Thursday 14 August 2014

Archbishop's Charge to Diocesan Synod, Cape Town

The Archbishop’s Charge to the 64th session of the Synod of the Diocese or Cape Town, delivered at the Opening Eucharist at St Cyprian’s Church, Retreat on Thursday, 14 August 2014:

Who is the Church?

Discerning God’s holiness at work and for the living of these days in the everyday life of the saints

Ezekiel 12:1-16

Judah’s Captivity Portrayed

The word of the Lord came to me: 2 Mortal, you are living in the midst of a rebellious house, who have eyes to see but do not see, who have ears to hear but do not hear; 3 for they are a rebellious house. Therefore, mortal, prepare for yourself an exile’s baggage, and go into exile by day in their sight; you shall go like an exile from your place to another place in their sight. Perhaps they will understand, though they are a rebellious house. 4 You shall bring out your baggage by day in their sight, as baggage for exile; and you shall go out yourself at evening in their sight, as those do who go into exile. 5 Dig through the wall in their sight, and carry the baggage through it. 6 In their sight you shall lift the baggage on your shoulder, and carry it out in the dark; you shall cover your face, so that you may not see the land; for I have made you a sign for the house of Israel.
7 I did just as I was commanded. I brought out my baggage by day, as baggage for exile, and in the evening I dug through the wall with my own hands; I brought it out in the dark, carrying it on my shoulder in their sight.

8 In the morning the word of the Lord came to me: 9 Mortal, has not the house of Israel, the rebellious house, said to you, “What are you doing?” 10 Say to them, “Thus says the Lord God: This oracle concerns the prince in Jerusalem and all the house of Israel in it.” 11 Say, “I am a sign for you: as I have done, so shall it be done to them; they shall go into exile, into captivity.” 12 And the prince who is among them shall lift his baggage on his shoulder in the dark, and shall go out; he shall dig through the wall and carry it through; he shall cover his face, so that he may not see the land with his eyes. 13 I will spread my net over him, and he shall be caught in my snare; and I will bring him to Babylon, the land of the Chaldeans, yet he shall not see it; and he shall die there. 14 I will scatter to every wind all who are around him, his helpers and all his troops; and I will unsheathe the sword behind them. 15 And they shall know that I am the Lord, when I disperse them among the nations and scatter them through the countries. 16 But I will let a few of them escape from the sword, from famine and pestilence, so that they may tell of all their abominations among the nations where they go; then they shall know that I am the Lord.

Matthew 18:21-19:2 


21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. 2 Large crowds followed him, and he cured them there.

May I speak in the name of God, Father and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Dear members of the Diocese of Cape Town, dear sisters and brothers in Christ, dear friends, I greet you all in the name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and welcome you to the 64th Session of our Diocesan Synod. I extend a warm greeting to all our special guests, including Archbishop Brislin, my Roman Catholic colleague and friend; thank you for being with us. We also greet Prof Geoff Everingham, thanking God for his faithful service, for which it is our privilege to honour him today with the Order of St Simon of Cyrene. Welcome to your family too, Professor Everingham.

Let me also convey my greetings and acknowledgements, and my profound thanks to everyone who helps the Diocese and me with our ministry: to Lungi, and our two teenagers at home; to the staff at the Diocesan Office – especially to the team headed by Archdeacon Horace Arenz who ably organised this Synod; to the other teams – the synod advisory and small groups teams and the legislative team – who helped us prepare for it; to Bishop Garth and the Dean, for your friendship and support always; to Mr Francis Newham our Diocesan Registrar; to the Provincial staff, especially those in Rob Rogerson’s office; and to all my staff at Bishopscourt, Gail Allen and especially John Allen, who aids me in communications matters. 

My thanks also to Chapter and all the diocesan bodies, the Diocesan Standing Committee and all the ministry teams, our schools and homes, our chaplaincies, the warehouse and the media teams. Thanks to the heads and chaplains of our Anglican schools here present and the work they do for our country in education.

Congratulations too to our own Trevor Pearce and the team which supported him, especially from this Diocese, for hosting a successful Anglicans Ablaze conference last month. Archbishop Justin Welby, as he left for OR Tambo after his visit, told us: “This Anglicans Ablaze is a good ministry”. My challenge to you all now is to organise a diocesan “Ablaze” on liturgy and ministry, and on all forms of worship and teaching, both traditional as well as new forms of doing things the Anglican way.

