26 July 2020

Sermon: 8th Sunday after Pentecost


Sermon: 8th Sunday after Pentecost
26 July 2020 – Archdeacon Mark Long
Romans 8:26-30 and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52; NRSV

Greetings once again as we continue to navigate this new context thrust upon us by the COVID-19 pandemic. Two weeks ago, when I last preached, we met between storms as the Cape was lashed by high winds and substantial rain. Today we gather in after a period of balmy winter weather – balmy by Cape standards, anyway – with sun and relative warmth for company. Dawn and my time away has possibly added to the sense of warmth and well-being for me in this moment. Again, thank you all so much for the opportunity to break away for a few days: we both remain incredibly grateful and appreciative of the opportunity!

Today’s reading from Romans invites us into a very special place of being, to open ourselves and our most intimate interior spaces to the ministry of God’s Holy Spirit. Personally, I mostly find it hard to share my need, especially my broken places that expose my weakness, both with God and even with close family and friends; and perhaps you, too, can relate. Today’s invitation is to allow the Holy Spirit of God to inhabit this vulnerability, and to find the words that we cannot to express the fragility that underlies our lives at this time. The nature of this pandemic is that there are no certainties, either in the present, and perhaps even less so for the future; and with that comes a plethora of concerns, even fear. For me there is a deep comfort in Paul’s encouragement that “… the Spirit helps us in our weakness; … [interceding] with sighs too deep for words” (8:26).  It is comforting to know that we don’t always have to find words, that God searches and knows our hearts sufficiently to hold us as we face the abyss of our fear. And even more than this, that there is hope, “… because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (8:27). The nature of our new context and it’s related uncertainties is that we do not yet know what to truly want, or what may practically be helpful in navigating this journey. We still lack the language to put our longings into words, and our prayers appear all too stunted in our attempt to define an unknown future. It has been many decades since we in our common humanity last felt so out of control of our environment and our world.

It may be helpful to reflect on what Paul means here in Romans when he refers to the will of God, especially if we are honestly seeking wisdom in beginning to plot our future beyond the present frustrations of lockdown; and beyond the devastation this pandemic brings to our communities in terms of loss of life, loss of employment, and a potential ultimate loss of hope. As people of faith our hope is in God’s purposes being worked out through the brokenness of our present experience, and – in our increasing lack of trust in Government – in our trust that God has a plan that we can link into and build together. This is increasingly vital to our spiritual, psychological, and emotional wellbeing. In this Scripture passage God’s will is linked to the word “predestined” (8:30), and our common understanding of predestination tends to suggest a lack of choice, that God has ordained what will happen and we have little alternative but to go along with it. In the context here of Romans, however, it refers more to the unfolding of God’s purposes in the broad context of God’s will, and not to a specific path or even to specific detail of our present or future journey. Our ability to choose is integral to this unfolding, allowing us to be active participants in God’s will and not pawns. God’s will is about possibility and potential; and it is to be discovered within our present suffering, and is composted by our brokenness.

None of this promises us an easy journey, or that we will clearly comprehend God’s will; but our hope lies in trusting that it will unfold. Today’s Gospel reading from Matthew offers us some signposts, parables that highlight something of the paradoxical nature of God’s activity in our world, some handholds on the mystery of it all. The parable of the mustard seed reminds us not to discount the seemingly insignificant signs of God’s presence; and the parable of the yeast prompts us to trust that God’s will is not limited by seeming insufficiency (13:31-33). These two parables are a powerful reminder that despite the limitations of our present, growth is not just a possibility; it is a reality. If we can gather our courage and commit to being active participants in the unfolding of God’s will, we will be co-creators of a hope-filled future.

The following two parables (13:44-46) give us an insight into the nature of this co-creative journey: it is one of discovery. It is one in which we will discover truths and insights that are so valuable that we will be willing to sacrifice absolutely everything to sustain these gifts for the common good of our communities, and the common good of humanity. I find it intriguing that when Jesus asks the disciples if they understand this, they answer, “Yes” (8:51). Are we able to respond with such confidence?

Again, none of this is offered as a comfortable or certain journey. It will require us to discover these nuggets in the context of our present and ongoing struggles. It will demand we face our uncertainty, and move forward despite our fear. In today’s reading from Romans we are reminded that we are called, and that our calling comes with resources (8:30); and with a reminder that if God is for us all things are possible (8:31). We may not feel confident, but our confidence is in the Holy Spirit’s ability to use us in the unfolding of God’s will.

Going forward, as people of faith, I do not believe we have the luxury any longer to live out our faith in any way that is separate from the wider needs of the society we belong to. We cannot afford to insulate ourselves from the social, economic or body-political realities of our Nation, or distance ourselves from the suffering of the majority of our fellow South Africans. God’s love is indiscriminate, and ours must be, too. I am only too aware that this is easy to say, and that follow-through is easily distracted by the unsettling nature that the practicalities of what it actually means to move beyond the protective boundaries of our Church walls will require of us. As I have intimated before, this pandemic is a kairos moment for us as God’s people. We need to connect meaningfully and life-givingly with the world that God has placed us in, and no matter the difficulties or challenges, commit anew to being of service to others and to the unfolding of God’s will in our world and our time.

