A sermon preached at the annual convention of the Diocese of Washington
By Trevor Mwamba
Dear friends, I would like to convey on behalf of the Diocese of Botswana, our heartfelt greetings and God’s blessings on you all in the Diocese of Washington. We especially join you in praying for the success of this Diocesan Convention.
Botswana is in the southern part of Africa and is renowned for its working democracy and economic prosperity. But I think that for many of you Botswana is famous for Mma Ramotswe, the heroine of the bestselling series of books: The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith.
Mma Ramotswe, you will be delighted to hear is a very devout Episcopalian! In the book, In the Company of Cheerful Ladies, in which I appear, Mma Ramotswe comes to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana when I am preaching. But, Mma Ramotswe is not concentrating on the sermon as her mind is wandering on how to solve a case involving a pumpkin. She stops herself and thinks, “This is not the way to listen to Trevor Mwamba!”
Well, being in the “Company of Cheerful Episcopalians”, I hope your minds will be clear of pumpkins!
Tonight I have much to be grateful for.
There is a lovely story set in the African forest which reflects gratitude, well. A missionary came across a big lion. Trembling with fear the missionary got on his knees and prayed fervently for dear life. Opening one eye he noticed that the big lion had also gotten on its knees and paws together was also fervently praying. The missionary truly heartened by this sight opened the other eye and said, “I see my brother we are of the same faith.” The lion replied, “I don’t know about you but I am just saying grace!” For what I am about to receive, O’ Lord, I am truly thankful.
Tonight, I am grateful to God for the honour of preaching in what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 40 years ago described as, “this very great and significant pulpit.” For making it happen I express my deep personal thanks to my dear friend Bishop John Chane for his gracious invitation to me to preach at this Diocesan Convention.
Bishop John is a man of integrity and highly respected in the Anglican Communion. Indeed, my respect for him increased by a hundred percentage points two years ago in El Scoria, Spain, when over dinner he told me he had been a drummer in a rock and roll band. I am also grateful to Dean Sam Lloyd and the Cathedral Chapter for the opportunity of worshipping with you all in this great Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. I stumbled across an interesting fact about the National Cathedral in an episode of The West Wing, entitled “Two Cathedrals”. It is that you can lay the Washington Monument on its side in this Cathedral. Just imagine. Another point worth saying is that, Aaron Sorkin, who was the writer and executive producer of The West Wing, described this Cathedral as the “Yankee Stadium of all Cathedrals.”
Now, in this holy place, the “Yankee Stadium of all Cathedrals,” we gather to begin the Diocesan Convention by celebrating the Holy Eucharist which is the ultimate Act of Thanksgiving. The word Eucharist is derived from the Greek, Eucharistos’ which means to give thanks. In the Eucharist we give thanks for God’s saving grace profoundly revealed in the gift of Christ. In the Eucharist we give thanks for our calling to share in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in the world.
It’s in the spirit of thanksgiving that we become aware and humble to see that everything in life is a gift from God. We cannot take anything for granted, people, friends, family, places, happenings, this moment.
Tonight, in the Eucharist we especially give thanks for this Diocesan Convention. In the context of the Eucharist may I impress on you the theme of this Diocesan Convention: That we may be one: Making Disciples.
To summarise the theme for those of you who might doze off! Here it is in two sentences. That we may be one is intrinsic in God in whom we exist. It is to know God and reveal Him to others in a living relationship that we are called.
Let me unpack this for you in two stages by first focusing on the first leg of the theme: that we may be one. We tumble over our oneness because we don’t take God seriously and each other. Six years ago, Bishops declared war on each other over the homosexuality issue. It was breaking news for the media who simplistically, to sell papers, created two bitter opponents, the conservatives compromised of African bishops in one corner and weighing quite a lot! And liberals comprised of Western bishops in the other and weighing the same as the Africans. The war was nasty. Totally dismayed, three years ago, I wrote an article in the Church Times published in London, entitled, "Consider the Communion’s Calling," which was
a plea for mutual tolerance among Anglicans worldwide. We are all children of God and need to be reminded of the generosity of God, humility, respect, and love for one another.
It was gentle reminder of the gift of oneness we share whether we like it or not, and how: we must all learn to live together. I quoted the wise words of the late Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, who in 1981 in a foreword to a book entitled, Grow or Die, wrote
“…no single form of Christian experience, conviction or organisation is going to prevail over others. Conservative and radical, contemplative and activist, pietist and social reformer, all must learn to live together. They may and should see much to criticize in their own and others’ position. The critical faculty must not be lost. Reverence for truth must still be paramount. But all must learn to live together, for in religion, as in all else, the same things do not appeal to everybody.”
Mahatma Gandhi suggested that one of the greatest challenges of our day is finding unity amongst diversity. Unity implies oneness. But oneness does not necessarily imply sameness. In other words, we may all be different, unique individuals but through unity of purpose we can team together to accomplish great things – things of love where the whole is greater than the sums of its parts.
This is the heartbeat of the Eucharist: the mercy and extravagant generosity of God is greater than the sums of its parts. God is the whole and the parts, you and I, find a place at the table of love. All are welcome: black and white, male and female, poor and rich, straight and gay, clever and dumb, Peter Akinola and Gene Robinson. No one is left out.
