Six Degrees of Separation

Sermon delivered by David Burrow November 30, 2008 - First Congregational Church, Algona, Iowa

Click here for an audio version of this sermon. (17.1MB - .mp3)

Old Testament Reading – Isaiah 64:1 – 9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble in your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.

You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself, we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hands of our iniquity.

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

Gospel Reading – Mark 13:24 – 36, 32 – 37

In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in heaven will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.

But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: “Keep awake”.


Back in October I gave a message in church, and I fully intended that to be the first and last time I would be speaking in this way. I definitely did not intend for it to become a regular thing.

But, I’m here again today—like it or not—because it was particularly difficult to get someone to fill our pulpit on Thanksgiving weekend. I had two people who told me “no” outright and three others who agreed to preach, but then cancelled when they realized exactly what date they’d committed to. Well, as they say, “the show must go on,” so—since no one started throwing things when I spoke in October, hopefully you’ll be at least as gracious today.

The title of my message today is taken from a party game. The game is called “Six Degrees of Separation”, but I really think a better name would be “Six Degrees of Connection” because it’s really about discovering how unexpected things can be linked together.

Perhaps some of you have played “Six Degrees of Separation”. There are several variations on it. In one of the most popular versions the goal is to find a connection between any actor or actress in Hollywood and Kevin Bacon through six degrees of separation. In that version, a “degree of separation” means a film or TV show that two actors starred in together. I’m not at all a movie person, so I’m pretty bad at that version of the game. My brother Steve would excel at it, though, since he knows just about every movie inside and out.

There are many other versions. Former Jeopardy winner Ken Jennings writes a magazine column each month where readers send him two topics that sound similar but are completely unrelated, and he finds a bond between them through six degrees of separation. I’ve seen him link Martin Luther King with King Tut, Pope Benedict with Benedict Arnold, cartoon animal Yogi Bear with baseball manager Yogi Berra, and “heroes”, the people we honor as patriots, with “gyros”, the pita bread sandwiches.

The premise can be extended to anything or anyone. It has been proposed that if any two random people are picked from the seven billion people on planet Earth, a link between them can be found by six degrees of separation. In fact, researchers at MIT, Harvard, and Columbia have investigated this. They looked at acquaintances between people in more than 100 countries, and they studied who different people had in their e-mail address books and social network “friends” lists. They applied the mathematics of network theory and probability to solve the problem. What they actually showed was that it’s impossible to formally prove just how many links it takes to connect two humans. The researchers found, though, that in every single case they looked at, connections could be found in six bonds or less—in most cases as few as four degrees of separation.

Don’t believe it? I thought of this concept last summer when I happened to be riding a bus. The person next to me was an older gentleman, and we struck up a conversation. It turned out that man was from Arkansas, and after a while I found out he had been a personal friend of the late Sam Walton. I’d just read about that research the Ivy League had done on this topic, and as we rode along I pondered just how many people Sam Walton was connected to. They’d include some of the wealthiest and most influential people in the world, plus all the Wal-Mart associates at the other end of the economic spectrum. They’d also include people in countries all over the world that supply goods to Wal-Mart. Those people in turn would be connected to more people, who I would then be connected to even more people. Since you all know me, through that guy from Arkansas you’re just six degrees away from literally billions of people around the world.

I have an uncle who can make some even easier connections. He spent most of his life in law enforcement. In fact, if any of you went to the University of Iowa twenty or thirty years ago, you can blame my Uncle Harvey if you got in trouble, because he would have been the Iowa City Chief of Police. Before he moved back to Iowa, though, Harvey Miller was an officer for the Delaware State Patrol. He still recalls working a traffic accident shortly before Christmas in 1972 where a young mother and her baby daughter were killed. He was among those who had to track down the widower and break the news. The man he informed of the loss of his wife and daughter was the then newly elected Delaware senator, Joe Biden. My uncle certainly didn’t know at the time that he’d made a connection to someone who would become one of Washington’s most influential senators and the future Vice President of the United States.

