Thursday 14 April 2022

Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2022

Preached at the Renewal of Vows and Chrism Mass of the Diocese of Cape Town on Maundy Thursday at Mark's Church, Athlone: 

Exodus 12: 1-4, 11-14; Psalm 116: 1-2, 11-18; 1 Corinthians 11: 23-2: John 13: 1-17, 31b-35

In the name of God, Creator, Son, Redeemer and Holy Spirit, Sustainer of life, Amen.

It is so good to see you all again! A warm welcome to those who have joined the Diocese since the last renewal of clergy vows or those who have been elected to new roles within the Diocese or placed in new parishes. Thank you to all the staff, the Diocesan staff at Braehead House and elsewhere, and to the staff at Bishopscourt and the Provincial Office, especially to Canon Charleen and Bishop Joshua for leading and managing Diocesan affairs. 

I also need to thank all the clergy upfront for accepting the 2022 diocesan budget which means that, for the third consecutive year, our stipends are at the same level as they were in 2019. Even this sacrificial financial strain will change as we reopen, reimagine and reach out to our parishioners and new members, and place our reliance on God. 

It feels strange this year that Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu is not sitting among us in the pews in his tracksuit during this Chrism Mass. He had for many years made it his practice after his Holy Week retreat to come to me at Bishopscourt to share how his retreat went and what God was putting in his heart. He always used to reassure us with the words, “Vader, you all are doing superbly!” May his soul rest in peace and rise in glory. Today, Professor John Suggitt turns 100 years old. What a milestone! We wish John a happy and blessed birthday, and thank him [you?] for his [your] life, witness, and ministry among us. 

“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” This verse from John 13 has stayed in my heart and mind for the last few days, almost becoming a mantra for me this Holy Week. I was tempted to send a note to Bishop Martin Breytenbach, asking him to  compose a song for me to rap today, instead of preaching this homily, but decided not to pursue the thought.

We gather with many images in our hearts and minds on this solemn day, in a solemn week. Traditionally it is the day of feet washing, a time of agonized prayer in Gethsemane, a time of betrayal and confusion. I recall preaching one year at the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, at the church in Gethsemane during the Sabeel conference. I was overcome by tears, which is a rare gift for me. I could identify closely with the Gospel account of how, just before Jesus entered Jerusalem, he wept over that city, bereft that it had not recognized its hour. You too have known these emotions, engaged those shadow sides, felt the intense hours of loneliness, and wept over lost opportunities. Each of us is challenged today not to miss the hour, lest our destruction comes nearer.

One other issue I have thought about often in these days – and the multiple pandemics that have raged through our country have emphasized it – is that there is a place of vulnerability in all of us, running through all our ministries. We have wept, we have prayed in agony, we have experienced the inordinately intense pain of betrayal, especially by those we regard as near and dear. As the Psalmist (55:14) put it, “...[Y]ou, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship at the house of God, as we walked about the worshippers” (55:25) spoke “[W]ords... [that] were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart: his words were softer than oil, yet were they drawn swords”. As a result we have doubted ourselves. Curiously though, such experiences have also been a time of slow, often painful healing; a time of grace. 

Two very poignant thoughts emerge on this day. In God’s hands, our brokenness, our acknowledgment of it, our dealing with it, reminds us that no matter how deep the hurt, we carry a certain grace, a beauty. We need to be reminded of that. We are reminded, as Exodus has it that '”No destructive plague will touch you.” (Ex 12:13) Lungi, who is good at sewing, knitting and lots of other artistic things, reminded me of the kintsugi art form the other day. This magnificent Japanese art form entails painstakingly weaving a thread, often a gold thread, to repair the cracks and imperfections of jars and bits of pottery that have been broken or damaged by wear and tear. When the process is completed, it is a thing of beauty, it has taken on a special hue. 

Broken places, worked upon gently and daringly, have the possibility of astonishing beauty. In St Mary's Cathedral in Joburg, Margaret, Diana, and the late Dorcas Campbell used to practise a similar art form, painstakingly weaving new cotton into some of our old, beautifully embroidered copes and chasubles, restoring them to a condition better than their former glory. It was a special and healing experience to sit in the sacristy and watch them.

My prayer for all who feel the burden and tears of a season of weeping; for those of us who have agonized in prayer till we have sweated; for all whose pain seems unbearable, is that we will experience that grace of the kintsugi moment that waits for each of us; the grace of being reworked, refashioned, and held in the mystery of bread broken and wine poured out in memory of that same Jesus, about whom we acclaim without ceasing at every Eucharist, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again”. Paul puts it beautifully, “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Jesus is never too distant and therefore, in Paul’s indomitable words, whatever afflicts us we do not weep, or groan or agonize, like those who have no hope. We all need hope in these times.

