Several parishioners of Christ the Lord Episcopal Church, where I preach once a month, had urged me to make those sermons more broadly available. My first response earlier this year was to publish several in a book Troublemaker: Troubling Words for Troubled Times which is available at www.redmoonpublications.com
In response to their continued expressions of interest – and hopefully yours – I've decided to resurrect this long-dormant blog and post not only my sermons (the last four of which will follow shortly) but occasional essays, reflections on issues of peace and social justice. Hopefully, they will stimulate conversation on the mix of faith and politics and the role of the church in the world…what some might call applied theology. So, here goes. I look forward to your reactions and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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's Nelson Mandela grew up in his own land, but, like Moses, he could say "I have become an alien in a foreign land" [Exodus ]. Internally exiled, first to a Moses, South Africa Bantustan and then to the infamous prison on , he watched from that prison, while foreigners – the Afrikaners – ruled the land. All the while of Mandela's imprisonment, a very biblical forty years, the Africans of South Africa "groaned in their slavery and cried out" [Exodus 2:23]. Robben Island
But "God heard their groaning" [Exodus 2:24] and spoke to Mandela, not through a burning bush, but slowly, softly during the long, quiet hours that marked Mandela's four decades on Robben Island. There were, I'm sure, probably many moments – those dark ones at night – when he, too, cried "O, Lord, please send someone else to do it" [Exodus ]. How similar that plea is to Christ's on that darkest of night's – "…take this cup from me" [Luke ]. While "Mandela's own faith [remains] a matter of much speculation," he underwent a transformation on
that was "essentially religious" [Anthony Sampson, Mandela, p. 230]. Indeed, toward the end of his imprisonment, Mandela's "capacity for forgiveness…amazed visitors," and one visitor, Frieda Matthews, "found him positively Christlike" [Sampson, p. 230]. Robben Island
To Matthews' observation, a literalist might object that it borders on blasphemy. But aren't we all called upon to imitate Christ and to bring forth in our lives the Spirit that is within us? Didn't Jesus say "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you"? [Gospel of Thomas in Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, p. 126]. Wasn't that what a doubting, hesitant Moses was called upon to do, to bring forth the prophetic qualities of leadership which God promised would be there when needed. "I will help you to speak and teach you what to say….and will teach you what to do." [Exodus 4:12&15]. One must always have faith that God will provide adequate tools to do what he asks of us.
In Mandela's case, God brought him to this realization only slowly, not as one of those "Aha!" moments. God is unchangeable but acts in our lives in different ways befitting who we are and what we do. Like Moses, Mandela had reacted initially to the injustice around him by striking out violently. Moses killed one Egyptian; Mandela's African National Conference (ANC) killed many Afrikaners. Indeed, that, purportedly, was why Mandela was imprisoned. But I do not find the slowness of Mandela's conversion at all surprising. For, as Elaine Pagels notes, "Such insight [as that in Thomas' Gospel] comes gradually through effort." [Pagels, p. 126]. Not being a literalist, I am inclined to believe that God worked his way on Moses in much the same way.
In some ways, prison was for Mandela what life in Pharaoh's palace was for Moses. They had time and occasion to learn their slave masters' ways. God was equipping them for the task assigned. "Mandela," we are told, "was developing a special interest in the Afrikaner mindset. He urged the other prisoners to talk with the warders in Afrikaans…to understand more about their psychology and culture." [Sampson, p. 226]. "I realized," he said, "the importance of learning…how they are indoctrinated, how they react." [Sampson, p. 226].
He also befriended the Dutch Reformed prison chaplain, the Reverand Andre Scheffler, and found himself in agreement, when Scheffler "warned the prisoners against blaming everything on the white man." [Sampson 229]. Scheffler, in the event, was banned from conducting services, when he preached about Moses leading the Israelites out of
. How clear a parallel do we need? Egypt
But Mandela's task differed in the particulars. It was not some geographic exodus to some promised land. His people were already in their "beloved country." The task rather was to lead his people and their tormentors on a spiritual journey to freedom. And, as a subsequent Anglican chaplain, a Reverend Hughes, insisted, that could only be done with reconciliation on both sides [Sampson, 229]. Thus, Mandela resolved to call Africans and Afrikaners to reconciliation and forgiveness, to free the former from their physical slavery, the latter from their spiritual slavery.
In this, he had powerful helpmates – Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who spoke to the conscience of the ruling whites, Prime Minister F.W. de Klerk, an erstwhile apartheidist, who appealed to their reason and self-interest, and a God who equipped both Mandela and de Klerk to persevere and to work together in leading all South Africans to a better place. In this, they, too, were afflicted with the grumbling of the "hardhearted" – the extremists – among them.
But persevere they did. God had taught them well what to say and what to do. Mandela got to see his "Rainbow Nation" – talk about covenants honored [Genesis ] – and both justly shared a Nobel Prize for Peace.