City subway. In that subway car there were a dozen or so people. All of them were playing the game that people play on the subway. The rules are quite simple. You do not speak to strangers. You do not make eye contact with others; you do not smile directly others; you keep your feelings to yourself.

Richard said he was reading his newspaper when he realized that the little girl seated next to her mother opposite him was not playing by the rules. She was staring directly at him. As he raised and lowered his newspaper and glanced over at her, he saw her eyes gazing directly at him. After a while the little girl turned to her mother and said, “Mommy, I love you.” With these words the child changed the game in the subway car. Immediately, all of those people who were prohibited by the rules of the game from looking at one another directly, smiling at one another, or speaking to one another, were all smiling and glancing at one another, nodding and chattering. They had been liberated by the child to acknowledge one another, because the child did not know the rules.

Reverend Rice said that the Church needs to be a place where we break out of subway car rules, and through love find connection with one another, and use that connection to make a difference in the world.

Deciding to follow a spiritual path and to join one’s life to a spiritual community means that we are looking to play the game of life with a different set of rules. We are hungry for some place where the rules of the game are different, where we can look one another in the eye and speak to one another from the heart, and where we can express the deep longings of our hearts. We hunger to acknowledge the mystery and wonder of being, to reach out to God, and to be known and loved by others.

We need to be connected.

Physically, organically, biologically, and spiritually we are beings who must be connected. We cannot live in isolation. We are branches on a vine.

Shalom, Salaam, grace and peace to you.

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