Sunday 30 October 2016

Sermon at the 150th Anniversary Service of the Cathedral of St Andrew and St Michael, Bloemfontein

Theme: Standing in the watchpost and stationed at the ramparts
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 Psalm 119:137-144 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12 Luke 19:1-10
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who calls us to be faithful. Amen
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, dear people of God in the Cathedral of St Andrew and St Michael:

It is a great joy to be here for this great milestone as you celebrate your 150th anniversary. It is an honour and a privilege to have been asked to share the Word of God with you in this historic place. And what a history you have! I learn that your first foundation stone was laid during the earliest days of the Free State, when you were part of the Orange River Sovereignty, and that the Cathedral was built during the time of the Orange Free State Republic. Your forebears then lived through the years of the Orange River Colony, then in one of the four provinces within the united South Africa, and finally now you are one of nine provinces of the new South Africa.

The congregations which have gathered in this place for faithful worship for 15 decades have seen war and civil strife, promoted peace and reconciliation, and observed and participated in history in the making. Today I join with you in thanking God for all those faithful clergy and parishioners who have served your church and your community through these 150 years of unceasing prayer, witness and service. We remember fondly Bishop Robert Gray, the first bishop of Cape Town, who conducted the first service north of the Orange River, and the Revd George Mitchell, the first priest to be ordained in this Diocese in 1865.

Thank you, Dean Lazarus (Mohapi), Churchwardens and your whole leadership team for inviting me. Thank you everyone for your warm welcome. Thank you too to those who were involved in the preparations for today. Let me also acknowledge your distinguished guests and Bishop Dintoe (Letloenyane) as well as visiting clergy here this morning. Welcome to the Executive Mayor and colleagues of the Free State.

Today is Bible Sunday, which is a celebration that focuses on the place of the Scriptures in our daily lives. It is a celebration which says that we need to cherish God’s word and pray for those who are still without it. Turning to the scriptures set for this morning, in the Old Testament, the prophet Habakkuk—one of Israel’s minor or lesser prophets in the year 605 AD—is on the brink of losing his faith. He struggles with the idea that God has not heard him lamenting for the people of Judah during a time of pain, struggle and crisis, upset that the righteous are suffering and the wicked are prospering. I find the concept of lament, as expressed by Denise Ackermann, helpful in this context. Denise has written that lamenting “ a refusal to settle for the way things are. It is reminding God that the human situation is not as it should be and that God as the partner in the covenant must act.” Habakkuk had repeatedly called upon God to act, to intervene, to set things right, to just do something. Yet it seemed to him that God had not heard him and that God would not act to save his people. Finally, out of a deep sense of frustration and confusion, Habakkuk cries out to God, asking him how he can allow such injustice to occur, saying that he will stand at the “watchpost” and station himself on the “ramparts” awaiting God’s response. The watchpost or ramparts could have been a certain place or room that the prophet could withdraw to, or could have referred to a withdrawal into the inner self for contemplation, prayers and reflection, while awaiting the divine response.

How often do you and I not feel like Habakkuk? How often do we feel as if God is not listening to our laments, leaving us just wanting to withdraw into our rooms or into our inner selves. We cry: “Lord, please act here, please do this, please make right the things that are wrong, please heal me, please end this conflict. Lord there is great inequality in our country, the poverty, the hopelessness we feel, the education crisis, Lord, please do something about them!” In this Province, your Premier, Ace Magashule, has acknowledged problems in your education and health departments. What has been reported about treatment of patients by your health department is deplorable and it has taken your premier too long to act on this scandal.

We feel a deep sense of injustice in our and our society’s lives and, yes, like Habakkuk, we say “How long, O Lord?” But then God answers Habakkuk: “Don’t despair, God does answer.” The message is clear: even though destruction and violence are all around, the time will surely come: wait for it, because “the righteous live by their faith.” Righteousness is very different from self–righteousness; it is about reflecting the character of God, of Jesus, reflecting Jesus's story in our story. It is about promoting God’s best, in all circumstances. It is about all that is upright, virtuous, just and good, excellent and true.

Faithfulness in challenging times is the central message of St Paul’s brief letter. The congregation to which Paul wrote had grown in faith and in love for each other under considerable persecution. Nowhere was the growth of the faithful in Thessalonica more evident than the way in which they patiently and faithfully endured hostilities and suffering for the sake of Christ. Although there was no need for Paul to speak, since the Thessalonians' lives spoke clearly enough, Paul’s joy before the Lord over their perseverance bubbled over. Paul boasts to other congregations of their faithfulness and mutual love.

In the Gospel lesson, Zacchaeus’s faith—even if it be as small as a mustard seed, in the phrase we read earlier in Luke—is shown by him believing in our Lord as soon as he heard he was coming. The simplicity of his faith was seen when he promised to restore to those he had cheated four times what he had taken fraudulently from them. Today, in this cathedral, we celebrate the faithfulness and mutual love of the generations who have worshipped here over the past century-and-a-half. Theirs truly is an impressive heritage. This passage in Luke’s Gospel reminds us that all we need to do to live up to the legacy of our forebears here is to emulate the simplicity of Zacchaeus’s faith. In his case, he was moved by his belief in Jesus to give half of his possessions to the poor. And Jesus, despite the disapproval of those who grumbled at him asking for hospitality from a tax collector and a sinner, responds that “today, salvation has come to this house.”

