Sunday 28 January 2018

On the Guptas and Steinhoff: Sermon for the 160th Anniversary of St Paul’s Bree Street

A sermon preached by Archbishop Thabo Makgoba at the 160th Anniversary Celebration of St Paul’s Church, Bree Street, Cape Town:

Readings: Acts 26:9-23 , Ps 67, Galatians 1:11-24, Mark 10:46-52

May I speak in the name of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
    Let me start by congratulating you on 160 years of fruitful ministry, witness and service to God in this place.
    On Thursday we commemorated the conversion of St Paul. What a colourful history St Paul had, and the cover page of your service booklet gives us a flavour of the colour you reflect.

St Paul's Church, Bree Street, Cape Town
      It is wonderful to have your previous rectors – the 13th, 14th and 16th – as well as assistant priests here to concelebrate. They, together with their families, were remarkable clerics who gave solid service to God and his church in this place. As the Psalmist said, “Let the peoples praise you O God: let all the peoples praise you. Then the earth will yield its fruitfulness: and God our God will bless us.” (Ps 67:5-6) In this parish, God has – as the hymn has it – God has indeed been our help in ages past, and will remain our hope in years to come.
    Thank you to all of you, members of the current congregation, and your immediate past rector. Thank you for the ministry of St Monica's Home, St Paul's School and for all the other ministries carried out by this parish, established 160 years ago by Archdeacon Lightfoot. Give thanks for my predecessor Archbishop West-Jones, who laid the foundation stone of this church, for the memorable sermon cited today based on Psalm 93, which begins by proclaiming that “the Lord is King”.
    I want to say today that the Lord is King and he invites all of us to roll up our sleeves, to get our hands dirty and serve the needy, the poor and the forgotten in our city, especially at this time when we are facing the possibility of having our taps run dry as a result of the drought. I see that when I came here on a previous anniversary, I was wrestling with the same theme underlying my appeal today. I said that justice and righteousness are marks of the kingdom of God; also that  God’s peace, God’s reconciliation, God’s healing, God’s freedom too are marks of his kingdom. I encouraged you – as I do again today – to find time to spend with God and urged you to be awake and alert for the signs of the bridegroom coming, indicating the reality of God’s active presence here and now. And I encouraged you to discern God’s call on each of you, taking your example from the life of St Paul, to dedicate yourselves in service to your community.
    Looking at our first reading today (Acts 26:9-23), in which Paul appeared before Agrippa, let us examine the questions: Who is Agrippa for us today? Who is Paul for us today? What can we learn from Paul's address to Agrippa?
    In the Old Testament reading that was one of the alternatives in the lectionary for today (Jer. 1:4ff), we are presented with the call of Jeremiah. He was called during a period of storm and stress when the fate of entire nations faced with doom was being sealed. The smaller states of western Asia were often pawns in the power plays of such imperial giants as Egypt, Assyria and Babylon, and this was also true at the time of Jeremiah’s ministry.
    Jeremiah's very existence is a result of divine forethought. He was long planned as God’s man for this very time; God’s creative act is the basis for his sovereign right to call Jeremiah into his service. Before his conception and between conception and birth, a divine intimate awareness and divine separating action led to the moment of his appointment. But although Jeremiah's commission from God was clear, the text paints a picture of someone torn between shrinking from the task and being inspired for it. He is the most questioning of all the prophets on record. God overruled his objection to playing the role God planned for him, on the grounds that authority resides not in the person of the messenger but in the divine commission, word and presence.
    In Acts we find Paul (then Saul) also being called by God, in this case on his way to Damascus. Paul was a Hebrew born of the Hebrews, as the saying went, and he was educated in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel, the great leader of the Pharisees and a counselor of moderation. Like Jeremiah, Paul  wrestled with his background. In today’s reading we find him before Agrippa telling the story of his conversion for the second time, of how he has been a ringleader of the campaign of repression which followed the deaths of Stephen and of many other Christians.
    On each occasion he told his story, Paul emphasized those aspects of it which were likely to interest his audience at the time. This time he presents his stand as a Pharisee for the hope of Israel which involves citing belief in resurrection, and giving an account of his persecuting zeal, the heavenly vision, his life of obedience thereto, his arrest and the substance of his preaching. Point by point he tells his story, insisting throughout that he is guilty of no innovation; that the hope which he proclaims is the ancestral hope of his whole people; that he preaches no other things than what Moses and the prophets said would happen: that the Messiah was to suffer and rise from the dead and that light and salvation were thereby to be offered both to Jews and to the Gentiles.
    Mark's gospel, from which we read today, is a simple, unadorned yet vivid account of Jesus’ ministry, emphasizing more what Jesus did than what he said. The book has been characterized as “the beginning of the gospel”, composed between 50 and 60 A.D., and in it Mark moves from one episode in Jesus’ life and ministry to another. As you have heard, today's reading for our observation of the Conversion of St Paul is about the blind Bartimaeus receiving sight as a result of his faith in Jesus. There are divergent details in the three accounts of this incident. Matthew (20:30) speaks of two blind men, while Luke (18:35) places the incident at the approach to Jericho instead of when Jesus was leaving the city. These differences do not affect anything vital, being those one would expect in verbal accounts coming from evidence given by multiple witnesses. This is doubtless a case where, if all the facts were known, there would be no difficulty of reconciliation.