I also want to extend a special thanks to clergy, their spouses and their families, for making this Diocese of Cape Town a Christian community that enables us and others to experience tangibly the redeeming love of God at work in us. I never cease to thank God for the privilege of being your archbishop and serving God with and through you. Thank you all for your prayers and support, for this very daunting but deeply rewarding vocation of witness, worship and service. We meet in the Month of Compassion, and I want to commend parishes for their continued efforts to observe this important ecumenical initiative every August, which it is so easy to overlook amid our busy parish activities. Just a few days ago I was reading about how St Stephen’s, Pinelands, has been organising “Hunger Suppers” at which participants eat simply then donate their savings to works of compassion. It is also of course Women’s Month in South Africa, and it is with great pleasure and pride that we congratulate the Revd Dr Vicentia Kgabe of Johannesburg on her appointment as the new Rector of the College of the Transfiguration from January next year. 

In this vocation, there is never a dull moment – and I will refer later to some of the frustrations of being an archbishop in this litigious age in which some lawyers appear ever too ready to encourage clergy and laity to ignore the injunction that Christians should not threaten to drag one another into the courts. But equally there are uplifting times, for example when I ask my intercessors’ group to focus their prayers on a particular matter, enabling me to get a better perspective on it, or getting feedback on bishops’ forums. There are exciting moments too – such when we raised our first one million rand for the Archbishop’s Theological Education Endowment Fund, or launched the e-Reader project – and encouraging moments such as I experience during Clergy Formation Week, at archdeaconry teas, or parish visits for confirmations, or when we license clergy, lay ministers or hold children’s parties at the end of the year.

Some of you know that I enjoy orchestral music, jazz, theatre and of course rugby too. I have in recent times enjoyed the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic conducted by Richard Cock, Maria Schneider’s jazz compositions at the National Arts Festival, visits to museums in Britain and the United States, the Tate in London and walks in botanical gardens and forest slopes in Aspen and Makgobaskloof. All these inspire me and give me the space and permission to imagine and sometimes to touch that which I imagine. 

Recently at a jazz performance I attended, a player had dropped his saxophone on his way to the venue and was anxious that it would not play well – but, heartwarmingly, the conductor affirmed him. He produced good music. Key to music at its most uplifting is that all play their part to the best of their abilities, celebrating their different gifts together in a way that brings harmony and joy to their listeners.

Over the next three days, we have been given verses from Matthew’s Gospel to ponder and reflect upon: from Matthew 18 and 19 tonight, in which we look at forgiveness; from Matthew 19:2-12 tomorrow, in which we will look at grounds for divorce and understanding sexuality in God’s law; and from Matthew 19:13-15, in which we look at protecting children and beyond that at the cost of discipleship. 

But before I look at Matthew, we might do well to ponder together, what is a Charge? Here I run the risk of being told, as my children do: Dad, get to the point! But the question is worth asking. Is a Charge about where we have been or come from? Or where we are now? Or where are we going and what is missing in our actions, and perhaps from our vision? I suggest that even if we don’t seek to address all of them explicitly, we need to keep all three in the back of our minds, but seek especially to focus on the third. Please see my reflections in this Charge as a work in progress, an unfolding story, just as our journey in faith is an unfolding story as we catch in a mirror dimly the riches of God’s grace.

So what is missing? Let’s first look at our vision. We are guided by our diocesan and provincial mission statements: in the Province we say we are– 

Anchored in the love of Christ, Committed to God’s mission and Transformed by the Holy Spirit (ACT); 

and in the Diocese we aspire– 

To be a community rooted in the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ, To bring God’s Healing with Joy and Compassion.