I was gifted this week with an awakening to three principles that carry substantial Biblical content, and which I believe to be critical to the future health and healing of our social, economic, and body-political environment in Southern Africa: transformation, equity, and belonging[1]. Transformation is about a marked change in the form and nature of our relationships; equity is the quality of being fair and impartial; belonging is about creating safe and welcoming spaces. These are three principles I am willing to commit to and seek to sustain for the common good, to which I can say, “Yes” with confidence. In them I see the possibility and potential for growth, tools for the unfolding of God’s will as we journey through our present uncertainties, a source of hope for our future. I hope you may similarly be inspired, and that we may find the time and space to explore these as a practical map to our faith-journey at St Andrew’s, both in serving each other and in serving the world.

In place of a prayer, I close today with a few selected verses from the poem Narrative Theology #2 by Irish Poet and Theologian, Pádraig Ó Tuama[2]:

God is the crack
where the story begins.
We are the crack
where the story gets interesting.

We are the choice
of where to begin –
the person going out?
the stranger coming in?

God is the fracture,
and the ache in your voice,
God is the story,
flavoured with choice.

God is the bit
that we can’t explain –
maybe the healing
maybe the pain.

We are the bit
that God can’t explain –
maybe the harmony
maybe the strain.

God is the plot,
and we are the writers,
the story of winners
and the story of fighters,

the story of love,
and the story of rupture,
the story of stories,
the story without structure.



[2] Pádraig Ó Tuama In the Shelter: Finding a home in the world, page 129-130

12 July 2020

Sermon: 6th Sunday after Pentecost


Sermon: 6th Sunday after Pentecost
12 July 2020 – Archdeacon Mark Long
Genesis 25:19-34 and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23; NRSV

Greetings on this day, this moment between storms. I don’t know about you, but the weather is often reflected in my moods; and while I appreciate the rain the clouded darkness settles on me, and I rejoice when the sun breaks through again. I am unsure right now whether I look forward to the another storm that threatens for tomorrow, or not, although my weather app suggests it is receeding. In the midst of all the storms of life we already face, I am sure that more sun would be a gift, and this gift is my prayer for those living in less privileged accommodation in our city than myself who are enduring flooding and the wet destruction of their lives during this weather cycle. Storms are an experience of the unexpected, and although we are generally forewarned each storm brings elements of unpredictability and heartache. As we ride the present storms of the pandemic and lockdown, and now renewed load-shedding, we are reminded of the importance of making room for the unexpected. In the Daily Office of Morning Prayer that I use regularly at the moment there is a lovely phrase, “May we find wisdom and life in the unexpected.”[1]

In today’s reading from Genesis we hear that Rebekah is experiencing a storm in her womb as her twins struggle together within her, causing her to enquire of the Lord (25:22). It seems a natural thing to do when we find ourselves caught up in chaos we neither expect nor understand: we question, we seek wisdom. When I first met with the Archdeaconry Clergy about 5 weeks into the Lockdown via Zoom, most of us reflected on how those first five weeks had strengthened our relationship with God, and I have heard this repeated in other conversations since with both clergy and lay people, and it is probably true for many of us gathered virtually this morning. The COVID-19 storm continues to flood our lives, and causes us to seek refuge, and because it has thrust us into uncertainty and carried us beyond what we can control, God becomes the focus of our search; maybe not for all, but for many. I encourage you to make space to reflect on your learnings, on your experience of these last few months, and to note the wisdom you have gained (perhaps journal your thoughts, or talk it through with a trusted friend or confidant).

Just as the Cape storm of the last few days will possibly birth another tomorrow, so back in Genesis we find Rebekah – from the struggle in her womb – birthing two children whose relationship will be an ongoing storm. Because it is written down for us we forget that these early stories in Genesis were originally oral narrative, passed from one generation to another. I find it helpful to imagine them as fire-side stories, told after a good meal, a cup of something comforting in hand; and then I listen for the story behind the story. I listen to a community seeking wisdom in the telling, sorting through their chaos, searching for meaning in their changing landscape. We see in Esau and Jacob a common theme in Genesis: a community of Pastoralists reflecting on the broader human developmental shift away from an early Hunter/Gatherer way of life towards the more settled agrarian culture that increasingly marks their human experience. The story explores the question as to which way of life is right, which one has God’s blessing. There is humour in the telling of the story: one twins heel in the hand of the other as they are birthed, the older unthinkingly swopping his birthright for some soup (and clearly not thinking the transaction a serious one), and in seeking the blessing of inheritance from his father discovering he has been tricked in more ways than one in the loss of the gift. Humour is how we best hear truth, and it’s a story with much truth, with a personal feel, that impacts on how the world is changing, and the uncertainties underlying the seeming securities of life.

This Genesis story is a useful one as we reflect on change in our own context. We know that substantial shifts were already underway before the pandemic, and we were already experiencing the challenges of this new context: a shift described increasingly as the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) that most of us don’t really understand, except that we find it increasingly difficult to get our heads around a new phone, and realise we can do a whole lot of shopping without going to a shop;  and we are happy that we can video-call family living in Australia, or in other distant places. The change hasn’t just been around technology: we’ve also noticed that it’s more difficult to get our children and younger generations into Church, that our friends are less interested in formal religion, and that truth is increasingly relative for many people. And then came COVID-19! Suddenly all this 4IR-stuff means we can close the Church building and still gather, get everything delivered that we need (if we press the right buttons on the computer screen), and even have a social life – all in the virtual world that previously was the domain of science fiction and seeming fantasy. Due to the virus we were not given any choice, we were thrust into it, into the eye of the storm. 108 days later, how are you coping with the change?

I wish we had time this morning to hear from you all, and as I say this I realise it is important we create an opportunity and time to share our experiences. However, for now it’s important to think about what we mean by change. Change is never sought for itself and is often thrust upon us at a moment not of our choosing. From a faith perspective change is a gift that brings us deeper wisdom and endows us with a greater wholeness of life; in essence faith-based change is transformative. Richard Rohr helpfully comments, “The word change normally refers to new beginnings. But the mystery of transformation more often happens not when something new begins, but when something old falls apart. The pain of something old falling apart—chaos—invites the soul to listen at a deeper level, and sometimes forces the soul to go to a new place. Most of us would never go to new places in any other way. The mystics use many words to describe this chaos: fire, dark night, death, emptiness, abandonment, trial, the Evil One. Whatever it is, [chaos] does not feel good and it does not feel like God.”[2]

As I have stated in previous sermons the pandemic has thrust us into a new context, rather than a new normal, which we are discovering to be filled with uncertainty both in the present and for our future; and it is marked by the falling apart of all that has previously made sense of life. Richard Rohr’s use of the word chaos aptly fits this uncertainty, especially as we continue to mourn – even lament – the loss that this collapse marks for us. This chaos may not feel good or feel like God, but from a faith perspective it is the medium through which the transformative power of God is able to embrace and heal us. It is the liminal context in which hope is renewed.

The falling apart of the old is visible in the cracks that the pandemic has highlighted in our society, our economy, and our political environment. The pandemic has acted as a kind of earthquake, shaking up our world to the point where we are forced to acknowledge that the structures of our society are beyond repair. We really need to rebuild; and the task is daunting, but not impossible. This is a kairos moment – a propitious moment for decision and action – for South Africa and the Western world; and in the context of our worship gathering today, a personal moment of kairos for me and for you. It is about allowing the change we are experiencing to become transformative, and to do this we need to hone our ability to listen deeply to one another’s stories, to avoid being reactive, and to be truly empathetic. Empathy is not a trait that comes easily to us, but in order to empathise with someone’s experience we must be willing to believe them as they see it and not how we may imagine their experience to be.[3]

We do always have choice: like Esau we can seek to hold to a past way of life, and in so doing lose our birthright; or like Jacob we can choose to embrace a new future, and – perhaps with necessary guile – ensure we have God’s blessing. My prayer is that we will have the courage to walk away from the brokenness of the past that still impacts so painfully on our present, and commit to working together towards a more whole and abundant experience of life and shared relationship. We may not be able to change the world, but we have the power to change our world: our own relational environment, our experience of community and of one another. This is our hope.

Let us pray,

God of the Edges,
even muzzled fear growls,
you know this.
You saw this in the people who had chained
the man who howled.
Open in us a thousand thousand pathways
into story.
Because you did this, and Hell was emptied.
Amen.[4]



[1] Pádraig Ó Tuama, Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community
[3] Attributed to Brené Brown https://brenebrown.com/about/
[4] Pádraig Ó Tuama, Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community

21 June 2020

Sermon: 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon: 3rd Sunday after Pentecost
21 June 2020 – Archdeacon Mark Long
Genesis 21:8-21 and Matthew 10:24-39; NRSV

Greetings, once again, as we continue to navigate an extending and difficult journey, one that all too easily magnifies fear and undermines courage.

I would be interested to know which journey came to mind as I said those words?

Dawn once worked for a boss who would often ask the question whenever an employ entered his office, “So what is this I hear?” It was a magic question that elicited the most amazing amount of information about what was going on in the life of the individual and the business. He of course had never heard anything, but ultimately heard everything.

So what journey came to mind, and what emotion is attached to that journey? 

What fears or anxieties are magnified? How much of this were you aware of before I asked the question? 

And what are you going to do with this knowledge now that you are becoming conscious of it? Do you have the courage to face it? There’s the rub.

We’re all on a journey with Lockdown, some of us staying obediently at home, others of us rationalising a less than strict adherence to the regulations, and others of us ignoring the dangers of the virus with reckless abandon. Note how people wear – or don’t wear – their masks in public: it’s a dead giveaway to how seriously they take the virus’s threat.

Systemic and institutionalised racism is another global journey shouting for our attention: a few of us feel its direct affect on our lives; others of us are looking to distract its attention on us by saying “But what about …?”; some of us are facing it, as disconcerting as that may be.

Femicide – the systemic murder of women – is also a global stain on society and another journey, highlighted again this week by no less than President Ramaphosa;  and it’s global ramifications spotlighted by CNN and other media.

There are other journeys, too: having to accept a discounted salary, retrenchment, and worse; illness, be it Covid-19, cancer, or something a little less serious; death, the ultimate impact.

That is all a little depressing, and I’m sure like me you’re longing for a little hope, a little joy, and you’re doubtless thinking right now that I’m not helping you find it. 

