Monday, December 16, 2013

Invitation to Peace

The second Sunday of Advent, we had three baptisms at Presbury United Methodist Church and I felt called to remember the prophetic life of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. It was a lot for a young preacher to attempt in one sermon! What follows is adapted from the sermon I preached.

Scripture Lesson: Isaiah 55 (NRSV)
Ho,everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. 

See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you. Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. 

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. 

For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. 

Sermon: Invitation to Peace
Let us pray:
Patient Teacher, let not the Word that goes forth from your mouth return empty!
Plant your Word within us this morning,
pour out your Spirit upon us so that we may bear good fruit;
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.1

I found myself reflecting this week on the Isaiah text we read together as though I was on Robben Island in South Africa, a place I visited four years ago. Robben Island is a desolate place. Even now that it is covered in tourists, it feels empty and cold. You can see Table Mountain and Cape Town across the water, but it feels so far away. It was easy to see how such a place could be used as a prison, as it was used since the seventeenth century until the mid-nineties, for it feels as though this little bit of land had broken off from civilization and was drifting off into the sea. And yet, it is a place that signifies, to me, the invitation to peace we read about in the fifty-fifth chapter of Isaiah. 

The text is introduced in my translation of the bible as an Invitation to Abundant Life. Yet, for the community who first read this invitation, they must have felt like the prisoners on Robben Island, desolate and cold, cut off from home and community unjustly. Such an invitation to abundant life that we read in scripture or hear in the words of great leaders like Nelson Mandela seems strange. And yet, when I was visiting Robben Island in 2009, I saw it has indeed become a place where it is as though the mountains and the hills break forth into song and the trees clap their hands. One of the most powerful things about visiting Robben Island was how the South Africans touring it with us burst into freedom songs.

Now, I know that not many of us are familiar with South African history--- I never even learned about apartheid in school and I don't know if it is taught today. But in light of Mandela going home to his ancestors, joining the great cloud of witnesses, this week, I could not shake the connection between Isaiah's and Mandela's invitations to abundant life, characterized by full bellies, joy, and peace. So even though a history lesson may be strange for a sermon, I hope you can hear the calls to abundant life within it.

The first connection I saw between these two invitations is that both invitations came from people in exile. When we read, “For you shall go out with joy and be led back in peace,” in the fifty-fifth chapter of Isaiah, it is a reference to the Babylonian exile, when important, prestigious, and powerful Israelites were forced out of Israel when it was conquered. But even after two generations of exile, prophets believed that they would return home.

So too the story of not only Mandela but of all South Africa is one of exile and a longing for home, especially for native black South Africans. South Africa was colonized by the Dutch and the British beginning in the 1600s. Slavery, war, and exploitation of labor and land were characteristics of Europeans' occupation of South Africa. And, as was the case in our own country, inequality was present from the beginning. The government run by the white minority established apartheid, officially introduced in 1948 when Nelson Mandela was 30 years old. Apartheid is a word that means “apartness,” and was a system of violent racial segregation not unlike Jim Crow in our country. In it, however, people of color were not considered to be citizens at all, did not deserve any rights at all, and for whom most services like medical services were inferior to those for whites. People of color were to be constantly reminded of their so-called inferiority, even to the extent that Mandela received short trousers instead of long pants that white prisoners received when he got into prison in Robben Island to remind them, he says, that they were boys.3 This system of segregation provided a labor force for the whites in charge.

Mandela resisted apartheid from the beginning, and worked for freedom. He started as a lawyer, often working with poor blacks on things like police brutality. He urged South Africans to fight for their freedom, and spread a vision of an egalitarian society where people could live free of domination based on race. He moved up the ranks in the African National Congress, a political party that was eventually made illegal by the apartheid government and was forced underground. Mandela was constantly harassed by the police, and was eventually imprisoned for twenty-seven years in that place of such cold loneliness on Robben Island.