God in Jesus Christ did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that all might be saved in him. Zacchaeus's sin was brought into the light by Christ not for condemnation but to open him up to the glorious opportunity for God’s salvation and redemption in every area of his life. Let’s be honest today, that we certainly need God’s rescue and recovery in so much of our lives and our society. If we do not acknowledge sin, how can we receive God’s more than wonderful solution to sin?

It is wonderful to come and be quiet in this building before Mass, and to breathe in its history of a faithful people, a historical place of worship and also as a place of equipping ministry and mission for God’s world. Here God has, again and again, met people and sent them out to proclaim his truth, with clarity and courage, through difficult and challenging times. And God knows that we have difficult and challenging times in South Africa today. Just to cite three examples, two in our national life and one in our church life:

  •     Firstly, as our Provincial Synod recently pointed out, our government appears set on spending huge amounts of money on a nuclear procurement programme which threatens to become an albatross of debt around the necks not only of our children but our grandchildren and great-grandchildren too. Moreover, they are doing this at a time when renewable energy is becoming ever cheaper and easier to produce.
  •     Secondly, the government has now formally given notice that it wants to leave the International Criminal Court, a pioneering initiative in international justice which leading figures in fighting for our democracy played an instrumental role in setting up. The framework under which the court was established, and its prosecutors, are not beyond criticism, but it seems strange to suggest that because the justice it dispenses is not perfect, there should be no justice at all. No, the government should act with the confidence and determination of its predecessors, and boldly engage the international community with a view to improving the court.
  •     Turning to the church, in this Diocese, a decision taken many years ago enabling the Diocesan Trusts’ Board to accept deposits from dioceses, parishes, organisations and individuals has become a significant financial liability for the Diocese. It is regretted that in order to repay these deposits it has been necessary to sell a property. However it is accepted that in order for the Diocese to move forward and continue to fulfil its mission in the world, the burden of debt needs to be lifted. A consequence of the decision to accept deposits has been the repayment of these deposits as and when called upon to do so and the only other funds available to make these repayments have been from the operational funds of the Diocese. This has placed the Diocese under immense pressure, both internally and externally, and obligations such as the payment of pension contributions, for both laity and clergy, has suffered. At present the Diocese of the Free State has outstanding pension contributions of just over R311 000 and on a Provincial level has unpaid assessments totalling a bit more than R174 000. It is however not only the burden of debt that has contributed to the financial situation of the Diocese. The payment by parishes of their parish assessment to the Diocese is a crucial part of the financial model of each diocese. It is the parish assessments that pay the stipends, make provision for pension payments, pay the diocesan administration and most importantly, allow the wealthier parishes to cross-subsidise parishes that are not well resourced. When parish assessments are withheld it impacts not only on the Diocese, but also broadly on the family of God in the Free State. A principle of our discipleship is our love and support for one another and where we become insular and inward-looking we place this under principle under immense strain. I urge all parishes to recommit themselves to the payment of assessments timeously and to engage with the Diocese to see how, as a family of God the present situation in the Diocese can be turned around and to allow the work of God to flourish in this beautiful part of South Africa.

People of the Cathedral of St Andrew and St Michael: On this 150th anniversary, God’s call to faithfulness comes to this congregation, this diocese and our Province of Southern Africa in new ways. After 22 years of democracy, too many people still experience living and working conditions that deliver neither human dignity nor economic justice. We are challenged by a high rate of poverty, inequality of opportunity and unemployment. This is why we need good research and comprehensive policy initiatives like the National Development Plan, and the Church must lend its support to all who strive to bring about the “abundant life” that Jesus promised to every child of God.

But in the short term, our country also needs drastic action. After prayer and careful discernment, I want to make an urgent call in response to the immediate governance challenge we face right now, and that is this: On the train that is South African democracy in motion, we can no longer be passengers. We can no longer trust the driver to do the right thing. We instead need to engage the driver robustly – to the point of halting the train so we can determine the direction forward together. If we don’t do that, we’re likely to be lead into a big dark hole. I am calling you and all Anglican faithful to join in an hour of silent prayer this week to soak our country in prayer. The theme for this is a lament for our beloved country. I will be at the foot of the steps at St George's Cathedral, Cape Town, on Wednesday but you can join from anywhere and at any time. Whether or not we are involved in policy making and implementation, let us draw on God’s power to help us strive so that in our own contexts, and in all our dealings with others, human dignity is upheld, justice ensured, equality advanced, and moral courage promoted. As South Africans, let us rekindle the vision of a free, fair, just South Africa which inspired the peaceful transition to democracy and let us all work and pray to bring it about.

To conclude, The Old Testament says cry out, lament; the Psalmist says zeal consumes us and we are in trouble and in anguish. But the New Testament says, “the grace of the Lord is sufficient” and the Gospel says, “he wants to dwell in our homes and save us”. Let us confidently appropriate Jesus’s declaration to Zacchaeus for ourselves, and enjoy his blessing as he declares that salvation has come to this Cathedral, city and country, to our houses, because we too are the sons and daughters of Abraham. Amen.

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