Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Nelson Mandela Memorial Sermon by The Rt Revd Oswald Swartz, Bishop of Kimberley and Kuruman: 9 December 2013

Full text of the sermon by the Rt Revd Oswald Swartz
Bishop of Kimberley and Kuruman
 9 DECEMBER 2013

When the biggest  tree is felled, the whole forest reverberates.

Many things have been said about Mandela over these past days, but this Xhosa quotation about the big tree, Mthimkhulu, captures it all for me.

Those of us who were privileged to be in his company and to shake his hand, or as we say here in Africa to ‘touch his blood’, those of us who were privileged to hear him speak in his unique style – firm,  convincing,  genuine – always felt they were in the presence of greatness.

I recall the last time I touched his blood and he said,’ Hello dominee’. He obviously knew and felt that I would or should be comfortable in Afrikaans. I immediately realised and felt that he sought to put me at ease – to speak my language – to find a common spirit or common ground. This was the sign of greatness.

Here was one who wanted not to remind me of his high standing but simply wanted to be on a level with me, to have a conversation with me, to engage with me. What a wonderful lesson to all of us who, through our work or office, are quite often placed on a pedestal and find it  maybe difficult or we are uneasy to come down a level or two to be where the people are.

 As I wrote down these reflections, I recalled another story about a gathering of bishops. As you know, when there is a huge gathering of people queues are inevitable. So there was this long queue for food. Suddenly someone came pushing through to the front and everybody said, “What’s going on here, this is a queue here man!” The person who was pushing his way forward said, “Hey, what’s wrong with you, don’t you realise I am a bish...” he did not complete the sentence because he realised they were all bishops! Under normal circumstances it could have been okay it seems, for this person to just push forward, leaning on his status, and wanting and needing to be helped before others because he was a man of high standing – he was a bishop in the church.

Nelson Mandela was a great, yet humble man who set out to serve his country when he was elected as the first president of a new and democratic South Africa.  A mark of a great person is how he gets on or whether he loves children. Of course, we know that he does love and gets on with children and that his foundation has done wonderful things in improving the lot of children -  He introduced legislation to bring  primary health care to pregnant mothers and children and he  also established  the hospital for children.

One of the characteristics of this great man which has not always been reported on, or publicised, is that he was a man of faith.

Here I am reminded of yet another story which happened in the late 80’s when I attended a Provincial Synod under the presidency of another great hero, Desmond Tutu. During one of the tea breaks I sought out the company of one of the female members of the press corps and we struck up a conversation. She was beaming and shared with me what a tremendous privilege it was for her to be part of this Synod albeit as a member of the press. I enquired as to what made it such a wonderful experience for her, to which she replied, “The chairman or president of your Synod, Archbishop Tutu, is a great and wonderful man. I came here with lots of negative ideas about him; he is great, he is charming and he has the ability to steer you through very difficult issues. I have been humbled by the way he has allowed you to grapple with the issue of the ministry of women and also the spirit in which the debate took place as he continually reminds you that you should not raise the level of your voice, but raise the level of debate”. I then asked her: “How will you report on this, how will you be able to convey this spirit, this atmosphere which is being created by our Archbishop?” She said, “Well, I am not going to write any of that. I was sent here to pick up the controversial bits and report on them.  The newspapers are not interested in what you see as good news stories but I need to pick up something sensational that will sell the paper, and that is my job”

Nelson Mandela was a man of faith. One of the things he said was the following:

“There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lies defeat and death”. For the record – for those who do not know – he was a practising Methodist.  He was always challenged by good Christian people to say exactly where he stands. He was always careful, being the great diplomat, not to cause things that are important to people to alienate them, but always sought  to let them concentrate on the common ground, the common things that unite them.

They tried to push him into a corner, are you a Christian or not? and he would not deny of confess but would say: now, what is important here is that we are people of integrity. It was not that he was shy or coy about his faith but he recognised that it could be used, as fundamentalist faith has shown, to divide people and cause havoc.  Is it not a sign of faith and a deep commitment to God that a man can walk out of prison after 27 years and reach out a hand of reconciliation? Is it not a man of faith who can, after being called a terrorist for fighting for what he believed, that all should be free and enjoy what mother Africa has for them? Is it not a sign of faith that such a person can say, Let us put the past behind us and let us be reconciled to each other?  Is it not a sign of faith the man could say it is time for us to throw our weapons into the sea and  never  again allow the people of this beautiful country to oppress one another?

Scripture reminds us of this when we read, “can one gather grapes from thorns or figs from a thistle tree, by one’s fruit, one is known”. For me, Mr Mandela’s fruit, what he displayed in his life, showed me that he was a man of real faith.

 Here is another lesson for us, we who are preachers should also be doers. I believe it is Francis who says to his followers or helpers, as he sends them out to work – he says: preach the good news; use words, if necessary. It is not so much the words that will convince people that our hearts are in the right place, it’s when we get stuck in, when we do the right thing, when our actions support our deeds – then people will know who we really are. And this is one of the lessons I have learnt from  this great man.

The challenge has always been for the people of God to witness and minister outside the four walls of the church. It’s easy in the church with like-minded people, people who feel the same, people who will not disagree with you when you say Jesus is Lord. It is when you leave that building, that comfort zone, when you go out into the real world where you must practise your faith. That is where you must deliver the goods. Now, Nelson  Mandela, for me, delivered the goods out there in a very difficult arena , not only people of different faiths, people of different  persuasions, backgrounds, people who were enemies before, who have radically opposed views, to unite them, to bring them together, to say let us talk together, to make this country work. He made his mark on the stage and also in the wings, and for that we salute him today. A man of integrity, a humble man, a great man, a true leader.

As we come together to salute, to celebrate the life of MADIBA, and to give thanks to God for this wonderful gift to our country, we pray that we may all learn from his example. We pray for his family and all those who are deeply affected by his death. If we as a country and indeed the whole world feel this way about his passing on, let us spare a thought for his family, for Graca, for Winnie and the rest of the family, for them to continue to cherish his memory and to honour his legacy. It is a very difficult time for them and we need to pray for them as decisions will have to be made now in the wake of his death. We pray that they will have good advisers, that they will be wisely and firmly led and that in the end they will also know that as we have cared for Tata their father so too we uphold them and the whole family before God.

Thank God for him and for what he has meant to this country.

God bless Africa.

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