Here’s a sermon I gave this past weekend about the power of small groups. In the service we actually took some time to talk together in small groups–I hope everyone reading will find ways to build those meaningful, supportive connections too.
Some of you know I moved here from northern California
about a year ago.
People often ask me, what do you miss about California?
I think they expect me to say, the weather, the food,
the whole California scene,
and that’s true to some extent.
But what I miss more than all that
is a little group that met once a month.
It was four of us ministers who showed up for each other
almost without fail for the five years I served out there.
We called ourselves the Central California Unitarian Universalist Cluster,
or CCUUCs for short. (That’s pronounced “kooks” for the uninitiated!)
Every month, we got together
to sit on squishy congregational couches,
nibble on scones and tangerines,
and talk about the currents of our lives and our ministries.
And over five years of ups and downs,
health crises and congregational crises,
many moments of joy
and long stretches when nothing much felt like it was happening,
and we weren’t sure whether to be worried or grateful,
we were there for each other.
We knew we cared about each other,
we had each other’s backs,
and that made it safe for us to tell it like it really was.
We could be honest together about the things that scared us
and the things that made us deeply hopeful.
There were moments when things got really tough for one of us
and we walked through fire together.
The people in that group are forever my blood-sisters and brothers.
John O’Donohue says in today’s reading that “to be human is to belong.”
There’s no such thing as a person in isolation,
unconnected to anything else.
We are social creatures—we all know this.
We all need other people to care for us.
We need to connect, to exchange ideas, to love and be loved.
We need to feel we belong.
We need places where we are known and appreciated and needed,
places where we matter.
This is a big part of what we affirm here:
we are part of an interdependent web;
we’re all connected and we all belong.
And we hope that our connections, our belonging brings us joy—
but we all know we can’t take that for granted!
When we talk about how good it is to be connected,
we’re talking about a certain kind of connection—
a way of being with people
where we all feel respected, affirmed, appreciated, loved.
But we all know we can’t take that for granted.
At one time or another,
we’ve probably all been a part of groups that weren’t safe,
groups where we have felt hurt, vulnerable,
where in order to belong we felt we had to hide who we were,
maybe even do things we didn’t want to do.
Last week our high school students talked about this
when they watched a clip from The Breakfast Club.
Maybe you’ve seen it.
It’s the story of five high school kids who end up in a day-long detention:
a wrestler, a popular girl,
a geeky brainy kid,
a bad-boy rebel type,
and an offbeat girl who wears all black and doesn’t talk.
At first they can barely stand each other.
They hurt each other with their judgments and stereotypes.
But they keep talking,
and slowly they find out they are so much more than their stereotypes.
John O’Donohue says we label ourselves and each other
based on our possessions, our roles, our status—
we all do it—but that’s not really who we are.
These kids in the movie start to listen to each other, really listen,
and they start to see through all the stereotypical junk,
the labels they put on each other,
and they start to connect with each other as human beings.
They find out the offbeat girl who barely says a word
actually sees everything—she’s the one who calls the others out
on their half-truths and defenses.
They learn that the wrestler guy is struggling with shame and guilt
because he beat up another kid
to prove to his tough-guy dad that he was a real man.
The popular girl wants to reach out to other kids
but she’s so afraid of what her so-called friends will say.
The brainy kid who’s never broken a rule in his life
has come close to killing himself
because of one bad grade.
And the bad-boy rebel who rages and threatens and shouts—
it’s just a shield
because he’s been physically abused all his life.
At the end of the day, these kids are friends, or maybe something deeper.
They understand each other.
They’ve seen each other face to face
and they have heard each other speak the truth of their lives.
Maybe for the first time,
they have dared to say the truth of their lives out loud.
And so they have come to belong to each other—and to their own selves.
O’Donohue says, yes, of course we belong to other people, places and things.
But more deeply belonging is about our relationship to our own soul.
True belonging happens on the inside,
when we accept our own self,
our gifts, our failures, our dreams and longings—everything that is truly us.
O’Donohue says, what we are, each one of us, is a gift.
We didn’t invent ourselves, our gifts and our personalities,
everything we can do and everything we wish we could—
all that is gift,
and true belonging happens on the inside when we accept that gift.
It happens on the inside; no one can do it for us;
and yet other people can help or hinder us so much.
When others make fun of us or judge us or condemn us,
it is so much harder for us to accept ourselves.
It can be done, but it is so much harder.
But when even just a few people around us
help us feel safe and accepted and loved,
we can take that in and use it to strengthen our own heart.
I think back to a time many years ago now
when a dear friend of mine sat me down
and told me he had something to tell me.
I remember we were at a café, white table;
I can picture the book I’d been reading lying on the table between us.
He sounded serious and I know both of us felt the electricity in the air.
“I’m gay,” he said—he was coming out to me for the first time;
this was years ago, a different time,
when it was possible to be very close friends
without knowing such a thing about each other—
and here we were in this moment,
and there was no question, it was fine, of course,
and he was my friend and I did and do love him very much.
But I look back on that crystal moment between us,
the shimmering electricity in that moment
when the words were finally said,
and I to this day I am awed at the courage it took
for him to voice the truth of his soul.
There’s a power in such a moment,
when one human being dares to speak the truth of their life to another
and our heart is pierced through with the wonder and the terror
and the grace of what it means to be alive.
In such a moment hope and gratitude flood us.
Lives may be saved in just one such moment of true connection,
true belonging self to self.
And we know this life is a holy thing.
Friends, if you ever wonder why we talk so much about small groups
here in our congregation—
if you ever wonder why over and over again we encourage you
to find a place to connect, a small group to join,
this is why.
This is why.
It’s because we are hoping so much
that you too will find a safe space to belong here.
Our hope and our aspiration is that in small, intentional groups,
we can create safe space for each other to belong—
to one another and to our own selves.
Space for our soul to emerge and thrive in its own beauty,
nobody else’s but its own.
And when that happens—you’ve seen it, haven’t you?
I can think of so many people right here,
people who truly know themselves and their gifts,
and you see what happens in their lives—
they blossom into service, sharing their gifts with the world
in a way that is so authentic and beautiful and powerful.
We talk a lot here about our mission—grow, connect, serve—
and when people connect to each other
in deeply positive, life-giving ways—we see it again and again—
when people feel affirmed by their neighbors,
when they feel seen and appreciated and encouraged,
it’s like their energy is liberated, the core of their self is liberated
and it manifests in a million different kinds of service—
serving other people in ways that come naturally and simply to us
because they come from our own precious nature.
We connect and we grow into the service we are born for.
This is why I think our small groups matter.
This is why we hope everyone
will find a small group to belong to.
Our tradition has taught for a very long time
that faith is all about discovering your truth together in community.
This is where our faith comes alive,
this wonderful bringing forth of each person’s truth, each person’s gifts,
this shared work to liberate the human spirit inside each one of us.
Through belonging to each other we come to belong to our own self.
So I hope you’ll take a chance on some new connections.
I hope with all my heart
that you will find a wonderful place to belong—
for everyone else who needs your presence too,
and for this world which needs all our gifts.
May it be so.