Wednesday 28 December 2011

Funeral Sermon for Judge Fikile Bam

The following sermon was preached at the funeral of Judge Fikile Bam, on 27 December 2011.

Texts: Isaiah 6:1-8; John 1:6-14

May I speak in the name of God, the Everlasting Father, whose Eternal Son – our Saviour and our Prince of Peace – is born among us by the power of his Holy Spirit. Amen.

Let me once again greet you, in the name of the Lord, and acknowledge our distinguished guests today – your Majesties, your Excellencies, chiefs, kings, rulers, political leaders; your Graces, Bishops, and other clergy; dear brothers and sisters in Christ, dear friends. Most of all I greet you, dear Xoliswa, your children, the wider Bam family, and all who loved Fikile and are today here to mourn his death.

It is particularly sad to be dealing with death at a time of year when we especially focus on birth – the birth of Jesus. Yet the good news that comes to us with the birth of Jesus, is the same good news that we most need to hear today, as we come together to mourn the passing of our dear friend ‘Bro Fiks’, even as we celebrate his life. ‘Do not be afraid’ said the angel of the Lord to the shepherds, in the fields with their sheep, on that dark night long ago. ‘Do not be afraid’ is still God’s message to us, in the darkness of sadness and sorrow. ‘Do not be afraid – because a Saviour is born.’ The child in the manger grew to be the man on the cross, and the man who rose from the grave, breaking for all eternity the power of death.

God gave himself, in Jesus Christ, who truly is our Saviour – so that he might offer us the greatest gifts, of: life beyond death; redemption beyond failings; healing beyond illness; wholeness beyond suffering; peace beyond pain; joy beyond sorrow. He promises, to all of us who put our hand in his, that he will bring us to a heavenly home, where one day we shall all be together in his loving embrace, and he will wipe away every tear from our eyes. ‘Do not be afraid’ is Christ’s message to us today. ‘Do not be afraid of death, for I have overcome death, and it cannot harm you, it cannot harm Fikile.’

So we meet today, and dare to hope, even as we weep for ourselves, at the loss of this dear man whom we loved so much. And we must weep; and weep whenever the sadness of loss comes to us. Jesus himself wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus, though he knew he would be returned to life by his Father in heaven. And Jesus tells us all, ‘blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’ He says to us all ‘Do not be afraid to grieve’ – for in grieving, we come before God acknowledging the depths of our love, the depths of our loss, and perhaps also other pains of unfinished business, words unsaid, issues not dealt with. Yet when we open ourselves to God in our grieving, we open ourselves also to receive his comfort, his strength, his encouragement to go forwards.

So do not be afraid of death, and do not be afraid to grieve. These are Jesus’ words to you, today, Xoliswa, and to all your six children; and to all who loved Fiks, and whose hearts are sore at his dying. We also know that Jesus, who lived and died and was raised, stretches out his arms to hold both the living and the dead – and we can say to him what we might still want to say to Fikile, and know our words will not be lost. So today we are here to mourn, and bring God our sadness, our regrets, our sorrow, our tears.

Yet we are also here today to celebrate the life of a remarkable man, a wonderful man – not without his faults, his quirks, but nonetheless, a very special human being. I will not say too much about him. So many words were shared last week, and more will be said later today. But I will say a little! For he has been a dear friend to me and to my family over many years – including as a parishioner; and an astute critic of the church, which we have also needed. He has also been a wise advisor to us, the Makgobas, in our own ongoing land claim. He, with you, Xoliswa, were also overwhelmingly generous to me and my family when my mother died and when my sister died – your support, from the heart, touched us deeply, in our times of need. Thank you, thank you.

Let me recall that today in the Anglican calendar we remember St John the Evangelist, the writer of the Gospel from which we heard verses read just now. John and his brother James responded to Jesus’ call to them, ‘Follow me’, in very much the same way that the prophet Isaiah answered ‘Here am I, send me!’ – in the Old Testament reading set for today’s celebration of St John. Dear Fikile was also one who dared to follow Jesus, and to go wherever God would send him – a faithful Anglican, a faithful Christian – whose 74 years took him from Tsolo to Robben Island, and finally on to the Land Claims Court – with impressive detours in business and academia.

Yet, wherever he went, Bro Fiks was not afraid to live like that other John mentioned in the gospel reading – John the Baptist, who pointed others to Jesus, who ‘testified to the light, the true light, which enlightens everyone’. So much of Bro Fiks’ life was spent in promoting this light – the light that heralds the kingdom of God, the kingdom that Jesus came to bring. He laboured and strove for justice, for freedom for the oppressed, for good news for the poor. That is what took him to the darkness of the Island. That is what, when the new light of democracy dawned, motivated his time as an advocate and as a judge.

