Tuesday 30 July 2013

Sermon at St James the Great, Worcester

This sermon was preached at the Patronal Festival of St James the Great, Worcester, on 28 July 2013.

Jeremiah 45; Acts 11:27-12:3, Mark 10:35-45

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, dear People of God of St James the Great, Worcester, dear friends. It is a great joy to be with you as you celebrate your patronal festival!

Thank you, to Fr Victor Adams, for your invitation. Thank you, also, to your wardens; and to everyone else who has contributed to today’s service, and made me feel so welcome. May I also thank you, on behalf of all the other visitors here today. Mr Mayor (Basil Kivedo), I thank you for your welcome – and I am honoured and humbled by the city’s ‘appreciation’ that you are extending to me later today.

154 years is a very long time – and I congratulate you all on celebrating this wonderful anniversary of the founding of St James the Great. When I visit churches such as yours, I am very moved by the knowledge that I am walking in the footsteps of my predecessors – and especially of the first Bishop of Cape Town, Robert Gray himself.

As we all remember, Bishop Robert saw his calling as the three-fold – to Preach the Gospel, Build Churches and Plant Clergy. Here in Worcester he did all three: he preached and confirmed on his first two visits, and he encouraged the church to be built, and brought its first Rector, the Revd John Melville Martine, from England.

His first visit was in December 1848. In his journal, he records that he got up at 3am and set off at 4am, to begin the journey from Swellendam, and arrived at 5pm the following afternoon. Well, I am glad that my journey was considerably easier, and that at 3am this morning I was still fast asleep in my own bed!

I’ve been thinking about Bishop Gray, in relation to our gospel reading.

James and John come to Jesus with very ambitious ideas. Their grand desires are rather modified by Jesus’ questions but they still claim commitment to their ambitious goals – to follow him, share in his life, and stay close to him, in the coming of his kingdom. They really have no idea what they are asking, or what they are letting themselves in for. Yet, in a way, in the end they get what they ask for – to drink the cup that Jesus drinks. For they do follow Jesus in faithfulness, faithfulness even to an early death, in the case of James.

And I wonder to what extent Bishop Gray found himself in a similar position. Did he really have any idea what he was letting himself in for when he agreed to become the first Bishop of Cape Town?

It seems from his letters that he had plenty of grand ideas about how he would go about his ministry. But I suspect he found the reality more daunting than he anticipated! Having arrived in the Cape in February 1848, in August he set off on his first visitation. It lasted four months, and he covered nearly 3,000 miles – that is, just a little short of 5,000 kilometres.

Yet in his journal as he finally reached home, he writes a very moving passage. He had set off, he said, ‘enfeebled and worn’, yet returned ‘in strength and health’. His early discouragement had been transformed into optimism. Why? Because, he records, although it had been an extremely demanding time, both physically and spiritually, he had found God at work at every turn.

He wrote (and I paraphrase slightly)
‘I have seen our people, though long neglected, still clinging to their mother church, ready to make great personal exertions and sacrifices … I have seen very remarkable effects resulting from the mere celebration of our holy services – sufficient to prove them to be of God; and apparently showing that God has been pleased to bless the Church in this desolate land with a double measure of his gracious presence …’

He gives thanks to God, who has clearly encouraged him, and given a fresh vision, for all the difficult and demanding work that still lay ahead, and which he pursued with such energy and diligence for the rest of his life.

But to return to today’s gospel passage: often we read it and we warn ourselves against the hot-headedness, and naked ambition of James and John.

Yet today I think I want to preach in favour of this recklessness!

I support the way that, in moments of rash enthusiasm, we can make great commitments, which have us wondering later, what on earth we were thinking! For it seems that God honours whatever is good in this impulse within us. He will keep this fire burning, and help us channel our energies so that, in the end, we do, in a way, achieve what we had yearned for. Most of all, he helps us achieve it in ways that bring glory to God and build his kingdom, rather than bringing glory to us and building our egos! This is God’s invitation and promise to us all.

Let us go back to the gospel reading: the two brothers come to Jesus, with a request. And Jesus responds ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He invites us to bring to him the deepest yearnings of our hearts.

If we step back from superficial desires, what do we find? We long to matter; we want our lives to matter. We want to be noticed, to be acknowledged and loved for who we are. We yearn to be special.

