Monday 7 August 2023

Homily for the funeral of the Revd Canon John Suggit

 The Most Revd Dr Thabo Makgoba

Archbishop of Cape Town

Homily for the funeral of the Revd Canon John Suggit

St Margaret's Church, Fish Hoek

Diocese of False Bay

Friday August 4, 2023

May I speak in the name of God, who is Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.

Sisters and brothers, John's children, Liz, Wendy and Nic and members of your families; Bishop Margaret, Father Andrew, visiting bishops, retired bishops; all the children of God gathered here: Greetings to you all in Christ's name.

Thank you, Liz and Wendy, for honouring me by asking me to preach at such a significant occasion in the life of our church in Southern Africa. And thank you, Bishop Margaret, for hosting me in your Diocese, thank you Father Andrew, and all those in this Parish who helped to arrange this tribute to and celebration of the life of our beloved Canon John Suggit.

I say tribute advisedly, because as Liz (Hall) has gently pointed out, in true Anglican tradition John did not want his funeral to be marked by tributes. As she said, the collection put together with such dedication by McGlory Speckman for John's 100th birthday is as powerful a tribute we could wish for. But as Liz also told us, John wanted the focus today to be on God and his goodness and faithfulness, and I am comfortable with what I am about to say because in fact the life and witness of John Suggit modelled God's goodness and faithfulness.

So let me begin with John's own understanding of the journey of discipleship through the Johannine lens, which was beautifully captured in the title of his book on John's Gospel, “Down to earth and up to heaven”. The theologian William Shannon referred similarly in his reflections on life and the journey towards death, speaking about our journey being “Here on the Way to There”, observing as John had often done that we are, all of us, almost “there”. And so, as Anselm put it, the theologian's great task is to explore our faith in a way that we develop an understanding of what those "almost there" moments hold for us and to live meaningfully in those moments.

The testimony of John's very long life is that he explored and explained so powerfully moments in which our understanding of our faith is expanded. His was a life of excellence, as a devoted and caring husband and father, as a conscientious pastor, as an unsurpassed teacher and as a brilliant scholar. He would have known the line of Virgil's in the Aeneid – although he would never have applied it to himself – that "those who excel, thus reach the stars."

There is something comforting to know that part of the “there” that he explored, and in later life longed for, is that metaphorical place amongst the stars, in the light, and that as we too seek that light, each one of us is challenged to do what John did in every class he taught, and that is to kindle the light in others. There is a quote that has been attributed to so many people that we are no longer certain who penned it, that says, and I quote, “As we let our own light shine we unconsciously give other people the permission to do the same.” This is what John Suggit did: he opened up vistas and spaces for others to live into, to build on and ultimately to find their way with God.

In her dedication of her book, The Salt Eaters, to her mother, the author Toni Cade Bambara writes of her mother that “in 1948 having come upon me daydreaming in the middle of the kitchen floor, [she] mopped around me and gave me the space to dream, left me with words to grow my imagination." Words are important to us, not just to us as teachers or preachers, but because words – the Word made flesh – is, as John so beautifully showed us, at the heart of both our faith convictions and our Incarnational theology as Anglicans.

Duncan Buchanan once wrote of John that he related everything in the New Testament to the Eucharist. Students who were not familiar with a Eucharistic theology and spirituality were powerfully moved by the depth of his conviction, and the transformation that this central act of worship offered for the transformation of the world. As the one-time Dean of Westminster Abbey, Michael Mayne, reminded us, "every time we gather at the altar and 'do this' in memory of Jesus, we do what every church on earth exists to do: to bring us into the Kingdom, damaged, dysfunctional people that we are, and to re-member us, recreate us as the Body of Christ in the new creation that exists from Easter day."

Mayne went on to say that every Eucharist is a re-embodying of Christ, a remembering of him in us, our incorporation into his Body; which is St Paul's constant theme. St Theresa of Avila spoke of Christ having no body now but ours. St Augustine wrote, “As the bread and wine when you eat and drink it, is changed into you, so you are changed into the Body of Christ by an obedient and holy life. You are receiving that which you have begun to be.” In the words of Teilhard de Chardin “the Incarnation realised, in each individual through the Eucharist”. All of this inspired John Suggit's theology, his worldview and his commitment to the transformation of our fragile country and our broken world.

Reflecting on the passage about the raising of Lazarus, as the Gospel of St John recalls it, there is a continuum with much of what we remember in John Suggit. That is his abhorrence for the things that prevent people from living fully human lives, and for that which restricts potential and keeps people captive in the guilt syndromes of cheap religion. As we hear Jesus commanding, “Lazarus, come out!” we recall that the word education – John's lifelong ministry – is composed of the Latin words meaning to lead out: to lead out of darkness, ignorance, injustice, humiliation, oppression, marginalisation, exploitation and discrimination; to lead out of false religion and cheap grace, so that we might live the fullness of the injunction in St Irenaeus's teaching that "the glory of God is a person fully human."

The lives of witnesses to Christ such as John Suggit tell us that teachers and priests, theologians and academics, need to stand in front of the multiple graves that entomb people and nations, and from there to call the entombed into a new freedom, into a time of resurrection. That call is followed by the instruction to unbind those brought from the grave, to remove the cloths that restrict and force demeaning identities on them and to liberate them. We are all called to carry out this liberating ministry. No one is exempt from this task, one which is a direct consequence of celebrating the Eucharist. It is a task which grows from the spaces which good teachers create, spaces in which imaginations grow and good praxes emerge.

It is fitting then that we not only hear that gospel but that we remember John Suggit with gratitude and boundless love at the altar of the Lord, the place where he loved to minister, where we are all re-membered, put together, so that we can live forever that which is our better selves. John has taught us well. Ours is now the holy task of following, of allowing ourselves to grow into, as the psalmist puts it, what we were created to be in our mother's womb. But for now, as the Eastern Liturgy says it so poignantly, "Singing to the grave we go, Alleluia, Alleluia!"

May John rest in peace and rise in glory!

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