s056g99 Sunday 23a 5/9/99 Somerton Park

"If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?" Matthew 18:12

I recall a senior member of the clergy once saying to me that most parishes have about 100 parishioners. He had come to the conclusion that that was about all one minister could effectively pastor, and when that number was exceeded, it was time for a second minister or for the church to split into two and form a daughter church. So at the heart there are about a hundred people making up the nucleus of a parish - though of course there are those whose allegiance to a parish is rather more tenuous.

I find this a very valuable insight, and very heartening. I might be wrong, but I take it from this insight, that the sort of vague underlying unexpressed expectation, I think congregations and clergy feel they have to live up to, TO BE FOREVER GROWING, is unrealistic. Congregations and parishes grow to a critical mass - then others who may come into the fellowship will find another and smaller one - where they can make a discernible and valued contribution. It would be hard to make a discernible contribution is an established community such as ours - and we really shouldn't berate ourselves that this is the case, here. The only difficulty is when we EXPECT others to come and simply to admire.

It is here that I differ from the prevailing view that amalgamation of small congregations is the way to go. While I recognise the validity of this view in some circumstances - often some impetus is needed to begin a new stage of life and amalgamation might be the only thing possible in some situations. However I would want to suggest that actually we should be splitting some congregations into two or more, or otherwise starting new projects wherever possible. It is in this way that new people will be enabled to make their distinctive contribution.

I once heard a bishop remark that it only needs ten people who tithe to make a viable community. A congregation or parish of about a hundred doesn't really need more - unless of course it is supporting two pastors or splitting in two. So if we actually wanted to grow here at St Philip's, probably the most effective thing would be for us to consider employing a second priest, or starting a second congregation. And of course the beginnings of this might be what is happening at the 'Village right now.

The first parts of this gospel snippet might well be considered a good job description for a member of the clergy. Surely no pastor would despise any of the flock, and indeed most take great care to make sure that they personally were not the cause of offence so that any member of the Church drifted away. Naturally he or she would be good at caring for the 99 sheep who never strayed.

However the good pastor would simultaneously also be "out there" diligent in seeking out the lost one - and of course there are so many "lost" out there. I am reminded of the parody of the requirements for a new minister - the person should always be contactable at home, but diligent in visiting :-)

I guess that when we talk about the "lost" none of us especially mean those on the fringes of society for whom we would find little in common. I'm not sure such sinners would really feel welcome in this place, or most other "ordinary" parishes. When most "ordinary" Anglicans think of the "lost" I suspect we mean the inordinate number of people, "ordinary" people (if there actually is such a person) - for whom Christianity and faith are largely irrelevant. I mean our next-door neighbours who mow their lawns, clean their cars on Sunday morning, or (heaven forbid) sleep in. I am reminded of the church with a crucifix out the front with the caption "Is this nothing - all ye who pass by".

And yet mowing lawns and cleaning cars are useful and worthwhile contributions to our community. Consider our neighbourhoods if these were generally neglected! Perhaps we could be occasionally grateful that our next door neighbour doesn't grow "pot" in their back garden or manufacture amphetamines in their sheds. How quickly would we "kick up a stink" if the next door neighbours began an escort agency from their home? (Though I wonder if Jesus would not have found it an opportunity to befriend another member of the human race?)

It may be that some members of our community find they cannot cope with more human contact on the weekends, that they need quality time with their spouses and siblings, and Sunday mornings are the only time left in a busy week. Sunday morning might be their ONLY time to sleep in - to connect with their spouse - particularly when both are in paid employment, as is so often the case these days.

Previous efforts to find a welcoming community of faith might have been thwarted when they did not find a congregation where they saw the likelihood that their contribution was ever likely to be welcomed, let alone recognised. So they make their contribution outside the walls of the Church in our society. So often those contributions are vital to ourselves and others, yet rarely are they acknowledged to be so. Who of us could name the person who, week after week, faithfully takes our garbage away? I certainly couldn't name ours. How long could we do without him or her?

The job description of a member of the clergy, drafted by most congregations, would be unattainable by anyone - even by Jesus - who got crucified - despite all he did - because he seemed better at seeking out the lost than caring for the 99.

The second part of the gospel snippet tells us that there is a realistic limit to what we can do for others. It is all very well to say that we have to forgive 77 times - in the gospel story for next week (Mt 18.22); but here we have the words of Jesus saying that we give people three opportunities, and after three opportunities to listen to reason, we have done all we can. We are first to take up the matter privately, then with a couple of others, and finally with the congregation as a whole. But if after reasoning, it's three strikes and you're out!

People make choices in their lives - and it is not up to us to feel personally responsible for the actions of others. We can but be responsible for the things we do.

I was interested to note a comment on a television program about child abuse, some time ago. When a child is abused, they automatically assume that they themselves have done something wrong - or omitted to do something they should have done, to deserve the abuse.

The reality is that the command to forgive 77 times is most likely to breed a culture of people simply determined to have their own way, to sin and to expect forgiveness, again and again, because the Church is supposed to be "Christian". To set a limit is to bring to other people's (as well as to our own) attention to the fact that we all have a part to play in our own salvation. I think that the definition of a child is someone who has to have someone clean up after them. The definition of an adult is someone who cleans up after others. To expect forgiveness again and again is to act as a child. I am sure that God would like some adult children in the kingdom.

As I have sometimes been wont to say, I am sure that God's kingdom will not be advanced by God's children being eternal doormats for the unrighteous and mischievous. I do NOT call anyone to that.

It is, of course, significant that these words about "three strikes and you're out" are so closely followed by forgiving 77 times. We are meant to take them together, not separately. One set of words in the Bible are deliberately placed right next to another, so that we don't take either of them to the extreme. We have to decide - who is being hurt? - who is being malicious? - who is sincerely asking for forgiveness? - and who is simply looking to pull the "wool over our eyes" yet again.

The words: "where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." are squarely placed between these two differing standards in dealing with conflict and differences of opinion. The words are NOT given to encourage us to gather two or three like-minded individuals into a prayer circle in an attempt to "strong-arm" God (in the nicest way possible, of course) into healing a prominent or popular parishioner suddenly stricken with cancer. They are a call to realise that none of us are the sole repositories of truth and enlightenment. They are a call to seek out and engage differing viewpoints, especially in situations of conflict and dispute.

However we don't gather "two or three" to bully the "offender" into submission either - (in the nicest way possible, of course - "speaking the truth in love"?). We do everything "in the name" of Jesus, who welcomed sinners and ate with them. When there is a common recognition that we are ALL redeemed sinners and our aim is to honour all involved in a difference of opinion or dispute - THEN we can expect Jesus to be among us and to give us guidance of where within those poles of "three strikes and your out" and forgiving 77 times, that might be appropriate in our particular situation.

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