And God wants all of this for us too – but he wants it for us in ways that are good for us, and good for the world. God sees us – he sees us with his eyes of love. We matter to him. And he wants to help us do great things – not necessarily to achieve wealth and status and power. These are the world’s superficial attempt to acquire the deeper riches, and lasting satisfaction, that only God can give. God wants us to live significant, meaningful, lives, which share his love and build his kingdom.

We can see in James and John’s desire to sit beside Jesus in his glory, how our deeper, spiritual, genuine, yearnings get tangled up with the ambitions of the world. But then we see how Jesus steers their desire into commitments that are more closely aligned with the call to follow him – and to be united with Jesus in our Baptism, and following his example of a life of self-giving and faithful service. As we trace the lives of James and John through the gospel, and into the book of Acts, we see how Jesus continues to teach them, and guide them. As they follow him on his last journey to Jerusalem, through Holy Week, and the Last Supper, we see him lead them into greater understanding of who he is, as the Messiah, the Christ; and of what it means to follow him. Then, of course, they meet the risen Jesus; and the Spirit comes upon them at Pentecost, and they are empowered to become leaders of others in the life of faith.

This is the way that God works with us all, if we let him. For myself, I had no idea when I made my first rash commitments to the Church, that God would lead me to Bishopscourt. Yet when I look back, I see his hand at work, again and again: leading me away from avenues that would have been destructive, and nudging me in the right direction.

We have been thinking so much about dear Madiba in recent weeks – and we can see God at work in his life in a similar way. In the last chapters of Long Walk to Freedom, he writes about how first of all it was personal freedom that he sought; then he realised that he should pursue freedom for those discriminated against by apartheid; and finally he saw that freedom was what everyone needed, no matter what their race. And so he records that he realised his life must be dedicated to ‘preaching reconciliation, binding the wounds of our country, engendering trust and confidence’.

It is gospel-shaped stuff.

But I don’t think it was what he had in mind when he first became involved in politics, and helped found the ANC Youth League. Yet the vision that first fired him, nonetheless held the seeds of what became his life of great service. God plants those seeds, and longs to water them, nurture them, tend them – even prune them when we need it – so they may flourish and bear the fruit that will last!

So do not be afraid to set your heart on ambitious goals for God.

St James, who, in our gospel reading, seems to have got it so wrong, became the first great leader of the Church. And his brother, St John, equally hot-headed and misguided, became the first great theologian, writing his gospel, in which he reflects not just on the actions of Jesus’ life, but interprets their meaning and significance for us and for the world. They wanted to lead – but they had to become servants first. Only then could they give the authentic lead that reflects the Lordship of Jesus, the servant king.

So today, let us not be afraid to embrace the great ambitions that God plants within us. Let us dare to think big, and reach far! Let us not be too afraid of our own mixed motives, our complicated hopes and fears, the grip of our egos, and our insecurities. Let us place them all into the hands of God, so he can thin out the weeds and nurture the good seeds until they bear much fruit.

Today, I am very privileged to be honoured by the city of Worcester. But let us dare to imagine what it might mean for every inhabitant of Worcester to receive ‘the freedom of the city’ – freedom from the shackles of poverty, unemployment, and inequality, and from the emotional and spiritual oppression that can overcome any one of us, rich and poor alike.

Let us ask God to dream in us the sort of dreams he dreamt through Madiba – dreams of reconciliation, unity, non-racialism, and lasting peace and justice. Let us share Madiba’s passion for constitutional democracy – and may our passion drive us to live and work for the fuller realisation of all the hope and promise enshrined within our Constitution.

In just over a week we shall be celebrating women’s day. We know that rural women are among the most marginalised people in South Africa. Let us dare to make wild and rash commitments to pursuing genuine equality for all women, and true freedom – including freedom from all forms of violence, and from fears of violence.

And may God turn these commitments into concrete reality.

Dear people of God of St James the Great, today we celebrate 154 years since your foundation. We don’t know the people who first built this church – no doubt they were much like us, ordinary human beings, each with their gifts and their flaws; their ambitions full of mixed motives. But we know this – that God honoured the risks they took, and the sacrifices they made. And over more than a century and a half, that God has been faithful to the generations who followed them, through all the turbulent history of this town, this country.

This same God will be faithful to us in our turn. Like Baruch in our first reading, we may not get what we think we want, and we may not have an easy life – but we will certainly receive God’s guaranteed gift of life, flowing in us and through us for the good of his world.

So today we thank God for all that has been, and for all that is. And we say our Yes to all he has in store for us!

To echo the words of Robert Gray, after his first visit, May God be pleased to continue to bless this Church with a double measure of his gracious presence …’ Amen