Lenten Sermon from United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA)

ASH WEDNESDAY SERMON 2013*
Rev. Dr. Moiseraele Prince Dibeela, UCCSA General Secretary

“This is how to truly worship the Lord, Remove the chains of the prisoners who are chained unjustly, Free those who are abused, Share your food with everyone who is hungry; share your home with the poor and the homeless…then your light will shine in the dark; your darkest hour will be like the noonday. (Isaiah 58: 6-10)

Isaiah 58: 6-10; Philippians 2: 6-11 and Mark 5: 6-17

Dumelang, Sanibonani, Molweni, Goie Nant, absheni! I greet you in the many languages of the people of Southern Africa. We bring you the blessings and good wishes of your sisters and brothers from the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa.
Thulani and I are grateful for the opportunity to share with you on this service which marks the beginning of lent. We thank God for the opportunity to share and to worship God with you on this occasion. It is a reminder that our vocation as human beings, as creatures of God, is to worship God. Worship of God is part of the DNA of our creatureliness. If and when we lose that capacity within us then we have lost something fundamental in our human beingness. We have lost the reason for our existence, we become shells, and we have lost the essence of being human.

One of the heartrending conversations in the New Testament is the story in Mark 5, of the man who lived at a graveyard. To begin with it is a sad indictment on society that someone would have given up on community and taken refuge among the dead. It means that there was something drastically wrong with the make-up of society that the only place where he could find some solace was in a cemetery. However, what is even more tragic is that in the conversation Jesus asks him a basic yet potent question “What is your name?” to which he responds by saying “I am legion.” He does not say „I am Prince, John, or Emmanuel‟, he says “I am Legion.” Legion or Legiones was a Roman army battalion that enforced the Empire system upon citizens. It was an occupying force that made sure that the people paid their taxes, that forced the so-called pax Romana (made sure that there was no resistance) and that harassed the people on a daily basis in order to show them who was the boss. It is this battalion that this man identifies with „when he says I am Legion.‟

How does it happen that someone loses a sense of who he or she is, his identity, and their sense of being part of society? How does it happen that someone can lose the reality that they are created by a gracious and loving God? How is it that we lose the spiritual antenna that connects the divinity within us to the God who created us in their image? How is it that as human beings we can come to a point of effortlessly identifying and even glorifying death-dealing forces/ and systems such as war, exploitation and thievery of the resources of other countries, violence against women and children, and the gradual but certain destruction of the environment. It is tragic that these life-denying attributes have become a characterization of who we are as human beings, we may not have the honesty of the man in the graveyard of Gerasene, but it is who we have and are becoming.

In the worldview where we come from we talk of Ubuntu. Ubuntu is the light inside all of us which draws us to each other as creatures of God, it is the wiring in our make-up that reminds us of our humanness. It is that which reminds us and activates within us attributes such as kindness, mercy, compassion, justice and the quest to worship God. It is that which reminds us that we are denying ourselves of our place in God‟s abundance of love and grace when we lose our vocation as worshippers.

As the Psalmist says:
“And I praise you because of I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful and of this I have no doubt.” Psalm 139:14

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of a journey to the cross and beyond. It ought to be a self-emptying of the self- kenosis. For some this means denying themselves of a few delicacies like chocolate, beef and other things that are non-essential for our living. However, the self-emptying I am talking about is deep and much more radical. It is reconnecting with our purpose as creatures created by a loving God. It is learning again what it means to be truly human, which is to worship God.

Jesus modelled this for us:
Even though he is King he counted that as nothing to boast about and humbled himself and took the form of a servant.
Even though he is the Word par excellence, the One through whom all things were created, he came to live among us and participated in our suffering and our struggles.
Even though he is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, he opted to be a peasant in Nazareth, and suffered the brutality of Empire.
And because of this radical model of what it means to be human; this kenotic presentation of grace, the Bible says:
“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Jesus self-emptied himself, took the form of a servant, and transformed our reality so that power is no longer vested in the kings and Imperial systems of this world, so that we can take our rightful place in God‟s vision of a new earth and a new heaven, and that all God‟s children can be called by their rightful name and not by the systems that oppress them.

Ash Wednesday cannot be just another day in the liturgical calendar. It is an invitation to radical discipleship; it is a reminder of our vocation and our place in God‟s radical solidarity with creation. And that disciple of Isaiah of Jerusalem puts it most eloquently when he says:
“This is how to truly worship the Lord, Remove the chains of the prisoners who are chained unjustly, Free those who are abused, Share your food with everyone who is hungry; share your home with the poor and the homeless…then your light will shine in the dark; your darkest hour will be like the noonday.

A Modimo o lo Segofatse, o lo boloke, o bo o lo phatsimisetse sefatlhego sa One.
* [This is an extract of the sermon delivered at a reception at Howard University on Wednesday February 13, 2013 as part of the UCCSA- United Church of Christ (UCC) Central Atlantic Conference Partnership visit during February 11-22, 2013.]