A sermon preached in the Diocese of Swaziland:
In the Name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Dear People of God in the Diocese of Swaziland,
Relatives of Bishop Bernard,
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
What a delight it is to be with you today. It is my great privilege to unveil the tomb and to consecrate the structure that houses the tomb of the late Bishop Bernard Mkhabela and Mrs Mkhabela on behalf of the bishops, clergy and people of this province.
As you well know, Bishop Bernard was the second bishop of the Diocese after it was formed as an independent diocese, and the first Swazi-born bishop, who was consecrated in 1975 and retired in 1992 to his home, Emthuntini in Siteki.
My memories of Bishop Bernard come from when was Provincial Chaplain of the Anglican Students' Federation, when I learned that he had a great love of worship, liturgy and saying the daily office. He was a man of much prayer, and of profound spirituality. For more insights into the qualities of Bishop Bernard and Mrs Mkhabela, I am grateful to have the recollections of two of his contemporaries on the bench of the Synod of Bishops.
Firstly, from Bishop Lawrence Zulu, who as you know was translated from being Bishop of Zululand to succeed Bishop Mkhabela. He writes as follows:
“Bernard was a diligent pastor who spent much time teaching clergy and lay leaders the matters of shepherding God’s flock. He also worked hard at planning and carrying out schemes to enable the church to evangelise and teach the people about matters of the Kingdom of God.
“Bishop Mkhabela was a man of prayer. He encouraged everyone he met to “pray at all times”. This, in turn, benefitted his natural quietness and deep thought. In spite of this quality, he spoke fearlessly when peoples’ rights and concerns were at stake; and cared deeply that peoples’ welfare was taken care of. The Thokoza Church Centre began as a hostel for young South Africans who left the country during the apartheid era.
“Mrs Mkhabela worked equally hard at his side to ensure the church reflected the love and care that characterised Jesus Christ while He was here on earth. The Mothers’ Union Centre in Manzini – next to St Michaels School - is an example of her work. Both she and her husband were living expressions of the saying: “cleanliness is next to godliness”. They paid attention to the needy persons of any age; doing whatever they could to help them. On their international travels they never lost sight of the needs/plight of their country and their church.”
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu says as follows:
“Dear Bishop Bernard was a gentle soul given to much laughing. It is wonderful to think that we held our Provincial Synod [in Swaziland] when we voted to accept women for the priesthood and his gentle leading had much to do with the mood that prevailed over that Provincial Synod (helped by the huge influence of Bishop Michael Nuttall). I think it is the same influence that saw the first woman bishop voted for in our Province in Swaziland. I just recall his gentle laughing presence.”
Turning now from the reminiscences of our elders to today's readings, Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans that we who are ministers of the Gospel – whether Bishops, presbyters or priests – that our calling, is to serve, just as Bishop Bernard did so well. We are reminded that we are priests of the Gospel for the sake of God, and for the sake of his Church, and his world. We are priests for others, never for ourselves. In his letter, Paul sees himself as an apostle and patron in the priestly service of the Gospel and so wonderfully sketches his plans for mission as far away as Spain, supported by those in Rome. His missionary policy is to assure the Christians in Rome that he has work to do for the sake of the Gospel of Christ, in new areas of mission:
“Thus I make it my ambition to proclaim the good news of Christ, not where Christ has already been named, so that I do not build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written, 'Those who have never been told of him shall see, and those who have never heard him shall understand.'”
All Paul did was to seek their help in sending him on his way to Spain. Paul was clear about his mission, about the support he needed and his intention was as clear as that of the manager in the Gospel reading. There we see that the manager was very clear what he wanted to achieve. (Whether his actions were good or evil, righteous or unrighteous, is a discussion for another occasion.)
Psalm 98 opens with the proclamation of the clear intention of God at the heart of the history of Israel (verses 1-3). The images of the “right hand” and the “holy arm” refer to the Exodus, to Israel's deliverance from slavery in Egypt. God’s covenant to deliver the chosen people is remembered through two great divine perfections: “love and “faithfulness”. This is what we celebrate here today: God’s love and faithfulness to Bishop and Mrs Mkhabela, to the Swazi people, to the Mkhabela family and to the world.
In the words we know so well:
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that all who believe in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
And as Jesus also said: “No one has greater love than this – to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And Jesus indeed laid down his life, saying “this is my blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins”. We shall hear those words again in a short while, as we celebrate the Eucharist, the foretaste of the heavenly banquet where all the saints, all of us, shall be honoured guests!
My question to you this morning is this: what, then, is our response – my response and your response here in Swaziland, to the limitless generosity of God’s love for us – love that was greater than life itself?