It is precisely at this point that the importance of our faith kicks in: life is tough at the moment, and we need a resource beyond ourselves; that resource is God. More specifically it is an awareness of God, of God with us; of a presence that embraces our fear and anxiety, our anger and rage, our depression and despair; and transforms it into an energy that renews and restores us, that heals and enlivens us, that connects us to a very deep source of creative joy. This is the invitation of Pentecost, and the nature of the post-Pentecost journey. It is about making sense of our life-struggles in the light of God’s presence and the call upon us all to deepen our faith, and to strengthen our spiritual journey while having this experience of being human for a while. It is a journey into relationship, and a journey into integrity.

Today’s Psalm (86) reminds us that we do trust in God to watch over us, to be merciful towards us, to gladden our souls, to attend to our prayers; and in our time of trouble to answer our cry for help. Let us trust that anew and afresh right now, whatever journey is the focus of our present attention. This is affirmed in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 10, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows” (29-31). There is something comforting about being reminded of the extent of our value to God, especially in a time in which we may be questioning our value to the world in which we live.

In celebrating and accepting our value, we need to do so with integrity. Integrity from a faith perspective necessitates living out our faith in such a manner that all with whom we interact are also able to embrace their value, and that who we are does not limit this for others. This is more difficult, because it requires us to step back from all the value add-ons we have attached to our lives in terms of culture and tradition, and see ourselves and others at our zero base. For me this is best described by one of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s most endearing qualities: his ability to see himself primarily as a human being, and others in the same light. He is firstly a human being, and then an African, a Christian, a Bishop … it is precisely this integrity to who he is as formostly a human being created in the image of God that has made him such a profound example of reconciliation in this country and the world. Systemic racism and gender-based violence are precisely at odds with this perspective, and thus requires us to do some intense and consistent introspection around our own attitudes and behaviours that may foster such brokenness in our society. This takes courage, because when it comes down to it we are all quite wedded to the perspectives we hold on the world, and are not easily shifted from what we believe to be true, even if it undermines the humanity of others. The more put-out, upset, or even angry I become at such an assertion suggests the degree to which I am complicit with the heresies of my time.

Again, today’s reading from Matthew is instructive, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; … For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; … and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (10:34-38). The conflict reflected in these verses points to the disagreement that will ensue even within the strongest of family relationships over what is required of us by the Gospel. It is not about personal piety which all too often unthinkingly embraces conventional reverences, but it is about social justice, which we know only too well often brings us into conflict with those we know and love most.


I would love to sugar-coat this for us all, as much for myself as for you. I suspect you haven’t found my sermon today – or last week – an easy pill to swallow. Know that I struggle to speak my words perhaps as much, if not more than you struggle to hear them. However, for me the gift of faith and a personal relationship with God is of little value if it doesn’t transform and heal the world for others. Whatever your personal journey right now, I invite you to join me in what is a tough and difficult road to both personal and communal restoration, yet one that in the letting go we are able to find renewed life in and for the sake of Christ.

I again close with a prayer by Pádraig Ó Tuama, Irish poet and theologian, from his book Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community:

Jesus of the sheathed sword, 
in your name, many swords have been used 
and many people have perished. 
Speak to us, teach us, again and again, 
that violence begets violence. 
Teach us. Again and again. 
Over and over. 
Because we keep forgetting, 
and we need to keep 
remembering.
Over and over. 
Amen.

19 June 2020

Winter Newsletter 2020: Article

Dear Friends

Who could have imagined six months ago the changes we have been confronted with in the last while? The National Lockdown in March, mirrored across the world, has changed our lives in almost every way. I certainly entered the initial 21 days with a naïve expectation that we’d be back to life as usual by the end of April and continue merrily on our way. This was not to be, and the initial extension made it clear life was on a new path. Much of my emotional rollercoaster over the last while has been a mix of coming to terms with the death of “normal” and dealing with the anxiety associated with transitioning to something different as it begins to emerge.

From a faith perspective, I have found that having this Lockdown period run parallel to a very different celebration of Holy Week and Easter, the journey of Eastertide, and now an embrace of life post-Pentecost, helpful in navigating our journey into a “new normal”. My devotional reading for today centred on Lazarus being brought back to life by Jesus, and what strikes me is that as Lazarus dies to life and is returned to life, on one level life itself didn’t change. However, his experience of life must have changed fundamentally. It would be so interesting to hear from him how this impacted on his perceptions, expectations, and attitudes; what renewed life was like?

For you and me, as we reengage again with life as the National Lockdown begins to ease, perhaps it is time to bury past expectations, and acknowledge these last weeks as a time of mourning for all that we have needed to let go of. We also need to take time to reflect on what we are clinging to that may be obstacles to reengaging with a renewed life, one in which Covid-19 will remain an active participant?

As we step back out into the streets life looks familiar. Are we tempted to live as we always have, with relative disregard? Probably, but the virus does not allow us that luxury! As other generations have managed in centuries past, we need to find the courage to brave a new world, a renewed world. This virus has reminded us on a global scale that we are not immortal, and that we can no longer live without reference to the needs of others and without reference to the needs of the earth. It is no surprise that within this context several social diseases are also spotlighted. Racism and gender-based violence are two global social pandemics presently requiring attention: CNN reports that violence against women in the UK, Spain and other parts of Europe has increased, that in Mexico 11 women a day are killed by partners, and in Iran honour killings are up; and in our own country Cape Talk reports that 21 women have been murdered since we moved to Alert Level 3. There are other social problems endemic to our own context, including the ongoing murder of farmers to which there seem to be no answers, the gang-violence in many of our Cape Town suburbs, and random acts of violent crime. The loss of life is never acceptable, and this Covid-19 pandemic is a broader wake-up call for our world. As we hear the alarm bell going off, how do we react? Are we turning off the alarm, and getting up to act; or have we snoozed it?

