Sunday 22 October 2017

Sermon at a confirmation service at St. Thomas', Rondebosch

Exodus 33: 12-23, Psalm 99, I Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22: 15-22

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

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, dear people of God of St Thomas, it is a great delight to be with you today and share in your confirmations.

Thank you, Fr Keith, thank you Wardens and Council, for your invitation to join you today, and welcome to the Revd Cheryl Bird and the people of Christ the King, Kenilworth.

Thank you so much to you the confirmation candidates for the encouraging letters you wrote to me on why you wanted to be confirmed. This is a beautiful start to a new venture in your lives.

By the time we reach today’s text in Exodus 33, the Israelites have travelled through most of the desert portion of their journey on their way to a new homeland. At the beginning of their journey God calls them to himself to be a priestly people and a Holy Nation. He chooses them not because they are morally good but to preserve God’s laws and to pave the way for the coming Messiah. Amongst them dwelt God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of the world… until Jesus Christ appeared on earth.

God promises to journey with them, giving them the Ten Commandments as well as clear instructions for building the tabernacle, which – like the altar in this church – is meant to be a visible sign of God’s presence among them. But the Israelites do not always appreciate God’s presence, becoming a complaining and sinful nation who easily lose their focus on how God is present in their lives and their nation’s story.

They go so far as to carve and worship a Golden Calf, thus breaking the heart of God, forcing him to change his mind about the shape of their relationship. As a result God gives a new directive to Moses – that he should lead this stiff-necked people to the Promised Land, but without any visible manifestation of or experience of His presence with the people of God. Instead, to accompany them on their journey, God sends an angel to represent him on their journey.

Moses is very unhappy with God’s response and engages God on his new plan for the Israelites because he knows their survival depends on God’s presence. Moses reminds God of who Israel belongs to, challenging him with five bold arguments and petitions, prompting God to reverse his decision. It is no surprise that God responds in this selfless way, extending grace and mercy and assuring Israel of his holy and communal promise.

It is this promise that is carried with us today as Paul reminds us that we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of God’s own heart; a people who will bear witness to the second coming of Christ, who will remain faithful to Christ like the believers in Thessalonica who remained faithful to Christ amidst their hardships and persecution. They did not allow their experiences to redirect their path but remained steadfast and through this accomplished much as a community. Paul holds them up as examples to other faith communities. It is this kind of faith that directed the Thessalonians to abandon the idols of their past and to focus on God.

What does it mean for all of us in South Africa today to abandon our idols of the past, to stop worshipping golden calves, and to focus on God? To start with, I suggest that we could draw lessons what we have read about the activities of international consulting companies in our country in recent years. I was stunned to read in a column in the Financial Mail this week that McKinsey and its Gupta-linked partner in greed banked 1.6 billion rand – not 1.6 million, but 1.6 BILLION rand – for what the columnist judged to be very little worthwhile work at Eskom. The writer translate that into revenue of 13 million rand for each working day. I quote from the column: “Yes, R13 million revenue from a single client every day! And nobody at McKinsey thought there was something smelly in that?”

Can you imagine how people living in shacks must feel when they read and hear about such shameful greed, which runs counter to the values, ethics and principles which the company espouses on its website and its posters? We seem to be plagued by a new generation of greedy Westerners exploiting our country, in the form of companies like McKinsey, KPMG, Bell Pottinger and the like. And what about the people we have elected into office, the corrupt South Africans who collaborate with unscrupulous foreigners, making money not out of honest work, not out of creating jobs, manufacturing goods or providing services, but by taking a cut on the side when they steer taxpayers’ money – resources which should be dedicated to improving the lives of the poor – to favoured contractors. **

Confirmation candidates, today you too will abandon the idols of your past and will commit to giving to God that which belongs to God. Let me explain what I mean. In previous chapters in the Gospel according to Matthew, Jewish leadership groups come to Jesus with questions on his authority, then about the Resurrection. In today’s Gospel reading they ask him about the law. Representatives of the Pharisees and the Herodians begin by praising Jesus for his integrity, honesty, truthfulness and impartiality. Then they try to catch him off guard with a short question: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?

This is a well-chosen question because it does not have a satisfactory answer. Jesus counters with a question of his own: Show me the coin that pays the census tax; now whose face is on it? You know the rest of the story: Jesus tells his questioners that they should render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar and pay to God that which belongs to God.

Jesus’s answer was a brilliant counter-stroke. He was allowing for that particular tax to be paid with that particular coin—not as an act of political submission, but as a sign of religious fidelity. It was a very specific, and very narrow answer that made it possible for Jesus to escape the trap set by his questioners.

Jesus teaches us that paying taxes to Caesar is not about the value of money but about handing over to the secular authority that which is of lesser value and keeping intact for ourselves that which is of greater value – our love for God. This is a matter of heart, a matter of character, Jesus invites the Pharisees to look at the inscription on the coin. That which is inscribed on the coin determines to whom it is due. But as to ourselves, we have the inscription of God in our hearts so this determines our belonging.

If we want to understand this text properly, we must take heed of these radical words that Jesus is saying! Men and women have been martyred for refusing to give to Caesar that which is not his! Caesar wished to take the place of God, declaring himself to be divine. The martyrs of the early church centuries died for not professing Caesar to be a God.

When St Francis of Assisi gave his father all his clothes and declared himself to be a child of the heavenly father, he was giving to Caesar that which belonged to Caesar and to God that which belonged to God - his very life and daily existence.

You and I belong to Christ by virtue of our baptism that is why today you, the confirmation candidates, need to say “Yes” to a life of worship, prayer, witness and service. Let’s take each of these in turn.
  • Firstly, worship is about building your relationship with God. This is like building any other relationship – through spending quality time in each other’s company. We do this in church, through services, in prayers and in the reading of scripture.
  • Next, spending time in silent prayer will help you to know that you are in the presence of God. It is here, in prayer, that your heart connects with Jesus, enabling you to discern God’s will. In dedicated prayer, you can be honest with God, like Moses when he converses with God. Scripture tells us that we can be honest with God. We can tell God what we don’t like. Don’t hesitate to be frank with God about your feelings – God can take it and God listens. God may even change his plans, as he did with Moses.
  • Then there is your “Yes” to a life of witness and service. In the book of Acts, Chapter 1 at verse 8, Jesus says to his disciples that they will be his witnesses. Jesus does not give them a choice; he declares that they will be his witnesses. To follow Jesus does not involve simply recognising his love for us – no, it must involve living out his love in our daily lives. Jesus demonstrated who he was through his words and actions – this is the example you should follow. And saying “Yes” to a life of service means showing others God’s love in practical ways. It is about demonstrating God’s care through our own caring without expecting anything in return.
This morning we thank God that you have committed your lives to worship, prayer, witness and service. Today we say thank you to God that our survival on earth depends on the presence of God. Thank you to God that though all of life he is able to help us to be faithful. Thank you to God that we give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar and to God that which belongs to God. Amen.

** The Archbishop elaborated on the criticsm of consultants, business and government figures in this news release >>

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