Sunday 31 March 2013

Easter Vigil

This is the sermon from the Easter Vigil on 30/31 March 2013, at the Cathedral of St George the Martyr, Cape Town.

Rom 6:3-11; Luke 24:1-12

“Consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ”

Alleluia, Christ is risen! – He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ – it is a great joy to be sharing this Easter celebration with you, in the mother church of the Diocese. It is particularly special to be sharing with ou Archbishop Emeritus, Desmond Tutu, safely back from his ‘Semester at Sea’, and looking so young and relaxed. Father, I am jealous of the life you are enjoying in retirement, you look so well on it!

Mr Dean, clergy, wardens, lay-leaders of the Cathedral (both licenced, and those who conduct the music, and all the other ministries that are run from here) – thank you, for all you are, and all you do. And thank you, everyone, for being partners together in the good news that, as St Paul reminds us, Jesus Christ has died and been raised from the dead, so that we too may share in his resurrection to newness of life.

As you probably know, I have had a unique start to this year. Normally, there is barely enough time after Christmas to recover from the exhaustion of the old year, before being thrown into another year of busy activity. This year I took a very different route. Just after mid-January, I went away ‘to the desert’. In fact it was frozen rural North Wales! Including travelling, it was pretty much 40 days in this ‘secluded place’ – 38 of them in a tiny attic room of the retreat centre (with wonderful views over the mountains of Snowdonia, the Irish Sea, and, if I leaned out into the cold and snowy air, even to Liverpool).

I was there to follow the ’30-days Full Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola’. St Ignatius was the founder of the Jesuits, and it is his spirituality that guides the new Pope – with his firm commitment to a deep prayer life that finds expression in a humble ministry of service, especially to the poor.

I travelled to this secluded place in order to make an inward journey – to explore what God was wanting to do in my life. Through the 30-day retreat, we followed various themes, and were guided in our reflections by the Bible.

The journey, the retreat, began with an invitation to recognise the enormity of God’s love – and to accept more fully, how much we need God and God’s love. I found this, in itself, a profound challenge. We then spent more than week ‘walking with Jesus’, in Spirit-led prayerful imagination, with passages from the Annunciation through his life and ministry – praying to be caught up into sharing in Christ’s ministry. And then we spent another week-plus contemplating Holy Week and the Passion: praying to see, feel, touch, smell – and so understand – more clearly all that Jesus bore for us; all that Jesus won for us. Finally we came to the Resurrection – and to the time to return, in the midst of this exploration of the Resurrection, to our normal lives.

The way God met me, challenged me, and changed me, in that time away was strange, even weird, but amazingly powerful. Often it was very uncomfortable, because I know that I like to be cerebral, and to think about these passages and what they convey. But it was as if God kept saying ‘Thabo, I want you to feel what is happening!’ Letting myself connect with the feelings that these passages stirred up in prayer, touched my innermost being, in healing and liberating ways. Some of what I encountered shook me to the core of my being, as passages I thought I knew well, and had preached and taught, impacted upon me in new ways, with new meaning. I am still trying to make sense of these encounters with, and lessons from, God – and expect I will go on absorbing them, drawing on these deep wells, for the rest of my life.

And so now, I am back in Cape Town feeling a little wobbly at times – and wondering how God will lead me to integrate all I’ve experienced and learnt into my ministry and life. I have to admit that though life is very plain and simple on retreat, there is an element of luxury in being at a distance from all the pressures of daily life! And I certainly came back to find an awful lot had been going on. There were so many terrible deaths. Anene Booysen, the Mozambican Taxi driver, and Reeva Steenkamp, so tragically killed by our sporting star, were just the tip of the iceberg. I came back to find the Farlam Commission still unfolding, with heart-breaking agony, the events at Marikana. Around the world chaos and conflict continue – in Syria, and on our continent: with only last weekend the deaths of South Africa’s soldiers in the Central African Republic (there for reasons that are certainly not clear to us all). I found I had missed Jacob Zuma’s state of nation address, and I even missed one of our own parishioner’s [Mamphela Ramphele’s] launching of a new political platform. More than that, I had also missed the test series v Pakistan, and the scandal of kangaroo-meat-in-boerewors!

But the over-riding lesson of my retreat is that God, in his redeeming love, is everywhere. Nothing is beyond his care, or his desire to bring healing and new life to you, to me, to everyone. Furthermore, coming home almost in the middle of our reflections on the resurrection drove home this point: wherever there is greatest need for resurrection, that is where we are most likely to discover Jesus at work, and find our own invitation to join him. If you truly want to know what Easter is all about, look at the places where there are tough challenges, difficult issues, hard wrestling, painful contexts – and where God’s people nonetheless dare to go, and to stay for as long as it takes, witnessing to light and hope and life.

I know that in the Cathedral – especially for the Clergy, Wardens and Council – you must often wish you could just focus on beautiful music, beautiful liturgy, beautiful sermons – and forget the strains of money and building and personnel and so forth. But for us to bear witness to Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord means to be ministers of his resurrection in wherever there is sin and death, negativity, difficulties, hardship and pain, in our own lives – as individuals, within our families, in our congregations. If we are ready to go – even in fear and trembling – into those painful places, bearing the light of Christ, we will find his resurrection power at work. We cannot preach this to the world around us, if we are not prepared to live it for ourselves. And when we live it for ourselves, we will find that it is not something we merely claim to know in our heads. We will also feel in our hearts – and so be able to proclaim with the directness and conviction that come from personal, powerful, experience.

Pope Francis washed the feet of young people in a correctional facility – young people who probably felt they were headed on a downward spiral, with society giving up on them. His message was that the church is in the service, especially, of those who think that hope has run out – because Jesus offers hope to the hopeless, faith to the despairing, light in the darkness, love to the unlovely.

This is resurrection at work among us. This is the resurrection work to which we are called, for, as St Paul wrote, we have been buried with Christ in Baptism, and so will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. Therefore, let us be bearers of hope, beacons of light, spreading the Easter message far and wide.

Tonight, especially, join with me in declaring this Easter message of hope and light in a special way to those who are about to be baptised.

And let us also declare this Easter hope and light – with much love and many prayers – to Madiba, and his family, asking for God’s tender, healing touch, on him.

“Consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ.” Amen. Alleluia.