I thank God for him, and for Christian lawyers like him – for those who are not there to make money by turning every situation into an opportunity for expensive litigation at the service of the rich; but who really work to ensure justice for all, and especially for the poorest, the neediest, the least educated, the powerless. Within the New South Africa, the rural poor, most of all, have needed such a champion, and they found it in Judge Bam. There are many who have enjoyed Christmas in their own home this year, because he took the trouble to ensure that the law was implemented without fear and favour, to ensure justice was done – that the past exclusions of the homelands, and the marginalisation that has come with today’s tendency to focus on urban living, should not stand in the way of ensuring that right was done.

Let me say to those of you here, here who wield power and influence, especially in these areas of law and justice – let your lights shine as Bro Fiks did! Let his legacy live on, through you, your departments, your professions, your businesses – put them at the service of the poor and weak, the frail and powerless. Be vigilant, for the sake of our country, of all of us; and do not let all that we have achieved, and for which those like Bro Fiks were imprisoned, and then laboured, be lost or distorted by greed or corruption. We must not squander God’s gift of constitutional democracy. We must use it as he intends, for the good of all.

God in Christ, the second person of the Trinity, was not afraid to leave the power and the glory of heaven, to be born amongst sheep and cattle. There is no doubt that the King of heaven stands in solidarity with the rural poor – and, as the gospels remind us, our attitude towards what appears to be even the most insignificant individual, is what God records as our attitude towards him. This is why we must not fail to prioritise rural development.

Let me end by returning to St John’s Gospel, in which we find the mysterious figure, called ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’. Some think that this is a reference to St John himself. Some wonder whether, at the same time, St John is inviting all who hear or read his words to put themselves – to put ourselves – in that position, and so to live, discovering what it means to be Jesus’ disciple, and what it means to be loved by Jesus. For Jesus loves each one of us – with the love of the Christ-child in the manger; and with the love that took him to the cross to save us. We meet here in sorrow, but also in hope, because we know that Fikile was truly a disciple whom Jesus loved. And I am sure also that Fikile will hear those words that come to every disciple, as we put our trust in Jesus who helps us through to our journey’s end, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant – enter now into the joy of your master.’

May it indeed be so. May he rest in peace – and rise in glory. Amen

Monday 26 December 2011

Sermon at Midnight Mass

The following sermon was preached at Midnight Mass at the Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr, Cape Town.

Isaiah 9: 2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20

‘For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us … to live lives that are self-controlled, upright and godly.’

May I speak in the name of God, the Everlasting Father, whose Eternal Son is born among us – our Saviour and our Prince of Peace – by the power of his Holy Spirit. Amen.

Seeing the model of the Christ-child on the altar, ready for the Dean to place in the crib, just now, reminds me of this story. There once was a small girl, who was taken by her granny to see the nativity scene at her local church. ‘Isn't that beautiful?’ said the granny. ‘Look at all the animals, and Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus.’ ‘Yes, Granny’ replied the little girl, ‘it’s lovely, but I’m a bit worried about the baby Jesus. Isn’t he ever going to grow up? He's still the same size he was last year.’

How often small children see things with a clarity that is beyond us! In fact, Jesus in his adult ministry rebuked the religious authorities by quoting from the Psalms that ‘out of the mouths of babes and infants’ comes true understanding and praise of God (Ps 8:2, Mt 21:16). So the question that little girl poses to us tonight is this: is the baby Jesus ever going to grow up, or does he, for you, always remain an infant? Hand in hand with this goes much the same question, put the other way round: Is your faith stuck at the infantile stage, or are you growing up, and maturing, in your belief and how it is reflected in your life?

Now, of course, Jesus also said to his disciples, ‘unless you become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt 18:3). But there is a great difference between being child-like, and childish. Any parent of over-tired small children, throwing a wobbly, in the week before Christmas knows all about that!

But we need to ask ourselves, do we too expect God, just like some eternal Santa Claus, to give us just what we want, in the way that we want it, right here and now? And if we don’t get it, we threaten him as a cross toddler does ‘Daddy, I don’t love you anymore!’ ‘God, I don’t believe in you anymore!’

Human parents know that sometimes their children just do not understand what is good for them. They are too little to see the whole big picture. And they are too immature to realise they must depend on their parents, and do things their parents’ way – and that if they don’t, they might find that what they want to do will only hurt them. We also are too small, beside God who is infinite, to understand everything fully. But he does, and he is the God of love, who cares for us more than we can ask or imagine.

So we ought to learn to trust him, and do things his way – for he really does know what is best for us. And to live according to his ways is the path to true happiness, true satisfaction, true peace of mind – the sort of peace of mind, and courage, and strength, that we need when life is tough, and we don’t understand why things don’t turn out as we want them.

