20 September 2020

Sermon: 16th Sunday after Pentecost


Sermon: 16th Sunday after Pentecost

20 September 2020 – Archdeacon Mark Long

Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; and Matthew 20:1-16; NRSV

Today, along with marking day 178 of our South African lockdown and the last day of Alert Level 2, is also the 3rd week in the Season of Creation. Today’s theme is “Need, not Greed”, and clearly calls us to reflect on our relationship with Creation itself. We have had the opportunity to reflect on our relationships with one another and with our communities over the past two weeks. Today broadens this conversation dramatically as we embrace the created world around us.

Scripture, specifically the early stories of Genesis, proclaim a boundless truth: God created everything! This truth is often undermined by our inability to hold this Biblical truth in one hand and the gift of science in the other. This is often due to our unwillingness to grapple with paradox, desiring the simplistic ease of a dualistic either/or reality when in fact life is best lived when we find the courage to perceive the world through a both/and lens. I have found Rabbi Jonathan Sacks helpful here, when he says, “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.”[1] This is helpful because it gives us a tool that makes it possible for us to believe that God created everything without having to deny the wonderful insights science gives us into how life and our known universe function. Very simply, when we ask the question “How?” we are asking a scientific question, and when we ask the question “Why?” we are in essence asking a religious question. Both the stories of Creation in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are an answer to “Why?” I can imagine the older story of Genesis 2 being told around the evening fire as children asked their elders this question as they began their own search for meaning in life; and we are pretty certain Genesis 1 was written during the exile as God’s people struggled to make sense of the chaos that arose from finding themselves forcefully removed from their land.

Dualism (where we fall into the trap of seeing the world from one or other end of a continuum) has the effect of disengaging us from any search for meaning, and when we disengage from this search we disengage from each other and from life itself. Paradox engages us in conversation and is the source of learning as we explore the world around us; it draws us into relationship as we begin to search together for meaning, and births a growing understanding of how the variety of dimensions of life and our world both function and interrelate. Greed is an overwhelming symptom of disengagement.

When we consider the devastating impact of humanity on our global environment – visible in global warming, catastrophic flooding or ruinous drought, the destruction of earth’s biodiversity – greed becomes an umbrella term that defines our disengagement from need of our earth to be stewarded with care and compassion. Greed does not just impact on our external environment, but also on our relational environment, and communities become disengaged from each other and considerable need, both material and spiritual, continues to be ignored. Much of the corruption and incapacity of Government in Africa (and in other parts of the world) is greed driven, and we know from our own experience how the needs of the poor in particular remain unresolved. In previous Seasons of Creation we have been bombarded with examples and statistics of what human disengagement from the needs of the earth looks like, and Green Anglicans and other organisations continue to hold these realities before us. We cannot claim to be unaware, but we often feel powerless in the face of humanity's greed.

Today’s Scriptures offer us some direction: in Exodus we are reminded that despite our ability to whinge God does see our need, and God does respond. The Israelites, struggling with the demands of a journey from slavery into freedom, misremember the realities of life under the Egyptians and paint a rosy picture of their oppression in comparison with the harshness of desert life and their struggle to find food in the austere climate. God hears their complaint and responds with a generous provision of manna every morning and quail each evening. However, God’s provision is sufficient for their daily need, and any greed is discouraged because the manna spoils quickly and the resultant smell dissuades any urge to hoard. An important question we each need to ask of ourselves is, “How do our personal lifestyles reflect a trust in God’s ability to provide sufficiently for our daily need?”