This love sways us to believe that everyone in this life is to experience fairness and justice, in the pursuit of fundamental human rights, shared together for the common good; this love requires that we strive for the well-being of every human person, and for the good stewardship of creation. These are concepts rooted in – though not exclusive to – faith communities. In consequence, since human well-being encompasses every aspect of human existence, there is no reason to consider that faith communities should confine themselves to promoting the common good in some artificially defined “private realm” while the public sector is left to its own devices.
Let me now turn to what it might mean in practice for us to work with each other to create a world in which each of us can flourish, in which we can reach towards our full potential “in heart and mind and soul and strength”, “loving neighbours as themselves”. In other words – how can we promote growth and maturity in the emotional; spiritual; mental/intellectual; physical/material dimensions of our lives; and how can we best be “individuals-in-community”, where neither the narrowly selfish needs of individuality nor the stifling interests of group wholly dominate? How too can we ensure that people are first and foremost treated as fully rounded, and not, for example, as if all that matters is the competitive status that comes with wealth, or power, or fame?
Well, perhaps the next thing I must say is that one important source of courage, encouragement and hope, in tackling these questions, comes from the realisation that each one of us can make a difference. This is something that far too often we do not realise. But believing that what we do does not matter very much, can undermine our readiness to aim for the best for ourselves, and for our society and wider world. For it is true that not all of us can become successful in the way that is often portrayed to us by the media and the world around us. Not all of us can become rich; not all of us can become famous; not all of us will get to the very top of the professional tree and have leadership, authority, and status. But – here is the most important thing of all – all of us most certainly will be significant. Every single one of us here is already leading a significant life.
We are significant in many ways, every day – through our attitudes, our words, our actions. We have an impact all around us, through what we choose to think and say and do; and through what we choose not to think and say and do. Our choices affect those who are closest to us – families, friends, neighbours, and often through wider circles of influence through colleagues, and those we come across as we go about our daily lives. Whenever we interact with another person, either directly or indirectly, it is as if a stone is dropped into a pond of water. There are always ripples; and the ripples travel to the very edges of the pond. So when we are faced, and when we face others, with questions about what sort of life we seek, we should be encouraged that we really can make a difference. If we choose to do nothing, we actually are making a choice – a choice not to help solve the challenges of society, but rather the choice to allow injustice and unfairness to continue.
In Swaziland, in South Africa, in the other countries of our Province, where so much change is happening, we all have a very significant influence in ensuring that these changes are for the good. So how shall we help one another other to aspire to be the best we can? At the heart of this is seeing that it is in the interests of all of us to promote the well-being of the whole community. The principle of treating others as one would like to be treated and loving one’s neighbour as oneself requires us to pay attention to the needs of others, to their concerns and their aspirations. Respect entails genuine listening in the way we interact with others. I love the expression which says that because God made us with two ears and one mouth, God intends that we should do twice as much listening as talking!
We must also encourage one another to talk truthfully. In the Bible we are told that “the truth will set us free”. Being truthful is key to building trust – and trust is like the oil in the machinery of the life of society. Trust is what enables us to live and work in harmony together. Trust communicates that we have one another's best interests at heart. Trust enables us to live not in narrow competition with each other – but in what John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, has called “gracious magnanimity”. It helps set us free to live, and speak and act, knowing that at a very fundamental level, we are all on the same side – we are all on the side of wanting to promote human flourishing.
How might a courageous, loving and common good action look in Swaziland today? Let me narrate one possibility through a parable in keeping with today's Gospel passage. Bishop Wamukoya has related to us that there is drought in Swaziland, but I did not realise it extent until I drove from the airport, when I saw the consequences. My heart bleeds at the extent of the drought – carcasses of dead cattle along the road, starved and dehydrated. Some were covered in heaps of sand and some not. This is the painful reality of climate change and injustice, one which demands a faith response. We must take pictures of these dead herds and post them on Facebook or Twitter to share the crisis. Bishop Ellinah must declare this an urgent crisis for every Anglican. We must ensure our cry is heard by those in Swaziland who are too wealthy to be touched or moved by this suffering, and by those beyond Swaziland in those wealthy countries which are responsible for environmental degradation and climate change but are not suffering. Let's start that process now. Let us is lament, cry out in tears, weeping and mourning in this service. Let's remonstrate with God for he will hear our prayer. (Time of open prayers.) Thank you, for courageously speaking to God about this injustice. Now go forth and speak truth to power, for the truth will set you free.
My prayer for each one of you today, my sisters and brothers in Christ, is that you may have the courage to live lives of encouragement, and lives of hope – so that you may be blessed, and be a blessing to others to seek to influence for the best. Amen