Tuesday 14 November 2023

Sermon for the Commemoration of the Martyrs of Mbokotwana, All Saints Parish

Diocese Of Mthatha

143rd Commemoration of Martyrs of Mbokotwana and Centenary of All Saints Parish, Mbokotwana

Sunday, 12th November 2023

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b–14; Matthew 10: 16-22

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

Brothers and Sisters in Christ, Bishop Tembinkosi, members of Chapter present, clergy of the Diocese, members of the All Saints family, the Lutseke, Ntamo, Mehlo, Sokhombela, Mabengwana, Mkhuzangwe and Potwana families who are represented here, dear people of God: It is a great privilege to be here with you as we give thanks to God for the life and witness of the seven family members who are decorated as Martyrs of Mbokotwana by our church. More than that, it is an honour to have been asked to celebrate with you this centenary in the life of the Mbokotwana community and the Diocese. I thank you, Bishop Ngombane and Revd Tukute, together with your entire teams, for the planning and practical arrangements for this service. Thank you everyone for the wonderful, warm welcome we received on our arrival here this morning. Thank you also to those who gave of their time to help prepare for this occasion.

As we celebrate and commemorate these wonderful sons of our land, husbands, fathers and great grand-fathers, we give thanks to God for all the unsung heroes and heroines who during times past and present have kept the Gospel light burning here, proclaiming that Gospel through their lives, their zeal, their prayers and their service and witness. Today, we extend our gratitude also to God for His sustaining care for you, particularly during the past turbulent times we have been through, and for affording you this time of great hope and opportunity, even though of course it comes with challenges.

It was the work of the Scottish Episcopal Church that made the foundation of this Diocese possible. This was coupled with a wave of missionary enthusiasm in search of new fields in which to evangelise on the borders of the British Empire. History tells us that, through the work of missionaries in this land, the parish of All Saints was birthed initially as an outstation from St Augustine, Inxu, through the dedicated work of Mr Key and Mr Dodd, who started the mission in 1865 as students from St Augustine’s, Canterbury. Henry Callaway, the bishop credited with growing the Diocese from four mission stations into a thriving Diocese, had to return to England on doctor's orders in 1880 for a complete rest, but before he left Frs Waters and Cameron were ordained and so could continue their work as fully-fledged priests.

It was during this era that the Pondomise and Gun Wars broke out, people were killed and several places, including church buildings, were burnt and destroyed. One of them was St Augustine's, where the only part of the church that survived the fire was the stone font. It was this conflict that gave rise to what we are commemorating here today, namely the glory of adding to the church calendar the names of seven martyrs, including Catechist Lutseke. Each year in our Christian calendar we celebrate them on the 3rd of November, and we take this opportunity to give thanks to God for their dedication, service, and witness for the propagation of the gospel in this community and beyond.

Today’s reading from Matthew's Gospel (10:16ff) presents the disciples of Christ in the world as defenceless sheep amid a pack of wolves, whose survival and ministry must be supported by wisdom and innocence. In those familiar words of some Gospel translations, Jesus urges them to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves. And he reassures them that when the time of persecution comes, they shouldn't be anxious about what to do – God's Spirit would guide their response. In the same way, we are assured today, just as the Martyrs of Mbokotwana were assured in their time, that amid betrayal, pain, and suffering, by relying on God we can allay our anxieties, whether concerning material things or words. The hatred being experienced by those who were bringing a message of love to the world was particularly hard to bear, as was the charge that they themselves hated humanity. But in this passage Jesus is inviting us to endure, to be wise and firm to the end. Today, in 21st century South Africa, it seems very unlikely that we will be called to become martyrs, but it has happened in other parts of the world, and it will happen again, and those who face death for their faith can be reassured by the words of Jesus a few verses later, where he tells the disciples not to fear those who might kill the body but cannot kill the soul (v26).