Each of us is a reflection of God who calls us into existence. We are all hewed from the same Rock of Ages. Or to paraphrase John Donne’s insightful words: “No person is an island entire of itself. Every person is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
John O’Donohue picks the thread up in his magical book, Eternal Echoes, when he talks of God as the “Divine Artist” who is born in each of us revealing a different dimension of His divinity. It is not all the same. God has no spare wheels in life. We all have a special role in the world to which we are called. Each of us has our own work, gifts, difficulties and commitments to deal with. God expects us then to live out our unique gifts in order to bring forth an aspect of God that is only contained in our life. If you don’t live out your talent then that aspect of God cannot be known in you. And you cannot awaken new blessings in your life and the world. You will be poorer and the world too.
Amazingly, last summer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Williams, in his Retreat addresses to the bishops at the Lambeth Conference, touched on this. Quoting Galatians 1:16, where Paul speaks of God “…who set me apart from birth, called me by his grace, and was pleased to reveal his Son in me.” The Archbishop reminded us that, “Everything starts here because every calling… every vocation in the Church of God… is a calling to be a place where God’s Son is revealed. And that is because there is more to be revealed of the Son of God than any one life, or any one book, or any one church can reveal… Each one of us is a place in which the Son of God is revealed.”
That we may be one points us to be a place where Christ is revealed. How is Christ revealed? I discovered this snuggled in a cute book entitled Mister God this is Anna. The book is about an extraordinary child and her relationship with God, whom she called Mister God.
With that perceptive gift that children have of getting at the heart of things, she describes God this way, “Peple in Cherch are misrable because peple sin misrable songs and say misrable prers and people make Mister God a very big bully and he is not a big bully, because he is funny and loving and kind and strong.”
That is a good picture. Our oneness is that we become the place where people can see in us someone who is not a bully, because we are funny and loving and kind and strong. Like God. We don’t take ourselves seriously because we focus on the negative picture of the mess that we are.
How are we a messed up? Let me quote Mother Mary Clare of the Sisters of the Love of God, in Judy Hirst’s book, Struggling to be Holy. Mother Mary Clare says, “When you go before God in prayer you cannot leave anything behind. You carry in your heart every person, every incident, every thought, every feeling you have ever had and as you lay yourself before God so you bring all the mess as well. My prayer,” she said, “is really one sentence: Here I am what a mess”.
The Eucharist deals with mess and transforms it. The symbols of bread and wine are transformed elements having passed through a messy process. The bread is made from grains of wheat, sifted, ground, baked, to finally produce one bread. Likewise lots of grapes are pressed together in one vessel, and wine made. These are then consecrated and become places where the Son of God is revealed.
Imagine each grain of wheat as a life of person. Imagine each grape as a life of person. Imagine the sifting, grounding, baking, pressing, as the experiences and adversities we pass through in life. This messes up people. But in the Eucharist we drag our messed up lives and lay ourselves before God and we are transformed. Here we are what a mess. Here is the Anglican Communion what a mess. Here is our world what a mess. But God who is not a big bully, but funny and loving and kind and strong in His infinite mercy and generosity welcomes us and in our mess we are transformed in Christ. We are made new.
Ask not how? “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways, My ways,” says the Lord.
That’s true. It is also true that as St. Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians says: that if a person be in Christ, they are a “new creature” old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.
In the Eucharist we are spiritually joined, first to Christ, and then with each other. Though we are many we are one body for we all partake of the one bread. In our oneness we proclaim together one faith, one baptism, one Holy Spirit, and bond of love. The first leg of oneness reveals then our identity in God. God is one and we must express the oneness we hold in common by being the place where we reveal God by living out love.
This brings us to the last leg of our theme: making disciples. The Eucharist is holistic it concludes with us being sent out into the world in the power of the Holy Spirit to live and work to the praise and glory of God. It send’s us out to deal with the mess of the world. God is at work in the political, economic, social, scientific, technological, and cultural world out there. We need to recognise this. The God of righteousness, peace and Justice does not doze off after the blessing. The Spirit of the Lord is always at work engaging the world and bringing about change to make it a better place for all.
In 1960, during his tour of British colonies in Africa the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan gave an historic speech in South Africa which became famously known as the, Wind of Change, speech. He said in effect, “The wind of change is blowing through this continent and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact…”
Three year years earlier, in 1957 Ghana had become the first African British colony to gain independence led by a charismatic leader named Kwame Khrumah, like President Obama, he was 47 years old. It marked the beginning of the end of the British Empire. Lots of foreign Statesmen attended the Independence celebrations.
The most enthusiastic guest was Richard Nixon, then the United States Vice President. From the moment he touched down in Accra, Ghana, he rushed about shaking hands, hugging paramount Chiefs, playing with black babies and posing for photographs. Once surrounded by a crowd of Ghanaians at an official ceremony, he slapped one man on the shoulder and asked him how it felt to be free. “I wouldn’t know, sir,” replied the man, “I’m from Alabama!”
God was at work in Africa and the world. The wind of change was blowing.
In America, God was also at work in the civil rights movement as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently stated in his I’ve been to Mountaintop, speech. “…I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding — something is happening in our world.”
Yes. God was at work. The wind of change was blowing.
And God continues to work in America with the recent historic inauguration of President Barack Obama, as the first black President of America. In this changing and uncertain times faced with the global financial crisis and it’s still unfolding negative impact. In the face of global poverty, climate change, HIV/AIDS, malaria, and all that robs people of their human dignity. God is at work. The wind of change is blowing.
Tonight, the Diocese of Washington, in oneness with God, is called to be that wind of change blowing through America that makes life better for all. Whether we like it or not, God’s purposes come to pass. It is as we address the suffering of God’s children wherever they may be that we realize our oneness with each other and become the place where God is revealed and disciples made.
The Rt. Rev. Trevor Musonda Mwamba is Bishop of Botswana