Is it well with your souls?

A sermon preached on Sunday Feb 5, 2023 at St. George’s Cathedral, Cape Town,South Africa by Fr Michael Lapsley SS, Canon for Healing and Reconciliation at St Georges. In 1990 Fr. Michael was sent a letter bomb by the apartheid regime. It was hidden inside two religious magazines. He lost both hands and the sight in one eye in the blast, and was seriously burnt. I first heard him speak at the University of Saskatchewan in 1989. Hopes for political change were high at that time though he remained skeptical. His caution was well justified.

Good morning church….Happy Feast of Candlemass….As the nation oscillates between Stages 4, 5 and 6 of blackouts…how appropriate that the Church celebrates the feast of Candles…..today is all about light…..As Eleanor Roosevelt famously said: it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

As I stand before you, I always wonder, is it well with you, is it well with your souls?

Quite a few years ago Dean Michael invited me to be the Canon for Healing and Reconciliation for this Cathedral. I told him that every Sunday that I am here, if I am not gallivanting, and not celebrating or preaching, I will lead the prayers for healing in St John’s Chapel after the Mass ends. Over the years, that has given me a glimpse particularly of the depth of pain many of you carry in your hearts.

What lifts my spirits is when some people come just to give thanks for the good things that have happened in their lives.

All of this, the pain and the joy…which as the chorus goes, I carry to the Lord in prayer.

Today we celebrate the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. The infant Jesus is acclaimed as the glory of Israel and the light of the nations.

But the Collect tells us that today is not just about what happened to Jesus, about his vocation, his destiny. It is about our vocation, our calling, to become who we truly are.

Please just look again at the Collect for today in your pew bulletin.:

Almighty father your son Jesus Christ was presented in the temple and was acclaimed the glory of Israel and the light of the nations

grant that through him we may be presented to you and reflect his glory in the world

One of my favourite quotes is from St Irenaeus of Lyon: “The Glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

We read in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, I have come that you may have life and have it more abundantly. Are you fully alive …are you in the process of realising your full potential? If not, what is preventing you….is it internal or external? Is it objective or subjective?

We do not have power over what others do to us, but we do have choice of how we respond. Sometimes I think about meeting the person who sent me a letter bomb. I would like to thank him. Without him, I would not have been able to begin a world wide ministry of healing of memories. Then I would ask him, how about your life? Are you at peace?

Of course for many there are objective threats to becoming fully alive.

We grieve with the mother and child of 29 year old Tyre Nicholls, a black man in Memphis Tennessee, bludgeoned to death by black police officers while medics stood by and watched. Internalised racism. Would the officers have done the same to a white person.

A few nights ago I had dinner with a UCT (University of Cape Town) student from KZN (KwaZulu-Natal). He told me that he preferred KZN corruption to Western Cape corruption. He realised in KZN that he would never get his driving licence until money changed hands.

In Cape Town, his mother was buying a house with the help of a white sounding, pale skinned intermediary. Everything was agreed until his black African Mother appeared to view the house and suddenly it was no longer on the market.

I was told a story of a parent who failed to get her child into a particular school. She wondered if it was because she failed to pay the bribe.

In our neighbouring Kingdom of Eswatini, their leading human rights defender Thulani Maseko was gunned down in front of his wife Taleni. It happened just a few hours after the King warned activists who defy him not to “shed tears” about “mercenaries killing them”.

In today’s Gospel, Simeon told Mary “a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” True also for RowVaughn Wells, the mother of Tyre Nicholls, for Taleni Maseko and my mother too. Thulani was in his life a light to the nations advocating for dialogue. At Tyre Nicholl’s funeral the Vice President was present. SADCC and the AU were nowhere to be seen at Thulani Maseko’s funeral.

Every South African has had enough of loadshedding. We are told with a state of emergency it will be over by Christmas. During the last state of emergency, while we were dying in our numbers, the politically connected laughed all the way to the bank And so far there have been no successful prosecutions. What guarantee is there that it will be any different this time?

For us to be a light to the nations, we are called to be ethical and compassionate as individuals, as a church, as a community and as a nation Allow me to repeat that.

Just a few days ago, the Prime Minister of my other country, 42 year old Jacinda Ardern stepped down after 5 years of modelling ethical, visionary and compassionate leadership. She spoke to the UN about kindness … And extremists in her own country hated her and threatened her life.

Last Sunday our pew bulletin had two quotes both of which speak to our calling to be salt and light. The first is from John Stott. It is very challenging especially for us as members of this Cathedral Congregation:

“Too often the church has turned away from this challenge and sunk into a bourgeois, conformist respectability. At such times it is almost indistinguishable from the world, it has lost its saltness, its light is extinguished and it repels all idealists. For it gives no evidence that it is God’s new society which is tasting already the joys and powers of the age to come. Only when the Christian community lives by Christ’s manifesto will the world be attracted and God be glorified. So when Jesus calls us to himself, it is to this that he calls us. For he is the Lord of the counter-culture”

And then the beautiful vision from Thomas Merton as he was walking downtown:

“I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. … This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

So my dear friends May God give us the eye of faith to see one another as we truly are. This faith community like all others is a field hospital for the walking wounded and we are all family who need companions on the way. As the Letter to the Hebrews says,

“…he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

My friend Philibert Tossou from Benin sent me this story from Japan. During ww2, there was a child carrying his dead brother on his back waiting for an opportunity to bury him. Someone stopped him and suggested he put his brother down so he could walk faster. The child responded, it is not heavy, that is my brother.

“For my yoke is easy my burden is light”

Grant that through him we may be presented to you and reflect his glory in the world. Before we receive Communion, I will say:

Behold who we are ..and you are invited to say: May we become what we receive.

Amen

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