If vice president isn’t a big enough connection, we can do better. I know that in this congregation there are people who have met Barack Obama. Think of all the people President-Elect Obama has shaken hands with. Think of all the people he knew as a child in Honolulu and Djakarta. Think of the relatives he has in places ranging from Kansas to Kenya. Now think of all the senators and congressmen and business leaders and heads of state that Barack Obama has met. All of us are connected to all those people by just two or three degrees of separation. And when you consider the people all of those people know, the connections are truly astronomical.

I’ve had fun finding just how many links that can come from knowing just a single person. One of my former students, for instance, is a professional athlete. I was at his wedding last weekend and over the years if there’s a Sunday I haven’t been here in church, as often as not, I’ve been watching him play baseball.

Because I know Brad Nelson, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a number of other athletes. I wouldn’t pretend I’m friends with any of them, but there is a connection. If those Ivy League researchers checked my e-mail address book, they’d find at least one well-known athlete there, and when I hear the names of guys I’ve met on Sportscenter, my ears perk up. Most of these athletes are a couple decades younger than me, but I’ve met a few who were my age. I sat next to baseball hall-of-famer Tony Gwynn at a ballgame once, and I’ve talked politics with World Series MVP Pat Borders—who almost certainly cancelled my vote in the last election, I might add. Those men in turn have met at least four U.S. Presidents, two Canadian prime ministers, and the Queen of England. I pondered that a couple years ago when I was visiting London, wondering if I should stop in at Buckingham Palace to chat about our mutual “friend”, Mr. Gwynn.

More than the Queen or the Presidents, though, it amazes me how many ordinary people the athletes I’ve met have met themselves. They’ve played before literally millions of fans, and they’ve shaken hands with thousands on thousands of people from every walk of life in cities large and small across North America. I’ve traveled a lot of places, and pretty much anywhere I might go, there’s a good chance someone there has met at least one of the same athletes I have.

I find connections in other ways, too. When I was working on our minister search committee, Gregg Buchanan joked that I was a walking atlas because I could identify most of the places where the candidates for pastor came from. Part of that comes from traveling a lot, and part comes from knowing other people who have been to a lot of places I haven’t. When those places come up again later, I’ve got a connection to them.

For instance, when I heard our new minister got her bachelor’s degree from Mississippi College, I knew she’d come a long way on her spiritual journey. When I was in graduate school at Southern Miss, I heard people refer to the conservative Baptist school where Rev. Pope got her B.A. as a place where women went to major in finding a husband. It’s certainly a world away from the progressive New York seminary where she was ordained. It is, however, her alma mater, and knowing about Mississippi College made me feel a connection to our new minister—and I sensed she felt a connection too when she found that someone in our church had actually spent some significant time in the Magnolia State.

Okay, okay—so why am I bringing all of this up in an Advent reflection? Well, the whole message of the holiday season is that we’re all connected to one another. As a nation of immigrants our Christmas traditions in America are borrowed from all over the world. The holidays are a time when we show our bonds to the places our ancestors lived.

Christmas is also a time when we think about our connection to the past. People have been celebrating the birth of Christ in different ways for centuries. When we put up decorations, sing carols, or exchange gifts, we make a connection to other Christians who went before us.

Sometimes the holiday connections can be very special and personal. When you decorate your Christmas tree, I suggest you take a moment as you place the different ornaments to think about when and where you acquired each of them. Chances are you have at least one and probably several ornaments that have a special story that shows how you’re connected to someone else.

Every year, for instance, I put one very dated and frankly ugly ornament on my Christmas tree. It’s a small cross made of glass beads, about half of which are now broken. That ornament is special, though, because back in 1946, my father gave that ornament to my mother on the first Christmas they spent together. I got the ornament in 1983 when my father passed away, and I’ve made a point of giving it a place of honor on my tree ever since. There are other ornaments I have that bring back memories of family members and friends, or of holidays I spent in the past. One of my favorite times each year is when I decorate my tree, because it’s a time I can think of all the bonds I’ve had with different people.

