This is an edited version of the sermon preached on 10 August 2013 at Makhemeng for the unveiling of the tombstones of Matsoso Samuel and Mamolapo Alice Mojela
Hosea 6: 1-2, Ps 34, 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18, Luke 24:1-8
May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Thank you, Louisa and Seedy Lette-Mojela, to you and your family, for inviting me to preside here today. Your Majesties, I acknowledge your presence here today, and I extend to you, King Letsie, my congratulations on your recent 50th birthday. I am sure you have endured the singing of ‘Happy Birthday’ many times – but let us do so here again …!
Let me also acknowledge the presence of their excellencies, the South African High Commissioner, the Honourable Minster of Energy, Meteorology and Water Affairs, the Honourable Minister of Agriculture and Food Security, and all other Government figures. I also acknowledge the clergy present – some who have come all the way from Gauteng – and including Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana of the Ethiopian Episcopal Church; as well as our own Dean, and Bishop Adam Taaso, of the Diocese of Lesotho. Bishop Adam, thank you for your kind words of welcome, and to your wife also, for your warm hospitality.
Today we meet to celebrate the holy mysteries together – the sacraments of Baptism and of the Mass or Eucharist. Baptizing these two lovely girls reminds us that we are united with Christ in both his death and resurrection; while the Eucharist gives us a foretaste of the heavenly banquet in which we shall one day share, in all its fullness.
Our context is that we meet in Lesotho, in the village of Ha Mojela and the homestead of Makhemeng. We meet, conscious of wider context of Southern Africa, and the African continent, with all the challenges of poverty and inequality, yet with all its staggering physical beauty, and with all its untapped potential for abundance.
We also meet in the context of our Scripture readings, with the Old Testament lesson in which God, through his prophet reminds us that God’s desire is to intrude into our lives, and bring healing – to us as individuals, to our nations, to our region and continent. His is a message of redemption and hope, no matter what circumstances we find ourselves facing – a message that we too are called to share with others.
As well as baptising these young lives, we are also unveiling the tombstone and the family tree monument. This locates the Mojelas as descendants of the great King Moshoeshoe of the Basotho. Today we also weave the hat that Louisa will wear, as the Anglican Consultative Council’s representative on the Anglican Communion’s Standing Committee. It is the Communion’s highest advisory body, in which I am delighted Southern Africa has a presence – we are grateful to you, Louisa, for taking on this responsibility.
All of this reminds us that our context is part of a far greater context. We are part of those who have worshipped here in years before, and are now at rest, like Louisa’s parents; and we are part of the global family of Anglicans. Baptism has reminded us of our unity with one another, through our shared unity with Christ. In him we are all one, and we are all called to Christ-like living, in our acting, speaking and thinking. And so we recall those who in the past followed Christ’s call, and give thanks for all the good they did here – good that is written not just in epitaphs, but on our hearts.
As we do so, I am reminded of the mysterious men of our gospel reading, often seen as angels, who said to the grieving women ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead?’ They challenge us to ask ourselves, what are we really doing here today? Why do we stand at the grave of those we have loved, and do these things - especially when, though we know that mortal bodies lie here, we are those who ‘look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come’, to quote the words of the creed.
Death is hard for us to grasp. It is hard in two particular ways: first, when someone dies, it is so difficult to comprehend what has happened, how someone so alive can then be not so. Second, it is hard to live without those we love, who have died.
This is why we need our rituals, of funerals, and of the longer process of mourning. Through honouring our dead, and through acknowledging our own sorrows, we become those who do our grieving properly. We become those of whom Jesus says ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’ We open ourselves to receive God’s comfort, as we bare before him the sadness we have, missing those who have been so much a part of our lives.
Louisa, I never knew your father – though I knew your mother well, from those far off days when I was a mere curate at the Cathedral. I remember her faithfulness, week by week. I remember her straightforward faith – in many ways simple, and yet profound in its depth and strength, through the challenges of life. I remember her through the years since – at your wedding, at your brother’s wedding, at baptisms, at funerals. Indeed, there have been times when I almost wondered whether I had a second job alongside my licensed positions within the church – namely that of the Mojela family’s domestic chaplain!
Yet it is one of the joys of priestly ministry – especially in parish life – to walk with families, through the years. I remember the tiny flat you had in Hillborough, all those years ago. Look how far we have come since! Indeed, when I visited your mother, when she was so frail at the end of her life, she was determined that she should get out of bed for ‘The Archbishop’. But I insisted that for Thabo she should just stay where she was and relax!
It was a joy to minister to her at that time, and to see the strength of her faith. She had walked so closely with Jesus all her life, she knew that she would know him by her side on her final journey. She knew with certainty that, in the end, he would indeed ‘raise her up, to live in his sight’, to take the words of our first reading.
Jesus has conquered death for us. He has overcome everything that tries to separate us from God’s unending love, or from God’s eternal life. He has opened for us the gates of glory.
Therefore, as St Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, in the verse that come just before those we heard read, ‘We do not grieve as others do, who have no hope.’ For we are indeed those who believe that Jesus died and rose again, and that we too, though we die, shall in a similar way be raised – and so we shall one day again be united with those we have loved.
This is our hope today – our sure and certain hope. Yet even so, the mysteries of life and death are hard to grasp. Our heads here the words, but our hearts still tremble at the death of others, at the knowledge of our own mortality – for one day, we too will lie in the ground, and others will gather round.
But God knows our frailties – and he invites us to seek his help, as the Psalmist tells us. He frees us from our fears, by giving us faith in our hearts, and the knowledge of his comforting, strengthening, presence alongside us, no matter what we face in life.
This is why, in the funeral service, we can pray with confidence: ‘Heavenly Father, in your Son Jesus Christ, you have given us a true faith and a sure hope: help us to live as those who believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection to eternal life – and strengthen this faith and hope in us all the days of our life, through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen’
This is our prayer today – we believe, but we also ask God to meet us in our unbelief, our doubts, our fears. We cannot see across to the other side of the bridge between life and death – but Jesus has walked it for us, and assures us that it cannot be shaken.
So may he indeed strengthen this faith and hope within us, all our days. Let us grieve those we mourn – but let us do so with grateful thanks for all the love that we shared; and with joyful, certain, hope – that one day we shall indeed be caught up with them to meet the Lord, and so we shall be with him for ever.
And until that day, let us follow Christ faithfully, so that when we in our turn are recalled by our maker, his resurrection values will be remembered in our lives, by family, by friends – and more than that, by the poor, the needy, in whom we serve our Lord; and so be remembered by our Lord himself.
As our funeral service says, ‘I heard a voice from heaven saying “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth.” “Blessed indeed” says the Spirit “That they may rest from their labours, for their deeds follow them!”’ May it be so for us. Amen