2023 05 21 Sunday Sermon
MUHAMMADIYAH MASJID – TENNYSON STREET MOSQUE, SALT RIVER
Today I share with you an open letter written by Zackie Achmat (long-time community organiser and justice activist) to the Mayor of Cape Town, Geordin Hill-Lewis. I share it with you as CMM joins in solidarity to highlight and oppose the discriminating notice sent from the City of Cape Town to the Tennyson Street Masjid describing the athaan (call to prayer) as a “noise nuisance”. I was touched by this letter. It is both persuasive and beautiful. I love hearing the athaan in the early mornings. The call to prayer emanating from the Bo-Kaap is especially clear when the North Wester is blowing. Prayers carried on the wings of the wind to bless the city below.
We are graced to live in a country where we not only have freedom of religion but in fact have very good relationships across the religious spectrum. We have never had a religious war in this country. This will continue as long as “we do to others as we would have them do to us”.
Finally, while reading Zackie’s letter I was reminded of a quote by Gerald Stern that I hope will percolate some thought within you: “Mine was not faith in anything divine, unless the salvation of oppressed people can be called divine.” You may want to reflect on Matthew 25 with this quote in mind – where Jesus says: “What you do to the least (oppressed) of these you do to me”.
MUHAMMADIYAH MASJID – TENNYSON STREET MOSQUE
OPEN LETTER TO MAYOR OF CAPE TOWN GEORDIN HILL-LEWIS
Dear Mayor Hill-Lewis
My system of belief, ethics, and conscience requires one to love one’s neighbour as oneself, to protect oneself and others from harm, and to promote justice, equality, and freedom. I have no religion, apart from my system of ethics and I struggle to uphold it.
I have read the letter of a certain Mrs Estelle Thyssen to the Imam of the Salt River Muslim Congregation at the Muhammadiyah Masjid in Tennyson Street, a letter that reads like a charge sheet for a crime.
The Tennyson Street Masjid was the second home to my family, we prayed there, the funeral ceremonies of my grandparents were conducted there, my aunts were married from there—and there I learnt that all people should be treated equally. My grandfather Ebrahim Adams often prayed by himself in the mosque especially when wars raged across the world whether they were wars instigated by Pakistan against Bangladesh or Israel against the Palestinian people. He would tell me: “We are all the children of Nabi Ebrahim (Abraham) and we should love one another”.
In 1969, standing on the balcony of our one-bedroomed flat at 17 Chatham Road with my late grandmother, Asa Adams, and my aunts, I heard the call to prayer, watched people fill the street from that mosque and march towards the cemetery to join the burial of the late Imam Abdullah Haroon, murdered by Spyker van Wyk and other security policemen. Many mosques in our city performed the same ritual in the martyred Imam’s memory.
Every Friday, all the school boys would walk hand-in-hand from Kipling St Primary School dressed in white through Pope Street down Chatham Road and turn left, where we would find the Tennyson Street Masjid, a place of sanctuary to pray. Once, I performed the athaan (call to prayer). The congregation treated my call to prayer as a noise nuisance because I was completely off-key. Apart from that, to this day, even though I am not a believer, the call to prayer is an integral part of my identity, the call I first heard at the Tennyson Street Masjid. The only verse of the morning prayer that I found difficult to observe at that time was “Asalatu Khair Minal Naum”, it is better to pray than to sleep. None of our Christian neighbours ever regarded the athaan as a noise nuisance.
As a socialist, it is my duty to defend every democratic right, including the right to worship a god or ancestor of one’s choice. I believe the letter describing the athaan as a “noise nuisance” is not only discriminatory but also deeply offensive to the Muslim community. I have no doubt that all reasonable people of faith, whether Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, or ancestral worship and atheists regard the City of Cape Town’s letter as an unconscionable infringement of religious freedom.
I refuse to succumb to any form of identity politics. But as a citizen, defined by the philosopher Michel Foucault as a person who can criticise their rulers without fear of consequence, I demand that you withdraw this obnoxious notice from the City of Cape Town that can also be construed as racist. It cannot be that an apartheid law of 1989 is applied in an Islamophobic manner.
Thus far, you have been a Mayor that walks our streets, one who listens to all the people you encounter, engages all opinions especially those you disagree with in a respectful manner. Geordin, a personal friend of long-standing, I know that you hold your Christian faith dearly and would find any attempt to banish the cross from the public sphere because it offends a Muslim, Jewish or atheist sensibility as an intolerable crime against religious freedom.
