"Strength Through Fellowship"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - May 12, 2002

Psalms 68:1-10, 32-35: Acts 1:6-14

     For years many of us have heard people say, "I grew up in a very dysfunctional family" and they proceed to tell us about their childhood. Every time these words surface, we wonder what people are really saying. Are they saying, " I grew up in a family where no one read their script the way I would have written it." Or, does this comment mean that they grew up in an environment where no one had learned how to love? Sometimes when there is so little collective validation and affirmation, life is a challenge from the beginning.

     In our Scripture lesson today, the disciples were experiencing a number of defining moments that were to shape their destiny.  None of them were prepared. Their understanding of who they were and their future role were still in the infant stages of development. The single, most powerful ingredient that kept them together was the spirit of love.  Let us tune in and listen to these events as they unfolded.

     As they spoke to the risen Lord they asked, "At this time, will you give the Kingdom back to Israel?"  They were still thinking about an earthly Kingdom that would have political and military significance.  Jesus responded, "I don't know.  Only God has the answer to that question.  But very soon the Holy Spirit will fill you with power so that you will take my message to the ends of the earth."  

     After learning that their task would eventually encompass the world, the group watched Jesus disappear from their midst.  They would never again see him in the form to which they had grown accustomed.  As they remained standing there transfixed, two spirit beings appeared and said, "Galileans, why are you standing here looking up at the sky?"   

     We can remember a similar situation in I Kings when Elijah was fleeing the wrath of Queen Jezebel.  He was hiding in the cave when God came to him.  The first words that came to Elijah were these, "Elijah, what are you doing in this cave?  Go to Damascus!"  If the disciples had an entire world to embrace they had to get started. 

     The crowning touch to this series of events came with what happened next.  The disciples went back to Jerusalem.  Our lesson tells us, "They gathered frequently to pray as a group, together with the women and with Mary the mother of Jesus and with Jesus' brothers."  They came together as the first support group.  

     Every such group navigates through experiences that represent uncharted water.  Was this first family of faith dysfunctional?  By most modern methods of analysis, of course it was!  Their leader was gone.  They had one of their own friends betray Jesus.  Peter who claimed great courage and faithfulness had denied knowing him three times.  Was this family in trouble, or was the core issue that they still had much to learn about each other, their new identity and their mission? 

     The author of Luke-Acts has given us insight into the spiritual formation of the earliest church family.  Everyone immediately began drawing strength from each other.  We need the energy of others whether we realize it or not. 

     All of us are alone in life.  I do not mean that all of us are lonely.  Aloneness is a fact of life.  Loneliness is an attitude that we create through our fear that few people care about us.  What I mean by aloneness is that no one else can feel what we feel, no one can give us the ability to love others and no one can give us the understanding that we are loved.  We learn how to acquire such skills in a group. 

     An unseen dynamic happens when people come together because of Jesus Christ.  If Saint Matthew's were not here we would not have a group that gathers to mulch shrubs and plant annuals in our numerous gardens.  We would not have groups each month taking food to the Prince George's County Men's Shelter and serving it.  We would not have groups gathering to rehearse anthems for Sunday morning or to discuss life-issues in a Disciples' class. 

     Our church has a good number of little groups which creates a fellowship that influences and provides everyone with the power for living.  We have colleagues at work, we can have opportunities at Rotary or the Lions Club to experience fellowship, but the church offers this experience as though we were branches that need to stay attached to the vine of God. 

     Fellowship has a unique power to it.  All of us hunger to be loved for who we are, and when we create an environment where we can be just that, no one has to say, "We love you."  We know it.  The non-verbal communication within a group is like an invisible glue that binds people together.   

     One of the funniest stories about our Angel Gang centered around the experience of Guy LeVee, one of the charter members of our church.  His wife, Maggie, is a cancer survivor and she kept saying to Guy, "Why don't you come to the Angel Gang with me?"  He said, "I am sorry; I don't do meetings.  And I do not enjoy sitting around listening to people talk about their physical problems." She said, "We don't do that!"  Her persistence paid off.  One day he arrived at one of our meetings. 