I want to assert that at the core of these aspirational statements, which we call vision, is the question: Who is the Church? – which is the theme I have given to my Charge this evening.  The Psalmist evokes for us a sense of the longing we experience to fulfill God’s aspirations for us – notably when he tells us that “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept, when we remembered Zion... How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” and also in Psalm 39:12-13, “Hear my prayer, O Lord… do not hold your peace at my tears… that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more.” The Eucharist too, is about this holy longing, a vision of where we want to go and what is missing. Archdeacon Groepe in his circular about Synod to his archdeaconry representatives, writes, “Synod is a Pentecost event. We gather as the varied people from the Diocese to seek the mind of Christ, to hear, listen and act together on what God puts in our hearts and minds at this Pentecost.” Yes, as we are in the season of Pentecost, let us be reassured that there is no reason for excessive worry: we have been carried all the way by the Holy Spirit, and we will get where we are going through the work and power of the Holy Spirit. Of course that doesn’t mean we can afford to lounge around; in seeking to follow Jesus, we need actively to work to identify what it is that is missing.

You will recall that from Chapter 17, the Matthean Jesus, as he moves towards suffering, death and resurrection, spends a lot of time teaching or disciplining his core group of followers. With his imminent departure at hand, in Chapter 18 the succession debate raises its head, as well as questions of rank, status and position. If you want greatness in the kingdom of heaven, we learn, you must have childlike humility: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

We bandy this virtue around too easily, often expecting that the humble should be timid and allow us always to have our  way. When we admire our neighbour, saying, “Ain’t they humble,” we actually mean, “Ain’t it great that others are timid,” letting us get away with perceptions, stereotypes and sometimes unhelpful attitudes. In an attempt to answer the question I have posed, Who is the Church? I want to argue tonight that the church is called to be a community which is childlike in its exercise of radical and true humility. What might that true and radical humility entail for the saints in the living of these days?

True humility in the Christian community is displayed when we care less about power, status and wealth and become known for our redemptive actions and attitudes towards our brothers and sisters who have wronged. I spend a lot of time reading notices of court action in which, as Metropolitan, I am named as the first respondent. I am always challenged to the core of my being when I read these. My immediate response, the unmediated one, is to pull rank and deploy all the best canon lawyers, registrars and chancellors at my disposal to protect my rank and status from these wretched erring clerics or laity. And I suspect I am not the only one who struggles with this instinct – it probably happens to clergy who are challenged by laity, and to laity confronted by clergy. But then who is the Church, and what of the forgiveness we have read about today, and the humility I am advocating?

The Church is a Christian community whose vocation, amongst many, is to live and display the true humility which is seen in redemptive actions and attitudes to neighbour, to foe and to all of creation. The challenge we face is: As church, how should we live with the in-between – in the knowledge of the reality of incarnation on the one hand, and the certainty, in eschatological terms, of the end on the other. This tension is key to the redemptive attitudes and actions which should be at the core of being a Christian community. Like a coin, redemptive actions and attitudes – which I call true humility, childlike humility – have two critical sides to them: reconciliation and forgiveness. As I shared the implications of this with a small group that met with me to think aloud through this Charge, over and above the question I was posing, “Who is the church”, we came up with the sub-theme: “Discerning God’s holiness at work and for the living of these days in the everyday life of the saints”.

So what does humility in the Christian community involve? Let’s get away from the metaphor of a coin, especially as we seek to honour Matthew’s teaching on denouncing power, rank, status and wealth. I want instead to suggest that as Christians we replace the word “coin” with the word “heart” for our metaphor. So tonight and forthwith, I will talk about both sides of the heart instead of both sides of the coin; asserting that the heart, as opposed to Caesar’s symbol of power, the coin, is more biblical. Heart is the source and seat of life (“mpilo”) and true power. 

The one side of the heart of redemptive action is reconciliation. Matthew 18:15-22 paints a picture for us. It is the opposite of vengeance. It is a heart-rending process. You have to look at the erring nearest and dearest, the wrongdoer and allow them the opportunity to recount their mistakes and perhaps repent of them. Without going into details, I recently had to look at the colleague in the eye and listen to him tell me why he betrayed the confidentiality of one of the processes laid down by our canons, costing us thousands of rands in legal fees. I was deeply disappointed, fuming in fact and had the right to show him the door. Two of us sat with him for hours, listening to him tangle, then finally untangle himself, and come to a point of confessing and asking for forgiveness. You may want to call this indaba, as I have argued elsewhere in the Anglican Communion. Over the last couple of years, I have come to realise how litigious we have become as a society and of course as the church as well, wasting money that should be used for mission on lawyers. My call is that we should respond in accordance with this Matthean passage. If we don’t, Jesus says the consequences are dire in the here and now and at the end. At the provincial level, we have set up the Canon Law Council, whose task is to be Matthean in approach and remind us of “Who is the Church” when it comes to brothers and sisters who have erred. In the Diocese, we have set up a legislation committee as a result of our last Synod. 

Forgiveness as a redemptive action cannot be a legal matter only. So, within the Church and the wider world, we also promote redemptive attitudes and actions in many other ways, either unseen on a one-to-one basis or publicly in high profile initiatives. We do it, for example, when we hear confessions as clergy, intervene in Manenberg’s gangster conflicts, campaign against the scandalous peddling of drugs in poor communities, pursue initiatives in our social responsibility groups, share God’s love through our ministry to people living with HIV and Aids, show our concern for the environment, undertake walks of witness to where people are suffering, whether as a consequence of fires or flooding in Langa and other places, or forced evictions in Lwandle, and even when we arrange events to honour Nelson Mandela Day, or Madiba’s life when he died. The openness with which we challenge one another – whether across divides of gender, race, religion, culture, or in our Walk of Witness from District Six to Parliament on Holy Saturday – can also bear witness to the kind of redemptive actions by which we can pursue reconciliation with one another and with our difficult past.

At the heart of living redemptive attitudes and actions must be a special concern for the dispossessed. During the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown last month, I was asked to speak on housing and family life at the SpiritFest Winter School organised by the cathedral. It led to vigorous discussion, which confirmed my view that we as the Church need to take far more seriously the call to engage in reconciling acts that bridge the kind of inequality we see in our physical living conditions in South Africa. We all know only too well the broad outlines of the appalling conditions in which huge numbers of our people live, but some of the challenges are worth restating, again and again – not only here but in our pulpits, our Bible studies and our social responsibility groups.

Not only has our government in the democratic era inherited a legacy of very low rates of formal housing; society has been urbanising rapidly over the past 20 years. In 2004 already, the government noted that a fifth of people who lived in urban areas were first-generation residents and that this trend was set to continue. The backlogs in housing have generated overcrowding and squatter settlements, and led to land invasions in urban areas. Most of us who are in the middle classes become inured to the suffering involved in the way many people live, because the legacy of segregation has served, in the words of one expert, to “hide debilitating poverty.”

The desperate shortage of housing is of course but one of many challenges in our communities; another is the woeful lack of services in informal settlements. Poor sanitation and the failure to deliver safe water in under-developed communities is a stubbornly persistent problem, not only in Cape Town but across the country. We have heard more than enough about open toilets in the Western Cape and the Free State – some people call me “the toilet archbishop” because of my concern over water and sanitation. In some parts, we still have a bucket system of removing sewage. Not too long ago a school child died after falling into an open latrine in Limpopo. And we can’t even always maintain the infrastructure we do have, as shown when people in Bloemhof died from contaminated water. 

As I said in Grahamstown, our failure as a society – and I would add here, as the Church – our failure to get to grips with these challenges is a failure to address ourselves to upholding basic human dignity. I am no fan of the tactics of some activists and politicians in Cape Town in drawing attention to these problems, but we cannot deny that in one sense the excesses of Cape Town’s toilet wars have been a good thing: they have woken us up to the reality of how our brothers and sisters live. John tells us that the truth will set us free: well, we know that reconciliation which tries to gloss over the effects of past inequality is but avoidance and untruth – it is not reconciliation at all. If Christian communities are not up to facing this challenge, then who will? 

Nor should we limit our ambitions to speak out and act where we can to issues of housing and sanitation. We have seen in the platinum miners’ strike how some of our fellow citizens feel so squeezed and so desperate that they have to resort to actions that can bring the economy to its knees. Their plight is but one example – seen closer to home in the conditions facing seasonal workers on farms – of how we have come to be one of the countries in the world where the gap between rich and poor is highest. Yet many of us spend more time bemoaning how the strike has caused ratings agencies to downgrade us as an investment destination than analyse how this shocking inequality has come about. And we have seen recently that concern about the environment – so well reflected in our Diocese – is not simply a concern of the wealthy, but that it is the poor and the un-empowered who are often most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and the contamination of our natural resources. 

