2020 12 06 Alan Storey:
One More Powerful Than Me
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; Mark 1:1-8
Cape Town, South Africa
2020 12 06 Alan Storey:
One More Powerful Than Me
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; Mark 1:1-8
2020 11 29 Alan Storey:
Isaiah 64:2-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Mark 13:24-37
The restoration of the CMM sanctuary is now complete. This is due to the incredible generosity and hard work of so many people. No one has sought acknowledgement for their efforts in any way, and this makes the gifts received even more beautiful. Thank you therefore, not only for your generosity, but also for your humility.
We have tried our best to restore the beauty of the sanctuary and retain its simplicity. Beauty and simplicity are values in and of themselves and we trust that everyone who enters the sanctuary will experience this to be so. As people discover that the CMM sanctuary is a cared-for-space, may we always remember that we care for the space in order for it to care for people. The building exists for people, not people for the building.
When everything is sparkling clean, it is tempting to make it our main priority to keep it like this forever, but it is a sanctuary, not a museum. It is a sanctuary that keeps its doors open for all. A sanctuary where people, especially vulnerable people, are reminded of their exquisite beauty and priceless worth. A sanctuary where the poor hear good news, and the captives find release. A sanctuary that brings strangers together around a font of water – and declares by grace that everyone is one family. A sanctuary in which we find a table that welcomes all to the feast of fairness – as we all eat from one loaf and drink from the common cup. A sanctuary that we can return to over and over again when we are lost to find our bearings that rest on the most sacred truth: You are born in love, by love and for love.
Last Sunday, around the perimeter of the sanctuary, we planted what we hope will become a Spekboom Forest. May it be a sign of life and beauty and a reminder of the resurrection power of nature that we all depend on, yet seldom acknowledge – the transformation of carbon dioxide into oxygen.
We had hoped to celebrate in the Sanctuary by coming together this Sunday (29th November) which seemed appropriate on the first Sunday of Advent, but as a result of the very serious spike in Covid-19 cases in the Western Cape Metro, we have decided to delay all in-person activities. We will reassess this decision in the new year. In the meantime, we will continue to hold services via Zoom at 10 a.m. each Sunday. This will include the 10 a.m. Christmas Day Service. Please email: firstname.lastname@example.org to receive the zoom link.
Please take the Covid-19 pandemic seriously. I know we are tired of it, but the hospitals in the Metro are once again being stretched to capacity. Positive cases are increasing, and people are dying. Let us therefore limit time in crowds and poorly ventilated spaces. This means that we should all be re-thinking our Christmas and New Year gatherings to make sure that they do not become Covid-19 catalyst events.
Finally, don’t forget to practice the Trinity: 1] mask up, 2] wash hands and 3] physical distance by 1.5 m.
Two weeks back I recommended some Advent-time reading. During Advent-time our imaginations are stretched to include the possibilities of a world where the poor are prioritised and not persecuted and suggested that Tomatoes and Taxi Ranks will help us in this reorientation of our priorities. Advent-time is also most beautifully and powerfully honoured by those who dare to “prefigure” a hoped-for-future in the present. This is wonder-fully captured by a war photojournalist by the name of Lalage Snow in her book: War Gardens – A journey through conflict in search of calm.
Snow honours Advent-time by refusing to deny the horrors of war while at the same time exposing people’s stubbornness against despair as expressed through their daring and caring acts of garden planting.
While interviewing one restorer of gardens in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, Snow got the sense that they “were effectively tidying up after two decades of chaos, the conflict erupting around them and all the trappings which skip alongside war were merely an annoyance rather than an existential threat. The restoration almost belittles the war. It says, ‘OK, you guys carry on fighting, we’ve got more important things to sort out.’ If war is anxious, uncertain and terrifying, gardens are the antithesis. They are solid worlds of hope and life, and their gardeners work at a cognitive distance from violence.”
In another interview, Mohammed Kabir is introduced as a gardener for the Kabul municipality. His garden is mostly for subsistence living – beans, potatoes, okra. Snow writes: “’But what about the flowers?’ I point at the messy square of colour in the middle of the courtyard. ‘Well’, Kabir says, ‘I just decided to bring some seeds from my home and plant them in the courtyard. The soldiers helped me to dig and water. I am an old man,’ he reminds me. I ask him why he would make a garden in the ruins of a forgotten palace where only the military and the ghosts will see it. He looks at me as if I’ve asked him to count up to three. ‘Everyone needs a garden. This is our soil. When you work with it, things grow. It’s nature, life. I am a poor man, sometimes my family and I only eat once a day, but I can live without food; I couldn’t live without seeing green leaves and flowers. They come from heaven. Each one,’ he insists ‘is a symbol of paradise. I have a flower in my garden at home and have counted seventy colours in its petals; tell me that it doesn’t come from heaven!’ he exclaims… ‘Since starting this garden I feel I am getting younger. Every tree, every plant, every flower gives me energy.’