Just as we have a duty to oppose anti-Semitism, anti-Christian and all forms of racism, I must add my voice to the demand that you withdraw this Islamophobic notice issued by Mrs Estelle Thyssen and apologise to the Muslim community of our country and elsewhere.
2021 05 13 Ascension Day
The disciples took “40 days” (a symbol for as long as it takes for new truth to be birthed from the time of conception) to come to the conviction, the knowing and the trusting that the Jesus-justice-Way of doing life reigns. The ancient language used to give expression to this conviction is of Jesus being “taken up”. This beam-me-up language metaphorically means above all other powers. Sadly, this Ascension levitating mid-sky metaphor has been taken literally, and when we take a metaphor literally, we end up with an absurdity.
Therefore, on Ascension Day I suggested another metaphor: Tree-Rooted-Ascension: The Tree always wins. Tree roots over time, crack and lift up massive concrete blocks. This is how it is with the Jesus Way of justice, mercy, equality, freedom, forgiveness…each of these may look foolish and weak in the face of the concrete injustice, inequality, vengeance and violence in the world, and yet they always push through in the end.
One way of discerning the difference between the “tree-rooted-way” and the “concrete-way” is that the tree-rooted way is grounded in love, while the concrete way is cast in fear (or love limited for a few). The difference is clearly seen when each way reaches fulfilment. When the tree-rooted-way of ascension reaches fulfilment there is life in abundance for all, while when the concrete ways reach fulfilment life is diminished, demeaned and destroyed for the majority. Furthermore, as the tree-rooted way expands it expresses itself in the form of powerful vulnerability, while the vulnerable power of concrete-way finally self-destructs.
Take one issue as an example: guns. The gun-violence-denialists would have us believe that if everyone had a gun, society would be safer for it. On the surface, this “concrete-way” of thinking may look like it offers a quick solution to personal safety but, in reality, it contributes over time to the increased insecurity and violence of society, the very problem it purports to solve. More guns = more gun violence. Striving for a gun-free society on the other hand is the slow and sure way of tree-rooted-ascension and when it reaches fulfilment, namely a gun-free society, life flourishes, not simply for a few, but for all.
I googled around a bit and I came across a company advertising a product that “can seal your driveway to treat cracks and prevent further intrusion from plant materials. Our special process and top-tier materials can extend the life of your driveway or other concrete surface and help shut out plant and tree roots. Contact us today for a quote!”
Note that their promise is not to eradicate the issue completely – because they know that they cannot accomplish that. At best they can “extend the life” of the concrete.
On the same website this is what they have to say:
“Which came first: the crack in the concrete or the plant? Many landowners with plants sprouting through sidewalks and driveways are curious about whether the plant took advantage of an existing crack or physically caused the fissure in the slab. The answer falls somewhere in the middle. The more you know about the cause of this costly concrete problem, the sooner you can find a resolution.”
Small Plants = Big Concrete Problems
“Your concrete contains microscopic cracks invisible to the naked eye. Plants have new cell growth at the tips of their roots. As the plant grows, so does the root system. The sensitive tips of the roots have the power to seek the path of least resistance for growth. Microscopic concrete cracks present this path for plants growing beneath your sidewalk.”
“Once a plant’s roots discover a microscopic crack in the concrete, they force their way into the slab. Even small weeds and seedlings have the power to displace concrete using potential energy from root growth. Over time, the plant’s continued growth can crack, break, or buckle the surrounding concrete – at which point you may see the plant break through the surface.”
Tree Roots and Concrete
“Tree roots present an even bigger potential problem for concrete surfaces. They move through cement in the same way as smaller plants, but with much greater potential energy. Trees near your concrete areas could push roots beneath and through the surface, causing expensive damage and dangerous cracks in the slab. You may have to cut the roots or even remove the tree to permanently resolve this problem.”
They may be a cement sealing company, but I must say that their theology is spot on. To say that “the answer falls somewhere in the middle” is 100% correct. The cement-way self-destructs while the Jesus-justice-way brings life. I love it that they admit that solid concrete is actually not so completely solid after all: “Your concrete contains microscopic cracks invisible to the naked eye”. This is so important for us to remember: When injustice and oppression look solidly almighty, they are not really. They are actually full of cracks! Cracks that we may not be able to see with our naked eye, but that which exist due to the self-destructing nature of every concrete mix.
