Harrowing Of Hell
January 25, 2015

Really Real Moments and Small Groups

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn

I’d like you to consider today a moment in time when your life made perfect sense: a time when it all came together, when you felt alive and useful and connected, and there was purpose not just in what you were doing, but who you were being. Think of a time like that. I call these Really Real Moments. I’ve talked about them before. They are moments we never forget. They are specific. They are a feeling, and yet more than a feeling. They are a confluence of our personhood, of our temporal and eternal being, all together, fully integrated in a flash. They are moments when our heart’s desire, our mind’s attention, our body’s feelings, our community’s affirmation, our soul’s purpose, and God’s presence are all known to us fully at the same time, in a providential instant that is permanently embossed upon our hearts.

That is a Really Real Moment, and it is a moment that can’t be made, it can’t be contrived, and it can’t be orchestrated. It may not even be real by human definition. It may be a dream, or a scene from a book, or a fleeting cloud form in the sky. On the other hand it may be a super concrete event, like the birth of a child, or canoeing across a lake. Whatever it is, it is a moment that comes together for you in a powerful way, and yet the person standing right next to you could swear on a stack of Bibles that nothing really extraordinary happened. For them it was just another moment, but for you it was a Really Real Moment when your life made perfect sense.

Here is the crazy thing about these moments, I can remember them like yesterday, and yet I could barely tell you what I did yesterday. I certainly couldn’t tell you what I did last week. I mean I’d have to go back to my calendar and try to recreate the activities of that day. But ask me to tell you about a Really Real Moment, and I’d say pull up a chair. The good news is that Really Real Moments aren’t one-off experiences. In fact, I’d argue (and I’m going to) that one of the hopes of the Christian lifestyle is to live in a zone that strings these Really Real Moments closer and closer together until they make up the bulk of our lives.

So these moments are what I want to talk about today, and particularly one aspect of the Christian spiritual tradition designed to help us unpack, value and then string together the Really Real Moments in our lives.

At Epiphany we call this aspect of the Christian spiritual tradition Small Groups. Historically, they have been called spiritual friends, or a band of brothers, or a quilting circle, but here we just call them Small Groups. I’m in one. I have been since 2003. It is like a marriage. I love these guys and I am bound to them for life in mutual commitment, support and prayer.

Now it didn’t start that way. No small group should start with that much expectation. They all start slow, some stick together, and some come apart. That is normal and OK. My group started with six guys meeting weekly to study. A seventh joined a year later. Over three years of weekly meetings we grew to become a small group. You start as a gathering and you grow to become a small group. Now one lives in Atlanta, two in Seattle, one in Washington DC, one in Sun Valley, one near Tampa, and one in Los Angeles. We meet once a month on a conference call, unless we need to meet more often. We take a retreat together once a year and we often talk throughout the week.

What do we talk about? Let me give you an example, because it is something I’ve experienced with you here, just last week. So pull up a chair “Oh no,” you’re thinking, “another Vern story.” Yes, that was a Really Real Moment and no I’m not going to tell you another Vern story. I’m going to tell you a different story and it is not nearly as interesting. It happened right here in this sanctuary last Sunday, and most of you had no idea because that is how Really Real Moments work. But my small group knows because I told them. They are the place I can go with Really Real Moments, and they don’t think I’m absolutely wacky. So I’m on the phone Thursday with David, Bill, Ron, Joseph, Ken and Cesar and I tell them about the Really Real Moment I had here last Sunday, and it has nothing to do with Bob Dylan.

It happened when Brian was singing after Communion. The altar team had sat down. As I was sitting there in the sanctuary, listening, I felt water sprinkling on my head. It was a gentle mist. At first I thought I was imagining it. I turned to Steve Clemons and I asked if there was water on my head. He said there was. So I looked up, thinking it was a leak. No leak was visible. I finally realized it was actually raining through the stain glass window right over me. A thousand tiny raindrops were coming through the window down upon me, and it was a moment embossed upon my heart as a Really Real Moment.

So I told my small group about it and at the end I said, “That’s it.” And they said, “If that is it, why did you tell us the story?” You see we talk about a lot of things in our small group. We talk about family, work, football and books. We tease and we advise and we challenge. But when it comes to the Really Real Moments we drop to a deeper place, to a space that every person deserves to have in their lives; a space where souls are considered. We ask, “How goes it with your soul? How is your soul prospering? How is God magnifying your soul?” Everyone deserves to have a place where deep, significant, mysterious, beautiful things can be shared. Which is why they asked the question: “If that is the end, why did you tell us the story?”

So I asked them what they heard. One asked what the window looked like, another talked about Baptism by the Holy Spirit, and another spoke of you, this congregation’s openness to mystery and divine presence even in the midst of our busyness. They know us that well, because they share my life. And I said, maybe it has to do with Epiphany being a thin place. Now you must know my Really Real Moment didn’t mean anything particular to them. It wasn’t their Really Real Moment. But their task as my spiritual friends was to help me clarify and make connections and find meaning in something I perceive as deeply meaningful to my soul.

Do you have a place where that happens? Do you have a place for that kind of conversation? Some of you do. Others, are you too busy?

Rain through the window could have meant more busyness in my life starting with trying to figure out how rain could come through a stain glass window. Maybe it had to do with crumbling lead around the glass. Or maybe it was just some twisted molecular quirk in the quantum field. In the moment it didn’t matter. It was just a sign of how close this place is to the kingdom of God. Then the moment passed and it occurred to me that maybe the window would fall on my head. I’m not all that spiritually mature. Incidentally, all of the stain glass windows here will be rebuilt after Easter.

It is busyness that I mostly hear as the reason people don’t step into the ancient Christian practice of small groups. Andrew, Peter, James, and John were busy. Andrew and Peter were fishing. James and John were mending their nets. We know Peter had a family. We know James and John were working in a family business. Yet they didn’t miss the Really Real Moment that came as Jesus walked by, although maybe they would have if it hadn’t been for Zebedee. I don’t know the backstory, but I do know we sometimes need prompting from spiritual friends. I image that was the role Zebedee played for his sons James and John. He was the father. It was their duty to obey him, so he must have blessed their departure. I suspect he did so because he perceived the power of their Really Real Moment.

Zebedee sent them into the Jesus small group (Jesus was a small group guy). Zebedee sent them to learn how to live in a zone that strings the Really Real Moments closer and closer together until they make up the bulk of our lives. After all, isn’t that what every parent wants for their children?

Today I want to be Zebedee to you. I want to paint a picture for you of what it is like to have a place to go, to laugh, to cry, to trust, to argue, to go deep, really deep, to the soul, to the foundation of your being, because that is something we are privileged to do as beings made in the imagine and likeness of God. My prayer for you is that none of you go through life having missed the chance to know this kind of profound spiritual friendship. Now not every small group succeeds. Not every small group risks going deep. Not every small group will magnify your soul, especially if you are not part of one.

Kate’s primary function, other than her priestly duties, is to help form, guide, disassemble and reform small groups at Epiphany. I preach about it today at the Annual Meeting because I think it is about one of the most important spiritual practices any of us can enter into. For some of you, it isn’t the right time to join a small group, and I understand. Some of you are already in a small group, so you know what I’m talking about. But if you aren’t yet, and could carve out the time, I invite you to see Kate after the service.

Small groups change lives. They transform lives. They can give form, reason, and meaning to those moments when our heart’s desire, mind’s attention, body’s feelings, community’s affirmation, and God’s presence are all rolled into a moment when our lives make perfect sense. Everyone deserves that! Everyone deserves to have a place where deep, significant, mysterious, beautiful, Really Real Moments can be considered and shared.