Some of you know that my spiritual director is a Jesuit priest, so I have an interest in what they do and read. I once read a sermon preached when a group of Jesuits made their final vows. The preacher spoke of their years of study, the wonder of being able to read the Scriptures in three ancient languages, their great pastoral skills – and how the world would admire them and rate their training as a great strength. Then he reminded his congregation of two great teachers who went to their deaths, accused, conspired against, and humiliated. 

One, Socrates, drank his dose of poison and stoically, without displaying human emotion or weakness, went to his death. The other, Jesus, went to his death falsely accused, misunderstood by the elite, stumbling under the weight of a cross, apparently weak and helpless, thirsting on Calvary’s hill, calling out to his father, feeling forsaken. The preacher ended with this challenge: the big question for you today, he told those about to take their vows, is not whether you are in control of your emotions or unflinching in the face of difficulties; the question is not whether you are pastorally skilled, intellectually stunning, or any of that. Those qualities will no doubt assist you in your many ministries, but ultimately the question for you today is simply this: like Jesus, are you vulnerable enough? Have you known your time of brokenness. Are you weak enough to be a priest? 

Even today that question hangs in the air around us. As we renew our vows, as we promise yet again to grow as people fully human, as we face our vulnerabilities and engage our blind spots, we need to know, to hear from those who shepherd us, that as we strive to mend in all sorts of ways, that we are loved, held closely, and affirmed.

Our sisters and brothers in the pews need to hear, know and to feel that when we wash their feet, when we minister the towel to them in service, that it is not a gesture but an act of solidarity, of recognition, that we do it because we too have been there. They need the words of the psalmist to ring true for them, “I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy.” [Ps 116:1] We too share their brokenness and the very real trials of their lives. Amid a great rupture of trust at so many levels of life in our country, the growing desperation as poverty and unemployment and the spiral of distorted half-truths shape our public discourse, we must start re-establishing trust, and building bridges. We will do it only by coming radically alongside each other as sisters and brothers, as equals and heeding Christ's new commandment of radically loving one another as Christ's disciples. This is our hallmark.

John’s Gospel, speaking of the washing of the feet, says very tellingly that Jesus took off his outer garments. He discarded all the stuff with which we are so used to clothing ourselves, the garments that distinguish us – class, status, race, religion and all these descriptive layers – and he approached the disciples at the level of a shared humanity. What they had in common bound them. and committed them to face what lay ahead, together.

We know that people have suffered greatly in these past years. They need to know deep down that we are not holding onto our outer garments but shedding them so that we can find each other more authentically, intimately, and purposefully. People have in these past days been caught up in webs of despair in Diepsloot and in a hundred other places ravaged by poverty. Limpho Hani on Sunday succinctly said, “ministers and those in power, please, please end pit latrines in our schools, reduce youth unemployment” – which sits at 34 percent. We can add to the litany:  fix sewage in streets and stop taxpayers’ money from being siphoned off into wealthy pockets at the expense of the poorest of the poor. We know that we break bread amidst these ills, including spiraling gender-based violence, and a criminal justice system lying in ruins. 

To add to our challenges, the impact of climate change is becoming ever clearer as we see dramatic changes in weather patterns. This week’s unprecedented and devastating flooding in KwaZulu-Natal is just the latest example of the threat it poses. My heart goes out to those affected, and we pray for the souls of the departed. We also pray for those affected in other parts of our continent, which suffers from what in effect is climate racism, in that Africans suffer disproportionately from a phenomenon to which we make a minimal contribution. In our own country please do assist Bishops Nkosinathi Ndwandwe of Natal and Vikinduku Mnculwane of Zululand, either directly or through ACSA’s disaster fund, as Anglicans in those dioceses recover from the floods.

John’s Gospel says, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.“ We cannot break bread or wash feet if our profoundest actions are not translated into a better life and a more just and loving society. What will differentiate us as Christ’s disciples is our radical love for those created in God’s image and for “God’s earth and the fulness thereof.” [Ps 24:1] It is only then that every Eucharist will indeed feed us, and that – as St Augustine said so tellingly – we will become what we have eaten, bread for the world and strengthened for service. 

May our promises today be embedded in that challenge and may we rise together to a chorus of joyful alleluias. 

The Most Revd Dr Thabo Makgoba

Archbishop and Metropolitan

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