The Long Walk of Love: Remembering Nelson Mandela

The world in memorializing Nelson Mandela today in Johannesburg.  As a personal tribute, I am posting the condensed text of a sermon I preached back in April that uses his life as an illustration of just how much one person, guided by love, can accomplish.  In the words of South Africa’s current President, Jacob Zuma, “We always loved Madiba for teaching us that it was possible to overcome hatred and anger in order to build a new nation and a new society” (New York Daily News, 12-07-13).  May we emulate Mandela as well as remember him. -BTT

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Some months ago, I saw a banner ad on the side of a bus in DC.  The banner featured a picture of Nelson Mandela along with the caption, “Never underestimate the power of one person to change the world.”  I had almost forgotten about it, until my studies this week sent it rolling back through my mind.

First, I was reminded that 19 years ago today (April 28, 1994) South Africans were voting in the first free elections that country had ever seen – the first elections in which all adults of eligible age could vote regardless of their ethnicity. It was that election that would make Nelson Mandela President of South Africa.

Since that time, of course, Mandela has gone on to become a world icon.  He is celebrated wherever he goes and his 90th birthday in 2008 became an international affair. And deservedly so, because Nelson Mandela did, in fact, change the world.  Not only was he instrumental in dismantling apartheid, but he also (more than any other individual save Desmond Tutu) prevented South Africa from trading one form of oppression for another.  Post-apartheid South Africa could so easily have devolved into a state of retribution.  But it didn’t – because Mandela, Tutu, and a handful of others resolved that it wouldn’t.

The other reason why this rolling public service announcement (or whatever it was) featuring Nelson Mandela has come back to my mind is that I’ve been reading John 13.31-35.  I’ve been ruminating on the new commandment Jesus gives to His disciples: love one another just as I have loved you – something much easier said than done.  It’s really the “just as I have loved you” bit that’s the kicker.

If Jesus hadn’t said that, if He hadn’t slipped that qualification in, we could read this passage in the sentimental light that we tend to – and prefer to. We could leave things with each other comfortably on the surface: a hug here, a handshake there, the passing of the peace, the polite exchange of pleasantries, the occasional extension of a helping hand.

But Jesus did say it.  He did slip it in.

Now, this qualifier doesn’t mean that our comfortable, surface-level expressions of affection are wrong.  They aren’t.  They are needed and necessary.  But “just as I have loved you” means those things aren’t enough. They aren’t nearly enough – not in the Kingdom of God, not in the Body of Christ. Why? Because love is the end all and be all of the life Christ calls us to as His people.

The Apostle Paul put it this way in 1 Corinthians 13.1-3: If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love that foundational is, by necessity, a deeper, riskier kind of love than the love we tend to experience elsewhere on this earth. It’s what makes the Kingdom of God different: a new reality, a new paradigm; a cut above and step beyond the ways of this world. It is a counterpoint, in fact, to the ways of this world.  It’s a love that ultimately does not and cannot come from us.  It can come through us; but its source is beyond us.

That’s why, as followers of Christ, we must strive to love one another just as He (first) loved us.  It’s how we bear witness to the reality of the Kingdom.

Otherwise, what’s the difference?  Indeed, what’s the point?  As Jesus said elsewhere (Luke 6): “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners…” 

 This is why Jesus gave us these instructions, set forth these commandments, and issues to us a call: love God with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength; love your neighbors as you love yourself; love even our enemies.

It’s not just a call to love as Christ loves; it’s really nothing less than a call to change the world.

And so what better place to look in trying to understand that kind of calling than to the life of a living, breathing person who has, in fact, helped to change the world through love?  A man who, in his autobiography, credits his Christian faith as the source from which his actions and convictions derive. A man who, for all intents and purposes, should be the last person to embody the life-giving, life-changing power of Christ-like love.  A man named Nelson Mandela.

Mandala’s story is all the more inspiring because the actions and convictions for which we know him weren’t always his actions and convictions. He had to be changed. He had to be transformed.  And so must we. We must – if we dare to call ourselves Christians, if we profess Christ as our Lord. We must – because Jesus has made the consequences of His commandment clear: by this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

We must – and we can.  If Nelson Mandela can be transformed, we can.

Nelson Mandela began his political career as a militant. He founded the paramilitary wing of the African National Congress. Basically, he was a terrorist. He believed that a violent, oppressive regime had to be opposed with force.  Non-violent resistance wasn’t enough – it wasn’t going to work. That is why he was put in prison.

So how did a militant leader go from convicted terrorist to celebrated human rights activist?  Knowing what I know of his story, I think he possessed three key qualities that enabled him to make the journey he did – and that we can draw strength and inspiration from in our own journeys.

1. He was willing to learn – which means he was open to change.

Transformation is a process that needs an incubator, and Nelson Mandela had one.  For him, it was Robben Island, South Africa’s most notorious prison. Desmond Tutu has written that when Mandela was first imprisoned, he was “forthright and belligerent” but in jail he “mellowed.”  He “began to discover depths of resilience and spiritual attributes that he would not have known he had.” He allowed the suffering to ennoble him, and found himself “able to be gentle and compassionate towards others.”

He found a strong sense of solidarity with his fellow prisoners through their shared experience of suffering. The prison was bitterly cold and none of them received adequate clothing.  The food served was barely edible.  Their days were spent in exhausting physical labor at the prison’s limestone quarry, breaking up rocks for use in roadbeds. Their guards were racist and regularly demeaned the inmates. In fact, racism appears to have been a prerequisite for employment on Robben Island.

In this environment, Mandela came to realize that if he and his fellow prisoners stooped to the level of the guards, to the level of the system – if they insisted on fighting fire with fire – nothing would be gained and what would be lost in the struggle would be their own dignity.  He came to see and understand that the system of apartheid dehumanized the oppressors as well as the oppressed.  And that realization utterly changed his approach to life – and to resistance.

2. He lived what he learned

Nelson Mandela didn’t stop simply with studying. He didn’t just make observations and jot down notes.  He put what he learned into practice.

When he was finally released from prison after 27 years, one of the first and truly remarkable things he did was to approach his enemies with kindness. He paid a special visit to the chief prosecutor, the man who had robbed him of 27 years of his life, just to shake his hand.  Rather than depose the leaders of apartheid (which he easily could have done with a groundswell of public and international support), he set out to build relationships with them. He reached out to them with love and grace. In doing so, he utterly confounded and disarmed them.

And he continued in this posture even after he won the election, even after he had all the political and legal authority he needed to act without them.  One of the most powerful stories I’ve heard about his relationship with his former enemies is that he once interrupted official state business to go and visit with one an apartheid boss whose wife was dying of cancer. Mandela learned of the diagnosis as he was on his way to meet another head of state, and he took a two-hour detour to be with them in their time of grief.

The result of Mandela’s new approach to life and politics was that people who had literally been trying to kill each other started working together to build a new South Africa. This is the power of living what the gospel teaches us:

If someone strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well.  If someone asks you to go one mile, offer to go a second mile. If you have two coats, share one with someone who has none. 

If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

All the things that serve to weigh us down and keep us apart – hate, distrust, indifference, suspicion – cannot persist in the wake of life lived in such a gospel fashion. They are swept aside by the rising tide of all the things that build us up and bring us together – brotherhood, sisterhood, respect, affection: a tide that naturally swells and washes over everything around it when a love like Christ’s love passes through.

Christ calls us to this life of faith, love, and service not just because it’s noble, but also because it works.

3. He believed in who he is.

Generations of Nelson Mandela’s family served as royal advisors to the kings of what we know as South Africa, long before European colonists arrived. Thus, he had a lineage to remind him that he was somebody even though he lived under a system bent on convincing him that he was nobody.

Thankfully, we don’t live in an apartheid state (anymore), but we do live in a materialistic one that makes judgments about people based on what they do or don’t have. Advertising can beat people down just as forcefully as a police battalion.  The message we receive day in and day out is that we are what we possess.  In such a culture, our lack of wealth and success can make us feel worthless AND our achievement of wealth and success can give us a false sense of importance.

But Scripture teaches us that, if we are followers of Christ, no matter what our earthly circumstances may be we have a royal pedigree. We have value not because of anything we do – but because of what God has done in creating us in His image and redeeming us through the death and Resurrection of Christ Jesus. Through Christ, we have peace with God and we are heirs to the Kingdom of Heaven (Romans 5.1).  And so, in our struggles the gospel helps keep us afloat; and in our successes, the gospel helps keep us grounded.

This orientation is important because this orientation is the foundation of our discipleship.  You and I can answer the call Jesus extends to us – to love just as He loves us – because we are worthy of that calling. We are heirs to His Kingdom.

Yet, too often we count ourselves out because we fail to trust in our gospel identity and believe falsely that we have nothing to offer. Or we count ourselves too far in because we fail to trust in our gospel identity, and we believe falsely that we’re the only ones who can do things right. Either way, we wind up turning our backs on others. That’s not what God wants from us, and not what the world needs.

The gospel helps give us balance – the same kind of balance Nelson Mandela has found, that has allowed him to be fully who he is and allowed him to embrace others more fully as they are. Perhaps more than anything, that has been the key to his success, and the nations of the earth are in desperate need of more successful people like that.

