The flags were flying at half mast when my family and I drove back into Kitchener from an outing on Thursday. We had heard on the car radio that Nelson Mandela had just died at the age of 95.
Mandela had made the headlines again in recent months, as his health deteriorated and as family and friends kept a close watch and vigil outside his hospital and his home.
I had to explain to my own children who he was and what apartheid was. They hadn’t heard the word before, which if you think about it, is what Mandela fought for – for the children of South Africa and the world to not know a thing as evil as apartheid.
We, however, grew up hearing of it. We watched movies like “Cry Freedom” which came out in the 1980’s about the murder of black activist Steve Biko at the hands of government forces. Most of us here saw Mandela come out of his 27 year prison sentence and reunite with his then wife, Winnie. We saw Mandela elected as first black president as black South Africans finally could vote. We were witness to Mandela’s subsequent emphasis on Truth and Reconcilation with archbishop Desmond Tutu leading the commission, so that South Africa could unite itself in healing, both black and white together. That forgiveness be what pulled South Africa together.
We saw Nelson Mandela fight for the end of apartheid, that system of total racial segregation in South Africa which favoured a white minority - favoured white South Africans for every economic, social and political privilege and freedom which black South Africans did not have access to. Apartheid was the absolute repression of a black majority whose people had to endure harassment, beatings, imprisonment, displacement, and crushing poverty, as they were cut off from any of the benefits that the white minority maintained for themselves.
It was that system which Mandela, along with other leaders, overthrew. It was his life’s mission to end the brutality and oppression of apartheid so that future generations of children would have to ask what the word meant.
Now, in these days, we remember his legacy and his life. Something in us knows that it is important to mark this life, even though we never personally knew him. The world mourns his death, most especially his family and his wife, those who knew him and loved him, and we will watch over the next days as his beloved South Africa gets ready for funeral proceedings.
In all of this, it is important to remember that he was a man. He even said of himself, “I am not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.”
Mandela had his failings, and like the rest of us, he was both a saint and a sinner. He was not always in favour of a peaceful transition of power in his early years. He turned to violence and was imprisoned for a bombing campaign in 1964. Later on, he was criticized for his slow understanding of the devastation of the AIDS crisis and what it was doing to his people, until his own beloved son died from the disease. It was then that he rallied around the cause. He was criticized by some for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s emphasis on forgiveness and amnesty for perpetrators of crimes rather than on justice for the victims. Many also felt that he left office too soon, leaving a country without the leadership of healing and forgiveness to those who felt less inclined to heal and forgive. He spoke of failing as a husband and father.
Today on this second Sunday of Advent, we hear from Matthew’s gospel John the Baptist out there in the wilderness, crying out a message echoing Isaiah’s prophetic vision: “prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” John in his proclamation of Jesus’ coming – the one who will baptize with Holy Spirit and fire - is telling the people of his time that the kingdom has come near because of this person Jesus.
In country that is hilly, rocky, and dry, where journeys are long, the terrain is rough and roads are hardly ever straight, John is crying out to make those roads easy and accessible for the coming Lord. What John is talking about is not geographical space, however, but the spaces within us, those hilly places and rough roads within ourselves that prevent us from seeing and being a part of that very near presence of God’s reign.
Together, we pray for the kingdom to come every week. We know it by heart.
I would encourage you to join with me and pray these words that Jesus taught:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen
We will pray it again before the Lord’s supper. That’s a good thing. It makes the words stick. It gives them meaning and purpose. We pray for the kingdom, for us to do things here on earth as in heaven, as God desires for us. We pray for what we need – sustenance and forgiveness and freedom from the things that would harm us.
Luther taught that God’s kingdom comes without our praying for it; that the kingdom already is and has already come to the world with the advent of Jesus. It is his presence now that we prepare ourselves for, that we wait for, yearn for and hope for.
Luther said that what we are really doing when we pray “your kingdom come” is that we are praying and hoping for it to come to us and fill those desolate and rough spaces inside us. It is when we receive this hope of God’s reign in us, that we can then also bring it to the world.
Wonderfully, this is part of the promise that we just heard again at Zoa’s and Nayda’s baptisms: called by the Holy Spirit, trusting in the grace and love of God, they and we are entrusted with responsibilities. Part of their and part of our calling is to care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace. And it is the hope in Christ which bridges the gap between our present reality and the reality of God’s vision for us. As the baptized, we are gifted with and bear “the righteousness of God” in the world and to the world.
We have work to do. Grace enables responsibility.
Today we give pause and reflect on the life that was Nelson Mandela. In him we caught a glimpse of “the world according to God.” We take off our shoes, even though the ground is rough, because we know there is something holy that we have been privileged to witness. He, despite his failings, hoped with God for God’s reign – that the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the child shall play over the hole of the asp, that the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord. He hoped and worked for enemies to make peace.
These are Mandela’s words with which I leave you today:
“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”
He, like us: a saint, and a sinner of God’s own redeeming. Well done, good and faithful servant. Godspeed to you and a holy rest.
Pr. Katherine Altenburg