     As he sat there, he noticed that people were talking to each other, telling experiences of last week. Nothing he heard had to do with anyone's illness.  There was so much laughter.  There were moments when the group disintegrated into total chaos.   He kept thinking to himself, "When is this meeting going to start?  We'll be here all day at this rate." 

     This group behavior went on for about an hour.  Then everyone joined hands, various names of people were called out, we prayed for them and the meeting was over.  Guy could not get over it; he loved the experience!  The only times  the two have missed attending the Angel Gang are when he and Maggie are out of town.  

     After the completion of a group experience like Christmas in April, how many times have we heard someone comment, "I really needed this!"   Such statements are made because we have just spent time with others giving ourselves away.  Fellowship creates a sense of well being that frequently does not come automatically to a person operating alone.  Today many of us may not have the intimacy and affirmation that comes from sharing in a group. 

     I remember in the mid-eighties working with a team in the West Virginia flood zones of  Moorefield and Parsons.  A very interesting event occurred six months later which I have not forgotten.  A mother of a ten-year-old and two teenagers was expressing her appreciation to a group of us volunteers who had worked during the clean-up effort.  These moments helped all of us bring some degree of closure to what we had experienced.  

     As she expressed herself, tears came down her face. She told us that their former home had been large.  Each of the children had their own bedroom.  After their house had been destroyed, they had to live in one of the trailers supplied by FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  This is what I remember her saying,

During our time in that trailer, my husband and I discovered how beautiful our children were.  They actually had personalities.  They even knew how to communicate to each other and to us.  Our family had been so isolated in the large house that we never realized how far we had drifted apart. The loss of our home caused us to make discoveries about each other we might have missed.  It was fun as we learned how to make do. We had to work together. The loss of our house and possessions was actually a gift we did not recognize until our family had become a family again. 

     We come here on Sunday mornings and because of our sheer size, we can leave as strangers.  That was not the way the early church family experienced their lives together.  Our text says, "They gathered frequently to pray as a group, together with the women and with Mary the mother of Jesus and with Jesus' brothers."  Today it is through such togetherness that we discover our value and the value of each other. 

     One or two hours on Sunday morning may be all we think we need to "recharge our spiritual  batteries."  The real source of strength, however, comes from becoming part of a small group, e.g., the choir, a class, folks pulling weeds together, a mission project, our theater troupe, or a women's circle.  Remaining a part of love's vine is what kept the early church family together. That, in turn, gave them the opportunity to pass the same experience on to others.  It worked then and it continues to work for us today.  


    Merciful and loving God, we cannot live through a single day without sensing the joys of your world.  When we are eager to learn your ways, we always find countless means of refining ourselves.  Help us to remember how trivial matters often disable our ability to extend your presence.  We forget that there are no failures; there are only results.  Jesus offered the hope that we can change our thinking.  Free us, O God, from elements of life that resist growth.  Motivate us to move beyond what dilutes our faith and the quality of our spirit.  Kindle in us a desire to stretch, to resist compromise and to find pleasure in empowering others.  Amen.


    Eternal God, You have created each of us to resonate with happiness and to become extensions of your presence on the earth.  You have given us many gifts we can use to assist others in their growth.  We have the capacity to heal with our words and body language.  We can release from our minds the mistakes others have made.  We can reflect your qualities the moment we give them away.

    Today as we honor our mothers, kindle our minds with fond memories.  Her kiss was often the beginning of the healing process for skinned knees.  Her lap seemed like a final oasis of peace just prior to bedtime.  Her words of assurance inspired us when we feared there was something we could not do.  Her praise rewarded us as we summoned the courage to try each new rung of the ladder.  Her guidance through the years provided us with a life filled with timeless wisdom we use today.

    Loving energy is such a beautiful gift, O God, and it can never be in short supply.  Our cups are always full.  We never grow weary of wearing smiles.  We can never tire of kindness.  Thank you for creating us the way you have.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .