Monday 18 April 2016

An award for Bishop John Osmers; Sermon at Cathedral of the Holy Cross

Sunday was the day for parish visitations at ACC-16, and I preached at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Lusaka. We had two choirs—a formal and a traditional—and a band, and the service went well. The main body of my sermon follows below.

With Bishop John Osmers.
We also decorated the Right Revd John Osmers, the retired Bishop of Eastern Zambia, with ACSA's Archbishop's Award for Peace with Justice. Before he became a bishop, he served as a chaplain to South African exiles, first in Lesotho, then in Botswana and finally in Zambia, losing his hand as a consequence of receiving a parcel bomb from an apartheid death squad. In his reply, he moved people to tears as he explained how he was bombed. At the bring-and-share after the service he shared how the cadres queued to donate blood for him and how this saved his life. He also recalled funerals which he conducted for liberation leaders at St. Peter's in Lusaka, and how in spite of claiming to be communist most came to church and quoted the Bible.

Later we went to a local market, where I enjoyed wandering about and being hustled by vendors. To a bishop who told one vendor, “No thank you, I am just looking,” she replied, “Come in then, because looking is free.” Last night was our deadline in the resolutions committee for drawing up resolutions to be considered today.

The excerpt from my sermon:

John (John 10:22-30) states a most significant detail. He says that this took place on “the Feast of the Dedication,” the remembrance of that heroic event after the humiliating, oppressive reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, the Syrian ruler who violently suppressed anything Jewish, who destroyed holy sites, banned religious expressions, undermined their identity, and forbade any sign of their ancient culture and above all profaned the Temple, in a horrific rule of tyranny and brutality. At the height of this repression in 170 BC, 80,000 Jews were killed and as many sold into slavery, and 1,800 talents were stolen/looted from the Temple Treasury (a talent is worth about R4000). They were years of bitter and unrelenting oppression.

In time, as with any oppressed people throughout history, the oppressed slowly found their voice, recovered their hope and claimed their dignity despite the tyranny of the times. They began a slow but courageous, resilient resistance that, action by action, eventually overturned their oppression. The high point of their liberation was the restoration of the Temple and the re-dedication of the Altar. This event is what is solemnly remembered on this feast. The Hebrew people knew, as we in South Africa knew, that no matter how demonic the oppression, no people can be suppressed forever. As the old slogan of our anti-apartheid struggle said so powerfully: “Freedom or death, victory is certain!”

This feast was also known as the “Festival of Light.” The liberated people kept a light burning, remembering and celebrating that the light of freedom had come back to Israel. It also recalled the ancient legend that when the seven-branched candlestick was to be re-lit in the Temple, only one cruse of unpolluted oil could be found, yet miraculously there was enough in that cruse to light all the candles; a sign that God's faithfulness was present amidst the celebration of their liberation, in a sense validating the liberatory project.

For me to hold all of this in my heart in this city of Lusaka is doubly poignant. During the armed struggle against apartheid Lusaka was the “head office” of hope for liberation for most South Africans. When we were students, any message from Lusaka came with the feeling that the sunspot of apartheid would disappear. This hope, excitement and dream is fading away now and my earnest prayer is this that this is temporary; that we will once again rise above this period in our country, and rekindle hope and energy for a future in which we all share and our dignity is restored.

Our own struggle was nurtured over many decades in this city. The dream of freedom, the hope that one day South Africa would be a home to all her children, the belief that no people could be oppressed forever and that one day justice would prevail all found a home in this city. This city also paid a heavy price for holding this dream in trust for the people of South Africa. It was the place, if not the Festival of Light, it was the place that reminded us that God was with those who struggled. Just as every Jewish home placed a light in the window of their homes as a sign of hope, this city, symbolically, held the light of hope to those in South Africa at a time when hope was very fragile.

And so it is from this city on this Sunday morning that we too must hold out the candle of hope to those on our continent who continue to suffer, who are mired in poverty, whose democracies are short-changed, those who live under the yoke of marginalisation and in countries whose greedy rulers have robbed them of a decent life. The message is abundantly clear: God never abandons God's people, God is always amongst those who struggle to free people from bondage, encouraging them and strengthening them and making every small or big action a sign of hope that the future will be different. Indeed John adds another detail. He says that “it was winter.” For many on this continent it is winter, not in the meteorological sense but in the political and economic sense.

The outlook is bleak, growth is near zero and the cold of political exclusion freezes the spirit in dehumanising ways. It is incumbent on us to be the Lusakas, the lights for those who are exposed to life’s winters: to shine for them and hold a candle in the window to encourage them. “It is indeed better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” Ours is always a ministry of encouragement.

Let me briefly share my journey to Mtendere this week. There I saw a different Lusaka from the one I am staying in, one no different to the squalor of Alexandra township, Johannesburg, where I grew up. The structural inequality contradicts the meaning of “Mtendere” – the conditions there make for anything but peace. Just as Mark's Gospel describes “crossing to the other side”, let us cross over to Mtendere, plead for its light and hold a bridge for them to cross over, as you did for South Africa, Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia.

As I wrote in my blog this week, the oneness of Communion is a gift for all Christians and all beyond the Christian world. We need more than “Anglicanism” and “Instruments of Communion”, we need faith in the God who liberates and who sends us back to Mtendere to help it “cross over” from squalor to the abundant life promised to us all. Mtendere reminded me that the issues around us are complex and the crisis we face is about inequality of opportunity, access and justice. These are not only justice issues but moral and spiritual matters that we as disciples of Christ need to urgently attend to if we are to flourish together.

Paul in the readings from Acts underlines a testimony of encouragement. We see that despite Paul’s thorn in the side, despite his afflictions, he presses on. He will not allow the dream of God to be deflected and he uses every opportunity to encourage those who are listening to him. Indeed as a personal encouragement, Paul reminds us that he did not allow any personal negativities, any personal shortcomings or even any health challenges to stand in the way of bringing about the Kingdom.

A close reading of the text shows that he is encouraging people to hold onto eternal life, not in the sense of life that knows no end, but in the sense that it is an invitation to live in the never-ending, always unfolding purposes of God. It is an invitation to see beyond the limits of the here and now, beyond life’s ups and downs and hold on to the bigger picture, of growing into God's plan for fully human lives for all of us. Irenaeus once said that “the glory of God is a person fully human, fully alive!” In the light of that, it always worth remembering that our daily acts of justice, our loving attitudes, our right relationships are in themselves instalments in the unfolding of a better tomorrow.

Paul’s second encouragement is the acknowledgement that Christ is the culminating point of history and therefore, unlike the stoics of old, we live with the certainty that history is going somewhere. Contemporary cynics hold that history is nothing more than an inventory of human sin and failure. But in Paul’s insight, history moves towards God's appointed end and that end is being incorporated into and extending loving relationships. We are therefore optimistic about our history and every time we do not, in the face of adversity, fail or falter, weaken or tire we are involved in moving history towards God’s appointed end. William Jennings Bryan once said: “Destiny is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.” There is a similar sense running through Paul's encouragement.

Finally Paul encourages us not to grow weary in doing what is right and in practising justice and in encouraging those bowed down, because as he says, even when human folly and selfishness forces people to make absurd decisions and plunge history into abysmal lows, God will not be defeated. Paul sees the resurrection as the surest proof of God's determination to “love us back into life.” St. Augustine put it well: “What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has the eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of people. That is what love looks like.”

This is our roadmap for making love real. Real love is surely the candle which holds out to others, it is the content of the hope that we keep alive for those who feel they dare not hope. Lusaka has fulfilled this prophetic role at least once in the history of this continent. Now it is our task to take the candles of our hope, our courage, our commitment to be intolerant of political corruption and wrongdoing, the candles of encouragement, from Lusaka to the towns and the villages where each of us lives and to hold them before the poor but also before the powerful, to ensure that in the end history is indeed His story!

God bless you.

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