This sermon was preached at the service of Thanksgiving, on the Retirement of Anthony Hillier, Diocesan Secretary for the Diocese of Cape Town, at Zonnebloem on 30 April 2013.
Acts 14:19-27; Ps 145:10-13,21; John 14:27-31a
May I speak in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Today is both a day of celebration and a sad day.
It is a celebration, first of all – as every Eucharist is – of the new life in Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, in which we are called to share. And it is a celebration of God’s faithfulness and presence among us, in the life of his Church.
It is a celebration too, of the faithfulness of so many of God’s people, in his Church – and today, especially, is a day of thanksgiving for the long years of hard work that Tony has given to us, and for the selfless support through it all of Ann, and the family.
And it is also a celebration of the common life we share together in the Diocese of Cape Town over the years, in spite of all the challenges that come our way.
This brings me to the sadness.
We are sad because, although we are celebrating and giving thanks for all these wonderful things we have experienced and received as a Diocese, it is sad to say farewell to Tony. We shall really miss you Tony, your quiet perseverance, your dedication and your thoroughness. I shall miss the expanded agendas which have been such a help to me in staying in touch and knowing what is going on throughout all the structures of the Diocese, despite my busy schedule. I shall miss your painstaking attention to detail. And I shall miss your love for the Lord and for his Church. We are so sad to see you go.
And we are also sad, because along with Tony’s departing, we are setting in motion the tough actions for restructuring the Diocesan Office – actions we know we ought to have addressed some time ago. But knowing that we have little option does not make it any easier, either to take difficult decisions or to implement them.
Everyone who is here today, I cannot ask you strongly enough, to keep the Diocesan Office in your prayers as we now embark on this period of consultation and discernment. Pray that God may guide us all, and give us a double measure of wisdom. Pray especially also for Bishop Garth, whom I am asking to lead the pastoral processes that must happen alongside the more technical management tasks; and most of all pray for those who are most directly affected.
When hard decisions must be taken and implemented within the Church, which is so much like family in so many ways, it can sometimes all seem so much harder and more painful. Indeed, it can sometimes feel like a failure of faith within the Church as an institution, when we face times like this.
Our rational minds tell us about the tough economic environment around us. They tell us that we always needed to make adjustments to structures and staffing after the multiplication of the Diocese.
But our hearts are sore, and I guess we always hoped that, through prayer, through faith, through trust, we might somehow be spared having to come to this point. For myself, part of me really hoped that I might avoid it all by being away on retreat – though I knew this would not happen!
Our first of today’s readings have helped me – and I hope can help us all – in finding our bearings.
St Paul is completing his first missionary journey. It is about 18 years after Jesus died and rose, so we might know the flourishing, abundant, life which triumphs over sin, death, and all that is destructive.
Yet St Paul – like so many other apostles – has suffered spiritual opposition, expulsion from the city of Pisidian Antioch, the threat of stoning in Iconium, and actual stoning in Lystra. Even so, St Paul and St Barnabas return to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch. And, writes St Luke, they ‘strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraging them to continue in the faith’ by telling them that ‘it is through many hardships, many tribulations, that we must enter the kingdom of God.’
Well, on the face of it, one might think that assuring people that they will face ‘many troubles’ is hardly the best way to encourage and strengthen them!
But then again, perhaps it is.
Because perhaps what the congregations of Lystra, Iconium and Antioch most needed to hear, was the reassurance that what they were going through was ‘normal’; and furthermore, that it was not in any way their fault, or brought about by any failing on their part.
From reading through the New Testament, it is clear that, even within a few years of Jesus’ life and death, resurrection and ascension, there was a tension over what it meant to become his follower.
Some verses can be read to imply that, when you give your life to Jesus, all your troubles will be over, provided you have enough faith, pray hard enough, and live with enough obedience. We hear that still today, in some places, don’t we! And if life is not all roses and rainbows, we draw the conclusion that we have failed, in our faith, our prayers, our lives, and are fully responsible for our misfortunes.
On the other hand, from the example of St Paul’s life, it can seem as if the opposite is true: that becoming a Christian opens the floodgates to trials, tribulations, and persecutions!
But taking a more careful look at Scripture, what do we find? We find the words of the Living Word made flesh.
St John’s account of Jesus speaking at the Last Supper, ends his main discourse, before he turns to prayer, with these words:
‘I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart, for I have overcome the world’ (Jn 16:32b,33).
This is the context of today’s gospel reading, with its promises of peace, and reassurance not to be afraid. This peace, this reassurance, come to us precisely because the world is full of struggles, for all of us.
We should not be surprised when they happen to us as individuals. And we should also not be surprised when the Church itself, at various levels, takes a battering from the way the world is – from our social, political, and economic context.
We are not immune from the same problems others face. Stuff happens. Stuff happens that is not our fault – it just happens. And we have to deal with it.
The Bible calls us to face whatever life brings, head on, with Christian courage. Our ability to do this is the greatest testimony we can give to the world.
Christian courage comes from these promises of Jesus Christ: the promise that we need not be afraid, and the promise of his peace. For God’s peace is not an event-free life. Rather, in the midst of life happening, his peace that passes all comprehension will come to us, and sit with us in each present moment, allowing us not to be afraid, not to panic, but to take each next step as it comes to us, guided by Jesus, who still says ‘follow me’.
This peace brings reassurance, in our deepest selves, of greater promises – of Jesus Christ’s presence with us, and of God’s immeasurable love for us, and the assurance that the kingdom of God is among us.
Therefore we dare to celebrate the Eucharist together today, even in the midst of sad farewells, and the processes of consultation and discernment around the Diocesan Office, its restructuring, the potential for redundancies, and all the uncertainties ahead these bring.
We come to the Lord’s Table, not despite, but bringing with us, these things.
We come bringing prayers for Tony and Ann in the unknown future ahead of them, though we pray for a blessed retirement, after such long years of hard work as God’s faithful servant.
We come bringing with us our concerns for the Diocese and its staff. We come with the pressures that our parochial units – our pastoral charges – face, both among their members; and within the communities they serve. We bring the needs for more ordinands, and funding for their training.
We come with bold courage in the risen Christ.
We also come with the big problems of our nation: from inadequate education – of which I saw so much in the Eastern Cape, last week – through to the sweeping issues of democracy and freedom of speech.
But most of all we come, with hearts open to receive Christ’s peace, Christ’s Easter joy, Christ’s newness of life – to receive bread and wine as strength for the journey ahead. We receive them as the foretaste of the kingdom into which, as St Paul taught, we are invited to enter ever more fully, not despite the troubles of the world, but by living through them, held in the infinite love of God.
So let me end where I began – by saying thank you, Tony, from the bottom of my heart. I still remember the first day we met, in September 2007, just after my election. The look on your face clearly said to me ‘Young man, I’m praying for you – you don’t know how much you are letting yourself in for!’ I thank you, and I thank God for you, and for all you have been to me, as a friend, a colleague, and a father.
May he bless you now and always. Amen.