Text: Galatians 6: 2
“Bear one another’s burdens and in this way you fulfill the law of Christ.”
If you would head south out of the Denver area and travel almost due south until you were nearly at the border of Colorado and New Mexico, you might find yourself in a little town called Antonito. This little town must have a population of less than 1,000 people; it is located in the foothills of the San Juan Mountains about 8 or 10 miles from the state line of New Mexico, as the crow flies. There is a pass however, that lies between the two states, Cumbres Pass, and at an elevation of just over 10,000 feet it forms a bit of a barrier between Colorado and New Mexico.
There isn’t much going on in Antonito, except for the local tourist attraction. That attraction is the Cumbres-Toltec narrow gauge railroad. This rail line is one of the oldest operational narrow-gauge railways in the United States, with a steam locomotive that still burns coal and spews black smoke and soot all over everything. The railway, which now shuttles people from Antonito up over the pass and back down the other side to Chama, New Mexico, would have been fairly busy for the last few weeks. When you ride the train over the pass most of the cars are open to the air and the elements. As such, the sight-seeing and the scenery are unmatched as you chug your way through the wilderness areas of the San Juan Mountains-especially this time of year as the Aspen begin to turn the color of sunshine.
Some of the scenes from the railway are just magnificent. Huge areas of the mountainsides are transformed into great patches of gold. As you look out across a valley or at a neighboring hillside, it can be an awesome sight to see all these Aspen in their autumn best.
One of the things that make the scenery this spectacular has to do with the Aspen trees themselves and how they grow. You may have heard this before, but Aspen trees cannot grow very effectively alone, isolated as a single tree. It is a requirement of the Aspen that they grow in clumps and clusters; single trees do not flourish in the mountains. When you see Aspen tress in the mountains, you almost always see them as a group. And when the group decides to change color – well, then you get the impact that is the Colorado Aspen in the fall. Obviously, the pictures can only give you a hint of the real experience, but it is worth doing if you are ever in the area.
This is great, you’re thinking…I come to church and get a travelogue instead of a sermon! If I had known this, maybe I would come more often!
Well, at the risk of disappointing those who are excited about the idea of a non-sermon, let me see if I can bring a degree of relevancy to what I have shared so far.
Last week I mentioned something about the Pumpkin Patch and how I felt it really helped to define what I considered to be community. As a product of our church community, we have the valley community coming to us and interacting with us as we reach outside of the walls of this church building and find new ways to be in relationship with the community around us. I think that concept is critical; we must find new ways to be in relationship with the community that surrounds us.
A little more than a week ago we held our annual Charge Conference in conjunction with several other valley UMC churches. Our District Superintendent was there, Reverend Gregg Sealey, and Gregg reminded all of us that all of the churches present face many of the same challenges for the future. One of those challenges is about how to attract new people to our church. Gregg said that one of the keys to that kind of growth is to create new spaces for new people. I think when we reach into the community the way the Pumpkin Patch seems to, we are in fact creating new spaces for new people.
Some of you have been a part of this community for decades, 20, 30 or even 40 years. You already know what it means to be a part of a community because you have been doing it for so long. As a matter of fact, the roles here should almost be reversed – you should be telling me what it means to be in community – because many of you have been in community, and this community, for much longer than I have.
But what I want to say today about community isn’t so much about what it is like to be a part of the community, but rather I want us to consider how we perceive this idea of community. To help us with this perception I have lined up a movie clip from a movie that is several years old now called Phenomenon. This movie starred John Travolta as he played a character that developed a brain tumor which was inoperable, but interestingly enough, before the tumor became fatal for the hero it stimulated areas of the brain that most of us never use. All at once it seemed that our character had almost super-natural abilities to learn and perceive and began to acquire knowledge at a fantastic rate. Let’s catch up with him as he is meeting with some people from his community.
Play movie clip – https://youtu.be/nxIuMZcblYw
Did you hear how he described how we are to be in the universe-“cooperation” is the word I think he used; and as an example of that level of cooperation, he talked about the Aspen trees in Colorado. But what did he say about the Aspen? He described the Aspen as a single living organism; a single living organism – not a community of individual living organisms, but a single living organism. He said at first scientists thought they were individual trees, but then they discovered that all the trees actually share a common root system and they could be considered a single life-form.
When you considered the photos I was sharing earlier, or as you look at a few more; do you see individual trees or do you see a single living organism. As I said earlier, my intent today is to offer you another way to perceive this idea of community and this idea of cooperation. When a community can become like the Aspen, and function as a single living organism, then it is my belief we have arrived at the metaphor we find often in scripture that describes our community as a body. A body with many members and a body with many different parts, and yet a single living organism.
One of the more interesting facts that I have learned about Aspen trees is that they have a very shallow root system. That could be one of the reasons they survive so well in the Rocky Mountains, because it would be difficult to develop a deep root system with such rocky soil to contend with. But as the Aspen grow and thrive, the roots actually intertwine with one another and they begin to share this common root system with other trees then spring up through the ground from the shared root system. These new trees add to the shared root system and so a stand of Aspen expands and enlarges. The interesting thing about this shared root system is that any individual tree would have trouble developing enough of a shallow system to keep it alive. As a single tree, the Aspen is very vulnerable. But as a community, they survive and thrive.
Another point of interest with regard to this shared root system is that the intertwining of the roots actually helps hold the tree up in the winter. The Rocky Mountains can be a harsh environment; there are high winds and heavy snow and avalanches to deal with. Because the roots intertwine with one another, the Aspen trees literally help hold each other up. They withstand the high winds, they withstand the heavy snow and they withstand the avalanche-because they hold each other up. When I read the scripture I began with – share each others burdens – I think of the Aspen trees and I think of community.
When we consider the idea of community within the church, we must approach this idea with the metaphor of the Aspen in mind. We must be a single living organism. What that means is a unified effort, a unified support, a unified understanding of what is happening and why. The Pumpkin Patch is just one example, there are a number of examples of how this church, as a community, reaches out to the surrounding community. But I think it is important for us to recognize that a fractured or divided approach to our projects will not function correctly nor will they thrive. Every event, every ministry, every attempt to reach out beyond the walls of this church will have challenges and will have things go wrong. Those winter winds will blow. Only when we stand like the Aspen, intertwined together, bearing each other’s burdens, and literally holding each other up will we be successful. Our community must be a single living organism if it is to survive.
And that is food for thought; Go in peace, go with God and hold each other up against the storms of life. Amen.