© Doug Rodgers 2008. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
February 10, 2008

We come to church seeking connection with each other and with the universe.

We are told that we are all one. Although we are not identical, we are really are more or less, the same. That is, we are pretty much like each other, except where we are different.

Underneath our soft precious skins, we all have the same parts, arranged in the same way. Some a little more this way and others a little more that way. Did you see the recent Body Worlds exhibition in San Jose? Amazing that such a collection of parts could actually be a person, me, you. And our animal cousins, did you see the horse? Same systems, same parts, just morphed into different shapes, larger here, smaller there, or maybe turned in a different direction. And if you read your modern biology, you know that we share an amazing number of life processes with the most basic life forms of life, those unseen one celled creatures that fill our environment.

But we don't feel so connected. We feel individual, independent, even self sufficient. We sit inside our heads, thinking our thoughts - "what is he talking about?" We sometimes feel alone, sometimes so alone that we can't stand it. To get rid of that alone feeling some of us go to extremes, like taking drugs to forget who we are, or creating churches to remember who we are. Churches are places where we can remember who we are, and tell our stories and listen to the stories of others - hopefully, others who have done better than we have and from whom we can learn.

We live alone, yet at the same time, we live in a sea of other people. We hear the stories from a few famous ones, people we have never met. Whether it is Brittney Spears and her latest comic - or is it tragic - soap opera of a life, or the never ending convolutions of TV's Lost or maybe you like the political stories like how Hillary Clinton did or did not "disrespect" Martin Luther King by referring to Lyndon Johnson in the same paragraph. Unfortunately, most of these stories don't have much to do with us or with our lives. And, of course, we don't get a chance to talk, we just listen and watch. And while we watch our TVs, there are those relentless, incessant commercials - enough to numb the strongest mind. Thank god for TIVO!

We come to church to hear stories about great people, saints and sinners whose lives are somehow larger than our own. From some of these we draw inspiration of what to do and from others what not to do. We also come to church to tell our own stories. We get a little bit of that during the sharing time on Sunday, and perhaps a little more over coffee. Even those little bits can be very important to us. Yet they aren't much, really, just a few minutes once a week. And as our congregation grows, we are reaching the limit of that kind of sharing. In a worship service of 100 people, a few can share for a few seconds, but with 200, that kind of sharing no longer works. We need another way.

The opportunity to connect with each other in our larger society seems to decrease with time. There are so many of us, driving around in our cars. And when we meet on the street, there are still so many that we can't say hello to everyone, so we greet no one, unless we already know them. Our town government is as big and impersonal as state governments were once upon a time, and smaller civic organizations seem less relevant today than they once did. Go to a small town and you will see a stronger civil society, but we don't live in a small town. Fremont is a huge place, teaming with people of all sorts, from everywhere, speaking many languages, practicing many religions and many cultures. It makes for interesting restaurants, but not so much for personal contact.

There are many other ways that we are divided. The fast pace of our changing business community means that we don't form the bonds of daily association over many years that we once did. Few of you who are working today will have the experience that my grandfather had and my father had and I had - of working for a single company our whole lives and retiring with a pension and health insurance. During those years we made connections with lots of people, perhaps only a little each day, but over decades we became close, close enough to form lasting friendships.

Today we have more opportunity, perhaps, but also more uncertainty, more and faster change and less chance to build lasting connections.

There is the rich/poor divide. We seldom meet people outside of our socio-economic strata. The closer your are to either the rich end or the poor end, the less likely you are to meet those from the other side. It's common now also to send our children to private schools, if we can afford the cost, or home school, if we can afford the time. Those decisions are understandable from an individual viewpoint, but they make another division in our society.

Electronic media connect us but do they really nurture us? It's thin fare for our souls, better than nothing, I suppose, but it seems so cold. Today's teenagers, at least so I see on TV, are living in a constant din of music, text messages, cell phone conversations and the internet. All at the same time. How can you make any kind of real connection with anyone, including yourself, in that environment? People my age and younger - which is getting to be just about everybody, I suppose - survived a television dominated childhood, much to the dismay of our parents. I'm not so sure we were better off as a result. But we are here and again, and always, we are in a new age.

We need connections, direct personal connections with others who share our values and have some regard for our welfare. It's nice to know people with different experiences who can help us make our way in this ever more complicated society. It's good to know that Holly knows about taxes and that Ralph knows about investments, that Jack knows the Fremont city government, and that Barbara knows about depression and mental illness. If you have a problem, you may go to a paid specialist if you can afford it, but it's wonderful to get a "sanity check" by talking to somebody at church who knows you and will listen to your problem.

There are plenty of other times when we need personal connections. Wouldn't it be great if we had a large enough network so that we could help each other with jobs and housing, instead of just providing an ear to listen or a shoulder to cry on. Not that those ears and shoulders aren't important, but wouldn't it be great if we could do more.

Small Group Ministry was invented to promote connections between people, but it wasn't invented by us UUs. It has been used by Christian churches for years. It is one important thing that allows them to grow to the huge sizes that we can scarcely imagine. For example, in his book Small Group Ministry, Robert Hill talks about the Fellowship Church of Grapevine, Texas. That church serves about 16 thousand adults every weekend with two services on Saturday evening and three more on Sunday. In four years they added more members to their one church than we added to 1050 UU churches. Of course, they are Baptists. But not all Baptist churches are large. The average is closer to 75 adults on Sunday morning, according to Hill. Fellowship Church uses the Small Group Ministry concept - they call them Home Teams - to move their growing edge forward. They have 120 groups of couples and singles.