The challenges are great, but not insurmountable. Our faith teaches us that even when the situation appears most dire, there is always hope. Job 4:6 (NRSV) reminds us that our confidence comes through meaningful relationship with God, and our hope is built on the integrity of our lives:

Is not your fear of God your confidence,
and the integrity of your ways your hope?

As we journey into winter, keep warm and keep healthy! Maintain social and physical distancing, wash your hands regularly, sanitise, and wear your mask in public (properly over your nose and mouth, and not as a chin or neck decoration!!). See you on ZOOM!

Blessings

Mark


16 June 2020

Sermon: 2nd Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon: 2nd Sunday after Pentecost

14 June 2020 – Archdeacon Mark Long

Romans 5:1-8 and Matthew 9:35-1:8; NRSV

 

Good morning to you all! Today marks 80 days since we went into Lockdown in South Africa, and despite the fact that the Alert has been downgraded to Level 3 the pandemic is still ramping up, and the Western Cape Health Department estimates we can expect in the region of an additional 8,000 deaths in the Western Cape in the next six to ten weeks (nine times the deaths over the last ten weeks): so please, while we do need to reengage with life in the real world, I do plead that we continue to be extremely careful. Of the just under 1,000 deaths from the virus so far in the Western Cape the majority have been in the 55 to 70 year-old age-group. Please stay home if you can, wash your hands regularly and sanitize, wear a mask properly, and maintain social and physical distancing (including resisting the temptation to pop in to see a family member or catch up with a friend). The reading from Romans today encourages endurance in the face of suffering, and this ongoing pandemic is certainly testing us in this regard. Please be careful, and remember that it is not primarily about protecting yourself, but protecting others. The greatest threat we face is that many are asymptomatic, yet infected; and that could define any one of us right now.

 

The gospel reading today offers us some important insights into both the heart of God and into the call on our own lives. We hear that when Jesus saw the crowds he had compassion on them, an insight into the empathy God has for the downtrodden and hurting in our world. The crowds are drawn to Jesus because, in a world dominated by the harsh circumstances of Roman rule in Palestine at the time, the people are searching for hope and longing for any opportunity to regain some form of control over their lives and circumstances. Jesus’ teaching and ministry can never be disconnected from the tough political, economic, and social realities of his day. The evil, the disease, the sickness that Jesus refers to (10:1) all has its roots in the tough realities of living in a colony on the outskirts of the Empire. You and I read, or hear, passages of Scripture like this one from Matthew’s Gospel through our privileged and largely comfortable lives, causing us to misread and mishear what God is saying to us, leading to an interpretation that too often disconnects Scripture from the realities of our day, causing us to be discomforted by any implication that the political and economic and social issues and discontent of our own time may in fact be the context of ministry and mission to which we as God’s people are called to be present. Right at the moment we are devastated by any suggestion that our churches, our schools, our communities are curators of systemic and institutionalised racism. If my Facebook newsfeed is anything to go by, we respond with superficial judgement of violent protest by people of colour around the Western world and in our own Nation, and fail to see the depth of grief this violence points too[1]. We fail in the test of our empathy.

 

Jesus response in seeing the harassed and helpless crowds, is to note that the harvest is plentiful; and he invites those with him to also see the opportunity this offers, and encourages them to ask “The Lord of the Harvest” for the resources to meet the overwhelming need visible before them (9:36-38). Jesus goes a step further, and from the larger group of disciples calls out the Twelve – and we must not miss the reference to the tribes of Israel in this number – and gives them responsibility for this task. This is not a mission to the ends of the earth, this is a mission to God’s people (10:5-6), and to the hurt and helplessness that God’s people are experiencing. James Alison[2], Roman Catholic Priest and Theologian, makes the important point that Twelve are chosen to underscore the point that this is about God’s people, and that while we subsequently may have attributed great prominence to these twelve disciples there was nothing particularly significant about them at this point in the Gospel narrative, except that they are representative of the diversity of political and economic outlook and social layering in Palestine at that time. Jesus’ choice of the Twelve speaks to the inclusive nature of God’s love for God’s people, and their commissioning to “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” (10:8) is a profound indication that God’s desire for God’s people is for their healing and their wholeness. Additionally, these disciples are sent to walk alongside the crowds, to be part of crowd’s experience and hardship and to be a healing and life-giving presence in their midst. It’s an overwhelming task, which we see in Jesus comment that the “… labourers are few” (1:37). However, the Twelve – and again we need to note the reference to the Tribes of Israel – are resourced, and more broadly God’s people (Israel) are resourced by being given “… authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.” There is a purpose to this, which is to announce to God’s people that God has not forgotten or abandoned them, no matter the harsh daily reality of life in a colony on the outskirts of the Roman Empire, that the “The kingdom of heaven has come near” (10:7) and is accessible. The reference to the Tribes of Israel by implication means that not only are God’s people to experience God’s presence in strengthening them to cope with the daily challenges of life in Palestine, but that God’s people (Israel) become that healing and life giving presence in the wider world, and we see this begin to be lived out in the life of the early Church subsequent to Pentecost. While the mission of the Twelve is “… to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”, we know from the book of Isaiah that the mission of the house of Israel is to the Nations; and in the context of today’s reading, to be a source of healing and hope in the wider world.

