January 17, 2016
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
WHY SMALL GROUPS?
II Peter 3:8-18
The second in a series of five.
I mentioned William Broyles in a sermon last June. If you can’t remember, no worries. I can barely remember and I preached it. He’s the screenwriter for “Apollo 13”, “Cast Away”, and “Polar Express”. He’s the one who climbed the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere, 22,837 foot Aconcagua, even though he had never climbed a mountain before and he was afraid on heights. I guess it was one of those mid-life crisis things.
He is also a Vietnam veteran. He wrote a book called Brothers in Arms: A Journey from War to Peace. I’d like to share a passage from that book with you.
A part of me loved war. Now please understand, I am a peaceful man. Fond of children and animals and I believe that war should have no place in the affairs of men. But the comradeship our platoon experienced in that war provides an enduring and moving memory in me. A comrade in war is someone you can trust with anything because you regularly trust him with your life. In war, individual possessions and advantage count for nothing. The group, the unit, the platoon is everything. In war we regularly risked our lives to recover our wounded and dead. We often felt close enough to each other to call one another brothers.
He went on to describe the depth of feeling that existed among platoon members. And then he ended that part of his book as he had opened it: “A part of me loved war.”
You don’t have to go to war to experience what William Broyles experienced. What he is describing in this passage is something we all long to experience. It’s something we all need. It’s something we’re all made for. It’s something, once we have tasted it, that we can never be content to live without. That something is community.
We continue today the series we started last week. We’re talking about the community that is available in small groups. Last week we saw that small groups are nothing new. All through church history, ever since Jesus called his 12 disciples, whenever God has been doing something big, small groups have been part of it. In every season of revival and renewal, we can trace an accompanying emphasis on small group life. Two things that we all need that we find in small groups are caring and accountability. Our basic need to love and be loved and to know and be known can never be met all by ourselves. We need others. They need us. Life is not meant to be lived alone.
Today I want to ask a simple question. Why small groups? We’ve been getting along pretty well in our lives and in our church without this big new emphasis. What’s the big deal? Our lives are full enough already. Why add one more thing?
I have three answers. First, small groups build Christians. Peter ends his second letter with these words: “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity” (3:18). Christians are meant to grow. And as Jesus himself modeled, we grow best in groups. Remember this slide from last time?
Left unto ourselves we will never reach or even approach our full spiritual potential.
We know this and yet we fight this. God made us to be in relationship with him and with others. But it takes effort to maintain relationships. Sometimes no matter how hard we try on our end, things don’t work out the way they should and when that happens we tend to run away from community and crawl into our own little shell. We hide from people, kind of like Adam and Eve hid from God when they were having a problem following his instructions.
When there are problems in a marriage, we hide from each other. We stop talking. We retreat into isolation. Same thing at work. Things aren’t going so well? We withdraw. We hide. We disengage.
We do this as a defense mechanism. We do this to avoid the pain, but at the same time we are avoiding the growth that often comes through pain. When you cut into a tree, it stimulates growth where the cut happened. But when a limb is cut all the way off, that limb dies. It can live and grow only when it is still connected to the source of its life. People who are cut off from relationships die, even though biologically they might appear to still be alive.
This is true whether we bring God into the equation or not. There was an article in the “London Daily Mail” earlier this month that gave scientific evidence for the link between good health, long life and the social bonds that connect us with family and friends. There’s no mention of God in that article. In England there’s hardly anyone left who still believes in God. But any pastor could have told the scientists this before they started their research. People who go to church live longer than people who don’t. We have a woman in this church who is getting ready to celebrate her 108th birthday (Lela Buckley) and we have a man who never misses a Sunday who just celebrated his 100th (Earl Ratcliff). And it’s no longer a big deal to be in your 90’s in this church. Except you’d never know it because they all look like they’re in their 70’s. Don’t tell me the social bonds that connect us to each other aren’t part of the reason we have so many healthy older people here!
We need each other whether God is part of our lives or not. But for those of us who care about growing spiritually, we also need each other in order for that to happen.
Sometimes we think we can be the exception. We can grow in Christ all by ourselves. If we just pray enough or read the Bible enough or do good works enough we can grow spiritually without the inconvenient complication of other people in our lives. It never works. Ever. I’ve tried it. Maybe you have, too. The harder you try, the more discouraged you get. You find yourself falling back into sinful habits. You find yourself taking the easy way and not challenging yourself. You find that you aren’t making progress. You’re going backwards, not forward. You feel empty and isolated.
