This sermon was preached at the Diocese of Cape Town Family Fun Day, held at 'Bishops', Diocesan College, on 1 May 2013.
Deuteronomy 33:13-26; Psalm 89:1-8; Philippians 4:5-8; Matthew 13:53-58
(Lections for St Joseph)
May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ – what a joy it is to see you here. Let me repeat the Chaplain’s welcome to you all. You are all very special. And a particular welcome to Donald Grant, MEC for Education. Thank you for being with us. It is good to see so many of you here – and so early in the morning on a public holiday!
You are certainly not like the rector who woke up early on a Sunday morning, and the weather was SO beautiful that he felt he just HAD to play golf. So he phoned the curate, and said he was feeling unwell, and that the curate must take the services – and then he drove to a golf course where no-one knew him, and started his round. But he should have known that Jesus was watching, with St Peter at his side. ‘You’re not going to let him get away with this, are you?’ said St Peter. ‘Wait and see’ said the Lord.
The rector hit the ball off the tee on a par 4 hole. It was the perfect shot. It went straight down the fairway, bounced on fresh springy grass, and just kept on going, until it reached the green and rolled right into the hole. It was the most amazing ‘Hole in One’. St Peter was appalled. ‘Lord?’ he said ‘How could you let that happen?’ The Lord smiled, and answered ‘But who is he going to be able to tell?’
Well, here we all are! So let me first thank everyone who is working hard on their day off, to organise today. Thank you to Mpho Mashengete and your team for all your preparations. Thank you, Fr Terry, and Bishops, for your hospitality. Thank you, Bishop Garth, for enabling the whole process. Thank you to everyone participating in this service, and to everyone helping with all the other arrangements.
It is wonderful to share this celebration of the life of the Diocese of Cape Town. It is a celebration, first of all – as every Eucharist is – of new life in Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, which we are called to share. And it is a celebration of God’s faithfulness and presence among us, in the Diocese of Cape Town and in the life of his Church.
It is a celebration too, of the faithfulness of so many of God’s people, in this Diocese: not just in the past, but today also. Through the faithful lives of ordinary Christians – you, and people like you – God continues to build his kingdom, and spread the good news of Jesus Christ that is for the whole world.
This is the faithfulness we commemorate today, of St Joseph – often called, St Joseph the worker. We think less of him as a carpenter, however, and more as a fellow-labourer in God’s vineyard. This is the work in which all sons and daughters of the living God share. And whoever we are, we can make a great and significant difference to God’s world – even if, like St Joseph, most of what we do is behind the scenes. St Joseph’s openness to hear God’s voice, and his readiness to respond in obedience – even when he was taken way outside his comfort zone – made all the difference.
As St Matthew tells us, he was an ordinary man, a righteous man – just an every-day decent chap, like so many here today. Suddenly, his life seemed to go pear-shaped. The woman he was engaged to marry was pregnant, with a child he knew was not his. It takes a better man than most to decide to break it all off, very quietly, without public scandal. But then God, through a dream, challenged him to go one step further – to marry, and raise this child, who, God told him, was from the Holy Spirit. Later, in another dream, the angel of the Lord told him to take his wife and child to Egypt. Can you imagine the upheaval? And yet he went, at once.
In St Luke’s gospel we read that Joseph and Mary went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover each year, and that, when Jesus was about 12 years old, they took him with them. St Joseph saw to it that Jesus was raised in a safe, settled, home where faith was woven into the whole of life. He provided the context in which Jesus was able to discover what it truly meant to be the Son of God, the anointed one, the Messiah.
What can be more important than to provide contexts in which others can grow to become the people God created them to be?
This is the every-day faithful obedience to which all of us are called, in the home, in our communities, at work, wherever we find ourselves. For the most part, it is not very spectacular – in fact, it is easy to take for granted, and even look down on. Simple habits of daily prayer, reading our Bibles, Sunday worship, and following Jesus’ example, all help form the foundations on which everything else is built.
In our gospel reading, we heard how the people of Nazareth felt they knew Jesus well, took him for granted, and looked down on him. I think that there is something about being an Anglican that connects with this. People look at us, and see an old, familiar, historic church. They think that we are just ordinary and boring, and nothing special. They may even think that we have lost our spark, lost our life.
And it is true that our primary concern is not to lay on a big and exciting show.
But our critics fail to see that we aim for something far more important!
We want to promote deepening, maturing, lives of faithful obedience: of individuals and communities who grow in knowledge and love of God, and in making God better known and loved. Such faith in action is what makes the biggest difference in the long term.
Jesus too, was not in the business of performing miracles to satisfy the curious, or ‘prove’ his identity to sceptics. Rather, as we read through the gospels, Jesus’ words and actions are so others might recognise what it means for the kingdom of God to come among them; and so they might respond to the invitation to follow him, as their Messiah.