And yet--- here is the second connection--- yet, leaders like the prophets of Israel and Nelson Mandela and Jesus kept dreaming and proclaiming a different world. They spoke of peace in the midst of violence, abundance in the midst of hunger, equality in the midst of huge economic difference. Now, in Mandela's case, this dream was not a nice, nonthreatening one. Mandela was actually considered to be a terrorist by our own government until 2008. While I find that absolutely ridiculous and embarrassing on our part, I must confess that as a pacifist I struggled reading his autobiography when in it he talks about his decision in the African National Congress to take up arms against the white supremacist government. But I still consider him to be a fighter for peace because, even in his acts of sabotage he was against hurting civilians, and his presidency was defined by reconciliation. He was elected president, the first true democratically elected president, in 1994, and he served until his retirement in 1999.

Mandela oversaw the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission during his presidency, where war criminals, those who had perpetuated the sin of apartheid in South Africa could be brought to justice. However, those convicted were not thrown in Robben Island's cold cells. Rather, the commission offered amnesty in return for truth and breaking the silences around the human rights violations that had occurred. It offered opportunity not to dwell in the past, but to break silences that blocked the possibilities for the future.

In his inaugural speech, Mandela said:
We understand it still that there is no easy road to freedom. We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success. We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world. Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all. Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves. Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world. The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement. Let freedom ring. God bless Africa.4

That is an invitation to abundant living. While we do not know the exact impact the invitation of abundant life in Isaiah had on the exilic community, we do know the impact Mandela's invitation had in South Africa. I saw the impact in a conversation I had while in South Africa with a refugee named Fabien from the Democratic Republic of Congo. One of the things I asked him was why he thought his country and the countries around him are still plagued by such violence and cruelty. War is constant in countries like the Congo. I mean, I had my ideas about how nations like ours continue to colonize countries like the Congo economically and politically by encouraging debt and corruption. But Fabien said that the violence was a result of a lack of leadership.

His answer kind of dumbfounded me. So simple and yet so powerful. In South Africa, the first democratic president had been a political prisoner for almost thirty years: he had been degraded and abused and yet he and other leaders preached reconciliation. Unity. Peace. These leaders extended an invitation to build a world like the fifty-fifth chapter of Isaiah envisions, one in which everyone who thirsts--- no matter their color, no matter how much money they have, no matter what--- can come to the waters.

This Sunday, the second in Advent, is one in which we have already come to the waters, the waters of baptism. And so, on this Sunday, the invitation to build a world of abundant life is extended to us. We prayed together today that through baptism we would be incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God's new creation and made to share in Christ's royal priesthood. The new creation is a world of peace and plenty so complete that the nations of the world run toward it, of justice and joy so catching that even the mountains sing and the trees clap their hands. And as ones who share in Christ's royal priesthood, we are to be leaders, extending the invitation to this new creation.

Mandela's leadership demonstrates for us that this invitation is not to an imaginary place or a vision of the world where we will go when we die. This invitation is a different way of living here and now when we speak out and witness, even at great cost to ourselves, for that which is good and right. This invitation is a different way of living when we stand up to say enough is enough in the face of bullying and hate speech. This invitation is a different way of living when we reach out in love across our differences. There is no easy road for freedom, but when we work together, we will bring glory to God. So let us respond to the invitation this holiday season.

I found a prayer of thanksgiving for Mandela's life that I wanted to close with. Will you pray with me?
Merciful God,
Author of salvation, Giver of every gracious gift,
we give thanks for the life and witness of your servant, Nelson Mandela.
His quest for freedom was was a witness to your saving power in our world
a power that can break the shackles of sin and oppression and hatred.
And his commitment to justice gave us a glimpse of what your kingdom should look like
a place where swords of war can actually be traded for the plowshares of peace;
a place where bitter enemies can, by your grace, become friends.
Receive your servant, Mandiba, and grant him the eternal rest of your saints.
May he rest in your mercy and rise in your glory.
And may we, your Church, follow his witness of peace and justice marked by reconciliation.
For when we do, we know we are also following the ways of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns now and forevermore. Amen.5

1Based on Kimberly Bracken Long, ed., Prayer for Illumination, Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany, Feasting on the Word: Worship Companion, Advent through Pentecost (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 85.
3Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (New York: Little, Borwn and Company, 1994), 383.
4Nelson Mandela, Inaugural Speech, 10 May 1994,
5Prayer by Bgosden, A Prayer of Thanksgiving for Nelson Mandela, 6 December 2013, covered in the master's dust,

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