 

You and I are part of that greater world, and are privileged to be part of God’s people in today’s world. As the Twelve were given an opportunity to be a resource for healing and hope to Israel, and Israel to the wider world, so we carry a similar authority. We do, however, need to remember that with authority comes responsibility, and we remain fully accountable for the authority we have been given and the manner in which we choose to exercise that authority. You and I, just like the Twelve, are ordinary people. However, unlike the Twelve we are predominantly privileged members of our society – visible in our ability to meet online this morning – which means that we find it that much more difficult, perhaps even impossible, to truly relate to the depth of struggle that the majority of humanity experiences daily. It is not surprising that we are reactive – and sometimes violently so (even if only in language rather than action) – to much of the grief that is poured out, be it #feesmustfall, #metoo, #blacklivesmatter or other prominent movements of our day, because our privilege buffers us from the the pain these protests express, and too often we have the resources to respond without having to get too personally involved. My experience of visiting a number of the projects we support through our Ministry to The Needy Outreach programme, is that actually being on the ground, having conversations with those we support and help, makes such a difference in my ability to relate to the realities on the ground. So this is not to say that we trivialise the importance of these movements, or that we don’t care, and that our generosity in sharing our resources with those less fortunate than ourselves isn’t given with genuine concern; but it is to acknowledge that we are discomforted by anything that challenges our privilege and security, and that we automatically react in order to protect ourselves from any perceived threat to it. These are natural human responses, but ones we may not wish to acknowledge or own up to, in fear that we may be proved hypocrites or liars. The pandemic and ongoing effects of lockdown have leveled the playing fields globally, and many who have been assured of employment and income suddenly face the unexpected challenges of unemployment and possible homelessness on a scale unprecedented since the World Wars and the Great Depression a century ago, and this adds other levels of fear to our already anxious lives.

 

These are times in which we need to hold firmly to our heritage of faith, a heritage that all the way back in the book of Genesis declares that God created humankind and declared this creation to be not just good, but very good (1:31). As human beings we are all inherently good, and we need to trust that fully. However, we need to recognise that inherent goodness does not obviate brokenness, and both our goodness and brokenness need to be held in tension; and we need to own both. When our goodness is challenged, we need to find the courage to be vulnerable and take the time to listen – a form of reverse confession[3] – to those who experience the effects of our brokenness; and once we have heard to then find the courage to transform that which is broken in our lives, trusting that God is with us to heal and rebuild hope; and through listening to become instruments ourselves of healing and hope for others in our world. These are extraordinary times, which call for an extraordinary response. Change on the scale demanded is difficult and unprecedented for most of us, and seemingly beyond our experience in so many ways. We need to trust as never before that the reign of God is near, that God is present, and that we are resourced by the Holy Spirit to live life in all its fulness.

 

I close again with a prayer by Pádraig Ó Tuama from Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community[4]:

 

God of Yesterday, 

we knew you then: 

your promises; your words; 

your walking among us. 

But yesterday is gone. 

And so, today, we are in need of change. 

Change 

and change us. 

Help us see life now 

not through yesterday’s stories 

but through today’s. 

Amen.

Sermon: 7th Sunday of Easter

Sermon: 7th Sunday of Easter

24 May 2020 – Archdeacon Mark Long

Acts 1:6-14 and John 17:1-11; NRSV

 

A virtual good morning, once again! Today we mark the 7th Sunday after Easter alongside the 59th Day of formal National lockdown in South Africa. Our celebration of Ascension Day this last Thursday is a reminder that the season of Eastertide – a season of encounter with the risen Christ – is drawing to an end as Pentecost approaches. I find myself longing for the end of lockdown, too, and wish I could be as sure of that as I am of our Pentecost celebration next Sunday! In the disciples’ question to Jesus in our Acts Reading this morning, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" (1:6) I hear echoes of our National question to the President as we expect the introduction of Alert Level 3, “May we replenish our drinks cupboard, please?” Both the disciples’ question and ours are asked (different as they are), I suspect, with a similar level of intensity and frustration. For the Jewish Nation, after centuries of occupation, their desire for independence is echoed in our desire for personal freedom as the world continues to seek ways to resist the pandemic that has disrupted life so devastatingly and so completely.

 

Like me, you may be discovering that waiting is a difficult game, especially when there is no certainty as to how long we must do so. As you and I journey with this pandemic lockdown, we know how frustrating it is to have no clear answers or a clear plan, and to have leaders who are clearly working it out as they go along. While on one level we understand, on other levels our frustrations, fears, loss of income and loss of opportunity leave us listless, angry, anxious and uncertain. The disciples, after the ascension, as they wait for the promised Spirit must have experienced a similar roller-coaster of emotion. You and I hear today’s passage from Acts with a certain amount of familiarity, and with the gift of hindsight knowing how it all worked out. However, for those early disciples living through the experience was very different. Their opening question to Jesus about the restoration of Israel shows their ongoing confusion, or at least their struggle to comprehend, what Jesus was meaning and what God was doing in their lives and in their world. We find them staring up into the sky, a bit like we did for the first three weeks of lockdown – and  I relate to my own naivety – expecting life to return immediately to normal, or at least to what we all previously thought of as normal. It took an angelic presence to awaken the disciples to the reality that life may have changed, but still needed to be lived. And yet the waiting continued, as it does for us. For people of faith over the millennia there has always been one activity that fills the endless space of waiting: we hear that the disciples, both men and women, devoted themselves to prayer (1:14).

