Friday 26 June 2009

Naught for your Comfort Award

While President Zuma has the right to hope South African voters will choose an ANC government ‘until Jesus comes again’, his prediction that that ANC would rule South Africa forever was unfortunate, anachronistic, and potentially dangerous, the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town has said.

Speaking at the annual Naught for your Comfort Award ceremony held at Sophiatown’s Christ the King Church on Friday evening, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba said that the Constitution’s guarantee of the freedom of religion meant anyone could allot to Jesus whatever role they wished, adding that the churches had no desire to ‘colonise’ Jesus, as some claimed. To speak of ruling ‘until the end of time as we know it’ was a political, rather than religious matter, he said, pointing to the enormous poverty and suffering one-party rule had often brought in Africa. He felt such an attitude reflected a ’1960s or ‘70’s view of our continent’, in contrast to perspectives on democracy and governance recently expressed by the African Union. He warned that the President’s comments risked ‘encouraging those who have a strong stake in – and economic motives for – prolonging ANC rule indefinitely’, even by unconstitutional means.

The Archbishop nonetheless assured the President and his government of his continuing prayers that they might successfully fulfil their promises to tackle poverty, expressing the hope that they might ‘follow the leadership of Jesus Christ, who came not to be served but to serve, and who taught us to put the needs of others before our own’.

Archbishop Makgoba was honoured as the first Rector of the parish of Christ the King, following its restoration to the Anglican Church, in 1997. It had been abandoned, and then sold, in the late 1960s, following population removals. Also honoured were the Smith family, whose generous donation in the 1930s led to the building of the church; Bishop Duncan Buchanan, retired Bishop of Johannesburg, who oversaw the church’s reclamation; and the Community of the Resurrection, which has a long history of supporting the parish and provided many of its earliest rectors. Among these was Trevor Huddleston, after whose book the award is named.

Linking the Award to the scriptural call to ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people’, the Archbishop challenged his hearers to consider what nature such comfort might take in today’s society, wherever people were prevented from flourishing. He said the church should press for God’s justice to be realised in the proper remuneration of health care professionals and funding of the health service, as well as in social grants, education, halting human trafficking and in sustainable development. He also called for politicians to be held accountable, and for greater truth and transparency in government, including in relation to the arms deal.

Issued by the Office of the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town

Full text of Archbishop Thabo Makgoba’s speech

Honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen, it is a great privilege and pleasure to be with you this evening.

I am honoured to find myself a recipient of the Naught for your Comfort Award – and more than honoured to find myself in such august company as you, Bishop Duncan and Di, and the Smith family, and the Community of the Resurrection. I offer you my congratulations, alongside my own thanks, as a former rector, for all that you have done for this church, and this community, over so many years. Speaking of rectors, may I also express particular thanks to you, Fr Luke, as our host today – and may I congratulate you on your recent appointment to Christ the King, and assure you of my continuing prayers in this new responsibility. If you find yourself even half as much blessed through the life of Christ the King as I was, during my time here, you will be blessed indeed. And I am sure that you will be a blessing to those entrusted to your pastoral care.

Our theme for this Naught for your Comfort Award Lecture, is ‘Social Justice and the Church’. Since I am an archbishop, I hope you will permit me to begin with some words from the Bible, to set the scene for us. When we think of the word ‘Comfort’, I am sure that for most of us, the words that spring first to mind are from the first verse of the fortieth chapter of the book of the Prophet Isaiah – a passage that we read earlier this week as we remembered the birth of John the Baptist. As the King James Version so memorably puts it, ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith the Lord.’

So the question I want to consider this evening, is this: ‘What is the nature of the comfort which the Lord is asking us to share with the community around?’ How does God want us to be channels of his comfort, in Sophiatown here and now, when, to quote further from Isaiah, ‘the term of bondage is served’, or, as another translation puts it, ‘they have suffered long enough’.

Well, the term of bondage ended fifteen years ago, for this country, and twelve years ago for this church, where I was privileged to serve as the first rector after the reclamation of the building. Yes, we suffered – we suffered enough. But now the bondage is over – now we have a new freedom to enjoy. So our first response is one of gratitude.

Indeed, in all of life, gratitude should be our first response – for the gift of life itself; and for the reality of God’s promises, that nothing in all creation can separate us from his love, and that there is no situation so terrible that he cannot work in it for good (Rom 8:28,39).

