Two thoughts on the size of BOC congregations, firstly that it's all a matter of perspective, of how we look at these things and secondly a sermon I preached in the BOC Church in Babbingley in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Firstly, then those comments, from a visiting Copt, concerning our numbers as we gathered together a month back for our Portsmouth Mission monthly Saturday Liturgy: "Attending the Liturgy in Portsmouth last Saturday and seeing about 7 people, who are 100% British who were not born into the faith, but discovered and live the Orthodox faith is just amazing to me, I believe you are at the forefront of orthodox mission in evangelizing in the western world." What a change not to be denigrated because of our numbers, for only having seven - but for someone to be amazed that we had that many... made quite an encouraging change I can tell you!
And now that sermon...
Five Loaves, Two Fishes & One Mosquito:
God can do a lot with a little?
You are all, I dare say, familiar with the five loaves and the two fish ? but the mosquito? No, this is not some new ultra modern version of the Bible (those of you who know me will know that I am far too much of a traditionalist for any of that ? I am Orthodox after all!) nor is it some secret Coptic text hitherto hidden for centuries under the sands of Egypt?
It was during the flight to Egypt for my second pilgrimage there (back in1998) that I sat reading Graham Green?s Monsignor Quixote, including the following reply from a bishop to Father Quixote?s question as to how a mosquito could have been created for man?s use. ?Surely, father, the use is obvious. A mosquito may be likened to a scourge in the hands of God. It teaches us to endure pain for love of him. That painful buzz in the ear ? perhaps it is God buzzing.?
We landed at midnight and by two a.m. had reached the Church centre (we shared the Cairo traffic with the celebratory fans of one of the main football teams making progress even slower than usual) and I found on our arrival that the English rain had managed to penetrate my suitcase back at Heathrow and I spent some time arranging wet clothes to dry over the next day and finally got to bed around 3 a.m. We were up at 5 a.m. sharp and on the road for a five hour drive to Muharraq monastery! It was a wonderful day ? the severe beauty of the desert, the ancient beauty of the monastery, meeting the monks, looking at manuscripts and so much more? Late in the evening one monk said to me, ?You will join us for the night prayers? to which I said ?I?ll try? whilst thinking inwardly how unlikely that was! I really think when I went to bed that after all the travelling of the previous day, the late night and scanty sleep, then the five hours on the road earlier and all the wonder of the day in the monastery that I had little if any intention of joining the monks for the night prayers. But that was before I encountered the mosquito?
I was laying there trying to go to sleep when the mosquito started buzzing in my ear. So I pulled the blanket over my head and shut it out. Then after ten or fifteen minutes I got too hot and threw off the blanket ? and it was back in a flash, buzzing away. So after a few minutes I pulled the blanket back over my head ? only a few minutes later, being too hot, to throw it off again. And so I alternated between the heat under the blanket and the mosquito at my ear for however long it went on? until, finally, I said to myself, ?I?ve had enough of this, I?m going to Church!?
And what a blessing that Church service was ? so many things I learned in worship with those monks in the early hours of that day! Some years later I remember remarking to someone that my mosquito was an angel sent to me from God to get me to Church that night to which he replied it was more likely just an ordinary mosquito. I do not for one moment insist that I encountered one of the heavenly ones sent down disguised as a mosquito but in the general meaning of the word ?angel? as ?messenger? ? well, I got the message all right, so in that sense my mosquito was definitely an angel!
I was reminded of my mosquito encounter some months ago when I came across a greeting card I had once bought and put by for future use and forgotten about. It was one of those greetings cards that have a quote on the front ? and this one read. ?If you think you?re too small to be effective, you have never been in bed with a mosquito.?
God can do a lot with a little. That tiny mosquito got me to Church. And with five small, even tiny, loaves and a couple of small fish God fed thousands.
I don?t know what size congregations you worship with Sunday by Sunday. I don?t know whether they are as tiny and few as the Sunday congregation here in Babingley or how many they may be. I don?t know if you ever feel down or dispirited when you read and hear in the media year on year of ever decreasing Church attendance, numbers down at Christmas and Easter again. Well don?t ? don?t feel down, don?t be dispirited, don?t be discouraged. Remember the loaves and fishes. Remember that mosquito. God can do a lot with a little.
Hear these Old Testament verses, from the First Book of Chronicles, chapter 12. These are the numbers of those who came to help David, to make him King over Israel, to fight with him against Saul.
?And these are the numbers of the bands that were ready armed to the war, and came to David? to turn the kingdom of Saul to him, according to the word of the LORD. : The children of Judah that bare shield and spear were six thousand and eight hundred, ready armed to the war. Of the children of Simeon, mighty men of valour for the war, seven thousand and one hundred. Of the children of Levi four thousand and six hundred? of the Aaronites?three thousand and seven hundred; ?of the children of Benjamin? three thousand? And of the children of Ephraim twenty thousand and eight hundred, mighty men of valour? of the half tribe of Manasseh eighteen thousand... And of the children of Issachar?? (We?ll come back to Issachur in a minute)
?Of Zebulun, such as went forth to battle, expert in war, with all instruments of war, fifty thousand, which could keep rank: they were not of double heart. And of Naphtali a thousand captains, and with them with shield and spear thirty and seven thousand. And of the Danites expert in war twenty and eight thousand and six hundred. And of Asher, such as went forth to battle, expert in war, forty thousand. And on the other side of Jordan, of the Reubenites, and the Gadites, and of the half tribe of Manasseh, with all manner of instruments of war for the battle, an hundred and twenty thousand.?
