Benediction Online

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Remembering Mandela

Isaiah 11:1-10

Bill Clinton said. “Today the world has lost one of its most important leaders and one of its finest human beings. History will remember Nelson Mandela as a champion for human dignity and freedom, for peace and reconciliation.” The Dalai Lama added,  “The best tribute we can pay to him is to do whatever we can to contribute to honoring the oneness of humanity and working for peace and reconciliation as he did.”

Peace and reconciliation. The things that Mandela will be remembered for. But as a young man he believed that armed resistance was necessary, he was imprisoned for attempting to sabotage the country’s power grid and, following the lead of the South African government, the United States put him on the known terrorist list. He remained there until 2008, just five years ago.

During his years in prison, Mandela the angry young man, matured into the elder statesman who led his country to the end of apartheid and a new South African constitution based on non-discrimination.

John the Baptizer appeared in the desert preaching a new standard of holiness. No longer was it enough to say that one was a cradle Episcopalian. Now, he said, you needed to show that you were walking your talk. It was time to show the fruits of repentance, because the kingdom of God was near. 

When Jesus started his ministry, he too preached that the kingdom of God was near. But whereas John seems to have imagined its coming as a time when the religious people of the day would meet their maker and be held to account, Jesus’ first declaration of the kingdom was liberty. He talked about preaching good news to the poor, about proclaiming release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, about setting at liberty those who are oppressed, and proclaiming the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19)

Later Jesus would talk about the kingdom as something inner, saying “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:20-21) The Greek there can also mean “within you.” Thus, “the kingdom of God is within you.”

So we have three possible images here: John’s day of wrath, Jesus’ freeing of captives and the older Jesus’ inner kingdom. Which is the reign of God?

The answer of course is “Yes”.

The reign of God is all those things.

As the reign grows within and among us so there will be many parts of our own lives that are not bearing fruit and need to be axed. There may be cherished stories about how we have been hurt, bundles of unexplored resentment or behaviors which served us well in the past but are no longer serving God. As we let go of these things which have held us back, we are more and more able to build the inner reign of unconditional love, forgiveness and serenity. And as we do that, our lives will less and less rotate around our own needs and confusions, giving us more energy to serve others and to work to make the outer world one where justice happens.

During his time in prison, Nelson Mandela changed. Perhaps John the Baptizer would also have changed had he lived long after he was imprisoned.  Perhaps the firebrand in the desert would have changed into a man preaching peace and reconciliation. Or maybe not. Because maybe we need to approach peace and reconciliation with the passion of the angry young man, with the passion of the wild prophet.

It’s easy for us to think that by being generally nice people and not bothering our neighbors, we are living the reign of God, but the reign of God is much more demanding. The reign of God calls us to radically change our inner attitudes and to work tirelessly for the world that Jesus proclaimed. The one where there is good news for the poor and liberty for the captive. A world where, instead of our prisons being filled to overflowing with mainly black people, they are empty because the causes of crime have been eliminated. A world where everyone has access to adequate health care. A world where no-one goes hungry and no-one dies of obesity.

The reading for Isaiah this morning gives us that wonderful image of the end of violence:
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

That is our vision. That is what we are working towards. A day when the knowledge of God brings peace, a day when there is no more violence and no more fear. A day when people work cooperatively together. And there are glimmers of hope. There is less war between countries than ever before. There are many people who are doing good things; there are many people who are reaching out to strangers.

One iconic image of Mandela is his wearing a green Springbok’s rugby shirt – the symbol of white South African machismo. He knew that if apartheid were to end in South Africa, rugby had to become a sport which was safe for people of all skin colors. He reached out to strangers, specifically in this case to the Springbok captain, and through doing that helped to make sure that the new South Africa would have room for all. He embodied peace and reconciliation. But it took many hundreds and thousands of people following his example to prevent civil war. People just like you and me - people working quietly and persistently for peace and reconciliation.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord; build the royal road, the road of peace. There is much to be done. The time is now. It is time to make peace in our own hearts with all the resentments and irritations and anger that disturb our serenity. It is time to reach out and try to make peace with those we have offended or hurt. It is time to work for peace in our world by working to eliminate the inequities and injustices which are the basis of conflict.

Mandela once said, “If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.” We might paraphrase that and say “If there are dreams about a beautiful reign of God, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord: the road of Goodness and Forgiveness.


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