St Paul’s, Durban: Sunday 7 November 2021

  • Services are on Sundays at 7.30am and 9.15am. Mask wearing, sanitising and social distancing are essential. No singing is permitted. Temperatures and tracing details of those attending will be taken.
  • The full Service Slides, including the hymns, readings, prayers, other liturgy and notices may be found on our website
  • A video regarding vaccination (and the text of it), received from the Archbishop’s COVID advisory team can be found here.

Sermon by Revd Andrew Warmback (Mark 12:38-44)

We all try to live fulfilling and meaningful lives.  As people of faith we want to know God more fully, to grow in our faith and to make a meaningful contribution to the world. Is that not true? But sometimes we are unsure if we are on the right track or not.

What are the signs of spiritual growth?  How do we measure faith that is genuine, especially in a world where things and people are judged on appearances; a world in which people flaunt their wealth, power and success and in which news itself often turns out to be fake.

Changing patterns of Church Attendance

We live at a time when patterns of church attendance have changed.  The pandemic has meant that we have not always been able to gather for corporate worship.  We have had to stay at home.  For many the pandemic has meant the church has become less central to their lives: many people have not returned to churches, and some may never do so.

There are many so called “on-line” ministry resources.  With access to the internet the choices for worship, spiritual nourishment and guidance for Christians are almost endless.

The question remains the same – whether we attend church or not – what are the characteristics of a vital spirituality, that makes a difference to our lives and the lives of others.

Today’s gospel story offers some signposts to the development of faith, including in identifying what are not authentic expressions of faith.

Gospel

I will read the first part of today’s gospel reading:

“Jesus said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”  (Mark 12: 38-40)

In the second part of today’s reading (Mark 12:41-44) there is the story of the widow giving to the temple treasury her two small coins.  Jesus tells his disciples that she “gave everything she had, her whole livelihood.”

Like the prophets before him, Jesus valued and protected widows who along with others, were considered vulnerable, orphans and foreigners.

Jesus also criticises other religious leaders.  In Luke’s gospel, for example, Jesus says “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God….For you love to have the seat of honour in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces. (Luke 11:42-43)

 

Pomp and self-aggrandizement

Both these groups of people want the places of honour and prestige – the main seats, and insist on being addressed properly in public. Their ostentatious behaviour – their pretence – was not just a harmless and misguided inauthentic expression of religion but led to the exploitation of others, “devouring widow’s houses”, and neglecting to do justice generally – definitely not true expressions of spiritual devotion.

As readers of the Bible we can see how Jesus calls out the religious leaders of this day for their false show of spirituality, and the destructive behaviour that follows.

But is their behaviour not mirrored in the practices of many of the elites of our societies today. Those with wealth and power, and education, and with the sense of privilege and entitlement that often goes with it, regularly see themselves as more important than those who have less than them.

Like Jesus we must see beyond appearances.  Jesus knew that he operated in an oppressive system – for example the temple system was exploitative and corrupt. We too need to challenge beliefs and values that maintain our current oppressive social, political and cultural systems and traditions.  Attitudes and behaviours that are misogynistic, xenophobic, homophobic, that discriminate against other sexual minorities must be confronted and corrected.

Old Testament Prophets

The Old Testament prophets were forever calling out people for practising false religion: pretending to be devoted to God yet at the same time being unjust and discriminating against people.  Perhaps the most famous of these passages is from the book of Amos. Its essence is as follows: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…. Take away from me the noise of your songs… But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24)

Does our attending church, sharing in the liturgy, listening to the sermon (hopefully!) lead to a positive response in being compassionate to those who beg for food and scrounge around for shelter each night, in paying workers fairly, in including those with disabilities, in working for equality of all people, caring for the environment, confronting corruption and challenging prejudice etc.?

Signs of Spirituality

So let us return to the question I raised near the beginning: What are the practices of a person with mature faith?  What is true spirituality? I want to set out 6 signs of or signposts to spiritual maturity:

  1. Inspired by the widow’s giving of her all, true spiritual growth happens when we give our whole lives to God. Our lives then become fuller and more effective than we ever imagined. And this is a lifelong process.
  2. Our faith thrives when we seek the truth and face reality, trying to understand ourselves, others, and the world around us. For this we need to discern what is true from what is false. A healthy dose of suspicion can help us more clearly hear what the Spirit is saying to us.
  3. Related to this is that real faith helps us to become more ourselves, to accept more of ourselves, to become more of who God created us to be, and not always striving to become like someone else or worse still, perfect. It is about accepting “we are enough.” Deepening our relationship with God happens best when we are humble, honest with ourselves and our brokenness and failures, confessing our sins and when we open ourselves to be changed.
  4. A genuinely prayerful life – with long prayers or short prayers! -leads to an awareness of the suffering of people and a compassionate response to them. A growing faith certainly does not demean, dehumanise, let alone “devour” those who are vulnerable. As we have learnt from Jesus this morning, and as the book of James puts it so bluntly: Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27) Devotion to God may also lead to challenging and transforming unjust structures. We cannot separate the worship from justice, love of God from love of neighbour, prayer from action.
  5. The test of spiritual maturity is in the fruit that we bear, the attitudes and behaviour that result from our faith. For the fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control….(Galatians 5:22-23)

 Conclusion

Finally, genuine faith is all about love. This was emphasised last week by Revd Mduduzi Mathe in his farewell sermon to us. This is my conclusion too. St Paul has the final word:  “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13: 1-3)   Amen.

During this difficult time of the global pandemic, you are invited to make a contribution to the ministry and mission of our church by making a donation to the following account:   Account Name: St Paul’s Church      Account Number: 50854628623     Bank: First National Bank (FNB)     Branch Code: 221426