The text of a sermon preached at the Church of St John, Bellville South, on the occasion of its Sesquicentennial Anniversary and Festival Service. During the sermon, the Archbishop repeated his call on South Africans to vote on May 7, and expressed concern at the abduction of schoolgirls in Nigeria:
Isaiah 6:1-8; Ps 97; 1 Jn 1; Jn 21:20-24
I greet you all in the name of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen. It is also still appropriate, this being Eastertide, to say “Christ is risen, He is risen indeed! Alleluia!!”
It is an honour and a privilege to have been asked to share with you the Word of God for this historic milestone in the life and witness and ministry of the parish of St John. Thank you to Father Fred, Dorothea and the parish leadership for inviting me. Thanks to Bishop Hess and Myfawny also for welcoming us, Lungi and my staff present this morning in your diocese.
If I want to dodge taking responsibility for my failings, I can say blame them – warts and all – on Fred and Dorothea, who helped to guide my formation and foundation, theologically and spiritually. Father Fred, for those who don’t know, taught me New Testament and Spirituality at St Paul’s College as a raw first year student, still full of Science theories from University.
Once again, thank you Father Fred for who you are and what you bring into this parish, diocese and our church. Your close, deep connection with God and with others, as well as with nature, maintained by rhythmic and regular retreats, silences, reading and teaching of the mystics and theology, ignited in me, those 27 years ago, an insatiable quest; a holy longing for seeking always to expose my inner life to God’s Holy Spirit. Strengthened in this way, I am able to confront the external world; to be a witness of God in his world and then to return to the inner world, not to run away but to expose it further to God’s love and lavishing – or as I said on one occasion, to be “disinfected by God”.
Today, I join with you in thanking not only Father Fred but in thanking God for all those faithful clergy and people who have served within your church and your community through these 150 years. Indeed, I congratulate the parish for 150 years of unceasing prayer, witness and service. It has not always been easy but it has been a time of continual and often radical change. For example the statement made by the vestry of the Church of the Transfiguration, where you were birthed, at their meeting in Easter 1957, bears testimony to this where it reads, and I quote: “That the vestry meeting fearlessly bears witness that we do not accept racial discrimination in the churches of our parish…”
However, as the theme for your sesquicentennial patronal festival attests, God has been faithful and has seen you through the ups and downs of life and will continue to strengthen and encourage you in all the changes and challenges that lie ahead. Today’s celebration is thus also a recommitment of ourselves to God’s mission and to extend God’s love to all of creation.
At the beginning of this homily I read “The Lord gave the Word,” and you responded “and great was the company of preachers.”
Sandra further read: “Grant Lord, that those who preach in this place may proclaim the crucified and risen Christ and interpret your word with sensitivity and insight.”
And we responded: “Enable us to hear that word inwardly and to respond to it generously in all our lives, this we ask in name of Jesus Christ, your living word. AMEN.”
How do we do that? And how do we, like the vestry of the Parish of the Transfiguration in 1957, not only say these words with our lips but also enact them through the service of our lives as “we fearlessly bear witness that we do not accept discrimination” in all its forms?
Staying with your theme for the celebrations: How do we – like those who have come before us – bear witness in our time? How do we bear witness to God’s steadfast love and goodness and our life together as God’s people in the here and now? Is this possible or is it desirable? If so, why so?
In the Old Testament lesson set for this morning, (Is 6:1-8), the prophet Isaiah in his dream or vision unveils and sets a useful pattern to follow. Isaiah remembers the burden of personal frailty and sinfulness, and yet being called to declare otherness, the apartness and holiness of God to rulers who had strayed from God’s ways. As aptly also captured in 1 John 1 v 8 -9, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness”.
Isaiah says: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!” One of the seraphs touches his mouth with a hot coal, cleans his mouth or absolves him, and later we are told he is sent on behalf of the heavenly hosts. Isaiah bears testimony because amongst other things he had this vision of God cleansing him and sending him. He was also in a context where he could observe and as an eyewitness see the atrocities God’s people were suffering.
Anointed, transformed by the experience and encounter, he then goes out into a hostile world. He testifies or bears witness, boldly and fearlessly, to God’s message of restoration and deliverance of his people from oppression. He risks being ridiculed as someone of whom people could say: “Is it not the man with unclean lips?” He does not let this inner feeling of unworthiness or past sinfulness deter him. This vision leads to inner transformation and outward courage in confronting his own ills and those of his society.
Again in today’s gospel passage, especially in John 21:24, we hear the gospel say this about your patron saint: “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them and we know that his testimony (that is, his witness) is true”. This dearest disciple, who was loved by Jesus, was not educated in writing on complex Torah matters. He may have not written these things, but what is key for me is that he saw and heard and tasted the presence of Jesus in his life. He now shares this eyewitness account with the Hellenistic Jews in Asia.
Don’t let anyone discount your testimony of what the Word of Life – that is God in Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit – is up to in your dreams and visions, in your life and your community. Equally do not be embarrassed or be afraid to declare his good news, his love, wherever you are sent to be. Archbishop Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, said at the last Lambeth Conference, make every opportunity an opportunity wherein the good news is revealed. Dare I add, including to yourself.
