What would you say if I asked you about the new paintwork on the doors of our Church? Do you like our new sea of blue which greets us all as we approach the Church building, or did you prefer the rather more subtle pink colour which was here for a number of years?
That is a rhetorical question, of course! I am not going to give you a chance to answer now… some of you have taken the opportunity of letting me know how you feel in no uncertain terms already, and I have no doubt that we could spend the rest of the morning debating it. When they are open, our newly painted doors provide bright markers to our entrance. Their colour points those who are passing by to the fact that our Church is open and those of you who are around here during the week will know, that when our Church is open lots of people stop and have a look, and even come in to talk or to pray or to receive food from our Parish Pantry. But the trouble is, that now more than ever before, when our doors are closed, they are more easily seen to be closed by our neighbours. And of course the doors of our Church are closed a great deal more often than they are open.
Sometimes it is not just the doors of our Church which seem to be shut, but the doors of this community. We can seem so busy and focused on the maintenance of what we have here, that it is hard for those who come and visit us to really feel that they will ever be truly a part of what we are. And of course the majority of our neighbours do not even get as far as making a visit.
Sometimes when I observe what is going on here, it feels to me as though we are more like a religious club,(a members club) than we are a part of that great missionary movement of the Kingdom of God, inaugurated by Jesus, which continued to grow and spread out across the world as the good news was taken by Jesus’ followers to every corner of the earth. Of course when I say that about all of us as a community, I am saying it most especially from my own experience about myself and to myself. I am painfully aware of my own inability to live at the cutting edge of the missionary endeavour to which we have all been called. But that pattern which I see in me; I see by and large in our Church as a whole as well.
In our Gospel reading this morning Jesus is once again faced with the grumblings of the religious people. This has been an almost continuous theme in our Gospel readings for many weeks now. Luke remembers so many events at which Jesus’ words and actions are rejected by those who should be most ready to receive them, those who are the best trained, and most fluent in the things of God. But once again, it is the religious people who are angered by what Jesus has been doing: “he welcomes sinners and eats with them,” they complain, putting their religious purity before compassion for those who are most in need.
Luke remembers Jesus replying with two stories, two wonderful images of the priorities of the message which he has come to bring. And the stories are in the form of questions: “which one of you,” says Jesus, ” having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness to go off after the one that is lost, until it has been found?” and “which one of you having ten silver coins, if you lose one of them does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully to find it?
Well, sometimes I think we are in danger sometimes of spending more energy looking for the lost coin than we are the lost sheep! But Jesus’ questions are profound questions for all of us this morning. We in this congregation are in the situation where proportionately the ninety nine are lost and the shepherd just has one. Yet in the Church we are both at the same time the assistants to the shepherd (the ones who are sent out to look for the lost sheep) and the sheep ourselves. The reality is that if the sheep are going to be found, they are going to be found by God through us. If we are going to be tools in God’s process, then that demands a radical change in the way that we live our life as a Church.
Take some of the terms which we use for example. We have come to use the term “parish” to refer to our Church. We have come to use the term “parishioners” to refer to those people who attend here on a Sunday, to those people who are signed up as members of our congregation. Well, you do not need to me tell you that when we have that kind of thinking we are in serious trouble. It portrays a fundamental misunderstanding about what the Church exists to be, and to do.
The term Parish, of course, refers to nothing less than the whole of the geographical area in which the members of this Church share responsibility for the care of the souls of its inhabitants. So our Parish isn’t just this Church building, its all of the area of Midland, Gidgegannup, Jane Brook, Greenmount, Midvale, Swan View, Viveash and Stratton. That is our Parish. The term parishioners is not an exclusive way of talking about those of us who are paid up members of the Church. When we talk about parishioners we mean all of the people who live in our Parish, in each of those geographical areas, and the Anglican Church has given us here in this congregation responsibility for caring for them.
Now the days of us thinking that one parish priest can do all of that are long gone. In fact it does not take a rocket scientist to see that it was never really possible. One person does not have the time or the energy or the skills to minister to the number of people who live in our Parish. That is why we are pursuing a model of ministry in this parish in which everyone is being encouraged to live out the priesthood of all believers, the ministry of the Kingdom of God to which we are all called, and for which we have all been uniquely gifted.
This morning we are commissioning Pat to co-ordinate our Pastoral Care, and we have already commissioned Anne, Merrion, Pam, and Christine to co-ordinate other areas of our ministry alongside the Parish Council and clergy. In due course, I hope that we will be commissioning some more of you. If we want a mandate for why we are doing that, we need to look no further than at our readings this morning. Jesus says that there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. That idea is at the heart of what Paul is writing to Timothy about in this morning’s epistle reading. He is rehearsing his spiritual biography and doing some theological reflection on it. His own journey to faith reminds us that we each have a personal story as well. It may be a little less dramatic than Paul’s, but it will contain within it, those same moments of becoming painfully aware of our sin, and our need for Jesus Christ, the author and perfector of our faith.
You see in the Gospels, Jesus’ bias for the tax collectors, and prostitutes, his preferential treatment of the poor, is not because those people are living good lives, it is because they are most in need of that transformation and bringing to wholeness which Paul experienced, and which ultimately only God can bring to each one of us. As the church of Jesus Christ, we need to be re-orientated towards those priorities. We need a total change, a paradigm shift in how we are being Church here in Midland. Somehow we must re-capture the purpose which has always been clear in our Anglican tradition, that we are here both to worship and serve God, and love and serve our neighbours, and also to take responsibility for bringing in those who are lost and bewildered in this Parish, into the community of the faith of Jesus.
So having said all that, I want to tell you a story about a true encounter in the life of a man named Tony Campolo, to explain what I mean. Pastor Campolo is a minister in Philadelphia in America. He is a well known preacher in international circles, and his mission agency in Philadelphia is known throughout that State for its work in caring for those people who are not cared for by the rest of society.
Tony was speaking at an international Christian conference in Honolulu. On his first night in a hotel there, he woke sometime in the middle of the night, unable to sleep because of jet-lag, and got up and left the hotel in search of a coffee bar. Eventually he found somewhere to get a cup of coffee and a doughnut and sat alone in the bar with the manager. Only Americans would eat doughnuts in the middle of the night!
But he was not alone for long, quite suddenly the coffee bar was filled with girls. Some sat at small tables and others were at the bar near him. From their conversation it became quickly apparent what kind of girls these were. And Tony recounts that he found out a great deal about Honolulu’s night life whilst the girls were discussing their night’s work and their male clients. The girl who was now sitting next to Tony told her neighbour on the stool next but one that tomorrow was her birthday. Her neighbour replied, “Mary? What do you want us to do about it?” Then, as suddenly as the girls had entered the coffee bar they all left, leaving Tony alone once more with the manager.
Now here’s the point in the story at which most of us would have thought nothing more about it, and gone on our way. But Tony didn’t. He began a conversation with the manager about this girl Mary, he discovered that she was a regular, and that all the girls came in about the same time every night. Then he made a proposition to the manager, “Tomorrow’s her birthday. Would it be alright if I bought her a cake and some streamers and came here early to put them up for her tomorrow night?” The manager consulted his wife in the kitchen. The idea seemed to appeal and the woman offered to make the cake herself.
The next day Tony did his speaking at the Christian conference and then went shopping for all that was needed for a birthday party. He set his alarm for the appropriate time, got up, dressed and went to the coffee bar. When he arrived he found that word had already got around about what was going on. Some of the girls had come back from the street corners early and were putting up streamers. When everything was ready Tony waited at the door for Mary, offering her his arm when she arrived, so that he could conduct her to the table. They sang “Happy Birthday,” got Mary to blow out the candles, and then applauded when she did.
Then they gave her a knife to cut the cake. Mary hesitated. “I’ve never had a birthday cake before,” she said. “Would you mind if I didn’t cut it, I want to take it home with me?” So they watched her, as she picked up her cake, said her thank yous and then left the coffee bar. Tony said, “Let’s pray for Mary,” and he then led the group of girls in a prayer for her. The girls said a hearty “Amen” and then left back into the night.
After they had left, the manager said to Tony, “I didn’t know you were a priest.” “Well, you never asked,” he replied. “What Church do you represent?” There was a long silence, and then Tony replied, “I belong to the church that fixes birthday parties for prostitutes.” The manager pondered these words, “If there were a church like that around here, I would be the first to join it.”
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, God is calling you and me, to be a Church whose primary task is to serve those beyond the walls of this building: that is what the words of Jesus in our Gospel reading are all about. We are called to welcome sinners because we know that we are sinners ourselves; we are called to seek out all those who have not heard the good news of the love of God; and to bring them to the table at which Jesus welcomes all, and at which we will be welcomed in a few minutes time.
So we can either step-out and become the ministers in this whole Parish which God has called us all to be, you and me, all of us: searching for the lost sheep, rejoicing with the whole of heaven when they are found. Or we can carry on doing what we’ve been doing here for years, and watch our church as it slowly continues to die. The choice is ours. Its time for action and the consequences are enormous.