In our other New Testament reading, Paul, writing to the Philippians from prison, declared that all he had learned, all he had experienced, he counted but loss compared to the single gain of knowing Christ (Philippians 3:4b-14). Paul had suffered the loss of everything that mattered most in his life – his place in Judaism, his place among the Pharisees, perhaps even his place in his home. But this was nothing when placed against the power of the Resurrection. His experience on the road to Damascus had converted him from being self-centred to being centred in Christ. Now he wants to live in that knowledge of Christ, which is fellowship, obedience, and service. His great ambition and longing is to share in Christ's sufferings, even unto death, and thus to know the power of Christ's resurrection in his daily experience. He has one goal to which he must press on, the prize that is the fulfilment of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. And of course, church tradition has it that Paul too died a martyr's death.

Sisters and brothers, the picture so often used by Paul, is that of a race, perhaps a chariot race, perhaps an athletic contest. It is possible to think of the prize as Christ himself, as God’s call to the life above or as the crown of life above, assuring Christ's followers of His grace to those who persevere faithfully in their calling to the end. As we commemorate the Martyrs of Mbokotwana and the centenary of this church today, what is it that we can learn from these Bible passages? What is your great ambition and longing in the here and now for your family, your community and even for our country and the world? What can each of us take back to our homes, our parishes, and our Diocese?

You will know better than I what your particular challenges are in your own context, in this parish, in this Diocese, in this province of our country. But let me make two suggestions to you: suggestions which call both for your prayers and for active involvement in the affairs of wider society.

Please hold in your prayers those parts of the world – more than 40 in all – where people are in armed conflict with one another. On our own continent, pray especially right now for the people of Sudan, where fighting between the regular army and a paramilitary force is devastating the country, killing 9,000 people and forcing five-and-a-half million to flee their homes. And beyond Africa, pray for the land we call holy, for Palestine and Israel, where more than 10,000 people have been killed in recent weeks in attacks and counter-attacks as a result of the denial of people's rights and the failure of leaders to work out a just solution for governing the land which they occupy. Pray that countries supplying weapons to the parties to the conflict will stop doing so, and that Western powers will abandon their shameful partisanship and promote peace with justice.

In our own nation, I urge you to join the ABC campaign as we prepare for next year's election. The ABC is the “Archbishop's Ballot Challenge” which I issued to the church earlier this year. I know that many young people are disillusioned with politics and public life, and angry at the selfishness and corruption of some of our politicians. But the only way to turn the situation around is to do something about it ourselves. So please make our houses of worship “voting sanctuaries”, where young people can use the freedom we fought for to transform South Africa into the country we want. Perhaps using the slogan, “Registering to vote is as simple as ABC”, you could facilitate voter registration for both those who have become eligible to vote since 2019, as well as those who have not bothered to register in the past.

Turning to our Old Testament reading today, Joshua appealed to the Israelites to make a choice and put away the gods their forefathers had worshipped. He made this commitment publicly himself, hoping to prompt the people to do the same, then pushed back at their all too glib acceptance of the stipulations of the covenant. He reminded them that it was no slight thing they were binding themselves to do, his challenge prompting a more full-hearted and confident assertion that they would indeed serve and obey the Lord our God. It is my prayer that you also will meet God’s challenges in the here and now with the same level of commitment.

Friends, thank you to all of you in this Diocese and region for what you do to help God’s people. May your communities live in harmony with one another, and may you guide them away from selfish ambitions and encourage all to provide efficient and honest service to the public. As I end, it is my prayer that as the faithful of this beloved Diocese, as clergy and lay people alike, you will continue to ensure that the legacy and sacrifice of all the saints of our land, and especially of these seven martyrs we remember today, were not made in vain.

As you open your hearts and minds to the moulding of the God who calls you and holds you in his palms like clay, may you discern what God is calling you to do as, like Paul, you seek to follow Christ's example. Congratulations on this successful commemoration service and 100 years of this church building.

May God bless you, this Diocese, our province, South Africa, and the world. God loves you and so do I. Amen

The Most Revd Dr Thabo Makgoba

Archbishop and Metropolitan

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