The second lesson, 1 John 1, again highlights the theme of testimony or witness. In verse 3, “…we declare to you what we have seen and heard...” and verse 2, “...and [we] testify to it”.
What have you seen and heard and are testifying to as we celebrate your sesquicentennial service? John Suggit, in a beautiful book he named “The Wonder of Words”, phrases this question differently. He asks: “What is this text saying to you today; and what is our response to the Word of God today?”
On Friday, I invited two young families to join me in welcoming the King of Lesotho on a courtesy visit to Bishopscourt. One of the families had three young children and after the king left, their eldest - a nine-year-old - started engaging Lungi and an ordinand in a series of questions - not about the king but about the archbishop. “What does an archbishop do?" was his key question. They tried to answer and after a while he said, “I get it, he is a fire fighter." Then they explained further, and after a pause he said, "Oh!! I get it now, he is a super fighter.” The conversation continued, to be followed by another pause, then he said: "He is actually like superman."
At that stage a gap appeared, and Lungi and the ordinand said, "There's the archbishop. Ask him what he does." He came to me and said, "Archbishop, what does an archbishop do? What is your work? I said, "I pray." "Pray?" he asked, as he looked at me in exasperation and squinted his eyes. I said, "Yes, I pray when there are fires, and for people, for schools, for kids, for an end to drought, for rain, for more food when there is a lack of food, for those in prison and those who are hurt by those in prison. I pray for university lecturers and for students, for mine bosses and for striking workers, for presidents, kings and rulers, and for them to be honest and transparent, and for the powerful and the powerless.” He looked at me and then he was whisked to my chapel to be shown where I pray. As he and his parents left, he rolled down the car window and said, “I will be praying for the archbishop so that he may continue praying for all of us." This youngster responded by acknowledging the need and importance of prayer for the archbishop. What is your response to God’s love for you, to his Word and his cry through others or creation?
Simon Peter in today’s gospel responds by asking, possibly with self-doubt as to his role and importance and closeness to Jesus, or with envy or understated jealousy: “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus seizes this opportunity to point Simon beyond himself to eternal ideals, to life beyond the here-and-now and Simon’s “sent-ness”. Are you still following or do you now have your personal agenda? Follow me.
In the past while I have been reflecting deeply on what it means to follow Jesus and to be a witness to God’s love in the world. One way is to acknowledge and confess in the hope of being restored like Isaiah or Simon Peter. Assured of the steadfast love and transformation we are promised, I have in recent weeks joined others in what we have called a “walk of witness” – in which like John we testify to what we have seen with our own eyes and what we have been told. We encounter the pain, the stench, the hopelessness and fear, of God’s people. We come face to face with forces of darkness and encounter the helplessness of those who are made to suffer for being different. We live with that tension and acknowledge our part in people’s pain and our silence in not declaring the God who is light and in whom there is no darkness.
Let me return to where I started. How do we witness to the love of God in our context, especially at St John’s today? To witness is to attest, to vouch, to guarantee, to show, to profess, to reveal and to testify; it is to respond to the Word of God in your life and context.
The parish leadership wants you to recommit to God’s mission and extend God’s love to all of Creation. The Anglican Church of Southern Africa, as we say in our mission statement, wants you to be Anchored in the love of Christ, Committed to God’s mission and to be Transformed by the Holy Spirit. I want to share a few examples of where these may find tangible expression.
1. In three days’ time, we will be exercising our hard-earned privilege of voting. As archbishop and as the chair of the Electoral Code of Conduct Observer Commission, I have been telling people: Go and vote on May the 7th. Too many people have suffered and died for us to stay away out of apathy. There will be 29 parties from which to choose on the national ballot. Examine the policies of the parties and the behaviour of their leaders and vote your conscience; make a choice of the one that best represents your values.
2. I want to re echo the 1957 vestry statement: Do not fear. Act in ways that acknowledge your own shortcomings and ask God to forgive, but don’t end there. Like Isaiah, speak out against all that demeans, corrupts, is not transparent and lacks accountability.
3. Call for and join walks of witness as we demand action for the sake of peace.
4. Give voice to your outrage at the killings in northern Nigeria, and at the recent abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls there. It is deeply shocking that 276 girls between 12 and 17 are reported still to be missing, three weeks after being abducted. We are one continent and these girls are our children. Why has the world not erupted in outrage at this crime? Where are our Ubuntu values when girls are kidnapped at such a tender age? All of Africa, and especially South Africa which has benefitted from the hospitality and generosity of other nations, must rise up and demand their release.
May you be touched by God this day as we receive the body and blood of our Lord Jesus. May his Word be a light for our earthly pilgrimage until that day when we shall see him face to face. May this parish and diocese and each one of you be strengthened for service as you recommit to be his witnesses in the Lord. May God engrave a legacy of love and service through you in this parish, his world, and forever more.
A blessed 150th anniversary celebration to you all.