Sunday 4 August 2013

Celebrating Joyce Piliso-Seroke's 80th Birthday

This is an edited version of the Sermon preached at the Eucharist held on 13 July 2013 in celebration of the 80th birthday of struggle stalwart, and staunch Anglican, Joyce Piliso-Seroke. You can read more about this Grand Counsellor of the Order of the Baobab in gold at

Ezekiel 37:1-14, James 2:14-26, Matthew 5:1-12

Scripture says ‘just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.’

May I speak in the name of God, who creates us, redeems us, and sustains us in life. [Words of thanks.] Me Seroke, Mam Jwara, it is a particular delight to be celebrating your life today with you. You will remember, I am sure, that after Judge Fikile Bam’s funeral, you told me that you were booking me for your funeral also. Well, I am sure I am not the only one who rejoices that today is certainly not a funeral – and that you are alive and well and more than thriving!

For this we give thanks to God. Indeed, today’s service is so much about gratitude. We have heard so much about all the achievements of your long life. Our country has honoured you – as Grand Counsellor of The Order of the Baobab, in gold. Now is our chance, as the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, also to honour you.

We give thanks to God for all you have done, for all that he has enabled you to do. We also give thanks for all that he does for us. The word ‘Eucharist’ itself, of course, means thanksgiving. We give thanks for Christ’s for his victory over sin and death, over all that threatens to distance us from his love; and give thanks for God’s sustaining presence through all of life. We give thanks that he calls all of us to live lives of significance – lives, like yours, that bear the fruit of the kingdom: the fruit that lasts, and makes a difference into all eternity.

Though today is a celebration of your birthday and of your life, today is also a challenge. It is a challenge: issued by you, Mam Jwara, and by your life, and by your God – to the rest of us. It is the challenge to let ourselves be used by God, as you have let yourself be used by God, so that we might make a lasting difference in God’s world and among God’s children.

It is the challenge to be people of faith and works. For, just as faith without works is dead, so too works without faith risk being only an empty shell, without the living beating heart of God within them.

The Churches need to hear this encouragement in these challenging days of consolidating democracy. Our faith and our works find themselves in very different contexts to the bad old days of apartheid. Then, God, in his grace, gave us the conviction that the dried bones of our situation could be given new life. And so we did not lose courage, and dared to persevere, even when we might have felt helpless, or the situation might have seemed hopeless, to those who lacked the eyes of faith.

In today’s South Africa, there are also temptations to helplessness and hopelessness. Perhaps we were naïve – in imagining that democracy would automatically bring a swift end to all our social and economic struggles. Perhaps we were naïve – in failing to realise quite how much hard work it would take, how much education at all levels, how much capacity building, to turn our country round. Perhaps we were naïve – in assuming that the self-sacrifice that drove so many in our darkest days would continue to outweigh the attractions of self-interest.

Whatever the reasons, it does seem that we have taken our eye off the ball. And though much has happened in the last two decades which we can applaud, there is also too much that falls short of, and even betrays, the vision for which so many gave so much.

It is easy to name the issues – education, freedom of information, corruption in its myriad forms, and crime. Me Seroke – you worked so hard, especially with the YWCA, for the rights of women. Gender equality is now enshrined in law, but our attitudes, our habits, and our practices still have not caught up. We know this, from the reports of abuse and violence we see on TV, and even from the depictions of women in the advertising that punctuates the news broadcasts.

Then there are drugs, and gangs, and the health sector, and the failures in land reform, and environmental protection … I could go on.

Worse, I think, is our complacency – we have, for example, become used to dire poverty in all its manifestations; and the weaknesses of our political sector. There is a lack of urgency about completing the unfinished business of our transformation to democracy.

All these are the dead bones of today’s South Africa. God asks us today - Can these bones live?

What is your answer, Mam Jwara? What is the answer that you give? What does the testimony of your life cry out to us? It is surely the answer that the Lord himself gives. ‘O, my people, I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.’

This is why we need both faith and works. We need prayer and action. We need God’s Spirit, working through us. Ours is a valley of very many dried bones. We are none of us called to tackle everything. If that were the case, we would all feel completely overwhelmed.

But all of us are called to do something. As we hunger and thirst for righteousness, God by his Spirit will show each of us where to direct our energies, so that we might know blessing – for ourselves, but most of all, for those areas which need justice, which need God’s redemptive hand upon them.

We have heard how Me Seroke directed her hunger and thirst for righteousness particularly through the YWCA, and blessing came to so many through that work. In those days, many might have thought that safeguarding the status of African women was not the most important or priority task in the fight against apartheid. But God saw that it mattered – and enabled you, Mam Jwara, to make a lasting difference that improved the lot of thousands, even millions.

We don’t have to make a big song and dance, or hit the headlines, to bear the fruit of eternal significance. When I think of you, Mam Jwara, I think of your quiet, dignified presence (so often found in the company of the rather more talkative Hlope Bam!). I think of your gentle warmth – especially to the young clergyman I used to be, and to so many other young people. I think of your enormous generosity – so often behind the scenes. And I think of your calm but iron-willed resolve – to stick with what God called you to be and to do; regardless of whether it was centre stage, or whether it was with those whom society marginalised – as was so often the case with African women.

You have shown us that what matters is God’s particular call, and being faithful in response. We must all look to whichever dry bones he leads us to face.

Since becoming Archbishop, I have found education increasingly becoming a context of dry, dry bones where I believe God is calling me to help breathe his Spirit of new life.

And it is important to recall that the word for ‘spirit’ and the word for ‘breath’ are the same in Hebrew. We need to be filled with the Spirit, in the same way we need to fill our lungs with the breath of oxygen, in every moment of every day. Too often I have seen people, wonderful people, launch themselves on projects they think will do good. But unless they let the Spirit guide each step, unless they let the Spirit empower their speaking and acting – then, all too often they soon become burnt out; and do not have the impact they ought.

On our own, we can look at the dry bones, and see which ones fit. We can even bring them together. But only God’s Spirit will restore their sinews, their flesh, their skin, and breathe new life into them.

Dear friends, dear sisters and brothers in Christ, our God is the God who desires to bring new life wherever death is at work, to bring light to our darkness, hope to our discouragement. Today we give thanks, for the powerful way he has demonstrated this, through the life of our sister. We see her faith at work in her actions. We have seen the blessing that comes daring to follow the God-given hunger and thirst for righteousness. We have seen that, though reviled and persecuted for doing what was right, God used her experience of incarceration redemptively so that she might bring depths of compassionate insight to her work with the TRC, and the Human Rights Committee.

Mam Jwara, we give thanks to God for all you are, all he has made you, and all that he has done through you. We have seen your works, we have felt your faith. May our God give each of us here today his grace, that we might also follow his call with obedience, with faithfulness, and with fruitfulness – for the blessing of his people and his world.