 

What does prayer look like for you in this time? 

 

In our reading from John’s Gospel today we find Jesus in prayer; and we are privileged to be made privy to his prayer. Mostly in the Gospels we hear of Jesus taking time out to pray; rarely do we hear the content of these times of intimacy with the Father. This particular prayer is called Jesus’ High Priestly prayer, and draws to mind the image of the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem, a place so holy that it was curtained off and the High Priest entered only annually (I have an image a very dusty place, though doubtless those who often remain invisible in most societies throughout the centuries, the servants, would have had access to clean). So while we have access to this particular prayer, and it’s implied intimacy, it also reflects a liturgical encounter of a more formal public nature: we are meant to participate in this prayer, to be included, to participate, to hear.

 

What do we hear?

 

We hear Jesus praying for himself; and there is no petulance in it, no self-absorption (as sadly so often creeps into my own prayers). It’s a prayer of acknowledgement, and a summarising by Jesus of his life, ministry and purpose. There is an acknowledgment that the hour has come for both Jesus, and the Father (the Source of all Being) to be glorified, a journey which you and I know will embrace the worst of human experience: arrest, an illegal trial, torture, and crucifixion. But we also know – as we prepare for Pentecost – that it also embraced resurrection, and with resurrection, renewed hope. This is not a vague hope, but one based in purpose, which in John’s Gospel is clearly identified in Jesus’ words as, “… you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (17:2-3).

 

My prayer today is that we find comfort in this gift of eternal life. It is an experience of life that is limitless on every level, filled with creative potential; and amazingly God’s gift to us within the limits of our experience of life on a daily basis. As paradoxical as this is, it is the space we enter into in prayer, and makes possible the experience of hope even in the midst of the most desperate of human conditions. It is what draws us inwards into relationship with God, and is also what propels us outward into the service of our world and humanity as a whole. It is a gift opened to us by the Ascension: Joan Chittister in her book In Search of Belief says, “… I learned that to say “I believe in Jesus Christ…who ascended into heaven” is to say “I believe in the mystical dimension of life….”” (2006). It is this mystical dimension of life that gives definition to eternity, and definition to the limitless nature of eternal life. It is experienced in prayer, and in the practical outworking of our prayers in daily life.

 

What else do we hear?

 

We hear Jesus praying for us. At the core of this prayer are Jesus’ words, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (17:11b). This period between the Ascension and Pentecost is globally a time of prayer for Christian unity, but I’m not sure we really understand the nature of the unity Jesus is praying for here, and I’m unsure that our prayer in this regard is of much use. Too often in Christian history unity has become a demand for orthodoxy, a demand that you believe what I believe, a demand for conformity and an exclusion of diversity. I don’t believe that any of that is envisaged in Jesus’ prayer for us.

 

The heart of unity is defined in the relationship Jesus shares with the Father (the Source of all Being), and relationship is key to understanding Jesus’ prayer for us. I suspect Jesus is referring primarily to the unity of purpose that has been forged in his relationship with the Father, and in this passage from John’s Gospel that purpose is embedded in the concept of eternity, but at the same time it is expressed within the context of the world, of our human experience of life, and in the business of daily living. Eternal life is not about life after death (although it does incorporate it); it is about life after resurrection. The purpose of Eastertide has been to give us the opportunity to encounter the resurrected Christ, to explore and embrace this gift of life in which sin and the fear of death have been overcome; to take note of the nature of resurrected life and to begin to live it ourselves. In the words of Pádraig Ó Tuama, we resolve to live life in its fullness.

 

Lockdown has created an unusual setting for Easter and Eastertide this year, one which has hopefully jolted us out of our usual and largely unconscious journey through our Church seasons, and enabled us to encounter Christ and the purposes of God afresh in this extraordinary time of devastation. My prayer is that our faith journey over these last 59 days has given us tools to cope, and even thrive, under present limitations, and will continue to do so as we enter the season of Pentecost.

 

I again close my sermon with a prayer by Pádraig Ó Tuama from his book, Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community:

 

Jesus,

our dead and living friend,

We walk the ways of death and life 

holding fear in one hand

and courage in the other.

Come find us when we are locked away.

Come enliven us.

Come bless us with your peace.

Because you are the first day of creation

And all days of creation.

Amen.

Sermon: 6th Sunday of Easter

Sermon: 6th Sunday of Easter

17 May 2020 – Archdeacon Mark Long

1 Peter 3:13-22 and John 14:15-21; NRSV

 

We gather today, apart yet together, as we have done every Sunday since lockdown began at the end of March. Communicating virtually is hard work, different and difficult when it consumes the bulk of our day. Like me, I’m sure you long for life to return to normal – and by normal I mean what life was rather than what life will be. This pandemic has fundamentally changed our lives and our future, and we live with the uncertainty of what that future will look like, and the frustration of having no control over what that future may be. Our uncertainty embraces many fears, and is underlined by the fact that we have no control over the present moment either. There are a variety of emotional responses that arise in us as we either embrace or avoid the realities of the moment, and speaking for myself this can be an inconsistent rollercoaster of emotion and feeling.