Small Group Ministry gives you connections, deeper and more personal connections than you may get otherwise.

Because groups are selected by time slot, you will meet people that you might not otherwise get to know.

Because groups are open to new members, you may get to meet people new to Mission Peak.

Because groups are reformulated each year, you have a chance to stay or move to a new group.

Small Group Ministry gives you an opportunity to practice your religious beliefs, like respect for others

We Unitarian Universalists don't have a shared language of religious beliefs; we use the language of others. And since we don't hold a single set of beliefs, we use a lot of different others. But we are slowly developing a language of our own, and that language uses the word "spiritual" a lot, and "spiritual practice". You may have a clear idea of what that term means to you, or maybe a not so clear idea. To me, spiritual practice means doing things that help me better align my interior, subjective view of the world with my exterior, objective view. It is easy for me to see, objectively, if you are feeling great joy or great pain. When I can feel your joy and pain the same way I feel my own, then I will ascend into heaven with the rest of the saints. Anything I can do that brings me closer to that understanding is, in my mind, a spiritual practice. That includes listening to other people and trying to understand how they feel.

We talk in the abstract about seeing the good in others, about treating others the way we would like to be treated, about how we are all on this journey together; but we don't often get the chance to put those abstractions into practice. Small Group Ministry isn't called Ministry for nothing. Ministry means connection to others, helping, listening, perhaps advising. Although not so much on the advising part. It isn't that often that we come seeking advise, more likely we want a sympathetic listener, some comfort.

Now let me say something more specific about how the Small Group Ministry program works.

First, what it isn't. Our small groups are not therapy groups or support groups, at least not in the usual sense of the word. Nor are they confidential groups where no part of the conversation can be repeated outside the group meeting. Groups like these have their place, but that's not we are doing here.

It isn't a leaderless and unstructured coffee and cookies group either. We do have a purpose and a program. And because food can be a distraction, we ask that groups only serve water.

Each group has a leader, and ideally, an assistant leader. The leader's responsibility is to call the group together, begin the meeting with a chalice lighting and opening words, keep time and launch the discussion topic, and finish the meeting with closing words. Leaders and assistant leaders meet with Chris once a month for their own small group session and to discuss the progress of the program as a whole.

The meetings have a format. There are opening words, check in, topic discussion, likes and wishes and closing words. The meetings last two hours. We are all busy people and, to respect each other's time commitments, we encourage group meetings to start on time and end on time.

Groups write themselves a covenant at the second meeting. The covenant is an agreement to follow the Small Group Ministry program rules, to behave respectfully and to show up at the meetings. Groups discuss and agree on details of how to accomplish this.

Groups have an empty chair to symbolize that they are open to new members. That means that if you were thinking about joining, you can come and try it out.

Some types of groups close themselves to new members, and there are reasons to do this. Small Group Ministry, however, is deliberately structured to be open, and to encourage new people to join. If a group gets to be more than 10 members, including the leader, we will ask the group to split, with the assistant leader becoming the new group leader. Although people may resist the idea of splitting, in fact, a group larger than 10 does not give everyone a chance to say what they need to say and the group becomes constrained by time limits.

Topics are chosen by the leaders group. Last year's topics were taken from the Small Group Ministry support material. This year, some topics will be repeated and there will be new topics as well (as soon as I finish them).

You may sign up for Small Group Ministry by directly contacting any leader who has a meeting when you are available, or fill out the form on the welcome table. If none of the meeting times suit, then please let us know when you would like to meet. If there are enough people, we will try to start a new group.

There are many other kinds groups in our church, some are mostly work and some are mostly fun, some feed you and some eat you. Small Group Ministry is designed to feed you, to help you along your spiritual path, to connect you to other people.


Let's take a break now. I would like to have you think for a moment about a group experience you may have had, either here with the Mission Peak Small Group Ministry, or with a similar group somewhere else.

So please sit quietly for a minute, close your eyes or look down, and quiet your thoughts. Let some experience that you had in a group rise in your mind.


Think of a personal connection you have, or once had, that arose from a group you belonged to. How did you make that connection? How did it last over time? How did it make a difference in your life.

Thank you.


In closing, I would just like to read something from the Dalai Lama's book, Ethics for a New Millenium.

I appeal to you the reader to ensure that you make the rest of your life as meaningful as possible. Do this by engaging in spiritual practice if you can. As I hope I have made clear, there is nothing mysterious about this. It consists in nothing more than acting out of concern for others. And provided you undertake this practice sincerely and with persistence, little by little, step by step you will gradually be able to re-order your habits and attitudes so that you think less about your own narrow concerns and more of others'. In doing so, you will find that you enjoy peace and happiness yourself.

Relinquish your envy, let go your desire to triumph over others. Instead, try to benefit them. With kindness, with courage and confident that in doing so you are sure to meet with success, welcome others with a smile. Be straightforward. And try to be impartial. Treat everyone as if they were a close friend. I say this neither as Dalai Lama nor as someone who has special powers or ability. Of these I have none. I speak as a human being: one who, like yourself, wishes to be happy and not to suffer.

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