And because Jesus is God incarnate – fully human, fully divine – we can be honest in bringing him our hopes and fears. Here too the trusting openness of children can help us. Last week, my children and I were stuck in a lift at the airport for over an hour, with a mother and her two daughters. It was horribly hot and oppressive, and the younger girl became very anxious and upset. She finally said ‘I am cool on the outside, but I’m scared on the inside.’ And, being open about her fears helped her to deal with them, and allowed the rest of us to help her too – even as we too were also helped by her to own our own unspoken fears. We need to be open about our fears, and bring them to Jesus – and in opening ourselves to him, we open the door for him to come to us and help us in the areas of our lives where we most need it.

At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus, because he grew into the man who can help us become truly the people we were created to be. If we want to fulfil our true potential, if we want to live significant lives – lives that make a difference for all eternity – we must start by worshipping the baby in the crib, but then we must get off our knees, and follow his example. Living the self-controlled, upright and godly lives, of which St Paul wrote in his letter to Titus, is not for babies. It takes guts to commit ourselves to saying the right thing, doing the right thing – especially in a world where it is seen as clever to be bending the rules, cutting corners, telling white lies, jumping the queue – everything short of being found out.

And, on a more personal level, isn’t it the case that at Christmas, under pressure to have a good time with our nearest and dearest, we are most likely to find ourselves, tetchy and short-tempered, and rubbing one another up the wrong way! It is very tough always to be loving, caring, generous, kind, patient, truthful, self-controlled (especially when it comes to another helping on our plate, or in our glass!).

But here is the Christmas good news – and the reason why I am, and will remain, an Anglican, a Christian. When God calls us to become our very best selves, he also promises to help us. This is why we call Jesus ‘Emmanuel’, which means ‘God with us’. He is alongside us – rather like a coach on the side-lines of the football pitch – telling us what to do, encouraging us, so we find that we have that extra bit of energy, strength, courage, commitment. And when we make a mess of life, when it is as if we have fallen down with our face in the mud – then Jesus is also beside us, always ready to hear us say ‘sorry’, and always holding out his hand, to help us to our feet, so we can have a fresh start – no matter how many times we need it.

As St Paul wrote to Titus ‘He [Jesus Christ] it is, who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds’ (Titus 2:14). The baby Jesus in the crib is inseparable from the adult man who hung on the cross. The Christmas message they both have for us is this: that God’s love is greater than we can ever imagine, greater than all of life, greater than the power of death, and he will never stop loving us.

And this is true even on days we are more childish, than child-like. We just need to remember to be like the toddler, having a tantrum, who sits on his father’s lap, as he beats his little fists on his father’s chest, saying ‘Daddy, I hate you!’ – yet all the time he knows that his father’s arms are wrapped around him, holding him safe, and never letting go.

So may you know yourselves enfolded in the love of God this Christmas – as you worship the infant in the crib, and as you respond to the voice of the adult Jesus Christ, who calls each of us by name, saying ‘follow me’. And may all the blessings of Christmas fill your life and your home, now and always. Amen.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

To the Laos - To the People of God, Christmas 2011

Dear People of God

A blessed and joyful Christmas to you all! May the love of God overflow in you and all those you love, this festive season, as you share in celebrating the greatest Christmas present of all, God’s gift of himself, Emmanuel – God with us, always and everywhere, no matter what we face in life.
There is a story about a small girl, who was taken by her granny to see the nativity scene at her local church. ‘Isn't that beautiful?’ said the granny. ‘Look at all the animals, and Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus.’ ‘Yes, Granny’ replied the little girl, ‘it’s lovely, but there’s one thing I don’t understand. Isn't baby Jesus ever going to grow up? He's still the same size he was last year.’

Whether the story is true, I have no idea. But I do know that sometimes we concentrate on Christ’s infancy, and fail to grasp that Christmas is at least as much about his deity – the eternal Word taking flesh, to be the Saviour of the world. His complete vulnerability and weakness as a tiny baby points to the vulnerability and weakness he will embrace as he allows himself to be crucified for the sins of the world, to bring healing and redemption wherever there is brokenness and destruction, and to overcome death so we might have life in abundance, in this world, and in all eternity.

St John the Evangelist, in the famous words that begin his gospel, speaks of Christ being to us a light in our darkness, a light that no darkness can put out. These words of course resonate more strongly at Christmas time in the northern hemisphere winter, but even in the height of our southern summer, I find them powerfully speaking of the promise of true hope, no matter how bleak our circumstances.

