Monday, 30 November 2020

Sermon for Ordinations in the Diocese of Natal

The text of a sermon preached at an Ordination Service in the Cathedral of the Holy Nativity, Pietermaritzburg, on 28 November 2020: 

Readings: Zachariah 8: 20-23, Ps 119:3 3-38, Romans 10: 8b-18, John 1: 35-42

May I speak in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of our lives, Amen.

Dean Sibisi – Vicar General, bishops here present, fellow clergy, candidates for ordination and your families, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, people of God: it is a great joy for me to be here with you as we give thanks to God for this time together amidst the challenges of Covid-19.

It is an honour and privilege to have been asked to celebrate with you at this historic moment in the lives of the candidates, the community and the Diocese. Thank you, Vicar-General and your entire team for inviting me. Thank you everyone for the warm welcome we received on our arrival here. Thank you also to those who gave of their time and were involved in the preparation for today. Thank you to the Retreat conductor for preparing these candidates and the confessor for listening to their confessions and praying with them before God. Thank you also to Canon Janet Trisk, Dean of Studies, the Revd Bruce Wooley and Canon Linda Wyngaard for their work on communications, as well as the Diocesan Administrator and her team, and indeed all the clergy and your spouses.

I thank God for the unsung heroes and heroines of this diocese who have kept the gospel light burning here through their lives, their zeal, their prayers and their service and witness. In particular, thank you to the Vicar-General and others who have shepherded the diocese over the past 14 months. Processes for episcopal elections under Covid-19 conditions are well in hand and so you can expect to be able to elect your new bishop soon. 

Today, I give special thanks for God's faithfulness to you who have offered yourselves for ordination during this service. Our gratitude also for God's  sustaining care for you, particularly during the turbulent times of the past year, and this time of great hope and opportunity for you, even though of course it comes with challenges.    

Today carries with it a deep sense of a double anointing, the anointing of ordination but also the anointing that comes from the witness and the memory of Andrew the Apostle and the example of the ordained life which he offers. It is special to be ordained on his feast day.

John in his gospel is so taken by Andrew that he singles him out by name and casts him as a leader.  You too will surely hear the resonances of that in your own hearts on your ordination day. You too like Andrew have been called by name, taken from amongst your sisters and brothers and graced with leadership, so the anointing is powerful. 

As we reflect on Andrew's ministry, it seems that three grace-filled moments shape his witness, give credibility to his leadership and shape a pastoral praxis, just as much as it must yours, my sisters and brothers.

Firstly, Andrew asks the question that every Christian leader must ask of the Lord over and over again, a question that locates our ministry. “Where do you live?” Where is your dwelling, where can we expect to find you at this point in the unfolding of history? Where can we find you amidst the competing narratives about you? Indeed, one could frame Andrew's question to Jesus as: Where can we expect to find you in the time of a pandemic, of corruption, violence and racism, in a time when the earth is vandalised, exploitation is normalised and the poor are rendered poorer?

Or – especially relevant during these 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence – where will we find you at a time when gender-based violence is also experienced by women and children in pandemic proportions? When the situation is so serious that earlier this year our Synod of Bishops declared a state of emergency over the crisis, and that I have called on the Province to focus on it during Lent next year?

Where indeed do we find the Lord? All you who are to be ordained are called to explore that question. It will be for you a lifetime of exploration, to lead others to ask that question for themselves and then help them read the signs of the times and then to embrace the moments of inspiration. 

Secondly, every ordained person must also explore the wonder of Jesus’s answer to that question. He replies: “Come and see.” The word “see” is of special significance. Origen describes holiness as seeing with the eyes of Christ. As the New Testament expounds so clearly, the eyes of Christ are focussed mostly on the vulnerable and the marginalised. He shows concern for the LGBTQI+ community. He shows particular compassion for unclean lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, the Samaritans across the border, the widow and the orphan. In our time, the eyes of Christ are on the bruised and battered women and children whose blood spatters the walls of the homes to which they were confined under the strictest of our lockdowns. They are on those – who I have heard with my own ears in a shelter for abused women – those who have been stabbed, brutally kicked in the stomach during pregnancy and whose most sensitive body parts have been lacerated. Christ's eyes are on children being raped in front of their parents, or the young girl raped by another with the connivance of her boyfriend. 

We are left with little doubt that that is where God is to be found, where holiness comes alive. Henry Vaughan, the 17th century Welsh poet, put is so poignantly: “And here in the dust and dirt, O here, the lilies of his love appear.” The dust and dirt, the edges, the peripheries, the places of violence, the hard places are where our vocation sends us. It is where we find the Lord.  Mother Theresa of Calcutta wrote frequently in her journals that “to be amongst the poor, to minister to the destitute and dying is not an obligation or a duty, it is the place of encounter with the living Christ.” It is there that we are transformed bit by bit into Jesus’ likeness. This is at the heart of our calling. Even before we open our lives to doing good for those on the margins, for those in difficult relationships, our vocation is to affirm the presence of God amongst the excluded.