This surely is a source of sure and certain comfort to us all. We look back, and we see how God worked for good in, and through, and despite, our past. And so, when the present, when the future, seem to threaten, we can proclaim our confidence that God will work for good again, as we once more put out hands in his, and trust in him.

This is the first word of comfort that we can proclaim to our community. Yes, God works in all things for good, if we are prepared to let him – and so we dare to give him thanks, in good times and in bad.

Gratitude is the heart of thanksgiving – and thanksgiving is the essence, and the essential meaning, of the Eucharist: the sustaining meal of remembrance through which God’s presence is made real to us, and we lift up our hearts, and as we are caught up into the worship of heaven. As the Prayer Book tells us, this is the central act of the Church’s worship. In Christ, it is also our eucharist, our thanksgiving, to God, for his inexpressible love in giving his only Son for us: Lamb of God, bearer of our sins, redeemer of the world. It is also our communion – as we receive, in and through the consecrated bread and wine, the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice made once for all, and as we in our turn offer ourselves as living sacrifice to God. Now the Lord takes us and blesses us. He breaks us in renewed surrender and gives us as food for others.

And so we have a two-fold movement: the call to come, ‘draw near, and receive’ – and the summons to move out into a needy world, ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord’.

Tonight, we are gathered here in recognition that we have been able, in so many different ways, in so many difficult circumstances, to ‘draw near and receive’ – though the life and ministry of Christ the King. We are affirming and acknowledging, very particular channels through whom we have been drawn closer to the Lord, and received from his bounty:

* We thank God for the Smith family, for their generous donation of funds that allowed the building of this house of the Lord, this sacred space, in which so many could find a place to draw near to him

* We thank God for the companionship in the gospel, the Christ-like service, and the spiritual nurturing, that we have received from the Community of the Resurrection, over so many years, in running the Church, and in so many community projects – and especially their faithfulness in some of our darkest years.

* We thank God for Bishop Duncan, who, as our Diocesan Bishop, gave leadership, guidance and encouragement, through the complex and often painful process of reclaiming this church, and who has been a mentor to so many people.

Through them all, so many of us, myself included, drew closer to God, and received his comfort.

In turn, we must now also ‘go out’ from here, sharing the peace of God – sharing the comfort of God – as we love and serve the Lord; as we love and serve his people, his world. And so I want to ask tonight – how are you using these lectures, to help you love and serve God and his world, to help you bring the true comfort of God to those around you, who need it most?

Preparing to come here this evening, I did a little homework. I read the text of Archbishop Njongo’s lecture, of two years ago. I wonder if you remember it. I wonder what you have done about it.

In his book Naught for your Comfort, Archbishop Trevor Huddleston warned us about being caught up in words, words, words – saying something along the lines of ‘I hate words, because the church slumbers while the people suffer.’ Archbishop Trevor took the title ‘Naught for your comfort’ from a poem by G K Chesterton. Two years ago, recollecting this, Archbishop Njongo drew on some other words from Chesterton. These spoke of the importance of understanding our own history, of understanding how we got to this place, this moment – in order to understand better how we can go forward.

Archbishop Njongo spoke about how important lament is, in helping us remember our raw and painful past, in ways that transforms us to a place of ‘hopeful recollection’. So, have you been learning how to lament the pains of the past?

* That time of exile as Sophiatown was destroyed, and the people removed to Meadowlands?

* The years of feeling like the ancient people of Israel, deported to Babylon?

* And this church under what felt like foreign domination, as the Jerusalem Temple was in the time of Isaiah?

* The long wait until you could return, and rebuild, as the Jewish exiles finally did?

What have you learnt from your lamenting? What healing are you finding for this painful history?

And how is lamenting teaching you to walk alongside those who are hurting today – walking as Christ the King walked with us, a king who knows what it is to suffer ‘even unto death on a cross’? What has your experience been of following Archbishop Njongo’s call to intentionality in recollecting, in order to create bridges of hope for the future? Or, as Chesterton would put it, What new understandings of the past are you learning, so you can better go forward?

I know that I have been changed in the years since I was Rector here.

In those days when the pain was still so raw, I preached often from the radical experiences of the liberation theologians, who used the images of Jewish Exodus and Promised Land, and of exile and return, very powerfully in their understanding of the God who stands with us in our woundedness, wherever we may be – and yet who ultimately promises to bring us home.

Now we are home – we do not deny our past, but we are not its prisoners. We live in a context where the bondage is over, and God’s comfort has been made real to us. It is our turn to be channels of his comfort.