William Edgar Stafford, an American poet, in a poem A Ritual to Read to Each Other, ends by saying, and I quote:

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give - yes or no, or maybe -
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep. 

Put differently, how can we make a contribution to addressing these challenges which is distinctively Christian, reflecting our faith in Jesus? Well, we could start by practising the same openness and transparency that I demanded of President Zuma on our Holy Saturday Walk of Witness. The moral pollution I spoke of then, the collapse of values and standards which infects parts of our government, is not confined to government. The absence of transparency which generates a lack of trust is also seen outside government too. When I addressed President Zuma, I was also addressing all South Africans, including ourselves. 

And the questions which I put to Mr Zuma can be adapted for all of us: 
  • Are we willing to explain to our constituencies how we make decisions involving our common welfare?
  • In our public lives, which constitutional values do we use in reaching those decisions?
  • How do we plan to respond to the historic levels of distrust that permeate our society?
  • What is our plan for holding conversations about our values, so that we can make our decisions in good conscience?

I am calling for a Renaissance of Trust in our society. Trust is the cornerstone of reconciliation. Redemptive actions build trust in God, in each other and help us to forge a common destiny as a Christian community in South Africa. If we don’t ask these questions, build trust and teach our parishioners to speak out truthfully to power, we are planting the seeds not of reconciliation but of destruction, and we will reap what we have planted. 

The other side of the heart of redemptive action is forgiveness. We can move forward here if we repent and reconcile, not to immobilise the Christian community, but to pierce the smelly, festering wound that no one wants to face because it may spoil our artificial context, and so to heal ourselves and move forward. Forgiveness means that we don’t hold grudges. We don’t hoard ill feelings. We forgive without measure. The story we heard in tonight’s Gospel has this at its core. The consequences of not forgiving are dire – dire for individuals, families, children and communities. Forgiving someone 70 times seven – a total of 490 times – is a radical expression of humility in a Christian community, a redemptive action and attitude required of us.

When I was a newly-consecrated suffragan bishop, my diocesan, Bishop David Russell, quoted our archbishop emeritus, Desmond Tutu, so powerfully that it has remained with me ever since. We had gone to the place of King Sandile of the amaRarabe to offer an apology for how the British had treated him in the 19th century, holding him on Robben Island and forcibly sending his children to Cape Town – first to Bishopscourt and then to Zonnebloem College – to be educated in Western ways. How do you say, “Sorry, please forgive me,” when you have forced your will on a people in this way; when you have rewritten their place in history and made them poor and uneducated in the country of their birth? Bishop David told the story of the bicycle: of how you can’t steal someone’s bicycle, then ride it to the person’s home, say forgive me for stealing it, and then ride it back home. You have to give the bicycle back first, and then ask for forgiveness for stealing it. Showing redemptive attitudes and taking redemptive action as in the Matthean examples involve the equivalent of returning the bicycle. They heal both the wronged and the wrongdoer. They create a space for indaba, for humble listening, for two hearts to hear the same pulse, for one to get to know the other’s story, and for the two to take the walk to Emmaus together, leading to the full realisation of Jesus’ power to heal the divisions we have created. We are humble or we show humility as a Christian community when we live and enact these redemptive virtues.

The importance of this focus on redemption is shown in our first reading tonight, from Ezekiel. We need to be careful to avoid being like the prince and the people in the passage we have heard, who fail to get with the plot. They fail to understand God’s servant, Ezekiel, as he signals the pre-exilic signs, the discord and disharmony that are about to befall the people of God. My dream and longing for God’s church and people is never to miss the Ezekiel signs of our disconnectedness from God, from our neighbours and ourselves but to be ministers of reconciliation and forgiveness. This is who the church is called to be in our times.

However, if we are serious in exploring and implementing what it means to live out redemptive attitudes and actions, we can live in confident hope for the future. But just as I said earlier that we cannot lounge around waiting for the Holy Spirit to act, we must talk about hope with caution. Denise Ackermann says that hope is a lived reality in the life of faith, here and now; that its means never surrendering our power to imagine a better world – but also that hope is not magic; it confronts wrong and the abuse of power and it is risky and requires patience and endurance. 

