Saturday, December 07, 2013

Nelson Mandela

Isaiah 11.1-10, Romans 15.4-13. Matthew 11.2-11
Which famous politician had a pop song written about him which went to number nine in the UK charts, was performed to a worldwide television audience of more than 600 million people and is reckoned by the New Statesman magazine to be one of the top twenty political anthems of all time? No prizes for guessing the answer if I tell you that the song's title was ‘Nelson Mandela’. It was written and first performed by The Specials in 1984, when the hero of the song was still being branded as a terrorist by the UK government.
At his second trial in 1964, Nelson Mandela famously said, ‘I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’ Mandela wasn’t speaking lightly. He had already been in prison for more than a year and he was to remain there for another 26 years.
After his release he wrote that ‘real leaders must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people.’ No one could dispute that he had done just that.
‘There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested,’ he said, ‘But I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lies defeat and death.’
He was inspired by the Victorian poem ‘Invictus’, which I guess he must have learnt at school.
...the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
‘When people are determined,’ he once said, ‘They can overcome anything.’
Much later, he wrote, ‘I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.’
Even in prison he began trying to get alongside his captors, the better to understand them and to win their respect. ‘No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background or religion,’ he said later. ‘People learn to hate, and if they learn to hate- they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.’
‘If you want to make peace with your enemy,’ he also wrote, ‘You have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.’
And that is exactly what he did. When F W deKlerk, the out-going President of South Africa, lost the first democratic election to his ANC rival he said in his concession speech, ‘Mandela has walked a long road, and now stands at the top of the hill. A traveller would sit and admire the view. But the man of destiny knows that beyond this hill lies another and another. The journey is never complete. As he contemplates the next hill, I hold out my hand to Mr Mandela – in friendship and in co-operation.’
Nelson Mandela was to allude to that speech in his own autobiography, in which he also wrote, ‘The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall,’ and also, ‘Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.’
On the day he was released from prison he told the waiting crowd, ‘I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people.’ And at his inauguration as President he said, ‘The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us.’ That’s why he went on to set up a Reconciliation Commission rather than seeking revenge for all the sufferings of ANC members and the wider non-white population under apartheid.
In a television interview after his retirement he said ‘It is never my custom to use words lightly. If twenty-seven years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die.’
So what, apart  from the coincidence that he died during Advent, is the connection between the life of Nelson Mandela and Jesus, the shoot that came from the stock of Jesse, upon whom rested the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of  counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord? What is the connection with the God of steadfastness and encouragement who wants us to live in harmony with one another in accordance with Christ Jesus? What is the connection between the founding president of a democratic South Africa and the man who became a servant of the Jewish people in order that both Jewish and Gentile people together might come to glorify God and be filled with joy and peace in believing, and abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit?
I trust that already, like me, you have begun to see lots of resonances between the life and achievements of Nelson Mandela and the message of Advent! Jesus exemplifies the leader who sacrifices all for our freedom. In Gethsemane he triumphed over his fears. In life and in death he was a humble, suffering servant. And he is the precious Word which can impact on the way everyone lives and dies.
Announcing Mandela's death, President Jacob Zuma said, 'Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father.' It seems to me that Zuma’s juxtaposition of fatherhood and sonship sets up an unconscious resonance with the Christmas story. At Christmas God the Father becomes incarnate, present with us as a human being, in God the Son. He is at once the Father of us all and a helpless baby. A little child becomes the one who will lead us into a new era of peace and reconciliation. Jesus is both one with the Father and yet the Father’s greatest son.
When Jesus talked to the crowds about John the Baptist he asked them why they found the Baptist so charismatic and attractive? Was it because he kept changing his message to suit the prevailing current of opinion? No, of course not! Was it because of his celebrity lifestyle? Again, no. It was because he spoke life a prophet, even if he claimed not to be one. And yet, however reverently Christians talk about John the Baptist they are also conscious that there was someone greater than he. Is it not the same when we speak of Nelson Mandela?
There has been a lot of hyperbole about Nelson Mandela as world leaders have fallen over one another to praise him. Barak Obama said, ‘We've lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth. He no longer belongs to us; he belongs to the ages.’
That Mandela was courageous and good is undoubtedly true. He has certainly been influential, because he is famous. But whether or not he is also one of the most courageous and profoundly good people we shall share time with on Earth, and whether or not he belongs to the ages is surely up for debate.
Again, though, if we apply those words to the Christmas story they start to make a lot more sense. Jesus has certainly been influential down the ages and he was not only courageous but he was indeed profoundly good.
I suspect the reason why so much hyperbolic language has been heaped upon Nelson Mandela is that our culture no longer finds a place for religious archetypes. World leaders ‘don’t do God’, as Alastair Campbell once reminded Tony Blair. So instead of patterning our lives on faith leaders like Jesus or the Buddha we’re encouraged to model ourselves on extraordinary individuals like Mandela.
When Mandela’s personal flaws are pointed out – his tendency to flirt with pretty young women, his complacency about colleagues who weren’t up to the jobs he gave them – people just say, ‘At least he was human, just like us, so it’s easier to identify with him.’
Actually, of course, if we’re looking for an archetype, an example to follow, the Christmas story is a better fit than the story of Nelson Mandela. Jesus doesn’t ask us to identify with him in his weakness, instead he identifies with us in our weakness. Nelson Mandela was remarkable in the extent to which he was able to forgive his enemies and show no rancour or bitterness towards them, but he and his colleagues were surely modelling themselves on the stories they had been taught about Jesus, who told his followers, ‘Forgive your enemies; do good to those who hate you.’
David Cameron called Nelson Mandela ‘a hero of our time’ and said that ‘a great light has gone out in the world’. But Christmas is a celebration of the true light, the light that enlightens everyone, the light of all people. This light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness can never overcome it.
Perhaps the strongest resonance between the life of Nelson Mandela and the Christmas story is his deep commitment to reconciliation. Soon after becoming President he went to a reception and walked around the room greeting everyone with a handshake. In the corner stood a rather dour, uncomfortable looking elderly Afrikaner policeman. This man knew that he was symbol of all the oppression which Mandela and his supporters had endured for so many years. He didn’t expect to be acknowledged, but instead Mandela stopped to thank him for all the work which the police force was doing to protect the citizens of the new South Africa. The man’s demeanour changed entirely as Nelson Mandela drew a circle which included him, and his fellow officers inside. Isn’t that also what Jesus does - in his birth, life and death? He reaches out to fallen human beings and makes a circle of God’s love which draws us in.
Mandela was determined to refashion apartheid South Africa in the image of the prophecy where the wolf lives with the lamb, the leopard lies down with the kid and the lion eats straw like the ox. He didn’t achieve that ideal, but he embodied it in his own life. That conviction, which he spoke about in his trial, about creating a  free society in which all persons might live together in harmony and with equal opportunities is, of course, a Christian ideal. It is the world which the angels sang about at Jesus’ birth, a world where there will one day be peace and goodwill among all people.