The parable in Matthew is a little more complex. We often prefer to see life in terms of cause and effect, but a number of parables in Mathew disallow this type of thinking, and instead we are faced in today’s parable with an incomprehensible generosity[2] where wages are disconnected from the norm, and connected instead to availability and willingness, not time. But with all parables we need to dig a little deeper, and explore some of the inconsistencies, especially as the parable is headlined with the words, “The kingdom of heaven is like …”[3]. The landowner’s seeming generosity is tempered with the manner in which payment is made at the end of the day: those who started later are paid first, and those who have worked all day are thus made aware that although fairly paid, their effort is unrecognised in relative terms, and their dissatisfaction is evident. The Gospel can be unsettling, and this is such a time. It seems clear that the landowner desired to provoke a reaction[4], but why? A good place to start may be to ask – as listeners to this story – what is our reaction? Hopefully it gets us to sit up a little straighter and thinking a little more critically? And if time allowed, it would be helpful to share our thoughts. However, it is often in our discomfort that we ask our best questions, even if the answers remain illusive, as they probably will here. Parables often contain paradox, and this is such a time: how can a generous person also be seemingly vindictive (especially when we have likely aligned the lead character in the story with our image of God). One of the threads in the New Testament is the conversation around what it means to be a follower of Jesus as Messiah, and it is seemingly equally unfair that late in the day Gentiles could join the Jewish believers without any requirement that they embrace the Jewish law; and it is quite possible this parable may be a dressing this element of dissatisfaction in Matthew’s community. An important question here is, “How do we respond to God’s generosity, especially if it is generosity in which we do not immediately share?” Is there envy in our reaction, dissatisfaction? And if so, again, why? In light of today’s theme it may be helpful to recognise that greed (and resultant corruption) is often due to envy and dissatisfaction, especially if others are perceived to have gained unfair advantage, which would have been the perspective of the labourers who began early and worked a full day towards those who began as the day ended and yet received a full day’s wage. The real challenge of this passage may be to acknowledge our complicity in other’s greed.

We are complicit on a number of levels: our lifestyles quite possibly do not reflect a trust in God to sufficiently meet our daily needs, resulting in a lack of generosity or compassion towards others; a desire to deal with the speck in another’s eye while ignoring the log in our own; and more. To acknowledge our complicity can be quite freeing, because it gets us off our high-horses and back on the ground; it reconnects us where we have become disconnected, both to others and to the earth; it leads us to lament, creating a spillway for God’s mercy.[5] There is hope in God’s mercy.

I close with a prayer from Pádraig Ó Tuama[6]. Let us pray,

You praised work more than words,
foundations more than fashion.
May we find our foundation
in the work of Love;
demanding, tiring,
true and human and holy.
Because love is the only foundation
worth building on.


[1] Johnathan Sacks The Great Partnership: God, Science, and the Search for Meaning
[2] Rolf Jacobson The new Math of the Kingdom of God http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5455
[3] Matthew 20:1; NRSV
[4] Stanley Saunders Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16 http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4574
[5] Psalm 105:44-45; Order of Saint Helena
[6] Pádraig Ó Tuama, Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community

23 August 2020

Sermon: 12th Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon: 12th Sunday after Pentecost

23 August 2020 – Archdeacon Mark Long

Romans 12:1-8, Psalm 124, and Matthew 16:13-20; NRSV


Good morning to you all on this 150th day since we went into lockdown in South Africa at the end of March. This has been a momentous period in our lives, and it’s ripple effects will be felt for years to come. It has fundamentally shifted our foundations, and we don’t yet know how our social structures will hold as the tectonic plates of history realign. In life as we experienced it five months ago, we often expressed anxiety for the future. In this new context we are often anxious for the present. As life begins to open up a little more under Alert Level 2, we are testing out our new reality a little more each day. We need to continue to exercise extreme caution where the virus is concerned, while embracing our new reality with a confidence that may not always be our lived experience. In Pádraig Ó Tuama’s words, “Courage comes from the heart and we are always welcomed by God, the [heart] of all being.”[1] We find ourselves needing to be fearfully courageous as we explore this new world.


As we begin this novel journey I wish to remind us again of Denise Ackermann’s question a few weeks ago, “Am I, are we, is the church, hearing what God is saying to us in these extraordinary times?” As people of faith God is central to our lived experience, and Scripture bears testimony – as do the lives of the Saints – that God is never absent. It is beholden on us to listen to the God who is present, Emmanuel, God with us. As I shared two weeks ago, Rumi[2] puts it well, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.” The Psalmist puts it slightly differently, “You make me lie down in green pastures, and lead me beside still waters. You revive my soul, and guide me along right pathways for the sake of your Name.”[3] Hearing God is not meant to be hard work; it does, however, require us to find the courage to come out from hiding, from behind the fig leaves of our insecurity, and to join God in the garden at the time of the evening breese.[4]  Hearing God is about finding a place beyond the noise of the present chaos, finding that end of day moment to relax and reflect, and to be restored.


