Sunday, 8 March 2009

Not passengers

Not passengers but workers in the vineyard of God
Two weeks ago (22 February 2009) we had a new bishop consecrated, Right Revd William (Bill) Bowles. It took place in Kimberley, the city famous for its diamond mines and today the big hole, the remainder of the open mine from the 1870s.

Kimberley is also the centre of our diocese, Cape Orange Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Southern Africa. The whole diocese is an anomaly, derived from old structures of mission societies, too large and the congregations are concentrated in certain districts and quite absent in others. It is time consuming and costly and wears the person down to run such a diocese.

Hopefully the church will find new ways of running the present diocese, perhaps through dividing up the diocese into three new dioceses. Be that as it may, when people come together from all the corners of this vast diocese, it will be a memorable time to be sure. We traveled from Cape Town and covered a distance of 950 km in one day. We were away for three days and traveled two of them. But it was worth every minute of it. We are part of a struggling church, not least because of all the practical problems that engulf it and all should know that it is a church of the poor. Of course there are those who are better off and they don’t mind showing it; at the same time they also give to the church.

It is a struggling church but a church of strong faith convictions – the way this is shown is mostly through enthusiasm and joy. Coming to such an occasion as a bishop’s consecration is contagious, in the positive sense, you are free to come and take part and it is a joy to share the time with the other friends.

However, the problems of the church are sometimes such that leaders feel a need to do some straight talking. Too many not least leaders on different levels do not pull their weight; there is infighting, jealousy etc. and still they want to stay on and enjoy the ride they have gone for with the church.

I don’t know if it was at the spur of the moment or if it was in the text, but the Presiding Bishop Ramashapa who was the bishop responsible for the consecration said during his address to the new bishop the following: in the church we are not mere passengers but workers (in the vineyard of God). It was a striking expression as it did not pinpoint any particular abuse of power in the church but rather broadly identified a very common problem: many of us make do or even like being mere passengers in the church on our way to heaven. We accept being preached to even when the sermons are useless and a waste of time. We accept the perpetuating of traditions that have been created once but now are more a hindrance than a help in our faith in God. We enjoy being entertained by others who can give us a nice break away from our everyday worries. But this is not church. We are not here to be just passengers.

Last Sunday I preached in Eureka congregation here in Elsies River, Cape Town and I could not help but refer to this expression. As it happened, two weeks ago, the new bishop Bowles, in his inaugural sermon, also elaborated on the same expression and said bluntly to the diocese that if they had elected him as bishop they should know that they had elected one who had come to put other people in the diocese to work with him. It was a convincing sermon and I have a firm impression that our new bishop will live up to what he was saying. He will persist until he has got the various parts of the diocese at work. May God spare him and give him space and time for this important ministry.

In the introduction to my sermon last Sunday I could not help but recalling a rather funny incident some years ago in Uppsala. I do not know whether it was the subconscious insight that secretaries at the Church House in Uppsala traveled excessively or a sheer need to have some fun; in any case the Christmas party at the Church House in Uppsala some odd 15 years ago was arranged in the form of an aircraft 747. All guests were passengers seated in rows and served just like in an aircraft. One must admit that it was a rather silly and even ridiculous idea to run a party like that. If anything it became painfully obvious how many of us spend our time traveling without having a slightest chance to communicate with others in a meaningful way; and if I remember correctly, this was just the initial part of the party. The aircraft arrangement would be broken up and there would even be dancing for those in the mood before the evening was over.

So what can we do about being passengers of this life? Quite a lot of time is spent traveling, seemingly not making us any wiser, just adding on to the pollution in the air as well as on the ground.

When planning for this article I was reminded of C S Lewis who at one point talks about what it is to travel, and what is not. If one should go by what he said, very few would actually travel. He says that traveling is only when you in a concrete way make head way of some concrete fashion, by walking, by bicycle, by rowing or sailing. Traveling is when you create your own progress of moving forward making yourself exhausted and that is precisely when you experience that you have traveled. When you lie down for a well deserved rest in the new place you can easily recall how you walked, what you saw, which smells that came your way, what the wind felt like. If you had flown the same length of time and perhaps had arrived in a new continent there would not be much to go by. Only at take off and at the perhaps anxious moment of take down you would be able to recall something special related to this travel; but the in between time is a time like many other times when you were seated, in a very congested way, just to endure, well it could just as well have been the first part of the Christmas party in Uppsala.

We should not refrain from being critical of our modern technology. Does it enhance life for us and if so, how? We have to resist, with all our power, any situation where we are slaves under technological innovations rather than masters of such innovations. I for one believe that one of the reasons why the jogging movement as well as that of cycling (one of the biggest cycle races in the world took place earlier today in Cape Town with more than 30,000 participants) and others are growing is the fact that being a part of that gives you an intense feeling of real movement and a movement that you to a high degree have created yourself.

I did not get to the point where I could talk about what this means for the church more in detail. The rubric is, ‘we are not mere passengers but workers in the vineyard of God’. There will be ample reason to return to the subject. Suffice it to be mentioned that worshiping God could not possibly be to be a passenger, and yet that is exactly how it looks in many churches. The encounter with God that we call worship and in fact is a liturgy (from Greek ‘leiourgia’ meaning ‘public works’) is supposed to be the work we are doing together as a people of God and with God.

We have to find ways in which our time with God will take the form of a joint work, a life, a sharing. At its best it is a work that is absolutely delightful to perform, a task that one looks forward to again and again. And it cannot be that some of us are called to be active and others passive. In God’s vineyard we all have a great task to perform and we are all workers of equal value.

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