It is also a thing of great beauty when the disciplies ask Jesus, “Where do you stay?” because it signifies so movingly that their restless hearts were looking for more than just a passing acquaintanceship, more than a chance meeting on the road. Their restless hearts were searching for lasting joy, a more permanent encounter, a place where over time, amid all the troubles of life they could engage the Lord, give structure to their witness and grow in holiness. St Augustine would later write: “Our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.” With the grace of ordination comes the ongoing challenge to provide such environments, to provide such oases of rest, to nurture such growth and to offer such spiritual guidance. 

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, in that wonderful little book “The Christian Priest Today”, speaks tellingly about this need to enhance the horizons of our encounter with God in our ministries. He asks clergy “to be aware of attitudes which try to make God smaller than the God revealed to us in Jesus.” To this longing, to these spiritual intuitions, Jesus answers over and over again, “come and see.”

As we hear with Andrew those words of Jesus to come and see, we also need to repent of our failure so often to help people see with the eyes of Christ. It is so easy to let all sorts of elitism, self-righteousness and power go to our heads. We have separated people from those we consider to have gone astray, who think differently from us. It may look very proper, and deeply orthodox, but very often it’s the complete opposite of “come and see”. Instead, it's rather a cold “go away.” 

The third grace-filled moment in this calling of Andrew is indicated by John's use of the word, rabbi, when he asks Jesus, “Rabbi, where do you stay?” John,  writing probably for a Greek readership, demonstrates the significance of the word and underlines its power and richness by going the extra mile and translating it: he writes, “‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher).”  He wants his readers to be aware that this was a specifically chosen word. It was not random. They could have used other words but they deliberately chose Rabbi. 

A growing part of our ministry today is to find the right language for God, the right words for our God moments and encounters. Magdalen Smith, an English priest and writer, speaks of the power of words for those of us who have to craft words and sentences as part of our ministry, when she says, “What we say about God and how we use our speech is really important. Speech can be damaging where dialogue is continuously interrupted, where words are used to demonise and vilify others, whenever language is unbeautiful and when the Biblical word is twisted and interpreted to suit a theological stance that does genuine harm to the human heart.”

She continues, beautifully: “The iconic beginning of John's gospel says that God breathes life into the world through this living Word which is Christ himself. The words we utter should echo this window into the eternal, refreshing the truth of the gospel continuously and providing soul life for those who are ready to absorb it.” What a powerful challenge on our ordination day.

Finally, the story of Andrew meeting Jesus simply states, “they remained with him.” That for you, my sisters and brothers, is the heart of my prayer and the prayer of my heart as I ordain you. That in all the changing scenes of life, in the great ups and downs of ministry, amidst the tensions of relationships, the uncertainties of our era and the ambiguities of our political situation, you may do no more and no less than to “remain with Him.” 

God bless you in your ministries. God bless this diocese. God bless South Africa and Africa.

God loves you, and so do I.

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba

Daily Reflections - Nov 30-Dec 4

 These readings and reflections are shared daily on ACSA's Facebook page and Twitter feed.  Copies of audio and video files are available for sharing

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

16 Days of Activism: In conversation with Mandy Marshall

As part of the Anglican Communion's contribution to this year's 16-Days of Activism, Archbishop Thabo took part in a discussion with the Anglican Communion's Director for Gender Justice, Mandy Marshall.

Sunday, 22 November 2020

Brackenfell school conflict is a "wake-up" call

The fear and tension to which children at a Brackenfell school are unfairly being subjected are a wake-up call to every parent and governing body in South Africa. 

The conflict at the school reflects the failure of society, and particularly of parents and teachers, to root out racism among our children. If parents and teachers fail to heed the warning which Brackenfell sends, their children are in danger of being exposed to similar confrontations in future. 

A quarter of a century after our political liberation, it is unacceptable that children still openly make judgements about other children based on their race, let alone use crude and hurtful racial epithets. It is even more unacceptable that the parents of such children bring them up to think there is nothing wrong with racial stereotyping. And it is unacceptable that parents organise "private" parties to which admission in a community such as Brackenfell is restricted by affordability. 

Nearly 30 years after the structures of the National Peace Accord negotiated a framework for the holding of protests, it is also unacceptable that leaders of political organisations and government agencies do not appear able to agree on conditions which allow for peaceful, controlled protest which respects the rights of others and the well-being of children. 

Dialogue is not an optional extra in South Africa, but an urgent imperative if we are to move into a non-racial future.

