Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Nelson Mandela Stirs Us Up

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday in Advent includes Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 3:1-12

The death of Nelson Mandela has flashed across the night sky of a darkened world like a comet with a great long trail of light behind it. Even when the stars in the fields of heaven are outshown by such a brilliant showing as Comet Madiba, we know that our attention will, after a while, return to the ordinary and the mundane; our eyes will return to watching what is worthless (to quote the psalmist), and our hands will be tempted to build walls that exclude and to build fortunes not for sharing. Civil wars and tribal violence, partisan bickering and self-indulgence will again darken the world’s sky. But, oh my, what a luminous spirit showed itself in that man’s relentless smile, illumined by deep humility, courageous patience, and vigilant commitment to justice. If we’ve heard correctly the teaching of the physicists, that energy is not lost, will be changed but not ended, then we’ll keep the light we saw reflected in his eyes, his way of seeing the world and its needs, his insight into human nature and its capacity—our capacity—for reconciliation.

Given the extensive media coverage of Mandela’s death, the retelling of his life story, our ability to virtually attend his memorial service, file by his casket, go to his state funeral, it’s certain that we’re just about at the point where there’s nothing new and fresh to be said. But that’s not going to stop preachers from wanting to reflect on this man’s life, today when purple gives way to pink in the Advent scheme, a reminder that the incarnation of God in human flesh is for the brightening of all life.

I want to ask you to recall with me a few details we’ve heard in these past few days. Each conveys the power of God’s incarnation in human experience. Each challenges us with questions, this Advent.

10,052 days. The period of Mandela’s imprisonment, most of it on Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town. 10,052 days sealed away in a prison where the white government tried to isolate its most threatening political enemies, Mandela among them because he headed the African National Congress, identified by our own American government as a terrorist group trying to overthrow South Africa’s legitimate—and intensely anti-Communist and deeply racist—government. 10,052 days in which moral authority in South Africa shifted Mandela’s way, until his nation needed him not confined but freed, to channel his people’s anger as no one else could, to the peaceful outcome of black majority rule.

10,052 days, Nelson Mandela’s perpetual advent season of preparation. He recognized what incarnation required for the Word to be made flesh and be full, not of vengeance and recompense, but full of grace.

One letter every six months. That’s all he was allowed to write during the early years. The Pretoria government was that afraid of the power of his words, and that intent on depriving him of the relationships that for him incarnated love and replenished strength.

Eight feet by eight feet. The dimensions of the cell where Mandela lived most of those 27 years. Room only for what mattered most: a bed, a toilet, a wash stand, a ledge for a precious few allowed books and his journals. Eight feet by eight feet: about enough room for the digging of two graves, one in which to lay to rest the old Mandela no longer free, the other to let go of the future Mandela who would not be just what he had imagined, or when, or how. And atop both these graves to be himself in the present moment, discovering day by day how to pay attention, how to order his ways, how to find new ways to teach, to organize, and to ultimately practice the art of revolution.

These details of his story stir up for me some Advent questions.

10,052 days in prison, most of them alone in a cell, all of those days the training ground for a miracle. And do you and I resist even short periods of solitude and silence for opening ourselves to God? And then wonder why our lives seem aimless, restless?

If you could write only two letters a year, how would you use them? To whom would you write first, and second, and third? As Advent moves us closer to Christmas, we try to do everything, provide for everyone, communicate with many friends and family, party with many… What one or two people do you most want to reach?

Eight feet square, a cell is a powerful symbol of simplicity. Even in such a small space, a person will demonstrate humanity: will put one’s unique mark on how that space is used. What space in your life most needs simplifying? How might a new embrace of simplicity enhance our humanity?

There’s one more detail from the big story that I’d like to lift up today. Massachusetts was among the first government pension funds to disinvest from South Africa’s apartheid marketplace. To what standards of social responsibility are we holding ourselves accountable, these days, in our investments?

Among many lessons we may learn from Nelson Mandela’s life story is how only hindsight can reveal what was really happening in all the thousands of our days (especially our hardest days), in those few square feet of our influence, and in the battles we fought and the reconciliations we allowed. Until the more spectacular moments of revelation play out before us, we may not realize that things just weren’t always what they seemed. Think of that magical scene from the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, a turning point for post-apartheid South Africa thanks to then-president Mandela's public show of support for the predominantly white national team, a gesture that became a transcendent moment in the country's transformation to multi-racial democracy.

To call a moment like that iconic is to remember that the purpose of a classic painted icon is to be a window into the deepest reality of heaven. Hindsight gives us the paints and the brushes and the canvas needed to create icons, windows into the real. Matthew’s Gospel today gives us an example of how hindsight reveals reality. John the Baptist has been imprisoned unjustly by King Herod as a revolutionary. Unlike Mandela, John will not be released alive, and he seems to know this. He sends his disciples to confirm his hope, that Jesus is the Messiah, the liberator long-awaited by Israel and by the world. Jesus answers by directing them to practice a little hindsight. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind are seeing, the lame walking, lepers are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor, my people, are the passion of my preaching. Consider the evidence, then let all that fulfilment tell you what is real and true.” John has turned people’s hearts to God, as the best of the prophets do; but the way Matthew paints this iconic moment, Jesus is the real revolutionary, channeling the justice and lovingkindness of God to transform church and state, rich and poor, the teachers and the taught, female and male, free and slave, young and old, Gentile and Jew, Ethiopian and Syrian into the unprecedented equality of the Kingdom of God.

Two thousand years later, Christian scripture continues to urge us to be patient. Jesus’s revolution engages all generations in what Mary describes in her Magnificat as God’s scattering the proud in their conceit, casting down the mighty from their thrones, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, sending the rich away empty. It is a longterm engagement, God in it with us for the long haul. Sometimes the movement seems to be losing ground, though we know that often things are not as they appear. And there are leaders in this movement who stir us up and cause us to sing Hallelujah in everlasting joy. We celebrate one today.

(Eugene Robinson’s op ed piece, “The Conscience of the World” was helpful to the preacher. It appeared in The Berkshire Eagle on December 7. 2013.)