    The healing of the blind man was the work of Jesus, denoting his Messianic significance. Despite the movement of the divine programme and purpose which took Jesus steadily towards Jerusalem, it is remarkable that he was halted by an impassioned cry of need. The vivid picture drawn here in a few rapid strokes is peculiar to Mark. At first the question put by Jesus to a blind man – “What do you want me to do for you?”  – sounds  superfluous. We can imagine that he probably asked it  to get the blind man to define his need and demonstrate to the crowd that he was not begging for money. (The same question had been put previously to James and John (10:36) but they received a very different response.)
    Turning to Cape Town and South Africa, let us wrestle with what our readings are saying to us today. As a member of St Paul's Church, what are your expectations of Jesus? What are your cries of need? What could you say to Jesus if he appeared? How would you want Jesus to respond to your needs and the needs of the world?
     If we were to give testimony about our lives and our  conversion as Paul did, what would we say about the ills of the church? What would we say about the social ills in Cape Town in the fact of drought? What would we say to Presidents Zuma and Trump? What would we say about greed and corruption, about the Guptas and Steinhoff?
    God is always responsive to our cries for guidance, especially when they are characterized – as those in our readings were – by determination, clarity and faith. In the other gospel reading in our lectionary for this Sunday, we find Jesus being confronted by a demoniac in the synagogue during his teaching ministry. In the reading (Mk 1:21-28), the question is asked: “What is this? A new teaching—with authority!” This after Jesus drove out demons from a demoniac, overcoming  spiritual blindness.
    There is a need for new teaching, new vision, new behaviors in our society today so that we may be truly baptized and nurtured by the body and blood of Jesus. We need to be truly soaked in the Holy Spirit in order to be justified and redeemed.
    As I end, I want to briefly reflect on what has been in my heart and mind over the course of last year in particular, and address the scandals around both the Gupta family and the Steinhoff retail business group. Blindness is synonymous with the theology of sin, and as I look at the thieving and corruption that has been exposed recently in both our public and private sectors, it is clear that the behaviour in both sectors is rooted in sin.
    Sin is defined as that aspect in us that makes us rebellious against God. When we speak of sin we refer to the fact that we have a natural inclination to sin. Given the choice to do God’s will, or our own, we are naturally inclined to do our own. As the 19th century British Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, put it: “As the salt flavours every drop in the Atlantic, so does sin affect every atom of our nature. It is sadly there, so abundantly there, that if you cannot detect it, you are deceived.”
    The nature of sin is universal in humanity. From generation to generation sin was passed down to all humanity. “...[S]in entered the world through one man, and death through sin, so also death was passed on to all men, because all sinned.” (Rom 5:12) Other consequences of sin are hostility toward God and ignorance of his truth. Paul says “The mind governed by flesh is hostile to God, it does not submit to God’s law nor cannot do so.” (Rom 8:7ff)
    In our society, historically and in the current day, human sin is reflected in the immorality of systems and practices in which people with power and connections exploit resources to their own benefit, without regard to the public good and the welfare of others. We saw it in the colonial era, in the era of Rhodes in the 19th century, we saw it under apartheid, and we see it today: the sin of selfishness and greed.
    This is what lies at the heart of both the Gupta and the Steinhoff scandals. In both cases the allegation is that the public are being ripped off by unscrupulous and greedy business people. In the case of the Guptas, the allegation is that they have robbed the public through misappropriating the resources of the Treasury, which are the common property of all South Africans. In the case of the Steinhoff group, the allegation is that their business practices have ripped off their shareholders, who must include hundreds and thousands of pensioners and investors here and elsewhere.
    To those who imply that somehow the Guptas' activities are somehow justified by those highlighted by the Steinhoff scandal, we have to say: two wrongs do not make a right. Corruption or dodgy dealings in one part of the private sector (Steinhoff) do not justify it in another (the Guptas). Both are to be condemned equally.
    And both government and private sector regulatory bodies have the responsibility, working together when appropriate, to bring the miscreants to book and to bring about restitution as far as it is possible. I hope today's newspaper headlines augur change, but we have not so far seen strong enough action being taken by those bodies. Neither government investigators and prosecutors, nor private sector regulators and professionals in fields such as auditing and accounting, have called to account both the criminals in the private sector and the officials and politicians in the public sector who facilitate their misdeeds. 
    Let me close by saying that our faith tells us that although there is sin, there is also redemption. When an ordinary man received God's grace, it turned Saul the persecutor into Paul the apostle. A blind man's sight was restored, and a demon was exorcised, by Jesus. And the psalmist sings the wonders of God.
    “O God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come.”
    May this 160th anniversary and patronal festival bring abundant life to you all.
    God bless.

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