Alexi lives in Donetsk in the Ukraine and declares: ‘Tonight I will sleep in the shelter in the ground like my plants.’ While Hamidullah in Parwan, Afghanistan explains: ‘I had a friend in the army, an officer. He was like a brother to me. He was killed, fighting, about a year and a half ago. I was so sad. I … I couldn’t sleep for grief. I tried to garden to forget him but in the end, I planted to remember him and when one grew, it was like I had a new friend.’
Advent-time is planting a garden when others are planting bombs.
The unquestioned mantra of our times is: TIME IS MONEY. The dominant economic order turns everything into a commodity. In our time everything is capitalised. Time is something we “spend”, rather than share.
The Christian calendar – we were reminded last week – invites us to do time differently. To tell the time not according to hours, minutes and seconds and certainly not according to money, but rather according to the inevitable events that shape a life of faithfulness. Faithfulness defined as living life as it was originally intended to be lived: justly, gently, generously, truthfully, mercifully…
Advent-time is when we prepare for the arrival of a Higher Power – higher than any other power. At Christmas time this Higher Power – God – is grounded among us. When we zoom in using facial recognition software we notice this God’s appearance is one of dispossessed disfigurement. God has taken the form of the godforsaken among us. Thus Advent-time is preparing the world to prioritise rather than persecute the godforsaken among us. As Jesus would say when he is an adult: “What you do to the least of these you do to me.” Advent-time is when we reorientate our lives to prioritise the marginalised and dispossessed, the vulnerable and exploited, the frail and the abused.
Advent-time does not deny the ugly truth of the world’s pain but nor is it determined by it. Advent-time navigates the narrow gap between denial and despair by daring to do something different that neither denial can deter nor despair can determine.
Advent-time lasts 4 weeks on the secular calendar – but in actual fact it takes a lifetime for most of us to reorientate our lives to be good news for the poor, if at all. Each week takes a different theme. The first week of Advent-time aims to stretch our imaginations to include the possibility of a different world where the poor do actually hear good news. Without our imaginations stretched in this way we are unlikely to give our lives to realise such a world.
A recent book that goes a long way to help us to honour Advent-time is, Tomatoes and Taxis Ranks by the Consuming Urban Poverty research group based at UCT that astutely notes “we are surrounded by food, awash with hunger”. They do not deny the harrowing hunger that stalks so many but at the same time they dare to dream of African cities where there is enough for all, and of cities run in such a way that “fill the food gap”.
Today we occupy Church Street. Our occupation is in the form of a beautiful banquet prepared for those who are often hungry in this city that is saturated with food. With our many partners we boldly declare this to be, in the closing words of the Eucharist: “a foretaste of the heavenly banquet prepared for all the world”. May it be on earth as it is in heaven.
If the incarnation teaches us anything, it is that we will see Jesus’ divinity through his humanity or not at all. Only as we take the human hand of Jesus will we discover by grace that we have been holding the hand of the Divine. To approach Jesus as the Divine without first engaging his humanity will cause us to miss both his humanity and divinity.
Similarly, I am convinced that we would understand the Gospels more fully (or at least differently) if we read scripture as if it were not scripture. I say this because the minute we relate to it as “Holy Scripture” we read with a certain “spiritual” lens. This more often than not tames the passage by uprooting it from its original context. Often it catapults it into a “heavenly” future leaving the earth untouched and untransformed, which is quite the opposite of how the original audience would have received it.
Take for example the psalm equivalent for this Sunday — what is known as The Magnificat from Luke’s Gospel. If we were to come across this in say the Mail and Guardian, surely the words would sound different to reading them in Luke 1:46-55. In the Mail and Guardian the words sound like the radical freedom song it is intended to be.
‘And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant [South Africa], in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
This passage engages with issues which include: the awesome dignity of women; the corrupting quality of wealth and power; the hoped-for liberation of the oppressed and marginalised. These were the themes of Jesus’ childhood instruction from his mom.
We lighted the first candle of Advent,
To signal our watch for the coming of Christ, who will expel the spirit of discontent and bring healing for the nations.
We lighted the second candle of Advent,
To signal our hope for the renewal of creation, which will reveal the image of God and restore harmony with nature.
We lighted the third candle of Advent,
To signal our faith in the triumph of justice, which will expose the folly of pride and magnify purity of heart.