Not one stone will be left upon another

Luke 21.5-19
‘The days will come when  not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’ Jesus’ words remind us that even apparently solid and dependable things are not permanent. They are subject to the vagaries of fortune.
In the Philippines we see whole towns and cities which have been demolished by the wind and the rain. Most of the buildings were of what one expert called ‘light construction’ but even substantial buildings like town halls have been destroyed.
One computer animation showed what can happen if a window blows in during a storm; even an apparently solid building made of bricks can be compromised. The wise man built his house upon the rock, but the winds came and the rains came and even that house could not stand!
‘When you hear of wars and insurrections,’ said Jesus, ‘Do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ If we’re not thinking about the Philippines then it’s Syria which currently preoccupies the news. Christian Aid sent me something which quoted a UN official, who said that Syria was the worst human-made disaster to befall the world for a very long time.
Actually, I think there’s a competition for worst human-made disaster, even in the relatively recent past. What about the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has been continuously at war with itself, and fought over by its neighbours, for more than twenty years? There has been unimaginable suffering there too, but it doesn’t get onto our TV screens. No one goes to see, whereas we have all seen the destruction wrought in Syria. Only this week the BBC reported an attack by Muslim extemists on a Christian school which had left several children dead.
The philosopher Thomas Hobbes said that people would live in continual fear and danger of violent death, and their lives would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short without strong government. He knew what he was talking about because he had lived through the English Civil War, which killed more people - in proportion to the size of the population at the time - than even the First World War. What do you do, though, if the strong government is itself making some people’s lives nasty, brutish and short? That was the problem in Syria, and in Sri Lanka, of course, where a reign of fear and danger of violent death was brought to an end only by an equally nasty and brutish response.
And we won’t be immune from all this. We don’t live in a bubble. Someone kindly sent me a map the other day showing what Europe will look like if all the ice caps melt. I was alarmed to see that my house, my town even, your town too, will disappear if that happens. And well it might. ‘Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’
What should we learn from Jesus’ words? Not to put too much reliance on earthly treasure, which can be destroyed by moth, rust and the sword. Not to put too much reliance on the solid things around us, things we can touch and hold onto. There is an assumption in our materialistic culture that concrete things are somehow more tangible, more real, than ideas and values. The Christmas adverts will have us believe that things can make us happy and bring hope and love. But things have serious limitations. We come into the world without any of them and we go out of the world without any of them.
Of course I’m probably talking to the converted. And yet, we’re putting a great deal of effort - you and me both - into trying to create for Horbury a new church which, in Jesus’ words, will be ‘adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God’. This passage is just a timely reminder not to lose sight of the bigger picture. It’s people who make up a church. It’s values that are eternal. Bricks and mortar are subsidiary to our main purpose. In time, not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’
Then, of course, I guess we have to learn a proper respect for nature. We are not its masters. Being stewards of creation does not mean being the managers of nature and the environment, it means working with the grain, collaborating with nature and the environment.
Finally, it’s fashionable to knock politics and politicians. Often they get it wrong. Often their motives are tainted by self-interest or class-interest, or whatever. Often power corrupts them. But life would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short without them. Our task is not to undermine and belittle the role of politicians, but to work hard to get the best politicians we can - supporting the good and challenging the bad.
Someone reminded me the other day that Tony Benn has five powerful questions which we should keep asking of our politicians: What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?
It’s not just politicians who need to answer those questions. Methodist ministers need to answer them. Church stewards need to answer them. All sorts of managers and leaders need to face up to them. When we have the opportunity to testify, will we need to worry about preparing our defence in advance, or will we have the confidence that our faith and our integrity will help us to answer the questions and satisfy or silence our critics?
And yet, says Jesus, we are not to worry. I went to a training course last week about Safeguarding - protecting children and vulnerable adults from harm - and the legal implications for charities and churches. ‘I’m going to ruin your morning’ said the trainer, as he rattled off a series of unpalatable and disturbing facts. But the subtext was, do not be anxious because ‘I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.’ That’s the message of Jesus, too. Whatever happens, he is with us. Not one hair of our heads will perish and by our endurance we will gain our souls.