There is a lot wrong in our world.  There is a lot wrong in our nation, our state, our city, and in our own lives. But the world can be a better place. God is very much at work building His Kingdom, at work transforming the world – and He calls us to be a part of that work as members of the Body of Christ, as instruments of His love, grace, and mercy.

Let us never underestimate the power of one person to change the world.  You’ve heard Nelson Mandela’s answer to the call. What will your answer be?

Peter’s Dream. Martin’s Dream. God’s Dream.

This is the text of the sermon I delivered on Sunday, August 25, 2013. I offer it here today (with slight modifications) in honor of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

1 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11.1-18)

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This Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of the March of Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

It was the biggest event Washington had ever seen.  People from all over the country, some 250,000 in all, descended on the National Mall on a hot, muggy day in the summer of 1963.  Students, activists,  clergy,  laity,  the famous,  the anonymous – all merging together like a mighty stream.  Bob Dylan sang, as did Joan Baez and Mahalia Jackson.  There were at least ten speakers on the program, but of course the one we remember most was the final speaker, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who told the nation (indeed told the world) about a dream he had.

In the speech, which is one of the most famous speeches ever delivered by any man in any century; a speech that is as much a part of our national consciousness as the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution, King says his dream is deeply rooted in the American dream.  It is a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal…I have a dream.

I have a dream, he said, that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…. I have a dream.

I have a dream, he said, that one day all of God’s children – black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last!”

I want to suggest today that Martin’s dream is also rooted in another dream, a dream much higher, much wider, and much older than the American dream:  God’s dream.  A dream for God’s people. A dream for the Church. A dream for all humanity.  A dream embodied in the person of Christ Jesus, manifested through the work of the Holy Spirit, and encapsulated in a vision imparted to the Apostle Peter on a rooftop in Joppa in the mid-first century.

Today’s passage is the cap to our month-long look at the book of Acts (though really we’ve touched on a mere five chapters). Throughout, we’ve seen the Holy Spirit moving and pushing – pushing the gospel further, pushing people further, and pushing the envelope further.

The word I’ve used over and over to describe this process is reorientation. The reality of the Risen Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit mean the magnetic poles of creation have shifted.  What used to be North isn’t North anymore. Everything has to be reoriented.  Everything.  We’ve seen passions redirected (Saul of Tarsus), opportunism confronted (Simon the Magician), and comfort zones stretched to the breaking point (Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch).

Today, in this vision (this dream) given to the Apostle Peter, the Holy Spirit challenges what may be the most difficult thing of all to redirect and reorient. The Holy Spirit challenges Peter’s piety – or, at least, an element of it: a life-long habit, a life-long belief with roots anchored in his heart, in the depths of his soul.

Peter sees this thing, like a great sheet, lowered from heaven. On it are four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. He then hears a voice saying “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ He replies, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”  Ever. Peter is a pious Jew.  He has been raised to live within the context and within the confines of the Law of Moses. And where did he and his fellow Jews learn this law? FROM SCRIPTURE – Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy. He easily could have said, “By no means, Lord, because the Bible says…”

But of course we so often quote Scripture to reinforce what we believe rather than allow Scripture to inform what we believe. God gave the Law of Moses to the Israelites as His chosen people. In the wilderness, as they prepared to enter the Promised Land, the purpose of the law was to make God’s people distinct. Dietary restrictions were part of that. And if you’ve ever taken a look at Leviticus or Deuteronomy, you know the instructions and restrictions of the Law can be very detailed and quite specific. You also know that such restrictions didn’t just have to do with food.  They also had to do with people – the idea of Clean and Unclean.

Over time, this idea and these laws became something other than what I understand God intended.  For some it became a point of self-righteous pride.  For others it became empty ritual.  Many lost sight of why God had given them this Law. Embedded within all of the “thou shalts” and the “thou shalt nots” was the idea that Israel would be an example, would be a conduit for others to come to know this God: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

We see it in the Promise God made to Abraham – I will make you the Father of many nations, not just one.  We see it in the words of the Prophets, like Isaiah, who reminded Israel, the one nation God had chosen, that God sent them as a light to the (other) nations, that others might come to that light.  It is God’s dream, God’s intention that fold of His people will expand:

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples (Isaiah 56.6-7)

This is especially true of declarations of the prophets associated with the Messiah:

Arise, shine for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you….  Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn (Isaiah 60.1, 3)

Sing and rejoice, O daughter Zion! For lo, I will come and dwell in your midst, says the Lord. Many nations shall join themselves to the Lord on that day (Zechariah 2.10-11)

This is where the arch of God’s mission, God’s journey with His people – all people – is headed.

But it can’t get there, O Israel…. It can’t get there, O Peter…. It can’t get there, O First Baptist… if you won’t enter the houses of the nations, if you won’t share the table with those outside the fold because you view them as Unclean.