 

Scripture is a daily touchstone in the sea of my uncertainty. Journeying with the Eastertide weekday lections from Acts and John’s Gospel are a daily source of comfort, and also of hope. Today’s readings, too, are of similar comfort.

 

1 Peter is written to communities that find themselves dispersed, pilgrims not confined to homes as we are, but driven from them. Peter addresses them as, “… exiles of the Dispersion” (1:1), communities like you and I needing to mourn the certainties of the past and embrace the uncertainties of the future. What intrigues me in today’s passage, in the midst of the hardship, suffering, and difficulties that these communities endure, Peter encourages them to, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (3:15b). That word “hope” catches my attention: hope is an important mark of people of faith particularly in times of difficulty. It is not based on any surety of our daily reality – because there is none – but is based on the reality of our relationship with God and faith in God. Psalm 100 encourages us to “Know that the LORD is God. It is he that has made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture”(Psalm 100:3).

 

What is your account of the hope that is in you? Put perhaps more simply, what comfort do you find in a relationship with God? It’s quite possible that you’ve never really thought about it, but right now it is important that you do.

 

On my pre-ordination retreat in preparation for being made a Deacon I was given an exercise by my Spiritual Director that you may find helpful in exploring the nature of your relationship: simply put, it was to write an account of my awareness of God throughout my life. I remember initially being quite intimidated by the assignment, but subsequently surprised by the moments that came to mind, and at a point when I wasn’t sure I believed in infant baptism, realising that my baptism as a baby (as unaware of it as I had been at the time) had initiated my journey of faith in a very tangible way, and began a thread that I could trace through – at that point – the 24 years that defined my life. That sense of God’s presence that I discovered in a morning of writing has defined the foundation of my hope, and the 31 years since that defining insight have built on the foundation of awareness that it provided; and for which I am prepared to give account.

 

An awareness of God’s presence is so critical in difficult times: Jesus knew this, and in today’s reading from John’s Gospel, we experience him preparing the disciples for a time, soon to be upon them, when they will perceive that presence to be missing. In John’s Gospel Jesus speaks of the Spirit as “Advocate”, a term that may take your mind – as it does mine – along a legal path, perhaps seeing the Spirit as the one who will plead our case before God in the hope of a merciful judgement. I am amazed at how easily my mind takes me down that path in the context of a section of John’s Gospel where God’s love is emphasised so strongly? I am loved by God, as are you: there is no need to fear judgement.

 

So what then is the nature of the Spirit’s advocacy? Jesus speaks of “… another Advocate” (14:16) suggesting that Jesus himself has been our advocate, not in the legal sense but rather as the one who makes the case to us for God’s love, a love to be given without restraint through Jesus’ death and resurrection: a love that creates genuine life. The role of the Spirit is to convince us of the truth of this love and the life it engenders, to give us assurance of God’s presence in our lives for no other reason, perhaps, than that God loves us: deeply, fully, completely. Jesus says, “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (14:20).

 

So what does it mean to hope from a faith perspective? Sometimes it comes across as false-optimism, especially when people – whose only reference is material reality – demand we account for our hope, and especially if we haven’t fully thought through our own experience. Do the exercise I encouraged earlier: I am happy to chat through it with you once you have (virtually, of course).

 

What we hopefully begin to see in light of today’s readings from 1 Peter and John’s Gospel is that while we are tempted to seek our security and hope in our material reality and world, faith calls us to seek out our security and hope in the reality of relationship: “… I am in my father, and you in me, and I in you” (14:20b). From a faith perspective relationship defines us, not material reality. That’s not to say material reality doesn’t impact on us, often in harsh and chaotic ways – for it does – and we know that. However, it is in relationship with God that we are truly defined and formed, that our essence is affirmed and strengthened.

 

Human relationships can be difficult, sometimes even breaking, but also good and life-giving. Relationships do define us in ways the material world never truly can, and when we experience deep and caring relationships with other human beings we find the struggles of everyday life and survival so much easier to navigate. I have struggled increasingly over the past 25 years with a sense of growing isolation as my and Dawn’s close family have progressively left these African shores, but one of the gifts of an effective global lockdown has been that family events have been celebrated via Zoom, and Dawn and I have been able to participate in a couple of family birthday celebrations in the UK, and we sat down to drinks with Dawn’s sister and her husband in Canada a couple of weeks back: for us these have been the gift of Lockdown. Not that any of this was not possible before, but in lockdown it is a common and uniting experience.

 

What today’s Scriptures remind us is that just as our human relationships are defining, even more defining is our spirituality (or lack of it). The call of faith is to a divine relationship that undergirds and strengthens all that we are, and that as we learn to increasingly embrace God and love God with all that we are, so we are empowered to love our neighbour as we ourselves are loved: deeply, fully, completely. This is our hope: to this we give account!

 

I once again close with a prayer from Padráig Ó Tuama’s wonderful book Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community:

 

Jesus, you shared peace around a table of anxiety, peace with the bread, peace with the wine, peace in the face of the uncertain, peace in the place of pain. May we share tables of peace in places of pain, sharing food and friendship and words and life. Because you came to a fearful world and found your place around those tables. Amen.