That?s over three hundred thousand? but what about the tribe of Issachur? For I skipped their verse ? let me read it to you now: ?And of the children of Issachar, which were men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do; the heads of them were two hundred; and all their brethren were at their commandment? Two hundred ? not two hundred thousand nor twenty thousand, nor even two thousand? just two hundred. ?And of the children of Issachar, which were men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do; the heads of them were two hundred; and all their brethren were at their commandment?
Yes, God can do a lot with a little. Indeed sometimes God whittles a larger number down to a smaller number ? consider another Old Testament account, that of Gideon.
?And the LORD said unto Gideon, The people that are with thee are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hands, lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, Mine own hand hath saved me. Now therefore go to, proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, Whosoever is fearful and afraid, let him return and depart early from mount Gilead. And there returned of the people twenty and two thousand; and there remained ten thousand. And the LORD said unto Gideon, The people are yet too many; bring them down unto the water, and I will try them for thee there: and it shall be, that of whom I say unto thee, This shall go with thee, the same shall go with thee; and of whomsoever I say unto thee, This shall not go with thee, the same shall not go. So he brought down the people unto the water: and the LORD said unto Gideon, Every one that lappeth of the water with his tongue, as a dog lappeth, him shalt thou set by himself; likewise every one that boweth down upon his knees to drink. And the number of them that lapped, putting their hand to their mouth, were three hundred men: but all the rest of the people bowed down upon their knees to drink water. And the LORD said unto Gideon, By the three hundred men that lapped will I save you, and deliver the Midianites into thine hand: and let all the other people go every man unto his place.
I am reminded of the conversation I once read about between two ministers in Scotland and one asked the other how many had been added to his congregation in the recent revival to which the answer came, ?Not one ? but God has greatly blessed us inasmuch as some have left we?ve been trying to get rid of for years!?
There is a very important lesson in the words of God to Gideon: ?And the LORD said unto Gideon, The people that are with thee are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hands, lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, Mine own hand hath saved me.? If we are many and skilled and well-resourced and capable we can too easily trust in ourselves apart from God. Like Israel of old we too may be tempted to think our own hands have done this, it is all our work, our achievement. I know of a Church that for years had a prayer meeting before the Sunday worship and prospered and did well ? so they felt they didn?t need that prayer meeting any more and now things aren?t so good, they aren?t doing so well?
There is an important word in Orthodox doctrine and spirituality: ?synergy?. Synergy is God and man working together; in the words of the Apostle Saint Paul ?work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you?? The great example of someone co-operating with God is the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation when in response to the angelic announcement she says ?Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.? God cannot be born without the power of God but God will not be born without the co-operation of Saint Mary. God can do a lot with a little - this young woman, this slip of a girl really, co-operates with God, says yes to God, she hears the word of God and keeps it ? and becomes the Mother of God, the one who gives birth to God. But it cost her. Initially it cost her the trust of Joseph her betrothed (who was minded to divorce her quietly ), it cost her exile, she became a refugee, and it would cost her untold anguish at a later date with the crucifixion of her son, ?Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also? Co-operation with God carries a cost, it comes with a cost ? indeed our Lord warned us to count the cost. Think back to the loaves and fishes?
They were brought to Jesus, then He blessed them and broke them and distributed them to the multitude. If we would be used of God for the feeding of the multitudes in our day then we must come to Jesus, we must make ourselves available to Him to be used in His service, for His work. And we must seek His blessing upon the work we do for Him and with Him ? we must start every work for Him with prayer, always seeking His blessing and never launching out without first being blessed for the work. And we must be prepared to be broken. ?The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise? That spirit of independence may need to be broken, that thinking we can do it of ourselves, that we have sufficient numbers, sufficient skills or whatever it may be, so that we neglect to seek, and to really and earnestly seek, God?s blessing. And then there?s a broken and a contrite heart; that?s not just some quick and cheap vaguely sort of sorry that we sinned but being heartbroken and contrite for our sins?
This may be a good moment to mention that in a little over two weeks? time it will be Great Lent, the greatest fast of the entire Christian year. We never, ever have to wait until Lent to sort out our sins, to sort out ourselves spiritually (any more than we would think of waiting until Lent to see our doctor for our physical well being!) and we should never, ever delay or put off such things until Lent, nonetheless Lent is a penitential season and provides (like all the fasts throughout the Church year) in the otherwise busyness of our lives an opportunity to get serious about our sins, to get heartbroken and contrite over our sins.
Think what God can do with us if we but bring ourselves to Him for blessing and in brokenness... The loaves and fishes were brought to our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ and He blessed them and broke them and fed thousands. Then let us not hold back ourselves but rather make ourselves likewise available to God. But what can such a handful as us do? Never mind a handful ? I give you one, yes one person, St Seraphim of Sarov. He taught, ?Acquire inner peace and thousands around you will be saved.? And so they were, thousands around St Seraphim in Russia were saved, just like St Antony all those centuries earlier in the deserts of Egypt, another example of one man through whom God blessed multitudes. These men spent years with God, coming to Him continuously for His blessing and how he did bless them ? and others by them.
Whether you worship in a congregation as small as seven people, yes seven - like the five loaves and the two fishes; or whether you are a solitary hermit like Saint Seraphim or like Saint Antony the Great, just one - like my mosquito? always remember, always, always, always remember: God can do a lot with a little.
Yes, ?with God all things are possible?, ?with God nothing shall be impossible? ?Ah Lord GOD! behold, thou hast made the heaven and the earth by thy great power and stretched out arm, and there is nothing too hard for thee? and unto Thee we ascribe as is most justly due all majesty, dominion, glory and adoration, both now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.