Tuesday, 21 May 2019

"A space that speaks of our shared worship, shared dreams..." - St Paul's Chapel, New York City

A sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday of Easter at St. Paul's Chapel in the Parish of Trinity Church Wall Street, New York:

Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148:1-3, 7, 9-11, 13; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

We hear these incredible words of possibility in our foundational texts today in a wonderful space, in a chapel and a parish that have towered over the city’s and the nation's history, whose graveyards hold the bones and the memories of some of its founding parents; a parish located in an area that once boasted a barrier, usually described as a wall, to keep out those seen as “the other”; a parish that witnessed the struggle to establish your democracy; and a chapel in which your forebears and your founding president thanked God for his inauguration. [Continues below the video...]




And of course more recently the inner sanctuaries of the churches of this parish provided refuge and ministry during and after that fateful day when the Twin Towers were attacked and then collapsed, a day forever etched in our memories as evil was let loose. Today, at a time when there seems to be a renewed threat of war involving this nation, I count it a particular privilege to be preaching here in St. Paul's, which in the difficult months and years after nine-eleven represented to the world the best of American values – values of hope and healing as you brought to your city and nation a ministry of pastoral care, of reconciliation and of peace.

Speaking of your contributions to the nation and the world, I cannot continue without referring to what you have meant to us in the church in Southern Africa, and indeed across the whole continent of Africa. We too were colonised by the Dutch, and people of my heritage were kept out of the suburb where I now live by a barrier – in our case an impenetrable hedge – by the Dutch. In our case too, the church has played a part in bringing about democracy, and you made a direct contribution to the inauguration of our own founding president, Nelson Mandela, by responding 30 years ago to the pleas of Archbishop Desmond Tutu to divest from companies which did business with apartheid South Africa. Responding to our plea for help probably ran counter to the instincts of Wall Street financiers, but you put your relationship with us, your partners, first and for that we are deeply grateful. I see in the congregation an honorary canon of our Province, Canon Jamie Callaway, and acknowledge the role he played in supporting us.

It is with pride and pleasure that I can report to you that the young democracy you helped us establish is  flourishing. It is true that until 15 months ago, we had a president whose influence badly corrupted the executive branch of our government, and that our legislature failed to hold him to account. But the combined power of the media, civil society and the judiciary forced his party to remove him from office before the end of his term, and our new president has begun to clean up our government. So we have faced huge challenges in recent years.

Beyond your contribution to our liberation, you have enabled and continue to enable important ministry in dioceses of the church in Southern Africa, and in other Anglican provinces in Africa. As the longest-serving Primate on the continent, I make bold to speak on behalf of all of us, and to thank you from the bottom of our hearts for all you have enabled the church in Africa to be and to do. By sharing your resources, you demonstrate that you are following Jesus' new commandment.

Returning to the witness of this chapel and of Trinity –   through the unfolding of the layers of history, amidst the contestation of ideologies and memories of walls, this place has continue to maintain its rhythm of prayer, to contextualise the sense of the Holy, to explore God's words and to discern its echo in the community of lower Manhattan. Above all you hold out, day in and day out, the promise of God which we pondered today: “See, I am making all things new!” “To the thirsty I will give water…” and “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

What an awesome sacred space! I feel that deep emotion that Jacob felt when he sensed that despite the limitations of his own history, he had a dream of a God who promised a new beginning, crying out: “Surely the presence of God is in this place, it is none other than the house of God, this is the gate of heaven!” It is for that reason, as well as the shared elements of our histories and of your sharing in love that I feel at home here today, in this space that speaks of our shared worship, shared dreams and a shared commitment to the work of making all things new.

The implications of our faith are that you do not need to engage the secrets of heaven, or fathom out deep theological propositions, or speculate endlessly on eschatological nuances. That won't help us see and understand God. It is much easier than that: experiencing God, to the degree that we humans can do so, is quite simply done in acts of love, even just in random deeds of kindness.