From what do we derive our hope and confidence in pursuing reconciliation and forgiveness, and why do we do this? In the segments that we will read over the next two days, the answer is: for the common good. Because, as a Christian community, we have commitments and a responsibility to one another other and to Christ. We seek the flourishing of all and of ourselves in the here and now and the hereafter. 

At this moment in human history, pursuing climate justice has become one of the ways in which we are called to exercise our responsibility to one another and to Christ. Next year, God willing, a number of bishops from dioceses around the world which are already experiencing the impacts of climate change will come to Cape Town to help develop a global strategic plan on the environment, as part of a Communion-wide effort which has been dubbed the "eco-bishops initiative". And I commend for debate in the coming days the resolution on encouraging our people to become “eco-congregations”. These initiatives demonstrate, as a joint Lutheran/Anglican statement has said, and I quote, that 

“As Christians, we do not live in the despair and melancholy of the tomb, but in the light of the Risen Christ. Our resurrection hope is grounded in the promise of renewal and restoration for all of God’s Creation, which gives us energy, strength and perseverance in the face of overwhelming challenge. For us, this promise is more than an abstraction. It is a challenge to commit ourselves to walk a different course and serve as the hands of God in working to heal the brokenness of our hurting world.” - Joint statement of the Episcopal Church, the Church of Sweden, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, May 2013

The flourishing we desire is for everyone, not only South Africans, so we should also give attention to situations beyond our borders. Pray for justice, reconciliation and the peace that will flow from those everywhere. Pray for the girls kidnapped in northern Nigeria, and for the victims and families of those killed in the almost daily attacks ravaging that country. Surround and lift up the people of Palestine, including Gaza, and Israel, in prayer. What we have seen on our television screens during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza is deplorable and deeply shocking; just as shocking is the fact that similar indiscriminate killing of men, women and children in Nigeria continues month after month with a fraction of the outrage expressed over the conflict in the Middle East. We might ask: Why does the United States not erupt in outrage over what is happening in Gaza? And why do Africa and the world not erupt in outrage at the slaughter in Nigeria?

Many articles and books have been devoted this year to the lessons of World War I. Margaret MacMillan, a Canadian historian who is now the warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford, has written that the war still haunts us 100 years after it began partly because of the scale of the slaughter – 10 million combatants and countless millions of civilians died – but also because experts cannot agree on how it happened, and therefore on how to avoid such a catastrophe in the future. Pointing to how our great-grandfathers miscalculated the significance of changes in the nature of warfare, she gives us this sobering warning: “A comparable mistake in our own time is the assumption that because of our advanced technology, we can deliver quick, focused and overpowering military actions – the ‘surgical strikes’ with drones and cruise missiles, ‘shock and awe’ by carpet bombing and armored divisions – resulting in conflicts that will be short and limited in their impact, and victories that will be decisive.” Far from seeing easy victories, she adds, we are seeing wars with no clear outcomes, in which well-armed forces fight what she describes as “a shifting coalition of local warlords, religious warriors and other interested parties” across countries and continents.

In this context, Who is the Church? Let us go back to the parable of the unforgiving steward: as the followers of Jesus, we can avoid being too quick to judge others and their motives, we can have mercy on those who have wronged us, and we can forgive our sisters and brothers from our hearts. As Robert Kennedy said at the University of Cape Town in 1968, few of us will, in his words, “have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events, and in the total of all these acts will be written the history of this generation…” We too can contribute to what he called the “numberless diverse acts of courage” which shape the history of humankind. 

We will be judged by how we contributed to making this a forgiving and reconciled world: by whether, when we saw war, we tried to stop it; by whether, when we saw wrong, we tried to right it; and by whether, when we saw need and suffering, we tried to bring healing. And succeeding is not as important as acting: As Madiba put it, “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”

Let me end with a confirmation blessing that I regularly use, but slightly rephrased as follows: 

“Go into the broken and unreconciled world as the Christian community, sow the seeds of reconciliation and repentance so that you may in joy reap the fruits of forgiveness and fulfillment. 

“For Christ’s sake, Amen.”