Jesus calls us for the ‘long haul’ – to persevere in a life-long experience of growing in his love and joy, and in sharing it with others, so his kingdom of justice for all, and true peace, may increase in our world. This is what our second reading, from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians, is about. ‘Let your gentleness be known to everyone’ St Paul writes. ‘The Lord is near.’ Doesn’t St Joseph’s life, as a righteous man, remind us of such characteristics?
St Paul then writes ‘Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made know to God.’
Life has many challenges – as Joseph found – even tough ones of having to flee the country. But, with God in control, we can take even the toughest situations in our stride, if we trust in the Lord. For – as the next verse says – when we entrust everything in prayer to God, then: ‘The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’ This is not a promise that our problems will be solved in the way that we want. But it is a promise that God will see us through – as individuals, and as his Church.
We have a lot of issues to face in the Diocese at the moment.
Some of these challenges, we are rising to meet, with great joy and confidence. We are making wonderful progress towards building up an Endowment Fund, to ensure resources for training future clergy. We still have a long way to go – but we are firmly headed in the right direction. We are already over R800,000, so, close to our first million. Thank you! to everyone who has contributed! Mind you, we still have quite a way to go to reach our goal of R20m. But long slow steady giving of small amounts will ensure we get to our target. What I call ‘boring faithfulness’ of the sort that the people of Nazareth despised, is the best way to reach our goal!
Within the Diocese there are other big challenges.
We have been carrying a big deficit in running costs, as you know. We have been reviewing all we do through a long process – discussed for some 3 years, through Diocesan Synod and Diocesan Standing Committee meetings, and the Budget Review Group and various Boards, and of course Chapter. The biggest challenge arises from the multiplication of the Diocese. We need to look not only at staffing levels, but, more fundamentally, at how to integrate the old inherited structures of the suffragan bishop with those of the diocese as a whole.
Yesterday, Tony Hillier retired as Diocesan Secretary. We had a wonderful service of thanksgiving at Zonnebloem yesterday. With his departure, we are now grasping this painful nettle of restructuring the Diocesan Office, and embarking on a period of consultation and discernment. It is going to be a difficult and painful process, with some very hard decisions along the way, and the potential for redundancies.
Let me say the same as I said yesterday: all you who are here today, I cannot ask you strongly enough, to keep us all in your prayers. 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. Most of all pray for those who are most directly affected.
It is always especially hard to take such decisions within the church – when employees are also brothers and sisters in Christ, parishioners alongside us, part of God’s family. Pray that, as St Paul teaches in today’s reading, we may act with gentleness. Pray we may do everything ‘by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving’. Pray that God’s peace, which ‘surpasses all understanding’, may fill this situation.
May this peace guard our hearts and minds, so that it may protect our feelings, our thoughts, so that we are held in the will of God, and don’t get tossed about with destructive emotions, or words or actions, as we work through the various steps still before us. And may we focus on ‘whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable’.
This is God’s call to all of us, not just for restructuring the Diocesan Office, but also in faithfully following the example of St Joseph. Lives of faithful obedience, of growing love and joy and peace and hope, are best served by ‘thinking about these things’: everything that is excellent and worthy of praise.
As some of you may have heard me say before, it has taken psychologists and others two millennia to catch up with this powerful Biblical truth. It is a truth in our own lives. It is a truth in the life of the Church. And it is true when it comes to politics and nation – for example, in relation to the terrible problems of education in the Eastern Cape which I saw on my visit last week.
If we focus most on the problems, on what is wrong, on everything that stands in our way and holds us back – then, studies show, we are likely to be dragged down, become pessimistic, feel helpless, and be overcome by negativity.
But if we focus on the good things around us, and God’s wonderful promises – then they become a magnet, pulling us upwards. If we put aside our fears about deficits or restructuring or even our own mortality, and let God’s vision shape our future planning, we are far more likely to go forwards, living and acting positively, and we are far more likely to go forward, growing into all that is good.
And this is the heart of our celebration today – our belief that God has good plans for our Diocese and good plans for each one of us. As the prophet Jeremiah writes, the Lord says ‘I have plans to prosper you not to harm you, plans to give you a future and hope’ (Jer 29:11). This surely is the life to which our Diocese, and all its people, are called. Let this vision take root within us, and grow and flourish!
So, to conclude: today is a day of celebration – of the life we share as the family of God’s children in the Diocese of Cape Town. We do not have to live spectacular lives. The great miracle of God is that he does marvellous things through ordinary people, living ordinary lives of faithful obedience.
So, with confidence and joy we can live out this steady calling to be good Anglicans! We can stand firm in our heritage of supporting God’s work through lives of faithful worship, witness and service. We can build one another up in gentle, loving fellowship. We can also live for others outside our walls – engaged in the daily business of promoting healthy society; contributing to democracy; standing up against corruption in small and big ways; calling government to account at every level from local council wards to nationally.
And in all of this, through a rhythm of grateful prayer and Bible study, we can allow God to shape our lives so that we too may be righteous people, used by God for the building of his kingdom and the glory of his name.
It is my humble and deep prayer that it may be so for this Diocese. Amen