Today we have lighted the last candle of Advent,
To signal our trust in the promise of God, who will establish the reign of love on earth and uphold it with justice and mercy for evermore.
So be it.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent which is the beginning of the Christian Calendar. We begin a new year by preparing our lives and world for the coming of Christ among us. For the next four Sundays we will light an Advent candle reminding us of the coming of Christ the light of the world and inviting us to be the light.
To be light in the world is not to be reduced to “believing the right beliefs” in our head. Rather it is about doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God.
I love Wednesdays. Actually I love what I get to do on Wednesdays. Well actually I love who I get to meet when I get to do what I do on Wednesdays. I meet a group of young men who are enrolled in a 10 week woodwork and life-skills programme at the Carpenter’s Shop.
The group is diverse. Over the weeks we get to hear a little about each person’s life. Some have been sponsored by friends or employers or family members to attend, hoping that they can pick up a skill that may make them a little more employable. Some are part of the Ceasefire Gang Intervention programme from Hanover Park who are either recently ex-gang members or who are still connected. Others are from other parts of Africa hoping to get some South African qualification to boost their opportunities of getting “in” somewhere. All are trying to better their life. All battling multitudes of challenges.
I am proud of each participant who gets up every morning to make it to class. Just showing up is a huge achievement for most, and to see through a 10 week course is a record commitment for some. There are days when a couple of the guys will share how they are craving to start using again. I watch as they restlessly move this way and that on the wooden benches. I notice how their classmates sensitively support them — giving them both space and encouragement but also realising that they cannot rescue or “save” the guy who is craving. It is his journey and only he can walk that path — no one can walk it for him. There is no denial of the situation but most importantly there is no judgement either. I experience this “no denial and no judgement” space as very healing. In fact it tastes sacred.
Along a similar track, because it was also on Wednesday and gang related, I had the privilege of connecting with a community activist in Manenberg. She told me that her daughter was shot earlier in the year. She then went on to share with me how she went to the related gang’s “den”. In her words: “I told them that my daughter had been shot. I assured them that I would not press charges, but that I wanted to know who was responsible and why. A 17 year old owned up. I asked him to take me to his parents, which he then did and I offered to help the family …” Her story of truth and grace tasted sacred to me.
Oh to live that others taste the sacred!
O God, in times past we looked for you in heavenly eclipses. We listened for you in howling winds. We learned of you in quaking mountains. But now we know that you will be found among us.
And you will be seen not in the glitter of a mall but in a shelter for the homeless. You will be heard not in the pitch of a commercial but in the whimper of a child. You will come, not clothed in the comforts of the privileged but swaddled in the needs of the neglected. You will come, not in the decisions (more like denials) of a grand jury, but in the purifying fires of justice for innocent life taken by being shot down.
Open our eyes that we might witness the appearance of your messengers. Open our ears that we might hear the testimony of those on the margins. Open our hearts that we might ponder the secrets of those who birth Jesus. And open our mouths that we might shout the good news of your presence among us. Amen.
[Adapted from Litanies and other Prayers]
I love the way Charles Wesley describes the incarnation: “Our God contracted to a span / Incomprehensibly made man (sic)….He deigns in flesh to appear / Widest extremes to join… And we the life of God shall know / For God is manifest below.”
Nothing could ever be so unexpected. The God of heaven has an earthly address. As Karl Rahner has written:Now we no longer need to seek God in the endlessness of heaven, where our spirit and our heart get lost. Now he himself is on our very earth, where he is no better off than we and where he receives no special privileges, but our every fate: hunger, weariness, enmity, mortal terror and a wretched death. That the infinity of God should take upon itself human narrowness, that bliss should accept the mortal sorrow of the earth, that life should take on death — this is a most unlikely truth. But only this — the obscure light of faith — makes our nights bright, only this makes them holy.
I met someone the other day from Belgium. She came to be in South Africa especially for the 10 days of mourning that followed Nelson Mandela’s death. She was irresistibly drawn to be here — to the soil and the people — to share and to love and to hold. Having visited South Africa before she carried a permanent sense of connection within herself for us. “I just had to be here at this time”, she said.
God’s earthly visit to share and to love and to hold is what Christmas is all about. And forevermore God carries a permanent sense of connection within God’s self for us.
Look around you. God is near. Look inside you. God is near. Take comfort because God is near. Tremble with awe because God is near. And get this … now it is impossible to escape God loving you.
Prayer of Preparation
YOU are with us!
YOU are with US!
YOU are WITH US!
YOU ARE WITH US!
O Lord give to us the gift of knowing your presence and the blessing of peace and courage that flows from it. Amen.