That’s when a powerful temptation usually presents itself. This is the temptation to settle for a casual Christian life. You’re still a Christian. You just don’t take it very seriously. You’ve heard of a “rhino”? A “Republican in name only”? We can easily become a “chino”. A “Christian in name only.” The fire has gone out. The embers are getting cold. Jesus is knocking on the door of our heart but nobody is home.
When William Broyles climbed Aconcagua, it would have been good if had some previous climbing experience. It would have been good if he didn’t have a fear of heights. But at least he did one thing right. He didn’t attempt it alone. That would have been suicide. He was part of a team. He was the weakest link on that team, no question. But he had the benefit of others who had the experience and the equipment and who could give encouragement to novices like him. Together they made it to the top.
If we’re going to defeat the temptation to settle for casual Christian lives, we’re going to do so together, not alone. We’re going to need to be part of a team. Spiritual growth is a team sport. You have something to contribute to the team effort and you also have something to receive from the other members of the team. Together you will find the encouragement, the support, the challenge, the accountability, the love, the wisdom that it takes to climb high on that spiritual mountain. To not settle for the lowlands of casual Christian lives.
There was a church that was getting serious about small groups. Here is a letter the pastor received.
I have been in all kinds of small groups, academically, professionally, and recreationally. Your last week’s message hit me like a ton of bricks. Now I understand why I’ve been so weak as a Christian, why I’ve been so regularly defeated spiritually. I come to this church alone. I sit down and enjoy every minute of every service. I file out without talking to anyone and then I leave alone. I don’t have any contact with any Christians all week long. I come back the next week alone, go through the same process, and leave alone. I finally recognized that I will never grow the way I want to grow, I’ll never make the progress I want to make spiritually, until I link up with like-minded people who can help me and who I can help. I see that now.
Do you? A light went on for this man. Has that light gone on for you? Why small groups? Because they build Christians.
Second, small groups build community. The community they build is what makes it possible for them to build Christians. So this second point seems to be just a restatement of the first. But here’s the distinction: The community small groups build is not just for the benefit of the individuals within the group. Even if nobody gets any spiritual benefit at all, which is hard for me to imagine, still the community building that happens in small groups is of value.
Here’s how Peter says it: “According to God’s promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (3:13). In other words, as Christians we live in anticipation of a future community. It’s in the future but it’s also here. We experience it from time to time, especially in small groups. But it’s mainly in the future. God is still building it. It’s what God is up to, if you remember the question from last week. So community is both a present reality and a future hope. At the Last Supper, Jesus said: “I tell you I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom” (Matthew 26:29). He was talking about this future community that God is in the process of building. He talked about it all the time. He called it the Kingdom of God.
We live in an individualistic culture. Until you travel around the world, you don’t realize that everyone doesn’t think in such individualistic terms. There’s a tribe in Africa where the typical morning greeting is, “Did you sleep well last night?” And the expected response is, “I slept well if you slept well.” We don’t even think in those terms. If you asked someone how they slept you might be told it’s none of your business. They might think you are a salesperson for some mattress company.
In an individualistic culture like ours, we naturally evaluate things on the basis of “what’s in it for me”. We evaluate groups that way, too. But if we can stretch our thinking we will realize that’s not the only question. That’s not even the most important question. Not just “what’s in it for me?” but “what’s in it for you?”. And “what’s in it for God’s glory?” Because what really matters is not just my own spiritual development. What matters is being part of something bigger than me. Something that will remain when I am gone. Something that God is doing on this earth.
Peter speaks of this new heaven and new earth in which righteousness dwells. Is it possible that our small groups can be such places? Where righteousness dwells? Oh, I know, we all have a long way to go before we can call ourselves righteous. We are human beings, not angels, and sometimes the rough edges of our humanity are all the more obvious the more we get together with other people. Even so, is it possible that by the grace of God we can enter into community and become more than we are? Better than we are? That we can experience a foretaste of heaven right here on earth?
Third, what small groups build lasts. Peter writes about what doesn’t last. “The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up” (3:10).
