Sunday 2 September 2012

Confirmation Sermon

This sermon was preached at the confirmation of young people from Bishops, Herschel, St Cyprian's and St George's Grammar Schools, Springfield Convent, and UCT, held at Bishops on 2 September 2012.

Readings: 1 Ki 2:1-4, 10-12; Eph 6:10-20; Mk 7:1-23

May I speak in the name of God, who calls us all to a life of worship, witness and service. Amen.

Let me start by acknowledging the presence of all the Heads of schools and chaplains here this morning. A special thanks to Mr Nupen , head of Bishops, and chaplain, Revd Terry Wilkie, for hosting us. It is always a joy to come to Bishops, especially for confirmation, and even more especially when one’s own son is being confirmed (sorry for embarrassing you, Nyaki!).

May I repeat my welcome to you all – most of all to you who are being confirmed today; but also to parents and guardians; families and friends; as well as educators, learners and the wider communities of these three, great, Anglican schools, Bishops, Herschel and St Cyprian’s. I also welcome those from St George’s Grammar, Springfield Convent, and, not least, a confirmand from UCT. It is a joy to have you all here.

Yesterday Anglicans in Southern Africa celebrated the life and ministry of Robert Gray – the first Bishop of Cape Town. As I follow in his footsteps I continually thank God for the great foundations he laid, in so many areas of life, and from which we continue to benefit. When he arrived in Cape Town in 1848, he set himself three tasks: to preach the gospel, build churches, and plant clergy. Well, he did all these, and far more besides. Education was one of his other great prioritites – with both Bishops and St Cyprian’s owing their establishment to him, and Herschel and St Georges Grammar following in the same strong tradition of Anglican commitment to excellence in education. So this week, we thank God for Bishop Robert Gray.

Earlier this week we celebrated another great Christian on this continent. St Augustine, who became Bishop of a place called Hippo, which is in current day Algeria – and was one of the most influential theologians of all Christian history. We tend to think of Augustine as a great intellectual. But even more important to him was that he had found God’s love. He knew that, above all, human beings are made for love – to know ourselves loved by God, and then to share that loving care and compassion with others. St Augustine famously wrote ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.’

Let’s think about restlessness, in the context of confirmation.

Confirmation is not like passing an exam. It is more like receiving a passport, so you are ready for travel, ready for adventure! God is inviting you to embark, for yourself, on the journey of life. In confirmation, you are responding, saying, ‘Yes, I am ready for the path ahead – and I will make my journey as a citizen of heaven, my allegiance is to God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’

Today begins your journey of taking responsibility for your own life, for your choices about how you will live, what you will do, where your life will take you. St Augustine’s message to you is ‘don’t be afraid of restlessness – let it help guide you where you want to go’. Especially in our teens and our twenties, restlessness is often a large part of life. We are on a voyage of discovery, trying to explore: What do I want to do with life? Who am I really? How shall I become that person? Harness your restlessness, says St Augustine. Tap into the yearning that God has placed deep inside of you: a yearning to live an authentic life, a meaningful life; a desire to ‘be real’, to be ‘connected’.

Our first reading was about the advice King David – very old, about to die – gave to his son Solomon, on how to live well. ‘Follow God’s commands, obey him, and you will prosper in all you do’ he said. Now, we need to be careful here. This does not mean that tick-box, rule-following, behaviour will guarantee you win the lottery and never have a day of sadness!

Both following God, and the prosperity God offers, are far less superficial, far more profound. This is what our Gospel reading was all about. Jesus taught that it is what is inside us, which makes us who we really are. Our attitudes, our thoughts, our dreams, our imagination – these are what shape our words, our actions, and the sort of person we become. How much we earn, how big our car or house, how fancy the title of our job, these things don’t make us who we really are. And anyway, it is well known that money cannot buy happiness. Once people are above the poverty line, more money doesn’t make you more happy. Indeed, more money often brings more worries and more stress!

True success, prosperity, lies in that ‘being real’, that ‘connectedness’ of which I spoke. It is about finding the rest in God, towards which our restlessness urges us. The big question, then, is how do we pursue ‘being real’, that feeling of wholeness and peace?

I want you to think about times when you got that sort of a ‘high’ – a deep inner high of everything coming together. Perhaps it comes with sport – you really know, with every fibre of your being, when your boot, or bat, or racket, has connected just right with the ball. Perhaps it is when you achieve that near-perfect dive, or dance – when you are really in the zone. Perhaps you find that you and your oar; or you and your horse, are moving as one, without having to think about it.

Perhaps it is more of a mental thing – when your brain is on fire as the maths problems, the chess moves, the big ideas, fall into place like pieces in a jigsaw; or it’s like lights going off in your head. Or when you write, and the exact right words flow like a stream, welling up so deep inside, that you hardly know where they are coming from. Or when you create a piece of art that speaks with power. Or when you sing or play an instrument, or compose, and you feel in harmony with the universe.

Do you know that feeling? It is a strange combination of having worked hard to get there, and yet, when it happens, it feels almost effortless! Well, that is what it is like, when our restlessness for God finds rest in him. This is the life that God wants all of us to enjoy – deep peace, when we ‘connect’ with him.

But, like sport and study and music and everything else worthwhile, it takes effort to get to that effortlessness. And our second reading tells us something of what that effort looks like. It tells us to develop good habits that shape our imaginations, attitudes, thoughts, dreams – it tells us to set our hearts and minds on the good things of God. Then they become foundational for us – like a soldier’s armour and equipment, says St Paul. Or we might say like the tools in a toolbox; like the ingredients for the recipes from which our live feeds and we feed others; like the software on which we run, like God’s ‘apps’ for living.

Base your lives on truth, on love, on faith, on trust – and do it with prayer and reading the Bible. Get into the habit of having a running conversation with God about all you do – it is better than talking to yourself inside your head! St Paul also put it in other words in his letter to the Philippians, saying: ‘Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things’ – or, as another translation puts it, ‘let your mind dwell on these things’ (Phil 4:8).

Focus on the good stuff. That’s God’s message. If we let problems shape our lives, we will always be dragged down. If we focus on all that is best, that is what will shape our lives.

Last week, on Thursday, spoke at the Memorial service for the Lonmin miners . It was a sad occasion for all involved. You could feel and touch the pain and sadness around the service and in Marikana itself. I pleaded that politicians should not try to score cheap political points over this tragedy but respect the dead and their loved ones who were in mourning. After the service, somebody came to me and said, Archbishop, thanks for providing the space for us to mourn and wrestle with God, even more than for what you said. This was moving for me indeed. It seemed she was, in essence, expressing thanks for the restlessness and the space to find God even in the midst of pain and this tragedy.

So find time in your life to converse with God. I recently read about a study which reported that people from 18 to 30 years old spend more of their time texting, Blacberry messaging, using Facebook and other social media, than they do actually conversing with other people. This kills the ability to form relationships and risks annihilating the ability to receive this gift of Godly restlessness and rest. The study reports that this group text on average 88 times a day – how can they have adequate time to wrestle about the important thing?! So,ensure you find time and space to inculcate restlessness, for it is in through this that we also find the living and loving God.

Well – I have preached for long enough. It is enough to make anyone restless! So let me end by repeating St Augustine’s words: ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.’ Dear Confirmation candidates, may God give you that gift of restlessness, and keep you journeying, until you find your rest in him! Amen.