The following is a transcript from December 15, 2013, in Christ Chapel of Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN). As part of an Advent Worship Service of Holy Communion, the following sermon considers Matthew 11:2-11.
Over the past week the attention of the world has focused on the Republic of South Africa, in order to celebrate the life of its former President, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, known locally - and affectionately - as “Tata Madiba”.
When he died on December 5th at the age of ninety-five, the South African government declared ten days of public mourning, which concluded this day, December 15th, as his body was laid to rest just a few hours ago in his homeland of Qunu in the Eastern Cape.
And so, to mark the historic nature of Mandela’s death, we do so with an Advent-related lesson about how this global icon helped bring South Africa back to life. This lesson begins about 100 years before he was born, with a group of European settlers called the Voortrekkers.
The Voortrekkers were a group of white-skinned settlers, mostly of Dutch, French, and German descent. In the early 19th century this group left the southern coastal region near Cape Town and moved hundreds of miles inland, and they did so in order to establish independent republics in protest against British colonialism. However, as to be expected, as the Voortrekkers sought land, the land they sought was by no means vacant, and clashes with South Africa’s black indigenous people were inevitable.
The white Voortrekkers and the black Zulu people of South Africa began to clash over rights to the land, but eventually, in order to put an end to the violence and reach some semblance of an agreement, in 1837 the Voortrekker leadership engaged in negotiations with the Zulu king. And eventually, the Voortrekkers and Zulus agreed upon terms for land distribution, and together they signed a treaty in February of 1838.
However, during a truce ceremony to mark the land distribution agreement, the Voortrekker entourage was killed by the Zulus (for reasons that continue to be debated by historians), a renewed battle between the Voortrekkers and Zulus lasted for months, and numerous lives on both sides of the conflict were lost.
On one specific occasion, which took place on December 16, 1838, nearly 175 years ago, about 10,000 Zulu warriors attacked the Voortrekkers, but the severely outnumbered Voortrekkers – with the advantage of gunpowder – successfully warded off the Zulu army. More specifically, according to some historical accounts, on that December day only three Voortrekkers were wounded, and more than 3,000 Zulus lost their lives - in what was later called the “Battle of Blood River”.
As a result of the Voortrekker victory that day, and because of promises they reportedly made to God before the battle, Dec. 16 was later instituted by the South African Apartheid-era government as a national public holiday, to be known as the “Day of the Covenant” and in 1982, it was renamed as, “The Day of the Vow."
On the other side of the South African political and racial spectrum, and in more recent times, Dec. 16th is also remembered as the historical anniversary of the 1961 founding of Umkhonto we Sizwe, translated as “Spear of the Nation”, also known as the armed military wing of the African National Congress (ANC). More specifically, Umkhonto we Sizwe was co-founded by Nelson Mandela, who was 43 years old at the time, and the group carried out an assortment of bombings of civilian, industrial, and infrastructure sites as a form of civil disobedience against the apartheid-era government. And while the tactics of Umkhonto we Sizwe were initially geared toward sabotage, they gradually expanded as ANC members engaged in urban guerrilla warfare.
Through it all, Umkhonto we Sizwe was classified as a banned terrorist organization by the South African government - and they did so with the political, financial, and even military support of the United States of America. However, in the midst of it all, December 16th continued to be celebrated among the black citizens of South Africa as the birth of Umkhonto we Sizwe, and the date stood as a source of social inspiration for liberation from apartheid-era rule.
Now, to review…
With these historical details in mind, Dec. 16 could be remembered as a date of extreme violence and deep racial division within South Africa. Whether it was the Day of the Vow in 1838 or the start of Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1961, both occasions commemorated on December 16th could symbolize deep cruelty and harsh brutality.
However, with the advent of South African democracy in 1994, and with the election of Nelson Mandela, although Dec. 16 retained its status as a national public holiday, instead of having the white population celebrate the Day of the Vow and the black population celebrate the birth of Umkhonto we Sizwe, December 16th was given a redefined purpose of multi-racial historical significance. More specifically, instead of celebrating a victory in war or recognizing the founding of an armed unit, the first democratically elected government of South Africa, under the leadership of a former political prisoner, recommissioned Dec. 16 as “The Day of Reconciliation”.
As President Mandela declared on December 16, 1995, the occasion was meant to promote a “decisive and irreversible break with the past”, to declare a shared allegiance to justice, non-racialism and democracy”, and to promote a common “yearning for a peaceful and harmonious nation of equals.” In what can now be described as a dramatic social conversion as a result of a historic post-apartheid national conversation, the newly redefined public holiday is celebrated with each passing year, and tomorrow, on December 16th, once again - for the 18th time - South Africans of all skin colors and political persuasions will commemorate “The Day of Reconciliation”.
With the people of South Africa who celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela, and with all those around the world who seek a world of peace, we can say “Thanks be to God”.
But not only that, as a community of faith gathered around word and sacrament at this time and in this place, we collectively wonder: “So what does this mean”?
So what does this mean… For us?
To start with, we recognize that The Day of Reconciliation to be celebrated tomorrow in South Africa is appropriately placed within the Christian liturgical Season of Advent, and we can make the connection, for just as South Africans celebrate the 16th of December as a day of reconciliation, the Season of Advent is meant to serve as a liturgical reminder of the ways in which God’s presence heals wounds and redefines relationships. Which means, in many ways we could call this Season of Advent God’s “Invitation to Reconciliation”.