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
Let there be justice
We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.
Scroll down for Words of Reflection on Mr Nelson Mandela by both Rev. Dr. Peter Storey and Alan Storey.
Today we start the second week of our Advent training program to get ourselves into shape for Jesus’ birth. Last week Coach Isaiah told us in no uncertain terms just how unfit we were and how desperately we needed to start training. The Coach was also quietly confident that we could be transformed and even come out tops in the end.
So how has your Advent training been going?
What inspires me to train more than just about anything else is to witness others training. One such inspiring moment happened for me on Tuesday morning last week. I was attending a meeting at Bishop’s Court. The meeting began at 7am and there were many pressing things to talk about by all those in attendance. At 2 minutes to eight, Archbishop Thabo said: “We need to draw this meeting to a close because I have another appointment at 8 o’clock.” There were still a number of people who had indicated their desire to speak — this meeting was not ready to conclude. “My 8 o’clock appointment is with God”, the Archbishop continued, “so let us close in prayer”. The Archbishop was sticking to his training program regardless! To witness this was inspiring.
And while we on the topic of Archbishops and training programs here is a reminder of another prophetic athlete’s training program that I hope you find inspiring. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s training program included the following …
• 04:00 Personal prayers (on weekdays)
• 05:00 A fast 30 minute walk. 5:30 shower
• 06:00 Devotional reading and work at his study desk
• 07:30 In Chapel to recite morning prayer
• 08:00 Daily Eucharist
• 08:30 Breakfast
• 09:00 Back in his office for a series of 30 minute appointments
• 13:00 Personal prayer for 30 minutes
• 13:30 Lunch and a hour long nap
• 15:00 Afternoon tea followed by a series of appointments
• 18:00 Evening prayer in the chapel followed by personal prayer
• 19:00 Supper
• In bed by 21:00 or 22:00
• Asleep by 23:00 after saying Compline Prayers
Archbishop Tutu’s daily training program therefore included around about 4 hours of prayer. To those of us who struggle with prayer this sounds quite crazy. Yet when we hear of sports people or musicians who spend an equal amount of time training for their art it seems less crazy. Dancers, pianists, cyclists and gymnasts can spend over 6 hours a day training for gold. So I am sure Tutu would reason that 4 hours is not too much when training to be Godly.
And what we have learnt from Tutu’s life is that when one person takes his or her training to be Godly seriously an entire nation benefits in the process.So let me ask you again: How is your Advent training been going?
I hope you feel equally inspired to put in a couple of extra hours in the coming week.
Happy New Year on this first Sunday of Advent. Yes, Christian New Year begins with four weeks of preparation for the coming of Jesus. And in Jesus we welcome God’s life enabling vision for all of creation. In Jesus we witness true humanity and true divinity walking hand in hand. In Jesus we witness life lived as life was intended to be lived — in love, by love and for love.
The prophet Isaiah is going to be our guide through these Advent days. The One thing we will soon learn about the prophet Isaiah is that he was not short on imagination when it came to expressing God’s heavenly dream for earth.
For Isaiah the first step for us to prepare for the coming of the prince of peace is to convert our weapons of destruction into instruments of nourishment — ”swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks”.
Sadly his words are yet to be taken seriously. We are still addicted to the lunacy of war. As John Wesley so clearly wrote many years ago:Here are forty thousand men gathered together on this plain. What they going to do? See, there are thirty or forty thousand more at a great distance. And these are going to shoot them through the head or body, to stab them, or split their skulls, and send most of their souls into everlasting fire, as fast as they possibly can. Why so? What harm have they done to them? O, none at all! They do not so much as know them. But a man, who is king of France has a quarrel with another man, who is king of England. So these Frenchmen are to kill as many of these Englishmen as they can, to prove the king of France is in the right. Now, what an argument is this? What a method of proof? What an amazing way of deciding controversies! What must mankind be, before such a thing as war could ever be known or thought of upon earth? How shocking, how inconceivable a want must there have been of common understanding, as well as common humanity, before any two governors, or any two nations in the universe could once think of such a method of decision! If then, all nations, Pagan, Mohammedan, and Christian, do, in fact, make this their last resort, what farther proof do we need of the utter degeneracy of all nations from the plainest principles of reason and virtue? Of the absolute want, both of common sense and common humanity, which runs through the whole race of mankind? From: Works (Jackson) 9:221 The Doctrine of Original Sin (part 1)
Our first Advent task is to disarm and to rethink the way we “decide controversies”. None of us are excluded from this task. It involves how we decide controversies within our most intimate relationships as well as the most expansive public policy.