Christmas is also a time when we stop just thinking about ourselves and remember that all of humanity is linked together. When we see the bell-ringers standing by red kettles, we remember that we are connected to the homeless people that rely on the Salvation Army for food and warmth. And when our church chips in to provide canned goods for the food pantry or donate gifts to a Native American family, we remember that we’re connected to people far and near.

Our gospel today talks about Christ’s coming and cautions that no one can know the time when he will return. That gospel goes well with last week’s reading, when Jesus showed us that when we reach out and make a connection between ourselves and those in need—“the least of these my brethren”, we’re building a further connection between ourselves and Christ. My mother always said we should live each day as if it were our last and treat each person we meet as if that person were Jesus. That’s easier said than done, but it’s how we really should strive to live. That’s how we build the connection between earth and heaven.

There are surprising connections between ourselves and people we don’t even know. In the past few weeks I’ve been introducing all the various supply speakers who have been filling our pulpit. I’ve been amazed at the number of people who have heard my voice on our church’s radio broadcasts and commented about those broadcasts. The sermon delivered earlier this month by Christy Meyer from Humboldt drew especially many comments. One person remarked how refreshing it was to hear a woman giving the sermon. I couldn’t help laughing at that, thinking how interesting it will be starting in February when our new pastor takes over and almost every week it will be a woman delivering our sermons.

Most of the people who commented on our sermon broadcasts will likely never set foot inside our church. In fact most of them are longtime members of other churches who are quite happy where they’re at. You could argue that because they don’t “convert” people those sermon broadcasts are ineffective. That would really be missing the point, though. Those weekly broadcasts are in effect our church’s “Christmas gift” to the people of Algona—and it’s a gift that keeps giving all year long. Even if we don’t gain a single member through the radio ministry, we have made a connection between our church and the lives of people in our community. We’re ministering to people’s spiritual needs, and fulfilling the point of the gospel.

There’s one more connection I want to make today, and—like a lot of things at the holidays—it takes me back to when I was a kid. When I was growing up we went to a very large church in southern Iowa. Of the churches here in Algona, it would be closest in size to St. Cecelia’s. You can imagine the display of poinsettias they had there at the holidays. Well, one tradition they had at First Methodist Church in Mt. Pleasant was that mixed in with the poinsettias they always had a few pure white Easter lilies. In spring they did the opposite, putting a handful of red poinsettias in with the lilies.

Even as a child I understood the symbolism in those flowers, and it fits right in with our message today. The baby in the manger who we celebrate at Christmas is the same Jesus who suffered the passion and rose again on Easter. There aren’t even six degrees of separation there—it’s the same person and the same God. Without Christmas there could be no Easter, and without Easter there would be no point to Christmas. And just as Christmas and Easter are joined together, God is connected to us and knows the bonds we have to one another.

It’s sometimes hard to see the connections between one another and between ourselves and God, but they are there. One of the best descriptions of this I ever came across likens our world to a newspaper photo. If you put your eye close to the paper, all you can see in the halftone image are dots. Those endless dots don’t seem to have a purpose, nor do they seem connected to each other in any way. They’re just dots. Much of the time that’s how we see the world from our perspective in it. We’re too close in to get the big picture, and it seems like each of us is just a meaningless dot.

We need to pull back, though, and see things from God’s perspective. Just as a news photo becomes clear when we see all the dots together, when we look at ourselves in the context of others, we see where we fit in the great handiwork that God the potter has molded from his clay.

We are all connected—all of us here, everybody around the world, and all those who have lived throughout history. God has built an intricate network that joins us all together through time and space. What one person does affects everyone else, so we need to make remember—not just at the holidays, but every day of the year—to treat everyone we meet as a brother or sister or parent or child … and to always be on the watch for God’s connection to us.

(C) 2008

The background music on this page is the hymn "Have Thine Own Way", which is based on the Old Testament text of this sermon.