God is directly challenging Peter’s piety because his piety is in the way of God’s purposes – of God’s dream for His people, for all people, indeed for all of creation.

The new orientation of life in Christ, the new economy of the Kingdom of God is love: God’s love for us, and our love for one another. That was the new commandment Christ gave His disciples on the eve of His crucifixion.  “Love one another as I have loved you.” We can’t love others – especially as Christ loved us – and stay away from them because we deem them Unclean.

We might say that in Acts 11 God is reminding Peter that he is the one who stood up on the Day of Pentecost back in Acts 2 and quoted the prophet Joel:

In the last days, God declares, I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit (Acts 2.17-18 // Joel 2.28ff)

All flesh.  And all means all.  Even Gentiles.  Even Gentiles like Cornelius, a centurion in that pagan Roman army that is occupying and oppressing Judea.

This is God’s purpose.  This is God’s plan. This is God’s mission.  This is God’s dream – that all people might come to His light, that all people might find the life that truly is life. This is the dream God calls His church and His disciples – people like Peter, like you, like me – to help fulfill. That call means the Holy Spirit will continue to push us, to challenge us, and to challenge our understanding of piety (your piety, and my piety), especially when it gets in the way of God’s dream.

And one of the ways the Spirit continues to push God’s people is to engage the issues, the injustices, the challenges of our day. Jesus may have instructed us to go into our rooms to pray (Matthew 6), but He did not imply we should stay holed away in there.  We cannot serve as instruments of God’s peace, we cannot live out God’s dream and keep to ourselves.

This is why the Spirit pushed Peter to Cornelius’ house: to serve as an instrument of God’s healing love, as an instrument of God’s dream.  The division between Jews and Gentiles was one of the major stratifications of Peter’s day, which could not be allowed to stand if God’s dream was to be fulfilled.

I believe the Spirit is also what pushed Dr. King to ascend the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago; it’s what motivated 250,000 people to fill the National Mall.  Their faith wouldn’t allow them to sit idly by anymore and abide the injustices of a racist society – injustices that promoted hatred and division, that declared one race clean and another unclean. Jim Crow was one of the major divisions of their day.  It could not be allowed to stand.

Peter could not remain silent any long.  The Civil Rights marchers could not remain silent any longer. And neither can we.

For all the progress that has been made, the work of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is still unfinished. The work of Pentecost, the work of the Holy Spirit on, in, and through the Church is also still unfinished – and both of these good works are entwined. How? We can’t do our part to help finish the work on either side simply by telling others God loves them. We have to help finish that work by loving them as Christ first loved us.

And we can’t say, I love you the way Christ first loved me…but it’s okay that a select few are compensated like kings while you (and a great many others) are paid a pittance for your hard work.

We can’t say, I love you the way Christ first loved me…but it’s okay that you can’t vote because you don’t have the right ID.

We can’t say, I love you the way Christ first loved me…but it’s okay that your child and 30,000 other children might die today from preventable disease.

We can’t say, I love you the way Christ first loved me…but it’s okay that you and hundreds of thousands more of our black and Latino brothers have been permanently disenfranchised by the industrial prison complex.

We can’t say, I love you the way Christ first loved me…but it’s okay that you and 50 million other Americans are hungry.

We can’t say that, because it’s not okay.  And the Holy Spirit will push us to do something. Something.

From Moses to the Prophets down to Dr. King and right on down to you and to me, it has been God’s dream and deep desire that justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.  But the reservoirs of injustice are dark and deep indeed.  They were dark and deep 50 years ago, and they are dark and deep today.  Most likely they will be dark and deep until this heaven and this earth pass away and all things are made new.

But from Moses to the Prophets down to Dr. King and right on down to you and to me, God has been sending His people to crack open the dam.  Not by fighting fire with fire, not by giving as good as we get. That has only always added to the depths of the darkness.  No. God sends His people to crack the dam with the strong, steady embrace of love – Christ’s love. No wall is high enough, hard enough, thick enough, or fortified enough to withstand that kind of pressure.  The Holy Spirit proved that through the ministry of the early church that toppled an empire. The Holy Spirit proved that through the non-violent resistance of the Civil Rights Movement that toppled Jim Crow. And the Holy Spirit wants to prove it again – right here, right now by sending us against the deep darkness of our time.

May we all, like Peter, have the courage to step down off our rooftops and step out on faith – to stand up, speak up, and reach out in the name of Christ to make room at the table of brotherhood (and sisterhood) for all of God’s people.  That is where we will find freedom, find love, and find the life that truly is life.

Let us arise and let us shine, for our light has come – and the darkness does not overcome it.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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