s228g00 4/6/2000 Somerton Park Stewardship Sunday
(N.B. This is my sermon for our stewardship Sunday NOT a request for donations from my internet readers - my sermons remain FREE :-)
"As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world." John 17:18.
I rather think that for the first time in over twenty years, I am called to preach about stewardship.
When I began this sermon, it happened that a couple of classmates of Timothy doing their work to gain their Queen's Scout award, asked him if they could ask me to agree to an interview on my role in the community. Naturally as an old scout I was prepared to do so and being an old scout, I prepared something for them. And as I did this I realised that this preparation would be an excellent basis for a sermon on stewardship.
I began with what the role of the Church has been in society, as it was only then that our role here at St Philip's and me as the priest could be seen in some sort of perspective.
The Church is a parallel organisation to the government in society, most often assuming the role of helping those who "fall through the gaps" in life. We have always had a focus on the "orphans and widows" - those without other means of support.
The Church has in the past: been the local authority to register births, to perform marriages, and bury people. In this we have been the local "agents of the State" as much as anything else. The local vicar was the sometimes the only person who could read and write in the village.
Often the Church has "been there" first - building orphanages - hospitals - schools (often with boarding facilities for students from country areas) - universities - university colleges - housing for the aged - missions to aboriginals (for better or for worse) ... It is often forgotten how influential the Church is through the private school system. Perhaps 30% of children in this State get their education through schools set up by one denomination or another - and this takes no account of the work of School Chaplains in State Schools or teachers who do attend Church.
The local parish hall has often been the focus for social activities, dances, scout and guide groups, sporting clubs. Nowadays our facilities more often are used by others, like dance classes & etc ...
Parts of the Church are involved in caring for street kids and the "down and outs" with housing and food. In the past monasteries (as was our "Retreat House") had a role to care for single people in society, the mentally ill, and those going through crises in life. Chaplaincies in schools, hospitals and work places where people can often be (albeit unintentionally) treated in an impersonal manner, provide opportunities for human contact. "Loitering with intent" is a lovely phrase used by a hospital chaplain I know. Parts of the Church are involved with caring for people with AIDS. Others have tried to set up "shooting galleries" for drug addicts.
The Church also has an advocacy role - standing up for the marginalised - e.g. homosexuals - though some parts seem to spend more time criticising them when they stand up for themselves.
The Church has always had an academic and reflective function - sometimes critiquing government and society - sometimes perhaps not critiquing it enough. I was recently reflecting on the intellectual muscle present at our recent Diocesan Synod - with the Archbishop, the Assistant Bishop, the Chancellor of the Diocese and the CEO of Anglicare. I am just a "not very humble" parish priest :-)
Similarly the world of music and the arts would be nothing without the contribution of the Church.
In the olden days, the Church of England in South Australia used to be the agency for the adoption of children, then it went to the government. Now, with out-sourcing, this is done by the Catholic Church. Some denominations are now involved in the jobs network.
We are still the community where rites of passage are celebrated in a local way - baptism after birth, coming of age in Confirmation, marriages, sickness and death. We are involved in preparation for marriage. Most violence happens in the home so this is a vital role.
And we as the Church call society to look beyond our shores to the needs of people in other countries less fortunate, as well as contributing ourselves.
The Church has been an organisation largely composed of volunteers, often giving a role and self esteem to those who are unemployed or retired. I suspect that no society could function without the Church. Church people on committees, political and other NGO's like Red Cross contribute to all levels of life. Because we so often use voluntary labour, we take people along with us by our personal "charisma" or not at all. We can't direct people to do this or that because that's what they are paid for, as employed people can be asked to do.
We have not always done well. We have often assumed "superior" attitudes of Western society, and looked down on others. Individuals have abused the trust placed in them - with physical and sexual abuse towards those committed to their care.
The Church does these things, yet there is no "organisation", like the government to which you can point and say that there is the heart of it all. Government tends to be visible and powerful. The Church operates "surreptitiously". It is a hallmark of the Church that our authority is dispersed. If we were united, rather than divided as we are into denominations, I suspect that we would become too powerful, and power corrupts absolutely.
The Church is about providing a community gathering each week, enriching society, and engendering respect for others.
My role in all this, and of the role of this congregation, might be expressed as just a "little cog" - yet also not quite. By my personal integrity and preaching the good news, I keep this part of it all running smoothly, or as smoothly as it can ... I suppose we have a annual budget of about $50,000 (about 2/3rds of this is my salary and allowances) and an annual adult attendance of 4,500. That represents say 85 people a week - so each gives over $580 pa to the Church ... and lots of us are orphans and widows ...
I was interested to read a while back a sermon given by a leading lay preacher in another parish in the Diocese. She had been asked to preach to a different congregation than where she ordinarily worshipped. This person is the daughter of a priest and so her perceptions were doubly relevant. She is able to see the Stewardship issue from both sides of the coin. It was interesting that coming in "from the outside" she was able to "put the hard word" on the congregation, as I presume she assumed she was being asked to do. As a lay person herself, she could lament at how little she perceived people gave towards the Church. She is indeed a gracious person, and she included herself in this.