The hope we have in Christ, for this world and the world to come, was very much in evidence at the beginning of December, when I fulfilled a long-standing desire to go to Namibia, to participate in ordinations. It was especially moving to visit Northern Namibia, where so many wars were fought, and so many lives destroyed. Though what Namibia faced was unique, there are many similarities, as well as interconnections, with South Africa’s apartheid history. Achieving independence in 1990, they were an inspiration for many of us as we hoped and prayed to follow a similar path to freedom and justice. St Mary’s Mission at Odibo, in Ovamboland, is one of the oldest Anglican centres in the country, in time building not only a church, but also a school and seminary, and a hospital. The Mission produced many clerics and political leaders, and educated the current President of Namibia as well as the present Bishop and his two predecessors. The iconic leader, Herman Andimba Toivo ja Toivo, who spent 16 years on Robben Island, was both a pupil and a teacher at the Mission school.

The Angolan border is only 5 minutes away, and this area was ravaged by the South African Defence Force, with much destruction and loss of life. Ruins from those times, including of our seminary building, are still evident, while the emotional, spiritual and physical scars remain among people on both sides of the border (as well as among those who were exiled there, or coerced by the SADF into fighting an illegal and unjust war there), as I saw when I made a brief excursion into Angola, and felt in exchanges with Bishop Andre Soares and 4 of his clergy, who in turn came to join us in Odibo.

Yet, against such a dark background, the light shone, as we gathered for the ordination of 40 deacons and 2 priests. Present with us where the President of Namibia, the governor of the North, the Queen mother of the North, and the head of the local council, and I was able to voice a public apology for all that South Africa had done during the illegal occupations. I stressed how knowing and making known the truth of this terrible past and its atrocities can become, through Christ’s redemptive power, a means for us to find healing, and to be made his conduits for reconciliation and peace-building. As Christmas draws near, it seems to me that in bringing, as we must, our stories, our memories, our woundedness, to Jesus, we are almost offering them as the Wise Men offered their gifts, the marks of their own lives, kneeling before the infant king – so that he can transform them for his own, life-giving, purposes.

The Wise Men came to the manger because they had spent long years learning how to interpret the heavens, and so recognised the importance of the star when it appeared. I said to those being ordained that reading the signs of the times is the task of all Christian leaders, so that we can bring to bear the truths of the gospel, with all its promises of life and liberty, wherever we find war, death, oppression and their lasting effects at work. This is God’s promise for Namibians, and for all his children throughout his world. And so we must not be afraid to speak truth to power, and be responsive to the needs of God’s people, whom we are called to serve through joining in God’s mission. In ordination, in particular, we aspire to be like the prophet Isaiah, responding to God’s call by saying ‘Here am I, send me!’ (Is 6:8) Yet, the words of St Paul in Romans 12, which are also read at ordination services, remind us that this response finds its place within a far wider missional context of presenting ourselves as ‘living sacrifices’. (This is, of course, an essential part of the incarnation – culminating in Christ’s sacrificial death upon the cross.) St Paul goes on to remind us that we must not ‘think too highly of ourselves’, but rather find our place within the body of Christ, the Church, called to serve one another with whatever gifts we are privileged to receive; and together to serve the world around us. ‘Peace be with you! As the Father sends me, so I send you’ said the risen Christ to his disciples, in our Gospel passage (Jn 20:19-23) – and this is still his message and his call to all who would follow him.

The ordination of 40 deacons was the fruit of a 3-year ministry formation course, promoted by Bishop Nathaniel and his team, the Dean, retired Bishop Petrus, and the Ven Kaluwapa L Katenda, who ably steered the 3 year ministry formation course: study by correspondence, with support both from COTT and the US, funded by Trinity Wall Street and USPG. I congratulate them all on taking theological formation so seriously. I am delighted that some of those who followed the course will go on to pursue Masters and Doctoral studies. The importance of having well trained theologians, who can themselves become theological educators, cannot be underestimated, and is one of the key planks of our commitment to theological education within our ACSA vision.

My visit to Namibia came as COP-17 was ending, and drove home the message that our reading of signs of the times must also include both political awareness, and responsiveness to the scientifically measurable changes that we see in our environment – from flooding to droughts and desertification. We need to recognise the effects of human activity on our surroundings, and respond appropriately.

I’ve written about Namibia at some length, so you may all pray for this vast Diocese, in its many needs. If some of you feel moved to offer support to a Namibian student at COTT for 3 years, please get in touch with the PEO at Bishopscourt. COTT too needs our support, including resources to upgrade the college so we can continue training future generations of servant leaders for God’s people and God’s world.

So then, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, may you all have a wonderful celebration of Christmas – worshipping the Christ-child, and also growing in your own knowledge and love of God so you may not be mere ‘children, tossed to and fro and blow about’ by every difficulty and temptation that comes your way, but rather may come ‘to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.’ (Eph 4:13,14). To him be glory in his church, at Christmas, and always.

Yours in the service of Christ

+Thabo Cape Town