To hear God is to become aware, to see things differently; and as I said two weeks ago, this new context presents us with a God-given opportunity to see our reality afresh, to determine our actions in the light of what we see, and to act decisively and transformatively. Today’s reading from Romans affirms this when Paul encourages us, saying, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”[5] Paul’s words are a call to a different, even counter-cultural, lifestyle where forbearance and altruism become the order of the day.[6] This is counter-cultural in that it is in our nature to be selfish. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks helpfully says, “In Homo sapiens a miracle of nature meets a miracle of culture: religion, which turns selfish genes into selfless people.”[7] There is something about a sincere religious experience that inspires us to see our connection to others, and creates a desire within us to seek the best for each other. Here again, Paul’s words in our Romans reading today are instructive, “… we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.”[8] One of the greatest obstacles to social cohesion in the 21st century is individualism, and Paul’s words offer a remedy in advocating for the transformation of the entire human family.[9] In essence, this is the Good News we are offered in Jesus Christ: we are liberated from our egocentrism.


If our allegiance shifts away from self towards others, how does this determine our actions? And what is the context in which our actions should play out? In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew Jesus asks the question, “Who do people say that the son of man is”?[10] and then more pointedly, “Who do you say that I am?”[11] and we know Peter’s answer. What is important here is the physical place in which Jesus is asking the question: it is not the Temple in Jerusalem; it is Caesarea Philippi, a town beyond Galilee, a town containing a sanctuary dedicated to the Greek god, Pan, and possibly to others, and a temple built in honour of Caesar Augustus; it is the administrative centre for Philip the tetrarch's government, and a few decades later it will be the venue where Roman troops celebrate after destroying the Temple in Jerusalem.[12] Jesus ask the question – and Peter answers with the important recognition that Jesus is the Messiah – in the oppressor’s backyard, the equivalent of the centre of secularism in our own context. The context for our actions, therefore, isn’t the equivalent of Jerusalem, it is the equivalent of Caesarea Philippi: it is in the midst of all that we deem to be contrary to the principles and values of our faith; it is to step into the darkness to bring light. Too often as Church, because we have had temporal power for too many centuries, we have invited the darkness into the light, instead. These extraordinary times require us to hear God calling all people of faith to a different path, in many ways a more dangerous but also more meaningful path: a call that invites us to engage for the sake of the Gospel with the world; to be the light in the darkness. This pandemic has caused us to sojourn away from our buildings for a time, our own experience of exile; and in this process we are being formed anew in the Potter’s hands.[13] And so, again, I need to emphasise that Denise’s question is paramount: “Am I, are we, is the church, hearing what God is saying to us in these extraordinary times?” as we reengage with our society, and return in time to our buildings.


Perhaps a key to what we need to hear lies in Jesus words that follow Peter’s confession, “… whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”[14] God, in Jesus, has given us the ability to either be agents of liberation or oppression, and everything in Scripture points to a call to be liberators on every level of human experience. This is what the disciples missed in Caesarea Philippi: they were so focused on the national desire for Israel’s liberation from political occupation that they missed perceiving the greater breadth of Jesus’ purpose, which by default was their – and our – purpose. And this of course raises the question, “What is this purpose?” Perhaps Rabbi Jonathan Sacks can be of help here. He says, “[In 1 Samuel 2:8, w]hen Hannah sings a song to God on the birth of her son, she says: 


“He raises the poor from the dust

and lifts the needy from the ash heap; 

he seats them with princes 

and has them inherit a throne of honour.”


Jonathan goes on to comment that, “We hear the power of hope expressed in those words. Perhaps the social structure is not immutable. Perhaps the low can become high. Perhaps there is justice after all.”[15]


May we embrace the freedom that God offers us, and may we find the courage to gift that freedom to others in our world.


I close, not unusually, with a prayer from Pádraig Ó Tuama[16]. Let us pray,


God of Reconciliation,

You demand much of us –

inviting us to tell truths

by turning towards each other.

May we leave our trinkets where they belong

and find our treasure

by turning towards each other.

Because you needed this

Because we all need this.


