Tuesday 19 October 2021

Sermon at Anglican schools' confirmation service

Combined Confirmation Service for Anglican Schools in Cape Town

Bishops Diocesan College, Rondebosch

10 October 2021

Readings: Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4: 12-16; Mark 10: 17-31

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

Brothers and sisters in Christ, dear people of God, heads of participating schools – Mr Antony Reeler of Diocesan College, our host this year; Mrs Heather Goedeke of Herschel; Mrs Shirley Frayne of St Cyprian’s; and Mr Julian Cameron of St George’s Grammar School – also friends and families, I am pleased to join you to share in this important milestone in the lives of the confirmation candidates under the challenges of Covid-19.

A warm welcome to you all. Thank you for inviting me today and, most importantly, thank you to the school chaplains – the Revd Monwabisi Peter of Bishops, the Revd Lorna Lavello-Smith of Herschel and the Revd Andrew Weiss of St Cyprian’s, for preparing the candidates for confirmation. A special welcome to those who attend this service for the first time in their new capacities. A special welcome also to the parents and godparents of those to be confirmed.

Thanks, Revd Monwabisi, for being our host, for preparing the service and for a wonderful service booklet. It is always a joyous occasion when Anglican schools in our diocese meet and worship together, but in the face of this devastating pandemic it is all the more important that we stand together in solidarity at this time of crisis in our land and the world. Many of us have lost friends and relatives to Covid-19, and we extend our heartfelt condolences to those who have lost loved ones.

Today we come in the presence of God to give witness to the special gift with which God, out of his goodness, will endow you, the confirmation candidates: the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into your lives. The rite of passage that you pass through today will help you to practise your faith more effectively in every aspect of your existence, expanding your relationship with God and strengthening your spiritual lives.

The gifts of the Spirit equip us for worship, witness and service. Of these three, I always say worship is the most important because everything else we do flows from this. In worship we praise and give reverence to God. It begins with fear of the Lord – meaning that we should stand in awe of the Lord. Fearing, or standing in awe of God, is one of the gifts of the Spirit. So through worship we show respect for and love of God, admiring God with those who believe in him.

The Gospel reading today, Mark (10:17ff), presents us with Jesus’ encounter with a rich young man. In the mind of the young man, the concept of eternal life probably had an eschatological meaning, referring to life in the age to come and not a concept which gave him any sense of security in the here and now. In this passage Jesus takes a word the man uses, and throws it back at him for deeper consideration. Jesus might be saying that, in an absolute sense, goodness belongs to God our Creator alone. Whether Jesus could be seen as good was in a sense subject to growth and testing in the circumstances of the incarnation, in which He would learn obedience through what he suffered.

Despite the rich young man's need for a sense of security for the future, judged by the standards of the law he felt himself to have attained a measure of goodness. What he now expected was to be told to undertake something difficult and praiseworthy, to make good anything that might be lacking.

Friends, it is this popular idea of striving for goodness based on merit that Jesus attacks. The lesson Jesus taught is that the kind of human achievement the young man aspires does not produce what is described as “good” in God’s sight in the way Jesus uses the term. In fact, this man was breaking the first commandment: for his possessions were his god. As his teacher, Jesus responds by giving him a liberal dose of that which will bring him to Christ: that he would be justified by faith and not by works. The command that he sell his possessions does not necessarily apply to all of us – it was an admonition to that particular person in that particular situation, arising out of the reality that he was entrapped by his possessions.

Neither did Jesus promise him eternal life in return for the sacrifice of his riches; he promised him only a secure treasure in return for an insecure one. Jesus outlines a way of life which involves ridding ourselves of whatever would hinder us from following him. The disciples were astonished when Jesus pointed out how difficult it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, for it was the prevalent opinion in Judaism that riches were a mark of divine favour. But it is also true that it is possible to part with one’s possessions in some good cause without becoming a true follower of Jesus; having one's life shaped by one's faith involves our hearts and minds, not simply actions. This of course has implications for depending on wealth and possessions for happiness.

In our Old Testament reading, Job begins in this passage with the heartfelt wish that he could find God so he could press his case. He is voicing a longing for God's presence. “What I would give to know where to find God,” is his plea. Job has already given everything to end up where he is: his family, his wealth, and his physical health, and now he seems on the verge of giving up his spiritual health as well, just to reach God. This longing, this desperate need for an answer to the whys of suffering, then at least some sense that God is near, concerned, interested and caring, is sure to resonate with anyone who hears it.

As learners at our Anglican schools, what can we learn from this example? What is one thing that each of us can take back to our schools, communities and families?

Those of you who have heard me before at these occasions know that I have an abiding passion that our church must promote the common good in our society by providing – and not only providing but actually radically expanding – opportunities for quality, affordable education in schools which are fully inclusive and reflect the demographics of our country. I am repeating myself because it bears repeating: While I know that most of our schools are committed to opening up places for boys and girls whose parents don't have the means to send them here, I do wonder whether the wealth and relative privilege reflected our most exclusive Anglican schools is not sometimes an obstacle to an in-depth understanding of the society in which we live. As I have said before, for all the facilities and educational opportunities we provide, they will count for nothing unless we are preparing a representative cross-section of society to serve and develop a nation which meets the needs of all.

Since I last spoke to schools in Cape Town on the challenges we face, we have seen public outbursts of hurt and anger, especially from alumni, at their experiences of marginalisation, exclusion, and discrimination at our schools. In response, last year's meeting of the church's Provincial Standing Committee – the body which meets annually to oversee the running of the Anglican Church across Southern Africa – asked me to appoint a task team to look at this problem broadly and propose ways we could address it. The team is headed by the Wits University educationalist, Professor Mary Metcalfe of Wits, an Anglican herself, and recently provided us with a progress report.

In a perceptive and nuanced assessment, the task team says it is on a rigorous journey of learning about what it describes, and I quote, as “the complex and often unrecognised or ‘invisible’ features of discrimination experienced by members of school communities.” It continues: “Our society, and the values and attitudes that we absorb daily, constantly reinforce a dominance and exclusion, and practices of disciplined reflection need to be embedded in the institutional culture of schools if discrimination is to be addressed at the depth required.”

The task team says we need to make a conscious decision to challenge the deeply-held assumptions underlying our thought and action, and it calls for us to commit to a process of learning more about all forms of discrimination. It recognises that despite making mistakes along the way, many schools have made determined and consistent efforts to provide greater opportunities for students’ voices to be heard, and that in turn some students have felt empowered to help build a new culture at their schools.

Importantly, it recognises that if the team is to develop helpful recommendations, they need to be owned by schools. It says that recommendations which are not the outcome of authentic engagement and which have not been enriched by the experiences of those who must adopt the recommendations will exist on “paper” only and will not be incorporated into the essence of the life of schools.

So although a lot of work lies ahead, and the task team says the pace of change needs to accelerate, it has made a good start in helping us to provide the framework for addressing our current challenges and providing an education that prepares our young people for the 21st century.

Confirmands, it is at turning points such as this in your lives and in the life of our communities and our country that our destiny is shaped. Destiny is a matter of choice, not of chance. I appeal to you, as you embrace Jesus's call to be his disciples, to allow him to shape you and form you in accordance with His will for your lives. And in our national life, I pray that all of us will embrace our New Struggle, that we will awaken our consciences and demonstrate solidarity and commitment to a culture of values-based decision-making and care for one another in ways including the protection of women and children. In that way we can be of service to our schools, our families and our beautiful country.

As I conclude I want to thank all the educators and learners, who during the turbulent times of Covid-19 have ensured that learning and teaching has continued to take place.

The God who began that good work in you, will perfect it into the day of Christ Jesus (Phil.1:6). Congratulations on your confirmation, and may God bless you, your family and South Africa.

And as you know, God loves you and so do I.


 Archbishop Thabo Makgoba

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