This truth: injustices innate cracks together with justice’s new cell life at its root tips are what give us hope. Real reality bends towards justice and for this reason the Jesus-justice-way of the Tree always wins. Our work is to learn the humble subversive radically rooted ways of Jesus and to creatively incarnate them through our living.
In the Spirit of Tree-Rooted Ascension,
Last week I read a few paragraphs from Alice Walker’s amazing novel, The Color Purple. Some of you have asked for the quotes. Here they are, plus an extra one or two. Her journey “trying to chase that old white man [god] out of my head” is as profound as it is liberating. Walker’s words invite savouring.
“I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ask. And that in wondering bout the big things and asking bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big things than you start out with. The more I wonder, the more I love.”
“I am an expression of the divine, just like a peach is, just like a fish is. I have a right to be this way…I can’t apologize for that, nor can I change it, nor do I want to… We will never have to be other than who we are in order to be successful…We realize that we are as ourselves unlimited and our experiences valid. It is for the rest of the world to recognize this, if they choose.”
“…have you ever found God in church? I never did. I just found a bunch of folks hoping for him to show. Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me. And I think all the other folks did too. They come to church to share God, not find God.”
“Here’s the thing, say Shug. The thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don’t know what you looking for. Trouble do it for most folks, I think. Sorrow, lord. Feeling like shit.
It? I ast.
Yeah, It. God ain’t a he or a she, but a It.
But what do it look like? I ast.
Don’t look like nothing, she say. It ain’t a picture show. It ain’t something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found It.
Shug a beautiful something, let me tell you. She frown a little, look out cross the yard, lean back in her chair, look like a big rose. She say, My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate
at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and I cried and I run all around the house. I knew just what it was. In fact, when it happen, you can’t miss it. It sort of like you know what, she say, grinning and rubbing high up on my thigh.
Shug! I say.
Oh, she say. God love all them feelings. That’s some of the best stuff God did. And when you know God loves ’em you enjoys ’em a lot more. You can just relax, go with everything that’s going, and praise God by liking what you like.
God don’t think it dirty? I ast.
Naw, she say. God made it. Listen, God love everything you love? and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration.
You saying God vain? I ast.
Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.
What it do when it pissed off? I ast.
Oh, it make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.
Yeah? I say.
Yeah, she say. It always making little surprises and springing them on us when us least expect.
You mean it want to be loved, just like the bible say.
Yes, Celie, she say. Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance, make faces and give flower bouquets, trying to be loved. You ever notice that trees do everything to git attention we do, except walk?
Well, us talk and talk bout God, but I’m still adrift. Trying to chase that old white man out of my head. I been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that?) not the color purple (where it come from?). Not the little wildflowers. Nothing. Now that my eyes opening, I feels like a fool. Next to any little scrub of a bush in my yard, Mr. ____s evil sort of shrink. But not altogether. Still, it is like Shug say, You have to git man off your eyeball, before you can see anything a’tall.
Man corrupt everything, say Shug. He on your box of grits, in your head, and all over the radio. He try to make you think he everywhere.
Soon as you think he everywhere, you think he God. But he ain’t. Whenever you trying to pray, and man plop himself on the other end of it, tell him to git lost, say Shug. Conjure up flowers, wind,water, a big rock.
But this hard work, let me tell you. He been there so long, he don’t want to budge. He threaten lightening, floods and earthquakes. Us fight. I hardly pray at all. Every time I conjure up a rock, I throw it.
Alice Walker, The Color Purple
Over the years I have repeatedly recommended Nan C. Merrill’s Psalms For Praying – An Invitation to Wholeness. Her rendition of all 150 Psalms is exquisitely beautiful. It is also imaginatively courageous. She writes as a jazz musician plays. Keeping true to the original and underlying score while improvising on the surface in ways that allow us to hear the original melody with renewed wonder and appreciation.
Merrill’s artistry carries the distinct influence of Jesus, who also did with words as a jazz artist does with strings and keys. Allowing Jesus’ baseline to influence her own, Merrill demilitarises the Psalms. The trumpet of vengeance is silenced. The hum of humility replaces the beat of triumphalism. The enemy that must be fought is no longer out there, but within. To be fought with forgiveness, not fists. The childish schoolboy boast: “My God is bigger and better and stronger than yours” is quietened by the mature realisation that God is always for all … ALWAYS FOR ALL.
