Sermon preached by Rev Canon Lesley McCormack on Sunday June 25th at St Michael and All Angels
“Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows”
I have discovered again that there are many joys to be found in a holiday, a break away from the usual rhythm of life; one of them is the luxurious opportunity to spend hours reading; I read voraciously and among those books was one by the person I regard as a titan of the Christian faith, a person who has been a constant inspiration to me – Desmond Tutu, one time Archbishop of Cape Town. The book in question is entitled ‘God is Not a Christian: Speaking truth in times of crisis’.
This is a collection of his addresses to political rallies and church congregations, his speeches, lectures and articles, and some of his correspondence to the people in positions of power. In his opening Forward, Desmond Tutu states:
‘Some of my friends are sceptical when they hear me say this, but I am by nature a person who dislikes confrontation. I have consciously sought during my life to emulate my mother, whom our family knew as a gentle “comforter of the afflicted.” However, when I see innocent people suffering, pushed around by the rich and the powerful, then, as the prophet Jeremiah says, if I try to keep quiet it is as if the word of God burned like a fire in my breast. I feel compelled to speak out, sometimes even to argue with God over how a loving creator can allow this to happen.’
Here is a person of faith who worked courageously and tirelessly, even in the face of imprisonment and threats to his own life. His opposition to the inequities of apartheid was vigorous and unequivocal, and he was outspoken both at home in South Africa and abroad. Tutu was equally rigorous in his criticism of the violent tactics of some anti-apartheid groups and denounced terrorism.
So, on that glorious day in 1994 when the Rainbow People of God were enabled to vote together in the first democratic elections, one might have thought that Tutu could sit back and relax a little. But no! He headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a monumental piece of work to enable the journey towards forgiveness, reconciliation and healing. Then more recently he has continued to challenge people in positions of power and authority in South Africa, the Middle East and across the world who inflict injustice, suffering and pain on God’s people, robbing them of dignity and hope. That compulsion to speak out has shone as a beacon of hope in a troubled world – to peoples living with oppression and injustice in its many forms – as he shone a light on the injustice and degradation suffered by so many.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is spelling out very clearly the cost of following Him. As his disciples are about to set out on their mission, Jesus prepares them, warning them that people will speak ill of them, they will be derided perhaps even more than he has been. To be a follower of Christ, is not a ticket to an easy life.
Like those first disciples, we are called to be builders of God’s Kingdom, and in Gods Kingdom, the values of the world are turned upside down and inside out. For this is a kingdom that sees strength in weakness; this is a kingdom where the poor, the outcast, the marginalised are exalted, not the powerful and the rich; this is a kingdom that values the people so often despised by wider society; this is a Kingdom of absurd generosity, compassion and love.
So the message we are called to proclaim is shockingly counter-cultural, in a culture that easily dismisses people as expendable, discardable when, because they are poor or unemployed, they are judged to have failed. For it is a message that many in our world will not, do not want to hear. But my goodness, as we hold in our hearts the people who have suffered so badly as a result of the recent events in our country, as we hold in our hearts the countless people across our world who continue to suffer profound injustice, it is a message that desperately needs to be proclaimed again and again; it is a message we need to hear. And we, my friends, are proclaiming that message loud and clear where ever and how ever we can.
Being called to a new way of living is not a new concept. Throughout the record of God’s dealings with his children, people have been called to announce, and to live out God’s love in new, and nearly always revolutionary ways. And it has always been costly.
Jeremiah was one such person, a prophet who was active throughout the most turbulent period of biblical history. Jeremiah lived through the reign of good, bad, and weak kings. He witnessed the invasion of the kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians; the siege and the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. He witnessed the starvation of many, the destruction of national and family life, and the shaking of the political and theological foundations of the people’s identity. Survivors lost loved ones, land and livelihood; many were deported. Most of this Jeremiah had warned the people about in advance, but his foresight won him no friends. Increasingly he found himself isolated from the people he had come to serve, and at times his life was threatened by those who could not bear to hear that the truth was so different from what they wanted. Yet he felt compelled to speak in spite of the personal cost and profound pain. This morning in our first reading we glimpse that pain in an extract from one of the so-called confessions of Jeremiah.
Jesus came to establish a new way of being God’s people, engaging with the pain of the world seeking out the lost, the outcast and the unloved, the same people despised by so many. It was a way of being that gave dignity, hope and joy. It was a way of being that brought Jesus in to conflict with his family, and with the religious and political leaders of the day and ultimately cost him his life.
As followers of Jesus, this is the road we too are called to travel. Thank God, it is very unlikely that we will have to pay the ultimate price, but challenging injustice in our places of work, in our communities, among family and friends is never easy. We have to choose.
But do not be afraid, says Jesus, for God is with us always. Not a sparrow falls without God’s knowledge and we are of far, far greater value than many sparrows! The God who calls also enables, and he will fill us with the grace and strength sufficient for the work he call us to – building His Kingdom here on earth. Amen