[1] Pádraig Ó Tuama Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community 

[3] Psalm 23:2-3 Order of Saint Helena

[4] Genesis 3:8 NRSV

[5] Romans 12:2 NRSV 

[7] Johnathan Sacks The Great Partnership: God, Science, and the Search for Meaning

[8] Romans 12:5 NRSV 

[10] Matthew 16:13 NRSV 

[11] Matthew 16:15 NRSV 

[13] Isaiah 64:8 NRSV 

[14] Matthew 16:19b NRSV 

[15] Johnathan Sacks The Great Partnership: God, Science, and the Search for Meaning

[16] Pádraig Ó Tuama, Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community

09 August 2020

Sermon: 10th Sunday after Pentecost (National Women's Day - South Africa)

Sermon: 10th Sunday after Pentecost

9 August 2020 – Archdeacon Mark Long

1 Kings 19:9-18, Psalm 85:8-13, and Matthew 14:22-33; NRSV

Greetings once again as we continue to traverse the challenges of Lockdown and life. As I have reflected in previous sermons, this new context continues to stretch us on every level, and each day brings a variety of emotional responses to our situation. Not only do we continue to mourn what the pandemic and lockdown have taken from us, but as lockdown increasingly shows up the cracks in our social and political scenery – and as we experience the economic consequences of lockdown – we lament the raw realities of the brokenness of our Nation and our world. What are we learning on this journey? As I reflect a little on my own learnings I am cognisant of the question Denise Ackermann asked us three weeks ago, “Am I, are we, is the church, hearing what God is saying to us in these extraordinary times?”

The first verse of today’s Psalm echo’s a response, “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, …”[1], “I will listen to what you are saying, …”[2]. Hopefully we have taken time to reflect on Denise’s question, and are beginning to hear an answer? As I reflected in my sermon two weeks ago, I hear a pressing need for us as people of Faith to embrace a marked change in the form and nature of our relationships in such a manner that our relational space is truly one of safety and welcome, fairness and impartiality;[3] and to live this out in such a manner that it impacts meaningfully and significantly on our socio-economic and political landscape. The reading from 1 Kings 19 today highlights the fact that our obedience to God’s call impacts the wider issues of our times as Elijah is sent to anoint new kings of Aram and Israel, along with a new prophet in his own position (a somewhat provocative act as all three positions are still filled, one by Elijah himself).[4]

Today and tomorrow we join all South Africans in celebrating National Women’s Day, thankful for the example of women of all cultural backgrounds who in 1956 protested the proposed amendments to the Urban Areas Act of 1950, commonly referred to as the "pass laws"[5]. However, this celebration also highlights how women continue to struggle, and remain victims of patriarchy in both church and society. Gender-based violence remains a key social ill, with domestic violence, sexual harassment in the workplace, and unequal pay among the many symptoms of this scourge; and the Church in Southern Africa remains on the back-foot in this and many other areas of discrimination despite the leadership we were able to give in the run-up to the birth of a new South Africa[6] in 1994. It is easy to be overwhelmed by these and other urgent issues of our time. It may be helpful to remember that Elijah, when we come across him entering the cave in today’s reading, is depressed and overwhelmed despite his recent victories against the forces of evil in his day. In his brokenness and aloneness he finds renewed strength as he rediscovers God in the silence beyond the noise and chaos.[7] We, too, need to find that silent space that we may hear.

In our more resourced communities it is all too easy to let remembrances like today’s Women’s Day be just an opportunity for time out, or time off. As important as a long weekend may be for recreation and family re-engagement, these Public Holidays are also a time for reflection. Today provides an opportunity to reflect on the role of women in the church, in the context of faith, and perhaps in partial answer to Denise’s question. A key figure in Christianity’s early formation is Mary, and Protestantism has been enormously uncomfortable with assigning her a prominent role, remaining thoroughly suspicious of the eminence she is accorded in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. The fact that we often refer to the Ladies Chapel, rather than the Lady Chapel (opposite the organ) in our beautiful St Andrew's Church building suggests that at St Andrew’s we may share in this Protestant suspicion? My moment of conversion to Mary came about during a Diocesan Advent Retreat in 2007 lead by an Anglican Nun, Sister Erika, OHP, on Iconography. It was her reflection on the icon Mother of God of the Sign[8], a 16th century Russian writing (icons are written, not painted), that awoke me to a whole new world, specifically Sister Erika’s comment that, “Since very early on, Christians had imagined the Church as a woman; and the … woman praying with hands extended and head covered, stood for the Church …”.[9] It is difficult to find words to convey the impact these simple words had on me, but combined with an understanding that the early Church faced so much persecution the image presented by this icon of the Sign – Jesus – held in Mary’s womb, not as an unborn baby but as the Christ, helped something to shift within me, helping me discover the importance of Mary, symbolic of the feminine nature of God, symbol of the Church, nurturing and protecting all that the Spirit of God is up to in our world. Praying the Rosary and the Angelus became deeply comforting as a result.