This is clearly witnessed in Merrill’s rendition of Psalm 47 – one of the Psalms set for Ascension Day. A Psalm that traditionally shrieks of nationalism and conquest with the psalmist boasting about the Lord’s kingly power that “subdued peoples under us”, biblically entrenching an ‘us versus them’ that too many throughout the ages have blindly followed. Read Merrill’s account to hear what the Psalm sounds like when the performing artist is tuned into Jesus.
Clap your hands, all peoples!
Acclaim the Creator with
loud songs of joy!
For the Beloved of our hearts
the Most High over all the earth.
Love invites the people to
the nations to peace.
Love is our birthright, our heritage,
to be shared with all.
Let Love rise up to shouts of acclamation;
join in the cosmic celebration!
Sing praises to the Creator,
Sing praises to the Beloved,
For Love has created the universe,
let us dance to the flute
and the harp.
Love reigns over nations,
awaiting an answer to its call.
May the leaders of the nations
gather to bring peace and
justice to all.
For the earth belongs to Love,
Who yearns to see creation healed!
Sing praises to the Beloved!
©Nan C. Merrill, Psalms for Praying
I remind you that the CMM Chat at 11h11 on Sunday will be a discussion with three healthcare practitioners from CMM who are directly involved in responding to Covid-19 on the ground in the Western Cape: René Goliath, Yvette Andrews and Ian Proudfoot. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to receive the link to the Sunday CMM Chat.
Look forward to seeing you then.
Grace to you
Every seven years Methodist ministers are given a three-month sabbatical. My sabbatical starts tomorrow and I will be away until the middle of August. This is my third sabbatical and each time I realise that it is not only a gift to myself but also for the congregation. For a congregation who listens to me preach week in and week out, I think it is important to hear different voices telling different stories from different perspectives. If there is anything that I say that is truthful then at most it is just a tiny slither of a much larger and brighter Light. Listening to varied voices will thicken our faith and stretch our understanding. So over the next 10 weeks there will be a different voice every week – my hope is that we will be open to hear new truth.
I can’t easily imagine life without the rhythm of sermon preparation each week. This discipline is so engrained in my being which is both a gift and danger. The gift is that it keeps me rowing out into the depths each week – even when I would prefer to splash around in the shallows. The danger is that the rhythm is so engrained it can be little more than a habit on auto-pilot or a task to tick off each week or perhaps even worse, a show to put on for your entertainment.
The purpose of a sabbatical is not only to relax and rest which is of course crucial for renewed vitality – but also to revisit areas neglected and review areas of focus: Basically to unplug and push the reset button to be ready for a new season.
In the past I have filled my sabbaticals with much activity and new experiences. This time round when I have tried to make plans they all felt like an avoidance strategy. So I have no plans. And I am hoping to stick to that plan. To embrace emptiness. To welcome nothingness. To face boredom. To wander the wilderness.
In the Bible the people were instructed to let the fields lie fallow every 7th year. One definition of fallow is: land left unseeded after being ploughed and harrowed to regain fertility for a crop. Renewed fertility is the aim of fallow.
Winnie the Pooh puts it simply: “Doing nothing leads to the best kind of something”. This is my hope that nothing will lead me to something. I look forward to returning fertile for a crop…
“O persistent God,
deliver me from assuming your mercy is gentle
pressure me that I may grow more human,
not through the lessening of my struggles,
But through the expansion of them.
That will undamn me
and unbury my gifts.
Deepen my hurt
until I learn to share it
and my needs honestly.
Sharpen my fears
until I name them
and release the power I have locked in them
and they in me.
Accentuate my confusion
until I shed those grandiose expectations
that divert me from the small, glad gifts
of the now and the here and the me.
Expose my shame where it shivers,
crouched behind the curtains of propriety,
until I can laugh at last through my common frailties
laugh my way toward becoming whole.
O persistent God let how much it all matters pry me off dead center so if I am moved inside to tears or sighs or screams or smiles or dreams they will be real and I will be in touch with who I am and who you are and who my sisters and brothers are.
O God, help me to believe in beginnings and in my beginning again, no matter how often I’ve failed before…help me to make a beginning and to be a beginning for others.”
~ Ted Loder