This is why I thought I had to preach on stewardship myself today, because it is a constant temptation to bring someone in "from the outside". The reality is that someone, coming in from the outside, does not "care for" the sheep in the way I must. Others may come in, "put the hard word" on us, which may be "effective" or not, and go. I suppose this is why clergy like to invite outside stewardship agencies to come. It is not so much that they are professional, but they can say what "needs to be said" and depart before the flack.
But in her sermon she said: "... Remember, you're working for God. The boss is not a boss but a slave. Whatever time you can give, whatever your talent, however small, will be transformed to help fulfil God's purpose for the Church. A purpose I often struggle to see but which by grace I am convinced exists.
She continues ... she had thought ...
"Surely God, the big, invisible, silent bloke who transcended my life, considered my offering kind but not essential income for his divine plan.
"But somewhere along the line, the penny, so to speak, dropped. I discovered the purpose and needs of the Church and realised how God worked through it and through me.
"I was not resentful that it was the people of God, not as I'd imagined, the person of God who'd been using my silver all along - rather I was amazed that such significant buildings, structures and ministries had been surviving on my erratic ten and twenty cent pieces.
"So much work, so many lives, dependent on so little money.
"No wonder my elder brothers, as the children of a rectory family, bewailed in later life my parents' frugality ..."
I think that this is a wonderful perspective - how miracles happen with so little money. This is what I have tried to reflect when I described the role of the whole church and not just our little bit of it in the beginning of my sermon.
Stewardship is an awkward subject for Christians, not because it is impolite to talk about "money, sex or religion" in polite conversation, but because we naturally, as Christians, focus on what God has done for us.
The rich young man is told, not to give his riches to further Jesus' cause, but to the poor who need it. However we are not to take the message from this conversation that Jesus did not appreciate the offerings freely given to himself. One has only to look at the example of the woman who anointed him with the pure nard to see this. "The poor" we will always have with us.
I began this sermon with the passage of Jesus saying that we are "sent ... into the world" (John 17.18). We as the Church are sent into the world, not as a haven from the world. It is not just that we are called to accept others into our community of faith - we are certainly called to do this. We are called to be a blessing to all those around us, for there is no one who isn't our "neighbour". We are called to be a blessing - not a "take-over bid" for their minds, hearts and their hip pockets. And despite our mistakes over the years, the Church at large has done a mighty job being a blessing to the world, with little money really.
I call on you today to recognise and evaluate how much of the "good news" you have heard in the ministry here at Somerton Park in the last 10 years. While I have no doubt that I have failed in many significant areas of ministry; the only reason for giving is in gratitude that you have perceived, in your worship and membership of this community of faith, some personal affirmation that you are included in the kingdom of God along with everyone else. Have we ever considered how the community in North Brighton and Somerton Park would have turned out without St Philip's Church?
And if you do not believe that the community of St Philip's is an affirming community, and a community affirming of anyone and everyone who enters here, as well as a blessing to those around us, to the world in which we have been placed - then this community is not deserving of your continuing contributions.
I am not looking to set up a huge organisational structure. In many ways we here at St Philip's exist in kindly opposition to our larger parish neighbours at Brighton, Glenelg or Warradale. One of the things we value about our membership here is that we are a small community. I did not list the achievements of the Church when I began this sermon in order to say that it is up to us as individuals to keep all these things going. Indeed when the government, the local schools or someone else take over and do better what we as the Church might have initiated, it is an opportunity for us to look and see what other things we are being freed to do.
I do not envy a parish such as one in England I read about. In a book "The Church in Crisis" (by Moore, Wilson and Stamp Hodder and Stoughton 1986 p 156) Gavin Stamp comments on the activities of this parish thus: "The lobby of the Church is full of book stalls, and the visitor is bombarded with literature. On October 23rd 1983, this included an appeal for £10,000 to replace the church amplification system and a similar sum for 'Releasing the Ministry of the Staff (Purchase of Computer)' for, 'after detailed committee work and careful investigation, coupled with prayer, we have come to the conclusion that a good deal of our ministry is getting snarled up in paper and figures'. ... (Gavin Stamp comments:) ...There can be no doubt about the success of these methods ..."
The task of the ministry of the Church is important, however imperfectly we carry them out. If God had wanted the Church to be perfect, he chose a pretty rum lot to be a part of it. Of course this is part of the good news, we are bidden to be accepting of others despite their imperfections too.
God uses our offerings, great and small, and transforms them, multiplies them and uses them. Of course this is not an argument to give less and expect God to multiply more :-)
On our Stewardship Sunday we are not being asked to increase our giving so that the Parish Council can increase my stipend - though we in fact have just received notification of a substantial increase in the travelling allowance - the first in ten years. We are giving to God - for God to bless and use our giving as a blessing for this community, the wider community through the Diocese as well as the wider mission of the Church to the world, for that is what we have been sent to do.
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