Daily Reflections on Eucharist readings - Nov 23-27

 These readings and reflections are shared daily on ACSA's Facebook page and Twitter feed.  Copies of audio and video files are available for sharing

Monday, 16 November 2020

Ad Laos - to the People of God - November 2020

Dear People of God 

As President Ramaphosa gave South Africans a timely warning last week to remain alert and prevent a resurgence of the coronavirus during the Christmas holiday season, I was at the same time reminded by the themes of hope and joy in Psalm 145 that we also need to look to the future beyond the pandemic. 

Yes, it is true that Covid-19 infections are increasing in a number of areas, especially the Eastern Cape. And as other issues reduce the dominance of reporting on the virus on our TV screens and radio channels, we need to remember it is real and in our communities. We must please keep up the distancing, we must maintain health protocols, wear our masks and pray for equitable access to vaccines once they become available. 

Yet I want to repeat what I said a couple of years ago – that social scientists caution us against too much focus on crisis, negativity and fear, since they can easily beget the very outcomes we seek to avoid. Both hope and joy are twinned in Psalm 145, and perhaps a good way to stare the pandemic in the face and ensure we flatten the curve is not to deny its impact, not to deny the science, but to look to a future promised by a God who has always, and will always, provide for our sustenance, even into that future. 

In remaining hopeful, we need not discount the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the poor, who have in the main been those who have lost jobs and livelihoods. We must continue to intervene with relief measures even as we find ways of living joyfully and hopefully in the midst of the challenges we face: the emotional stress, the anxiety, the fatigue and the uncertainty. Looking back at the 234 days of lockdown, when last did you smile and laugh or talk about things such as care for others and for the environment? 

There have been some differences in the way dioceses are dealing with singing hymns during worship. Our legal experts tell us us that there is some uncertainty in the law, so our advice is either not to allow congregations to sing, or to allow them to sing only wearing masks, observing the 1.5 metre distance rule and keeping to the legal limits on the number of worshippers. My advice is: If in doubt err on the side of safety, especially if older congregants insist on coming to church. 

In recent weeks we have held innovative meetings on Microsoft Teams to take the steps required by Canon 4 to fill episcopal vacancies. I am happy to report that candidates have been nominated and I will make their names known soon. We are looking beyond the time of closed doors at how we can put episcopal leadership in the vacant dioceses to continue God’s mission in the world through God’s church. 

Also in recent weeks, 37 of the 41 Primates of the Anglican Communion – the heads of the churches across the world, including those in Africa – have met online [Communique - PDF] to reflect on the impact of coronavirus at the Communion level and to receive an update on the Lambeth Conference of Bishops and their spouses in 2022. We welcomed plans for an 18-month process leading up to Lambeth which will be an ongoing “virtual” Anglican Congress, drawing in bishops and their spouses, young and old, lay and ordained, ahead of the face-to-face conference. 

Discussing the work of the Communion’s Safe Church Commission, we re-committed ourselves to making the Church a safer place for all those who are vulnerable. We also heard stories of the impact of Covid-19 across the Communion and of new Provinces, the restructuring of the Anglican Communion Office in London and of the establishment of an Anglican Communion Science Commission, which will deal with matters of science and faith. We were addressed by senior World Health Organisation officials on Covid-19 and progress on a vaccine. The Archbishop of York, Dr Stephen Cottrell, briefed us on Living in Love and Faith, a new teaching resource from the Church of England designed to help discuss issues of identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage in a biblical context. 

Turning back to our own Province, we have declared the youth and Theological Education Sunday as priorities of our church, but declarations alone – important as they are – are no substitute for action. The parish is the basic unit of any diocese and of the Province, and as such we rely on you in the parishes to take such broad and general declarations and translate them into concrete action applicable to your own circumstances. 

Please pray for our sisters and brothers in northern Mozambique, where more than 50 people have been reported beheaded in a vicious attack by militants on a village in Cabo Delgado province. We urge Mozambique's government to act firmly to root out this form of terrorism, and for the international community to devote as much attention to this conflict as to others in the world. On a more positive note for ACSA, Bishop Carlos Matsinhe of Lebombo reports good progress in setting up working committees to plan for new dioceses in Tete and the PĂșngue River area. 

Lastly, following a decision of the Provincial Standing Committee, I am declaring through this Ad Laos that Lent 2021 will focus on combatting gender-based violence (GBV). The liaison bishop on GBV, Bishop Margaret Vertue, Hope Africa, the Provincial Liturgical Committee, the Southern African Anglican Theological Commission and their teams will provide us with more details and the necessary liturgies and study materials. A guide to some resources follows to help you devise contextually relevant material for your parishes and dioceses, and I commend to you the full PSC resolution on GBV for your prayers and action. 

God bless you. 

† Thabo Cape Town

Guide to resources: