This is an edited version of the sermon preached in Ulundi on 26 August 2013, at the service of thanksgiving to mark the 85th birthday of Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi
1 Corinthians 3:11-14
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward.
May I speak in the name of God, our firm foundation and our true reward.
Today is truly a day of great celebration and thanksgiving! Thank you, for the privilege of being the one who gets to stand here now, and voice our joy, and our appreciation. First, my dear Prince, my friend – we congratulate you on your birthday, tomorrow. And we congratulate you also on this splendid statue.
It is of course to the statue itself that our eyes are drawn. Yet, if we pause to reflect, we realise that it could stand there, so impressive and so imposing, if it did not rest upon a solid, stable, firm foundation. And of course, exactly the same is true of you, my Prince, in real life. So, as we give thanks today for your long life, we also give thanks to the one who is faithful to all his children, whose steadfast love for each one of us never ceases.
We thank God that, so many years ago, at the knee of your mother, Princess Magogo, herself a staunch and faithful Anglican, he planted within you the seeds of faith. We thank him that throughout the years since, he has nourished that seed, giving you the gift of faith so you could grow in his love, and bear much fruit. We thank God that he has walked with you, in all the challenges of your life – from the public, political, sphere, through to the way you pursued family life, upholding the pattern of Christian marriage with your wife, and later in the sorrow and pain of losing children.
We thank God for the grace and courage which he gave you, to speak so frankly about the effects of HIV and AIDS on your family – especially at a time when there was so much stigma and such conspiracies of silence. These were issues for which our churches had to bear some of the responsibility. Your honest speaking [especially your heart-breaking words at the funeral of Princess Mandisi] was the task of a prophetic leader – someone who speaks God’s truth so others may see life as it truly is. You helped take forward the public discourse of the nation, when it was sorely needed. And you encouraged the Church to move more decisively into a place of speaking and acting with greater honesty and compassion. The whole nature of how we deal with HIV and AIDS in our country is now completely changed – and though it is an uphill struggle, the signs are that we can move in the right direction, if we persevere. For this we thank you.
The stance which you took on this issue illustrates for me one of the key messages of our reading today from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. This reminds us that the true value of what we say and do rests with God. It does not matter what we achieve – or what we fail to achieve – in the eyes of the world. Earthly money, and power, and status, and popularity are neither here nor there as far as Heaven is concerned. Yet what God judges to be important, has eternal significance. What we say and do today, that is right in his eyes, is like a pebble thrown into the pond of eternity. The ripples have effect that lasts for ever.
And this can be a source of great courage for us – to stand up and speak out what is right and true, no matter whether it goes against the grain, either in society or within the Church. Dear Prince – here, I have learnt something from you! I have known your family since 1984-85, when Prince Zuzi and I met and became friends in our student days. Since becoming Archbishop, I have had the privilege of getting to know you better. I was deeply touched by the message you sent me when I was elected, and that you have continued to remain in touch. Over the years, I have been grateful for your hospitality (especially on my visit here 4 years ago), and for your support, in more ways than I can count.
But when it comes to speaking out, I shall not forget your wise advice – which you may recall, from that occasion when we were both sharing a stage with F W de Klerk. You warned me then, ‘Your Grace – never speak without reading from your text. For otherwise, the press are bound to misquote you, and make a feast out of it.’ Well, I have taken that to heart – at least, most of the time. But I hope you will forgive an Archbishop who at least sometimes finds he must speak from the heart, and from the soul!
And I am confident that you will understand this, for I know very well that your heart and soul are more than merely in balance with your head! For I know you best for your great laughter, and your courage – a word that comes from the Latin for ‘heart’. And I know you for your love – of your people, and your God, and his Church.
It was right and fitting that the Anglican Church should award you the Order of St Simon of Cyrene, our highest accolade to lay people. For, despite the many and weighty demands on your time, you have been a faithful servant of the church in many capacities over long years – including at the historic 1963 Anglican Congress in Toronto. You have also been a regular participant in Diocesan and Provincial Synods, and served our church in many other capacities. In addition, of course, you have been a devoted lay-minister, with long service at St Mary’s. All of these, I know, will withstand the test of fire.
More than this, I thank you for the way you have shown how the life of faith informs and helps shape a life spent in the public spotlight. You challenge others to explore how Christ calls us all to servant leadership. As we look at your life, we too must never forget that whatever earthly power and authority we may have, always finding its true identity in the greater power and authority which comes from our Lord and Saviour, the Servant King. We too must never forget that to stand firm, to stand tall, we also must stand on the one sure foundation, who is Jesus Christ – and then build faithfully with whatever material he gives us; using whatever opportunities come our way to serve him and serve his people and his world.
St Paul tells us that when we build on the true foundation, we shall receive the reward. And of course the reward is Jesus Christ himself: knowing what it is to be united with him in all the greatness of his love, and receiving in full measure all that he has won for us, in this life and in the life to come.
Therefore today, it is with overflowing hearts, that we give thanks to God for his loving presence among us – for all he does for us, and especially for all he has done for you, and through you, my friend. We bless his holy name for the gift that he has made you to so many, over such long years. And we ask, with confidence, that he will continue to bless you, preserve you, and keep you, in the years ahead, and for always. Amen.