Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 15th December 2013
15 December 2013 at 11:00 am
The Reverend David Stanton, Canon Treasurer and Almoner
Over this last week the world has been remembering Nelson Mandela, one of the great leaders of our time. World leaders, including fifty-two presidents and sixteen prime ministers, gathered last Tuesday inside Soccer City in South Africa and tributes to his extraordinary leadership have reverberated around the world. Today, almost right now, his funeral service takes place in Qunu, the village where he grew up in Eastern Cape province. Indeed, The Prince of Wales is there today representing Her Majesty The Queen.
On the evening Mandela died I turned on the television (just before midnight) and heard South African President Jacob Zuma address the world: 'He passed on peacefully in the comfort of his family', 'South Africa has lost its greatest son'. Today, I think it is entirely appropriate that we pause to reflect upon this great man, the father of modern South Africa, who led the fight against apartheid and then pushed for reconciliation as the nation's first black president. It is easy for us to forget that, as a revolutionary, he served twenty-seven years in prison for taking up arms against his country's oppressive white government, and yet he became the face of forgiveness as he embraced his former captors and urged sworn enemies to forge a 'rainbow' nation. By force of his generous and winning personality, Mandela managed to do what many sceptic’s deemed impossible: unite and inspire a bitterly divided country.
In so doing, he became a global icon whose popularity eclipsed racial and geographic boundaries. I’m sure we all remember how he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, sharing the prize with F W de Klerk, during the era of state-sanctioned racial segregation. On the night of his death, President Zuma also said: 'He is now resting. He is now at peace', 'May your soul rest in peace'. The world knows much about his fight against apartheid and triumphant election as South Africa's first black president, and the media today is awash with tribute and obituary. During this last week, streams of visitors have queued to sign a Book of Condolence in St Margaret's Church, Westminster, and many similar tributes have been taking place all around the world. But what about his personal faith?
In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela tells the story of his early engagement with Christianity: 'The Church was as concerned with this world as the next: I saw that virtually all of the achievements of Africans seemed to have come about through the missionary work of the Church.' A few weeks before he was elected South Africa's president, he addressed the South African clergy and people with the following words: 'the Good News borne by our risen Messiah who chose not one race, who chose not one country, who chose not one language, who chose not one tribe, who chose all of humankind!' He consistently proclaimed his commitment to the Christian faith throughout his adult life - gaining the respect of leaders around the globe.
This morning’s Gospel reading reveals John the Baptist to us as the forerunner of Christ. Someone who from prison witnessed to the coming of Christ. His was a counter-cultural voice who prophesied about social justice: This is the one about whom it is written: 'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you'. Through the centuries others have taken up this mantle of prophesy and action, and it is not too difficult for us to see something of that in 'Tata Madiba': It is also fair to say that his personal journey reflects something of the compassion, the personal sacrifice, the vision, the courage and the great generosity of spirit that comes from Christ himself.
Today more than ever we need this kind of leadership, and we pray that his memory may inspire a new generation of such leaders around the world. As a Methodist Christian, Mandela consistently proclaimed his commitment to Christ throughout his adult life. Just like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he spoke about the importance of a life of prayer, and in particular the importance of the psalms as a school of prayer, for developing a robust spirituality for social good. Through his understanding of God and through his personal relationship with Christ, his life bears testimony not only to personal sacrifice and pain, but also a struggle for justice and equality. His autobiography reveals how, as a very bitter and headstrong young man, he used his time in prison to work through his internal anger. He uses the analogy of ‘self-emptying’, from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians, to explain how, in Christ-like fashion, he embarked on a pattern of spiritual growth, moving from bitterness and anger to reconciliation and peace. Such commitment requires great love, careful discernment, tremendous resilience, and extreme endurance.
His fight against racial inequality as well as leadership in reconciling the white South Africans (Afrikaners) with the black South Africans reflects the ideals of Christian principles of justice, forgiveness and reconciliation. In a foreword to his book 'Conversations With Myself', President Obama wrote: 'To so many of us, he was more than just a man - he was a symbol of the struggle for justice, equality, and dignity in South Africa and around the globe,' 'His sacrifice was so great that it called upon people everywhere to do what they could on behalf of human progress'. On his death, the Dean and Chapter sent a message of condolence to the High Commissioner for South Africa and, in the new year, the Abbey will hold a national Service of Thanksgiving for his life. As I draw to a close, allow me to re-iterate two things: Firstly: that one of the most remarkable things about him is that, despite the many grievances the black majority had against their white oppressors, he rejected retribution and consistently preached reconciliation, even finding compassion for his jailers. Like him we, too, live in changing and challenging times which demand of each and all of us a deep faithfulness in our Christian discipleship, and a waiting on God in prayer. We too need to go deep if we are to speak the truth of God – about the meaning and purpose of our human lives – and resist the glib attractions of a superficial secularism.
And secondly: I finish with some very moving words from Fr Harry Wiggett, who was Chaplain at Pollsoor prison, during Nelson Mandela’s time there: 'On every occasion that I visited Pollsmoor Prison to celebrate the Eucharist a warder had to be present to keep an eye on me and to hear every word that I said to be sure that I was not passing on or receiving any politically inflammatory messages! On this particular occasion, when I reached the Peace, Nelson gently stopped me and went over to the young warder on watch. "Brand", he asked, "are you a Christian?" "Yes", responded Warder Brand. "Well then, you must take off your cap and join us round this table. You cannot sit apart. This is Holy Communion and we must share and receive it together." And, to my utter astonishment, Warder Brand meekly removed his cap, and, joining the circle, received Holy Communion! I was deeply humbled because I, the priest, had not thought of doing that.
To appreciate the significance of this incredible act of inclusive love one needs to be aware not only of its spiritual but also of its political significance: The fact that Christo Brand was white and that he had responded to an invitation from a black, and so naturally, was deeply moving! Christo Brand had political power, but submitted to the power of the Spirit working through Nelson, the prisoner. Christo Brand was a member of the Dutch Reformed Church and had partaken of Holy Communion in an Anglican liturgical service. In Christo Brand's church blacks and whites were not allowed to worship together. Nelson had Christo joining us in worship. Our Sanctus must truly have gladdened the Trinitarian heart that morning!
For be sure, such things could not happen under the spiritual and political dispensation prevailing outside Pollsoor at that time! That is the Nelson Mandela I know and love and pray for.
That is the spiritual Nelson Mandela who, through his loving and living of life, and seeing all in the image of God - belonging to one another, that has brought hope not only to those of this multi-faceted nation, but also to millions throughout the world. He truly shone with the light of Christ'.