The Magic Of Being In A Group”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – January 22, 2017

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 27:1, 4-9; Matthew 4:18-25

    Have you ever wondered how successful Jesus would have been if preaching and teaching were his only skills?  Suppose healing others had not been a part of his ministry?  We would probably find that the results would have been the same as to what happened because of the uniqueness of Jesus and his message.  

    When we examine the Gospels, there is very little evidence that those who were healed became his followers.  Once they had their needs met, most of them went on with their lives much like the ten lepers. (Luke 17:11f)  But, in terms of drawing large audiences of curiosity seekers, Jesus drew crowds that were estimated to have reached into the thousands. (Matthew 14:13f)  Most of these people disbursed in the same manner as they did on Palm Sunday.  They came and witnessed something and faded back into their culture.

    What we do know is that Jesus' warmth, supportive and accepting spirit drew many listeners to him from all levels of life.  He had one-on-one experiences with Nicodemus, a great teacher in Israel.  He experienced life-changing moments with Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector.  He had close friends like Mary, Martha and Lazarus with whom he frequently visited in Bethany.  He ate with sinners, allowed prostitutes to touch him and was invited to teach at the home of a wealthy Pharisee. 

    What made Jesus' teachings so compelling and memorable were the risks he took by preaching a very different message from what his people had been trained to believe.  Rather than obedience to the Laws of Moses, Jesus taught that extending love, compassion and understanding was the link to understanding the nature of God. (Matthew 7:29)  Obedience was a personal discipline.  Growing a person's loving energy for others was a matter of desires that came from the heart. God's Kingdom was not in some external reality; it was inside of us.  These teachings were heresy.

    In our lesson this morning, Jesus began his ministry by collecting a group of very average men that he could teach and guide.  His invitation was, "Come with me and I will teach you how to influence people so that they change the direction of their lives."  (Matthew 4:19)

    When we think of the source of our own spiritual growth, most of it has come from our life-experiences.  We can only point to wonderful, thought-evoking sermons, reading numerous inspirational books and having discussions on Spirituality as supportive aspects to our growing faith.  

    The magic that took place in Jesus' small group of disciples slowly changed their lives because he was the compass that constantly pointed to the qualities of life that are found in the Kingdom of God.  Emotionally charged responses from his students often became the source of Jesus' lessons as he taught them how to live as a light in the presence of darkness.

    One such episode occurred when James and John were rejected by the leaders of a Samaritan village from whom they were seeking lodging for Jesus and the group.  The Samaritan leaders did not want Jews to stay in their community for even one night.  Their egos were so bruised that later they asked Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven to destroy them.  (Luke 9:54)

    There was also a time when the same two brothers asked Jesus if one could sit on the right and the other on the left when he came into his power.  When the other disciples learned of their request, they became angry.  (Mark 10:41)  There was also the time when the group argued with each other over whom among them was the greatest.  (Luke 22:24)

    Jesus had to unwind centuries of social conditioning that existed among the Jews.  After one of his public teaching experiences, his disciples came to Jesus and asked him why he had become a story-teller.  His response was most intriguing:

    The knowledge about the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven has been given to you but not to the general public.  The reason I tell stories to people is that they look but do not see.  They listen but do not hear or understand.  You are most fortunate to be part of our group because I will teach you how to keep your eyes and ears open.  Everyone in every age has wanted to see and hear what you are experiencing, but they have remained unable to understand anything concerning life in God's Kingdom.  (Matthew 13:10-16)

    What is the magical dynamic within a group that cannot be found anywhere else?  We are no different from the Jews.  Our attitudes and responses to our life-experiences come largely from years of social conditioning. If we are to be angels-in-the flesh, we need to take control of how we express ourselves.   Being in a trusting and peaceful group can prepare us to remain open to changes and growth that will keep us tracking toward such a goal. 

    During a week-long backpacking expedition, a number of teenagers were in a wilderness setting for the first time.  While others were preparing breakfast one morning, I found a girl sitting on a rock sketching a magnificent round spider web outlined with dew.  We were discussing how the spider knows instinctively how to build a work of art to catch her food.  

    One of the boys approached, saw what we were doing and tossed a log through the web that destroyed it. This incident created quite a breach of trust between the two teens.  Around the campfire that evening, the group focused squarely on what had happened that morning. The episode created a real life-lesson for our group.

    When David threw the log destroying the web, for that spider the experience was like one of us having our car badly damaged by an intoxicated driver.  The spider lives with danger every day and thinks nothing of it.  When her web is destroyed by winds, a falling branch or an animal passing by, without any hesitation, she instinctively begins to build a new one.  

    People have the same ability as the spider, but our emotions often cause us to remain unsettled for a long time.  Even though we cannot change the result of anything that has happened, we feel entitled to hold on to our feelings. Not so for the spider.  Jesus taught his disciples to be like the spider.

    On Friday, Americans watched the peaceful transition of power from one political party to another.  The Republicans were jubilant in their victory.  Many Democrats were still holding on to strong emotional responses associated with their defeat. 

