Monday 30 November 2020

Sermon for Ordinations in the Diocese of Natal

The text of a sermon preached at an Ordination Service in the Cathedral of the Holy Nativity, Pietermaritzburg, on 28 November 2020: 

Readings: Zachariah 8: 20-23, Ps 119:3 3-38, Romans 10: 8b-18, John 1: 35-42

May I speak in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of our lives, Amen.

Dean Sibisi – Vicar General, bishops here present, fellow clergy, candidates for ordination and your families, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, people of God: it is a great joy for me to be here with you as we give thanks to God for this time together amidst the challenges of Covid-19.

It is an honour and privilege to have been asked to celebrate with you at this historic moment in the lives of the candidates, the community and the Diocese. 

Thank you, Vicar-General and your entire team for inviting me. Thank you everyone for the warm welcome we received on our arrival here. Thank you also to those who gave of their time and were involved in the preparation for today. Thank you to the Retreat conductor for preparing these candidates and the confessor for listening to their confessions and praying with them before God. Thank you also to Canon Janet Trisk, Dean of Studies, the Revd Bruce Wooley and Canon Linda Wyngaard for their work on communications, as well as the Diocesan Administrator and her team, and indeed all the clergy and your spouses.

I thank God for the unsung heroes and heroines of this diocese who have kept the gospel light burning here through their lives, their zeal, their prayers and their service and witness. In particular, thank you to the Vicar-General and others who have shepherded the diocese over the past 14 months. Processes for episcopal elections under Covid-19 conditions are well in hand and so you can expect to be able to elect your new bishop soon. 

Today, I give special thanks for God's faithfulness to you who have offered yourselves for ordination during this service. Our gratitude also for God's  sustaining care for you, particularly during the turbulent times of the past year, and this time of great hope and opportunity for you, even though of course it comes with challenges.    

Today carries with it a deep sense of a double anointing, the anointing of ordination but also the anointing that comes from the witness and the memory of Andrew the Apostle and the example of the ordained life which he offers. It is special to be ordained on his feast day.

John in his gospel is so taken by Andrew that he singles him out by name and casts him as a leader.  You too will surely hear the resonances of that in your own hearts on your ordination day. You too like Andrew have been called by name, taken from amongst your sisters and brothers and graced with leadership, so the anointing is powerful. 

As we reflect on Andrew's ministry, it seems that three grace-filled moments shape his witness, give credibility to his leadership and shape a pastoral praxis, just as much as it must yours, my sisters and brothers.

Firstly, Andrew asks the question that every Christian leader must ask of the Lord over and over again, a question that locates our ministry. “Where do you live?” Where is your dwelling, where can we expect to find you at this point in the unfolding of history? Where can we find you amidst the competing narratives about you? Indeed, one could frame Andrew's question to Jesus as: Where can we expect to find you in the time of a pandemic, of corruption, violence and racism, in a time when the earth is vandalised, exploitation is normalised and the poor are rendered poorer?

Or – especially relevant during these 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence – where will we find you at a time when gender-based violence is also experienced by women and children in pandemic proportions? When the situation is so serious that earlier this year our Synod of Bishops declared a state of emergency over the crisis, and that I have called on the Province to focus on it during Lent next year?

Where indeed do we find the Lord? All you who are to be ordained are called to explore that question. It will be for you a lifetime of exploration, to lead others to ask that question for themselves and then help them read the signs of the times and then to embrace the moments of inspiration. 

Secondly, every ordained person must also explore the wonder of Jesus’s answer to that question. He replies: “Come and see.” The word “see” is of special significance. Origen describes holiness as seeing with the eyes of Christ. As the New Testament expounds so clearly, the eyes of Christ are focussed mostly on the vulnerable and the marginalised. He shows concern for the LGBTQI+ community. He shows particular compassion for unclean lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, the Samaritans across the border, the widow and the orphan. In our time, the eyes of Christ are on the bruised and battered women and children whose blood spatters the walls of the homes to which they were confined under the strictest of our lockdowns. They are on those – who I have heard with my own ears in a shelter for abused women – those who have been stabbed, brutally kicked in the stomach during pregnancy and whose most sensitive body parts have been lacerated. Christ's eyes are on children being raped in front of their parents, or the young girl raped by another with the connivance of her boyfriend. 

We are left with little doubt that that is where God is to be found, where holiness comes alive. Henry Vaughan, the 17th century Welsh poet, put is so poignantly: “And here in the dust and dirt, O here, the lilies of his love appear.” The dust and dirt, the edges, the peripheries, the places of violence, the hard places are where our vocation sends us. It is where we find the Lord.  Mother Theresa of Calcutta wrote frequently in her journals that “to be amongst the poor, to minister to the destitute and dying is not an obligation or a duty, it is the place of encounter with the living Christ.” It is there that we are transformed bit by bit into Jesus’ likeness. This is at the heart of our calling. Even before we open our lives to doing good for those on the margins, for those in difficult relationships, our vocation is to affirm the presence of God amongst the excluded.

It is also a thing of great beauty when the disciplies ask Jesus, “Where do you stay?” because it signifies so movingly that their restless hearts were looking for more than just a passing acquaintanceship, more than a chance meeting on the road. Their restless hearts were searching for lasting joy, a more permanent encounter, a place where over time, amid all the troubles of life they could engage the Lord, give structure to their witness and grow in holiness. St Augustine would later write: “Our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.” With the grace of ordination comes the ongoing challenge to provide such environments, to provide such oases of rest, to nurture such growth and to offer such spiritual guidance. 

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, in that wonderful little book “The Christian Priest Today”, speaks tellingly about this need to enhance the horizons of our encounter with God in our ministries. He asks clergy “to be aware of attitudes which try to make God smaller than the God revealed to us in Jesus.” To this longing, to these spiritual intuitions, Jesus answers over and over again, “come and see.”

As we hear with Andrew those words of Jesus to come and see, we also need to repent of our failure so often to help people see with the eyes of Christ. It is so easy to let all sorts of elitism, self-righteousness and power go to our heads. We have separated people from those we consider to have gone astray, who think differently from us. It may look very proper, and deeply orthodox, but very often it’s the complete opposite of “come and see”. Instead, it's rather a cold “go away.” 

The third grace-filled moment in this calling of Andrew is indicated by John's use of the word, rabbi, when he asks Jesus, “Rabbi, where do you stay?” John,  writing probably for a Greek readership, demonstrates the significance of the word and underlines its power and richness by going the extra mile and translating it: he writes, “‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher).”  He wants his readers to be aware that this was a specifically chosen word. It was not random. They could have used other words but they deliberately chose Rabbi. 

A growing part of our ministry today is to find the right language for God, the right words for our God moments and encounters. Magdalen Smith, an English priest and writer, speaks of the power of words for those of us who have to craft words and sentences as part of our ministry, when she says, “What we say about God and how we use our speech is really important. Speech can be damaging where dialogue is continuously interrupted, where words are used to demonise and vilify others, whenever language is unbeautiful and when the Biblical word is twisted and interpreted to suit a theological stance that does genuine harm to the human heart.”

She continues, beautifully: “The iconic beginning of John's gospel says that God breathes life into the world through this living Word which is Christ himself. The words we utter should echo this window into the eternal, refreshing the truth of the gospel continuously and providing soul life for those who are ready to absorb it.” What a powerful challenge on our ordination day.

Finally, the story of Andrew meeting Jesus simply states, “they remained with him.” That for you, my sisters and brothers, is the heart of my prayer and the prayer of my heart as I ordain you. That in all the changing scenes of life, in the great ups and downs of ministry, amidst the tensions of relationships, the uncertainties of our era and the ambiguities of our political situation, you may do no more and no less than to “remain with Him.” 

God bless you in your ministries. God bless this diocese. God bless South Africa and Africa.

God loves you, and so do I.

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba

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