I am finding this in my own ministry – challenged to a greater balance, a greater breadth, a greater hope, in preaching not just exile and return, but the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who promises life in abundance to everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves.

So let me now pick up the key question I raised earlier this evening. What is the nature of the comfort which the Lord is asking us to share, here and now, with the community around us?

We can find some guidance in answering this question by returning to Isaiah chapter 40, and reading the verses that follow. Here, the Prophet speaks of preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness, making a straight highway through the desert, by lifting up valleys, bringing down hills, and levelling the rough ground – and then the glory of the Lord will be revealed. So, let us ask tonight: where is there wilderness and desert in this community? Of course, I do not mean literally, where is there barren dry land – unlike the barren and vacant plot at the back of the church, which you should consider how best to use!

We need to think more broadly about wherever there is desolation, instead of the flourishing that God desires for humanity – sharing in community, where each of us loves, and is loved by, our neighbours as ourselves. The question then arises of ‘Who is my neighbour?’ within the family of the Church, within our communities – even among our colleagues and business contacts. Yes, everyone is our neighbour. There is no-one who crosses our path who is not our neighbour, someone with whom to share the comfort of God. And so, within these human networks to which we belong, we need to consider: Where is there wilderness, desert, barrenness, where instead there ought to be life, flourishing, growth, development?

And what about straight ways? Where are the ways of life, in your community, in your work, in your parish, not straight? Where is there crookedness – perhaps crime, corruption, bribery, bending the rules, cutting corners, being elastic with the truth, playing it a little too clever, taking the easy way out … How can you bring in the straight ways, and live by the measure of righteousness?

Then there are the valleys and hills – the gaps and the obstacles. Where are the gaps, the shortfalls, between how we are, and what we are called to be? And what obstacles stand in the way of us living the lives God purposes for us? And finally, there is levelling rough ground. Where do we still trip up, even though the way ahead, on the face of it, seems relatively clear?

I am sure with very little imagination, you can provide me at once with all manner of answers!

And we can address these issues with confidence, for we serve a Lord who says, Comfort, comfort my people, and we know his word does not return empty! How then, shall we bring the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ to all these pains of today’s world.

What is the social justice for which our God would have us strive? Some of us do not find it easy to answer this question. The world around is complex and ambiguous, and we do not know where to begin. Many of us grew up with one big simple question, for the church and for the country, to which there was one big simple answer – the end of apartheid. Now, in both politics and faith, we have to deal with complicated and diverse issues, with no big simple answers – and we are not used to the new mindset this requires. You might even say, it takes us outside our comfort zone!

For democratic life is messy. This is a reality. But, for us who are new to it, it can be confusing, and unsettling, as the tides of politics ebb and flow, and personalities and politicians come and go. And often devout and deep-thinking Christians are divided on all manner of issues from the death penalty through to the best way to tackle poverty. But we should not be discouraged. God can work in this democratic world as easily as in the bad old days – for nowhere is outside God’s comfort zone!

Instead of one big question, one big answer, we can find God at work in many detailed ways, answering every question, however it comes. So each of us can ask, within our own circumstances, as well as within the parish, and within the community, the questions I asked above:

* what are the barren deserts,

* what are the crooked ways,

* what are the gaps,

* what are the obstacles,

* and what is it, even when life seems sorted out, that still trips you up in your attempts to go forward?

And then we must ask ‘how can I best be a loving neighbour, in tackling these issues wherever I encounter them?’

Each of us may come up with slightly different answers and priorities, depending on our own contexts, our own callings. The particular challenges facing politicians, business people, journalists, teachers, doctors, clergy and so forth, are all likely to be different – just as our personal and family situations, may be different. But in them all, God wants to make the road forward straight and level, for the glory of the Lord to be revealed in our lives. God wants to bring abundant, flourishing, holy, life – a life of justice and truth – and he will do so in whatever manner is most appropriate for each person, each context.

So do not worry that, with the loss of the big question, and big answer, the Church has ‘lost its vision’. No, in changed circumstances, we must learn to express God’s vision, God’s comfort, differently, appropriately to the complexities and varieties of our lives. Now we face the challenge of discerning the finger prints of God in the ‘little things’ of life, in every time and place. Do not forget – we serve a God who numbers the hairs on every person’s heads. He has made-to-measure promises, that deliver tangible comfort, for every single one of his children.