In other words, as the people of South Africa reconstructed their national holiday to embrace a transformed identity, the Season of Advent invites us to be made new through the birth of Jesus, and thus moves us to promote restored relationships, transformed social structures, and empowered people, as is written in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to God’s self, and entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation."
The Ministry of Reconciliation.
Or, in the words of South African theologian John De Gruchy, “...a process in which there is a mutual attempt to heal and overcome enmities, build trust and relationships, and develop a shared commitment to the common good”. More specifically, John de Gruchy states, in line with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and liberation theologians, that the ministry of reconciliation is first an action and a movement before it becomes a theory or dogma, and reconciliation is something celebrated before it is explained. Which means, reconciliation is first and foremost a gift of God, and then it is a social task through the courage to struggle for human forgiveness and repentance in our relations with our neighbors. Which therefore means, reconciliation is at the very core of what God is about in our world, and reconciliation is what we anticipate in this Season of Advent.
In this time before Christmas, we anticipate God’s gift of reconciliation in the world, made known to us in Jesus, in which we are shown the ways in which the deep brokenness of the world can be made whole, and the wrongs of our existence can be made right through the world. Which reveals, reconciliation is a past gift from God, which we experience here in the present with God, and which leads us into a future not yet fully realized but fully trusted in because of God.
And because of it all, we say: Thanks be to God.
For this is what God is “up to” in our world, and because of it, we receive an invitation to reconciliation...
In the midst of our divisions, anger, and estrangement…
In the midst of our bickering, complaining and pointing fingers…
In the midst of the various ways that we incarcerate ourselves with ignorance and indifference and by allowing resentment to corrode its container...
By God’s grace we are made right with God, and in doing so we are invited into a reconciling journey of transformation and empowerment, toward a new future of communion with God and all people, which we can name an all-encompassing vision of human flourishing.
Yes, we have received an invitation to Reconciliation…
Which includes lament, truth-telling, confession, and pain…
But also includes forgiveness, absolution, freedom, and justice…
It includes letting go and moving forward…
It includes the boldness of being humble...
And perhaps most of all, as was shared in our Gospel lesson this morning, it includes a radical process by which:
“...the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
And so, what this all means is that, while the Season of Advent is viewed in various ways, one method is to perceive it as God’s invitation to reconciliation, for such personal and public reconciliation is dearly needed in our present day and age. For if we need anything in our world, we need reconciliation, and we need it ever do deeply.
At the risk of stating the obvious, we dwell in arguably the most divided period our planet has ever witnessed, as we observe income disparity, unequal access to health care and suitable education, as well as dangerous levels of racism, sexism, religious extremism, environmental injustice, political polarization, xenophobia, and discrimination based upon sexual orientation.
We witness division between nations, to the point that it becomes international news when two world leaders simply shake hands.
We witness division within nations, as our so-called public servants are more interested in keeping their jobs than actually doing them.
We witness division in our school children, to the point that some bring guns into the classroom and attack their teachers and classmates.
We witness division within religious communities and between religious communities…
We witness violence and warfare… We witness resentment over petty differences...
And yes, we witness division on college campuses such as ours, to the point that some would not even look each other in the eye, and some would rather shut others up than allow all to be heard.
Yes, you know and I know, at times it seems as if our world is simply filled with hate, and our actions are too often fueled by fear.
But there is Good News.
There is Good News, for in the midst of all these dangerous divisions, we do not seek new theories or strategies or latest self-help guides. But we receive Jesus, the Prince of Peace, and with him we receive an invitation to reconciliation, for the sake of transformation and empowerment, by the grace of God, and for the sake of the world.
We are invited to replace our acts of violence and estrangement with God’s peace, so that our divisions are removed in favor of unity, and our daily acts of exploitation are altered by a sustained pursuit of fairness and justice around the world and in our own backyards. And in doing so, our relationships may be redefined, our identities affirmed, and our communities more fully restored.
And so, to conclude, we do so as we began, mindful of what is taking place about 10,000 miles to the east.
When Nelson Mandela walked out of Robben Island Prison in 1990 after 27 years of incarceration, his words and actions were, in many ways, a surprise. What many of us tend to forget is that, when Mandela was arrested in 1962, he was an angry, relatively young man who had founded Umkhonto we Sizwe and was labeled as a terrorist by the South African government, as well as our own. But when Mandela was released nearly three decades later, not only did he refuse to speak of revenge, but he told others that his mission was to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. And as he rode the ferry from Robben Island back to Cape Town after 27 years of imprisonment, he realized that, in order to accept his own invitation to reconciliation, he would need to leave his resentment and anger in his prison cell, for if he did not, then he would still be in chains.
As he told those around him, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies." Which means, “...to be free in not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others”.
And so, my dear friends, during this Season of Advent, may we accept the invitation to reconciliation that has been placed before us. We have been made right with God through Jesus, we respond by putting divisions aside and recognizing the importance of living in ways of peace, forgiveness, and justice.
For as Tata Madiba and countless others have shown throughout our history…
There is no future without forgiveness…
Enemies can be transformed into companions…
We can admit our own faults without fear...
And there is no such thing as community without a sustained commitment to truth and reconciliation.
And so, may we embrace our invitation to reconciliation, not merely on the Day of Reconciliation tomorrow, but in this Advent Season, and beyond. For it is in this journey that we receive life in its fulness, the peace that surpasses all understanding, and a glimpse of what it means to be alive.
May God bless you, this day, and always. Amen.