Another nun, this time Roman Catholic Benedictine, Joan Chittister, in her commentary on the Apostles Creed[10], also conscientised me to the importance of Mary. In her words, “We remember the Annunciation but we forget its central truth: Mary was not used. Mary was not made a pawn in the birth of Christ. Mary was asked a question to which she had the right to say no. Mary was made a participant in the initiatives of God. God did not impose on Mary. … Mary did not have life forced upon her.  She was made an equal partner in the process.” Joan, in her usual exacting way, goes on to say, “God asked a woman a question, something that happened only rarely thereafter. … Mary, in a culture given to the total control of women, makes a personal decision and replies to the angel, takes responsibility for the act, and bears the consequences.” Joan importantly highlights the respect with which God treats Mary; a respect for women that the Church has rarely imitated in our long history. In highlighting Mary’s ability to act independently and make her own free choices, Joan also succeeds in affirming women’s agency. As Church we pat ourselves on the back for eventually allowing women to be ordained, but as the Anglican Church of Southern Africa celebrates the 25th anniversary of this decision, the lack of women clergy in senior positions questions the Church’s commitment to fairness and impartiality when it comes to women, and rather demonstrates a reactive response to wider social changes than any proactive leadership in this regard. In a world where women are too often subjected to sexual violence and harassment, Joan Chittister makes the point that, “The [Apostles] Creed does not make sex contemptuous; it makes it natural.  It puts sex in the service of the soul. … It shows us women [who are] loving, giving, holy, in communion with God, and filled with the spirit of Jesus.” Joan’s perspective here is certainly at odds with a Church that has glorified sexual abstinence, regulated sexual activity to a very narrow definition of relational commitment, and been all too silent about sexual abuse within its own structures.

To be conscientised to the realities of life is often overwhelming and exhausting. Recognising and accepting that the Church – as institution rather than as a community of Faith – is fallible can be breaking. The new context brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic is proving an intense conscientizing tool, and is jolting us out of every comfort, and our Faith is not immune. Like Elijah, we are experiencing a storm, and it is easy to mistake the wind, the earthquake, the fire for God’s voice. Undoubtable we need to note the wind, earthquake, and fire, but we need to reach beyond these phenomena in search of the sheer silence that will allow us to hear the voice of God. Beyond all that presently overwhelms and exhausts us is an opportunity for a heart-to-heart with our Creator. Rumi[11] puts it well, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.”

This new context presents us with a God-given opportunity to see our reality afresh, to determine our actions in the light of what we see, and to act decisively and transformatively. We need to take courage from today’s Psalm, that God does indeed act decisively in the present and salvation is at hand if we choose to grasp it. There can be no doubt that even prior to the pandemic our world was in trouble, and in need of rebirth; and in Joan Chittister’s words, “… “Birthing” is about bringing the Divine to life in us, however that needs to be done.”[12]

I again close with a prayer from Pádraig Ó Tuama[13]. Let us pray,

God of promises, 
Sometimes we wait generations
for the dawn from on high;
sometimes only years.
We wait for justice and hope and
light and kindness
to mingle in the tangle of our days.
And we age while we hope.
So may we age and hope
with tenderness and truth.
Because you are tender and true
even though we sometimes wonder.

[1] Psalm 85:8a NRSV
[2] Psalm 85:8a Order of Saint Helena
[3] Transformation, equity, belonging
[4] 1 Kings 19:15-16
[5] https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/1956-womens-march-pretoria-9-august
[6] The dawn of democracy in South Africa
[7] 1 Kings 19:9-10, 12-13
[8] https://iconreader.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/the-theotokos-of-the-sign-icon/
[9] The Orans figure
[10] Chittister, Joan 1990. In Search of Belief; Liguori/Triumph, USA; page 98-99
[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rumi
[12] Chittister, Joan 1990. In Search of Belief; Liguori/Triumph, USA; page 100
[13] Pádraig Ó Tuama, Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community

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.

[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