You carry in your parish's name a commitment to live out practically and contextually our Christian understanding of the Trinity. At the heart of that understanding is the abiding truth about three persons in every way equal. It is the metaphor that the Gospel writers seek to express in different ways, but always by returning to a fundamental notion of “self-gift”. As that great African saint, Augustine, argued time and again, God loves because that is the divine nature, not because creation deserves it. In parable after parable, statement after statement, the “meaning of God” is revealed as the “One who is perfectly self-giving”. Thus the Trinity is also the story of self-giving in love and of belonging in love. We become more fully what we are meant to become by entering into loving and life-giving relationships. In Africa we express this in what we call ubuntu, or in the languages to which I am closest, botho. We hear this at the very heart of the Gospel today.

The Lutheran theologian, Samuel Torvend, asks the question that we who gather for prayer must ask. He asks: “Who is hungry at the feast?” and then answers it for himself. “To be honest,” he says, “I think I am. I yearn for, I am hungry for the word, the image, the lyric and the prayer that will invite many others and me to redress the terrible injustices, deprivations and imbalances that surround us.” “Who is still hungry at the feast?” he asks again, and answers for himself: “The many who will never hear this sermon or read this text because they must work two or three jobs each day, six days a week in order to feed their children in a society that rewards the wealthy and stigmatises the working poor.” Who is still hungry at the feast? “The people of this world deprived of food, capital employment and land.”

One could and should add to that litany the victims of domestic violence, the women and children who suffer abuse, refugees from conflict in places such as Bangladesh, and – as we have seen in our own sub-continent of Southern Africa in recent months – those who are refugees as a result of the devastating effects of climate change.

In the last few years, the people of the three dioceses of our Province which lie in neighbouring Mozambique have been hit alternately by drought and by flood. Twice during April, I had to pay emergency visits to two of the dioceses and witnessed  the aftermath of Cyclone Idai. Homes, churches and schools in settlements and towns across the countryside were destroyed, people's crops were swept away and families had to climb trees to escape the water and wait for helicopters to rescue them. Hundreds died, many of them people who survived the hurricane but not the wait for rescue. Swathes of rural countryside were turned into vast lakes, and scattered rural villages have been replaced by concentrated tent townships to which people have been relocated. These agrarian communities are at risk of losing their identity and their way of life. Those who are worst affected by climate change are not the citizens of the materially wealthy countries who contribute most to it; no, it is those who are already poor and vulnerable.

Wherever we are in the world, in our churches every Sunday, let us remember that our worship is not merely an act of forgiveness, a spiritual sacrifice, a moment of thanksgiving, an intimate union with Christ, but that it is  an ethical practice that expands outward into the world, offering life in the midst of diminishment and death. St. Theresa of Avila captured this call to love, to be about the business of making all things new and providing fresh water, when she wrote: “Christ has no body but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassionately on the world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, the feet, yours are the eyes. You are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” That’s the challenge of love.

The key moment in the post-Resurrection story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus came when, after recognising the Lord, they were faced with the choices that we all face. They could have sat back, finished their meal and congratulated themselves on the special epiphany they had received from the Lord. They could have created a safe, comfortable, spiritually warm place of personal intimacy and memory. Or they could have taken fright. After all, the Jesus whom they had just encountered was a wanted man in Jerusalem. It was a very dangerous moment and they might have decided to run away.

But no; instead they got up straight away and returned to Jerusalem, to the place where their dreams had been shattered, where hope was in short supply, and where their friends were locked in the Upper Room, imprisoned by fear. It was to Jerusalem they returned with their word of hope, with their testimony of new possibilities, with their vision raised beyond the exigencies of the moment, to proclaim that something new is possible. They did not have a blueprint and could not provide firm assurances but they could keep the good news alive.

Each of us can do that much. We do not know precisely who all those who are hungry at the feast are, and we certainly cannot do everything. Maybe like those disciples in Emmaus, all we can really do after every service of worship is go back into the city and look upon it and our fellow human beings with new eyes, so that our perceptions of generosity, humanity, justice and mercy become clearer and freer. For when that transpires, slowly will we become known by our love for one another.

God loves you and so do I. God bless each one of you. God bless America, and God bless Africa.

Amen.






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