Jack Simplot built a mansion on a hill. Now it’s gone. Which is really true of everything we build on this earth. Nothing lasts forever. In the long run, it all goes away. With one single exception. People. People last a long time on this earth. Especially the people who go to this church. But in God’s plan, people last a lot longer than our time on this earth. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
So what’s your wisest investment? In material things, or in people? I hope that’s not a hard question for you to answer.
I think of all the people who invested in me. I think of the small group leaders who touched my life, beginning with my parents. There were a lot of other things they could have done with their time and their money. But they poured their lives into me. There were my grandparents, my teachers, kindergarten through seminary. My Sunday school teachers. My summer church camp counselors. My youth leaders. My coaches. My pastors. My district superintendents and bishops. Where would I be without them? I can tell you that without my bishop and my district superintendent, I wouldn’t be here!
How is it that you are in worship today? Someone somewhere along the line encouraged you and influenced you. Probably a lot of somebodies. You probably could make a long list, as I can. It’s not a bad idea to take the time to make that list and say a prayer of gratitude for each of the people who invested in you.
Teddy Stoddard was starting fifth grade. He hated school. And all the fifth grade teachers were hoping Teddy would be in someone else’s class. But someone had to have Teddy and that someone was Mrs. Thompson. She knew about him already. All the teachers did. He was going to give her problems. He didn’t play well with the other children on the playground. His clothes were messy. He didn’t smell very good. And he turned out to be every bit the problem Mrs. Thompson expected him to be. If he didn’t want to learn, she had plenty of other students who did. So she started giving them more attention and giving Teddy less. But she couldn’t stop thinking about this poor little boy whose life was going nowhere.
So one day she decided to review his file. Teddy’s first grade teacher had written: “Teddy is a bright child with a ready laugh. He does his work neatly and has good manners. He is a joy to be around.” She checked to make sure she was reading the right file. She was.
His second grade teacher had written: “Teddy is an excellent student, well liked by his classmates, but he is troubled because his mother has a terminal illness and life at home must be a struggle.”
His third grade teacher had written: “His mother’s death has been hard on him. He tries to do his best, but his father doesn’t show much interest and his home life will soon affect him if some steps aren’t taken.”
His fourth grade teacher: “Teddy is withdrawn and doesn’t show much interest in school. He doesn’t have many friends and sometimes sleeps in class.”
The problem with Teddy was obvious.
On the last day of school before Christmas, Mrs. Thompson got a present from Teddy. He had obviously wrapped it himself. It was a rhinestone bracelet. Several stones were missing. And also a used bottle of perfume, almost empty. She put on the bracelet and dabbed some perfume on her wrist. Teddy said, “Now you smell just like my mom used to.”
After the children left, Mrs. Thompson cried. That was the day she decided she would stop teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic and she would start teaching children.
She made sure Teddy got her full attention. As she worked with him, his mind seemed to come alive. By the end of the year, he had become one of her best students. A year later, she found a note under her door. It was from Teddy, telling her that she was the best teacher he had ever had. Six years went by and she got a letter from him. He had finished high school third in his class. Four years later, another letter. College hadn’t been easy but he’d made it, with highest honors. Another four years and another letter. This one was signed Theodore F. Stoddard, M. D.
It was the next spring that another letter arrived. Teddy was getting married. His dad had died a couple of years earlier so Teddy wouldn’t have any parents at his wedding. He wondered if Mrs. Thompson might sit in the place normally reserved for the mother of the groom. Of course, she would. Wearing the bracelet with several rhinestones missing and wearing also the perfume that his mom had worn.
They hugged and Dr. Stoddard whispered in Mrs. Thompson’s ear, “Thank you for believing in me.” Mrs. Thompson whispered back, “I should be thanking you. I didn’t know how to teach until I met you.”
What are you doing with your life that is going to last forever? How wisely are you investing your time, your money, your life? We need each other. You need people and they need you. It’s God’s plan for life.
Lord God, stir our hearts to accept this challenge. Many of us are putting a lot of effort into building things that don’t matter and, even if they did matter, they won’t last. Many of us go through life with a “what’s in it for me” attitude. Many of us are trying to follow Jesus alone and have settled for casual Christian lives. May we take a long hard look at our lives. May we see ourselves as you see us. And may we make the changes that need to be made. Bind us together, Lord God. Bind us together into community. In Jesus’ name, Amen.