October 05, 2008
Rev. Susan Gilbert Zencka
Frame Memorial Presbyterian Church
Texts: Psalm 104:1a, 14-18, 26-30; John 15:1-11
A few years back I was talking with two of the older ladies in the church. One of them said to us, “If anything ever happens to my husband, I wouldn’t get married again, I’d just live together with a man.” We all chuckled, but then I responded, “Are you kidding? Living together is the hard part. I’d get married and live apart.” No offense to Carl, of course, they knew I wasn’t talking about him in a negative way: living together with other people IS hard. Being part of a family is hard. Being part of a community is hard. And yet, it is somehow life-giving as well. We are designed for community, complete with the challenges.
Symbiosis comes from words that mean “life together”. Symbiotic relationships are those in which two different species live in an ecologically close relationship. The Oxford Dictionary defines symbiosis as a close relationship which benefits both species, but scientifically, there are several different types of symbiotic relationships, and they aren’t all beneficial.
One type is mutual relationships, and these are those which benefit both species: such as: humans and intestinal bacteria, flowering plants and pollinators such as bees, fig trees and fruit bats, or the classic: algae and fungi, in which the relationship is so close that we speak of them together as lichen.
There are other relationships though, which are not characterized by mutuality: commensalism is when one species benefits, and the other is unaffected. In parasitic relationships, one species benefits and the other is harmed.
I’m struck by the term mutualism which describes symbiotic relationships that are beneficial to both parties, because mutuality is how the love among the Trinity is described. Love flows among the Creator, Jesus, and Holy Spirit. Healthy relationships are relationships of mutuality, in which both parties both give and receive. A friend of mine remarked 12 years ago, in describing mission trips, that “God has created us so that in feeding others, we ourselves are fed.” We recognize that even in relationships where one person seems to be doing most of the giving, and another person seems to be doing most of the receiving, there can indeed be mutuality. The person receiving the care gives another person the opportunity to serve, and that is no small thing – most of us find it difficult to accept help. It can be a stretch for us to give someone that opportunity to serve us.
Our denomination, like some others, has changed its understanding of mission relationships in recent years. We now speak of “mission partnerships” and recognize that healthier relationships are mutual relationships, where education, assistance, and respect flow both ways. Our presbytery has such a partnership with Urabá Presbytery in Colombia, and so I will be traveling there in three weeks as part of a presbytery delegation who has been invited to learn from our brothers and sisters in Colombia, about their holistic understanding of faith, which includes concerns about human rights and environmental issues. So we will be going on this mission trip as learners.
Seven members of our congregation went on a mission trip a week ago along with Joe Gellings from Shawano, and as we have heard, their work made a difference: in the folks they helped, and in them. When I was on the Presbytery PW retreat this weekend, I heard someone share about how their initiative in helping someone else had been pivotal in their own faith development. Caring for people, when we allow ourselves to be genuinely touched by others, changes the giver and the receiver – that’s what genuine mutuality is all about.
Of course, in biological symbiosis, the relationships are between different species – like humans and agricultural plants: the plants give life to the humans, and the humans give life to the plants.
Last year, when theologian Mark Wallace was here, he described how religions that understand the divine to be flowing through all of creation are not as different from Christianity as many have supposed. Many theologians have grown to understand that God is present throughout all of creation. And so for us as humans in God’s world, we have a symbiotic relationship with God both in our spiritual and in our physical living: God is the source of who we are as inspirited creatures – our spirits are connected with God’s Spirit; our longings for God are an echo of God’s desire for us. But God is also the source and spring of our physical lives: the good earth that provides us with food and shelter is part of God’s complex web of life, through which God’s Spirit also flows. The psalmist wrote after describing the relationships between humans, animals and the earth: when you send forth your spirit, they are created and you renew the face of the earth. So we are part of God, and God is part of us. As Jesus said in today’s reading, which is part of his words to his disciples shortly before his death: I am the Vine, you are the branches; abide in me. As we abide in God, we discover that our faith is indeed, another symbiotic relationship..
I’ve spoken often about the contemplative life and how it can nourish our sense of God and God’s care for us – but God isn’t only present in our contemplative moments. There is a spiritual dimension to our active life as well. And when we can go about our work, our play, our relationships with a sense of God’s presence with us, God’s solidarity with us, God’s live for us, and God’s investment in us, then everything we do can become part of our experience of God as well.
We are made for God as surely as light bulbs are made for electricity – they don’t shine as they’re meant to without power flowing through them…and neither do we. And like the Christmas tree lights we had as children: we only shine when we are connected to others also. As people in whom God’s spirit flows, we are connected with all other people – near and far. We can not diminish our relationships with others without diminishing ourselves. So on this worldwide communion Sunday, let us joyfully understand that we do indeed live together – with the earth and the plants and animals of it, with other people here, in Shawano, in Iowa, in Colombia, and East Africa – and let us understand that God’s spirit flows through our work as well as our prayer, our celebrations as well as our solitude. Life is connected, it is all One. And so are we. Amen.