    Think about the lesson that Jesus would have taught his group when the Romans took control of the entire area.  Jesus taught, "The crowd of people look but they do not see.  They listen but do not hear or understand anything about living in the Kingdom of God."  

    Saturday, millions of American women marched in cities all over the United States in support of a wide universe of causes.  They were joined by women all over the world.  Sixty-eight Congressional legislators stayed away from witnessing Donald Trump's taking the oath of office.  Bermuda did not send a representative as we did for President Obama's inauguration. What do these responses mean?

    Everyone is entitled to their point-of-view, but what do our emotional reactions cause us to become?  What is happening inside of us both in victory and in defeat?   Jesus often taught, "Do not become attached to anything in this world.  Rather, grow the qualities of spirit that will work in this world and the next.  (Matthew 6:19f)

    What are the secrets of the Kingdom of God that Jesus shared with his inner group but which also missed the notice of other people? If we cannot be at peace within ourselves because of what is happening around us, we have placed a greater significance and importance of issues in our external world over our need to express the spiritual qualities that come from living in God's Kingdom. Very few people understand this.  (Matthew 7:13f)

    If we understand these secrets of the Kingdom and choose to make them visible in our lives, how are we to express our civic duty to make our culture in Bermuda a more inviting culture for others to experience when the OBA and the PLP face each other in a future election?  

    Do we want open conflict as some are suggesting?  Must there be a passive-aggressive civil war like what has just taken place in the United States?  Must our strategy always be grounded in attacking one another, particularly when we have just seen one of the ugliest chapters in U.S. history unfold before us?

    The answer is that we must keep our inner mystical connection to the Kingdom of God within us while serving with love and grace the point of view we wish to represent.  Be like the spider; create in the midst of powerful headwinds without developing attitudes that clip our angel wings.

    When I had my second hip replaced, I requested that the anesthesiologist give me an epidural rather than a general anesthetic.  This allowed me to awaken very quickly in the recovery area.  I sat up and learned what it was like to be temporarily paralyzed from the waist down; however, I could talk without slurring my words. 

    I asked one of the nurses, "What is nursing like these days?"  Other nurses heard the question and became involved in the conversation.  Soon I had six nurses around my gurney.  They began sharing their feelings about the politics of the hospital, the technology and protocols that they are required to use, the zero tolerance for mistakes, the poor bed-side manners of a few physicians and the fear that the Director of Nursing might overhear what must never be discussed in front of a patient.   

    I asked them if patients ever expressed their gratitude for what they do for them.  Not one of them could remember such a time.  I said,

With the many cross-currents that surround you on a daily basis, please do not lose sight of your ability to bring healing energy to others through the spirit by which you live. Try not to allow what is happening in your lives to define your feelings for you.  Be responsible for remaining a vital part of the healing team because that is who you are.  Let those qualities show up every day. 

    They just stared at me speechless. One asked, "Who are you and what do you do?"   When I told them that I was a pastor, they said, "Well, Father, you can look for us to attend Mass at your church on some Sunday morning."  Not one of them followed through.  No doubt that small spontaneous group of nurses disbursed.   They each re-entered the world that reinforced their well-rehearsed emotional responses.  This is what our living in this world does to us.  We look and do not see.  We listen and do not hear anything that resembles the world from which all of us came. (John 18:36)

    Jesus stayed with his group for three years.  Each time his disciples missed the mark with their emotional responses, he reminded them that they were angels that did not need any particular outcome in the world in order to change the attitudes of others.  People change when they experience attitudes that work in all circumstances. That unique group allowed Jesus' message to reach us.  How many of us are willing to make Jesus' secrets of the Kingdom life visible in our lives?


Loving God, our faith traditions have always guided us to understand that you created us in your image.   We thank you for the privilege it is to participate in your creation.  We are still learning, refining and evolving our skills of spirit.  When our values falter and the light within us grows dim, we thank you for helping us to realize that we are still students.  Never stop reminding us to be gentle with ourselves. We want to thrive in our diversity and yet remain unified in making your love visible through the spirit by which we live. Amen.



Loving God, how grateful we are that we can share moments of quiet and peacefulness as we direct our thoughts toward you.  You know our thoughts long before we open ourselves to your loving presence.   In spite of your infinite, all knowing nature, we recognize how helpful it is for us to talk to you. 

As the drama of our lives continues, there is no way of stopping the chain of circumstances that come up for us.  Sometimes that means looking forward to surgery. Sometimes that means watching those we love face challenging experiences while we feel helpless in listening to their stories.  Sometimes that means dealing with the routine of our jobs, our marriages and our family experiences.  Sometimes that means pondering our response to people whose earlier choices for years have put them in an economic crisis during the latter part of their lives.  

As each of us strives to make your presence visible, help us to recall the words of Paul that remind us that "Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, humility and self- control." When all appears dark, inspire us to light our match in gratitude for the presence of such qualities in our lives.  In spite of our outward circumstances, we have so much for which to be grateful.  Guide our thoughts, inspire us to hold fast to our values and grant us the courage to walk toward tomorrow with great hope. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .