Sermon Text: Prime Numbers
So there I was, dozing through the bishop's sermon.
(C'mon, we all might drift off during a boring sermon, even clergy!)
It was Diocesan Convention. This is a yearly conference of our diocese, a collection of almost 100 parishes in Central New York. It is required by the legal rules of the Episcopal Church. Every parish sends clergy and lay representatives. Parts of it are a lot of fun. But parts of the it are a little tedious.
One year, the bishop was preaching and I was dozing lightly. I admit it. But then something he said woke me right up. He said, "We are a diocese of small congregations. Did you know that we only have five churches with an average Sunday attendance higher than 150?"
The reason I woke up, and sat up, is that our Sunday attendance at St. Mark's is about 160 people each week. So I suddenly became aware that we are in the top five churches for attendance in the whole diocese!
One of the rules of the Episcopal Church is that I have to keep what is called "the Service Register." It's a book, and in this book, I have to record every worship service, and how many people attended. We then report the numbers once a year to the diocese and the national church. This requirement is good, I guess, for accurate statistics.
But I have to tell you it tempts the clergy to the dark side. We all secretly want the big numbers. We like to feel a little smug compared to smaller churches.
I remember meeting a priest at a conference 15 years ago. He was from California. Nice guy, but a little pompous. So I met him, and within five minutes, he managed to work this into our conversation: "You know," he said, "my church is getting bigger. Pretty soon, I'm either going to have to add on to the building or add another worship service on Sundays."
Within five minutes of introducing himself to me! I'm not making this up! A little ego, perhaps? And there are priests who fudge the numbers and write down bigger attendance than would actually fit in the building! Now, I don't do that, honest! I use the actual numbers the ushers give me...I mean, why lie to myself?
But I must admit that I really like the fact that our average Sunday attendance figures are pretty good. And I know it's partly ego.
My first boss out in St. Louis had a little saying he popped into sermons about every six weeks. He repeated it so often in sermons, my wife and I could not make eye contact, because we'd start laughing. But really, what he said wasn't bad.
He'd say, "That's ego, my friend...E.G.O....Easing God Out."
He, by the way, had a big ego. And you know what? Most of us clergy do.
I try to keep mine under control by constantly making fun of myself. I have taught this parish to mock me, as well.
So while I like my healthy number for Average Sunday Attendance, I have to remind myself of a song I once wrote, mocking clergy. It's called "Clerical Rank." My daughter loves this song, but because of her speech impediment, she calls it "Clerical Wank." That's just as good.
Part of the song goes like this:
"It kind of tickled my funny bone, the way this stuff can please us...
Our titles and egos and rankings...how does this look to Jesus?"
Well, I'll tell you how. Jesus has a standard measure of church attendance. "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." Two or three is okay by him.
I'm sure he likes 160, or even thousands. He spoke to huge crowds as well as just a couple of disciples. But a quorum for Jesus is just two or three. Jesus is in the midst of a tiny congregation of a handful of souls just as much as he is in the midst of a megachurch of thousands.
I have found his presence when I share the Eucharist with just one or two people in a hospital room or a nursing home just as much as at Christmas with a packed church.
Now, I'm fascinated by the research that says church people live longer and are healthier than non-churchgoers. The researchers think it might be partly because church people tend to have better lifestyles and lower rates of substance abuse.
But even more, researchers say that our social connections here at church make a huge difference in our lives. People know us by name, and care about us. You remember the old song from the "Cheers" TV show -- "you want to be where everybody knows your name."
Caring relationships, like those at church, are good for us. We all need a group of people who know us. A church community, large or small, can be a source of strong relationships in our lives. We want to be where everybody knows our name.
And of course, Christians say one more thing. Christians say that Jesus knows our name. He is always there, whether in a big congregation or with just two or three friends hanging out. That's what makes the church the church.
Jesus himself set the minimum quorum: "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."