And so, wherever we are, we can promote God’s comfort, Christ’s gospel, through pursuing the highest moral principals, ethical standards, values of ubuntu, and strengths of democracy. In God’s strength, we can press for God’s justice; expressed, for example:

* in adequate social grants for all who need them, for all who are entitled to them;

* in a properly funded health service, properly remunerated health professionals;

* in safety in schools, in supporting teachers, in helping schools deliver quality education;

* in politicians being accountable to their electorate

* in truth and transparency – not least in relation to the arms deal

* in equitable distribution of the world’s resources, between rich and poor

* in sustainable development and environmental protection

* in halting human trafficking, especially child-trafficking

And in all of this, our desire is for every human person, every child of God – each of us created in, and reflecting, his image – to be treated fairly, with dignity, with respect.

It is a great privilege to live in a country where the provisions of our Constitution, though not grounded in the Christian faith, so fully reflect our beliefs in the intrinsic worth and value of each person, and the fundamental equality of treatment and of opportunity due to every individual.

At this point, let me dare to stick my neck out and risk a remark about President Zuma’s comment on the ANC ruling until Jesus comes again.

Neither the Anglican Church, nor the South African Council of Churches – of which we are a member, and which we strongly support – wants to ‘colonise’ Jesus, as some have claimed.

Of course, our desire is that everyone, everywhere, should know him and follow his ways – because we believe that this offers the best route to human well-being.

Yet we express this desire within the context of our Constitution, which respects freedom of religion – the freedom to believe whatever you want to believe, as long as you do not contravene the basic rights of others. And this means, that you, that anyone, can allot to Jesus whatever role you wish. In this way, Muslims believe Jesus to be one of their prophets, and they are free to do so.

No, the reason that we, and others in broader civil society are unhappy with the President’s comments, is not actually a matter of religion at all. It is a matter of public policy.

Therefore, I believe it is wholly right that, tonight, we should evoke the legacy of Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, and tell the ruling party precisely why we are unhappy, even if it does give them ‘naught for their comfort’ to hear us say it.

President Zuma, as leader of the ANC, does have the perfect right to express the hope that South African voters will choose his party as the country’s government ‘until Jesus returns’. But it is another matter to predict the party will rule until the end of time as we know it.

It takes only a glance at history to show the enormous damage that one-party rule has done to too many of Africa’s people; and the poverty and suffering it has caused, not least through encouraging greedy elites to hog resources. In this light, the President’s comments are unfortunate.

More than this, given the roots of one-party rule, the President’s comments are anachronistic, reflecting a 1960s or ‘70s view of our continent. A 21st century perspective on Africa should surely rather reflect, for example, the understanding expressed in the African Union’s own Declaration on Democracy, Political, Economic and Corporate Governance.

And, finally, the President's predictions of unending ANC rule are potentially dangerous, to the extent that they might encourage those who have a strong stake in – and economic motives for – prolonging ANC rule indefinitely, and tempt them to take unconstitutional action to preserve it.

But let me say that we wish President Zuma and his government well, and we shall continue to pray that they may be successful in following the leadership of Jesus Christ: who came not to be served but to serve; and who taught us to put the needs of others – especially the poorest, the weakest, the most marginalised – before our own.

May they be successful in the goals they have set themselves: in tackling poverty and crime and unemployment; in building up health and education; and – in so many other ways – bringing tangible, sustainable and lasting comfort to those who stand in greatest need.

Let us not forget how far we have come in 15 years, how much there is to celebrate, how much there is to affirm, and how much there is to continue building upon.

We can rejoice in all that is good and true and honourable and just; in whatever is pure and pleasing and commendable – as St Paul tells the Philippians. Wherever there is excellence, or anything worthy of praise – our minds should rest on these, and our words should encourage them, and our actions support them.

Even if Bafana Bafana did not beat Brazil last night, a semi-final place was quite an achievement, and we congratulate the team. And we can look forward to 2010, knowing that sport builds relationships, and creates better neighbours – as well as providing leverage for jobs, skills upgrades, and all manner of other opportunities for our country and its people.

Remember, God calls us to be a people of hope. As the poem containing the phrase ‘Naught for your comfort’ tells us – God does not give us guarantees of an easy life, but he guarantees us that he is with us, through thick and thin, working his good. And so with confidence we can proclaim his message of comfort, knowing that he will make straight his paths, and level the valleys of despair and hopelessness.

May his comfort be felt in the life of Christ the King, in the life of Sophiatown, and in the life of all those whom you encounter. Amen.

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