A sermon for Christmas 2014, St George's Cathedral, Cape Town:
May I speak in the name of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
A couple of days after my birthday earlier this month, our children drove me up Signal Hill. As usual there were a lot of people up there and, as the children wandered around the hill, I stood watching the sea. It was dusk, the sea was calm and it seemed to be enveloping us. As I looked out, the intermittent flashing of the Robben Island lighthouse could not be missed, and I could not resist the temptation to recall that the island from which that tiny light was flashing was where Madiba and his compatriots languished in darkness for years. Yet this is where the hope of our country was ignited. And as the sun set and it grew darker, the tiny light became even more visible than before.
Our Gospel reading evokes an image of how in the midst of crowds readying themselves for the Roman census, the light of the world, the hope of the world, Jesus is born. God becomes vulnerable, human to illumine our world. God is to be “numbered” or counted, unknown to those who will take the census. We now know the barriers that these lights broke, the tiny light flashing from the island but reaching the top of Signal Hill, and the light and hope born in a stable reflecting God's glory.
And that is where I would like to begin tonight, by welcoming the hope that Christmas brings. The American poet Maya Angelou, who died this past year, once wrote a description of love on her Facebook page which we can appropriate as a perfect metaphor for the advent of the Christ child in our world. Substituting the word “Christmas” for the word “love”, we can read it like this: “Christmas recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” And hope, as Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu once said, “is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”
But hope, as the South African theologian, Denise Ackermann, says, “is not that blithe sense that all will end well (or alles sal regkom) because human progress is guaranteed.” To say as Christians that we must live in hope does not imply that we should sit by passively and indulge in wishful thinking for that which has no prospect of being realized to come about. As Denise Ackermann says, “The way I hope should be the way I live. To live out my hope is to try to make that which I hope for come about – sooner rather than later.” It is “a lived reality in the life of faith, here and now.” It is “never to surrender our power to imagine a better world”. Hope confronts wrong and the abuse of power; it is risky and requires patience and endurance.
In our national life, it’s been a difficult year for South Africa. Many times in our daily lives we seem to have been living in a country whose leaders, despite the emancipation of democracy, do not look after the needs of their people. Much of the time those leaders don't seem to have a vision, or any sense of destiny – or even a practical plan they are truly committed to implementing. In what I call the “old” struggle – the struggle for democracy – it was the ability of our leaders to see “the light” ahead that drove them. Nowadays, the new generation of leaders seems to govern without any sense of being guided by that light, or for that matter any light at all. In fact, I get confused by the darkness that our leaders bring as the sun rises every morning.
But did Madiba ever lose a sense of hope in the way I have just described it? Did Robert Sobukwe lose hope? Did Oliver Tambo lose hope? Did Steve Biko? Or Beyers Naude, or Trevor Huddleston? Did my ancestor, Kgoši Mamphoku Makgoba, who was killed while resisting settler incursions on our land, lose hope? We can look and learn from the lives of all of our anti-apartheid heroes and say none of them ever, ever lost hope.
But there is another characteristic they shared that is particularly powerful in converting hope to reality, and that is courage. Courage is like fire. It was courage which ignited the old struggle and kept it burning until we emerged from the darkness of apartheid. Courage enables us to set ourselves, our community and our nation on fire. And it's the light of courage that we need to rekindle this Christmas.
The South Africa that I have been living in these last years has forgotten how to be courageous. We have allowed ourselves to live in and accept a society that is punished, penalized and severely disciplined for being courageous. I had the privilege of being asked by Mama Graça Machel over the last few years of Madiba's life to visit them every now and then in Bishopscourt, in Houghton and in Qunu, and to pray with them. My time with him reminded me of so many of the lessons which he tried to share with us, but none was more important than that encapsulated in these words, which have inspired so many:
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
He also reminded me that it also takes courage to grow up and become who you really are. So with his wisdom as guidance, I want to share with you some thoughts for the holidays on this Christmas Eve.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.” And I might add, courage. Courage and light can break the cycle of poverty, crime and the growing underclass of young people ill equipped to be productive citizens. Only light will enable to us to be repulsed enough by what we see around us to say, “My children and grandchildren deserve better.” Only by being pro-courage can we really be anti-corruption. We truly begin living when we say, “Enough is enough and I want more for my family, my community and my country!” It's at that moment that we step up and take responsibility for not only ourselves but for our country's destiny. It's at that moment that, as I have been saying recently, that we stop being a country of “me” and become a country of “we”.
Our purpose on earth is for all of us to become part of something bigger than ourselves. But we are not living as if we believe that. We become so discouraged about the injustices we see everywhere that we give up and say, “That’s their problem.” We have become a “me”-driven society which accepts and perpetuates the cruel weight of the massive inequalities we have inherited; a “me” society which accepts economic inequality, the service delivery inequality, the healthcare inequality, the education inequality and most seriously, the inequality of opportunity.
At this time of the year, as we celebrate the birth of Christ, how do we channel the joyousness, the spirit of feeling connected with one another into a spirit of reflection which empowers us to focus not on the “me” but rather on the “we”- the body of Christ? How can we use the model of this month's behaviours, attitudes and convictions to define how we live the other 11 months of the year?
The fundamental question being asked of us in South Africa today is: What is the difference between an open-hearted, giving society and an open-handed, taking society? I’d like to ask the question a little differently: What is the difference between an open-hearted life where we see ourselves part of a greater collective community (which I will call heaven on earth) and an open-handed life in which we accept social income without accepting the responsibility for our decisions (which I will describe as hell)?
The answer lies in the Parable of the Long Spoons. It is said that both in heaven and in hell, people are forced to eat with long spoons. In hell, people starve because they are unable to lift food to their mouths using such unwieldy cutlery. But in heaven, each person takes the long spoon and feeds another across the table. And that's how in heaven God ensures, through the actions of those there with him, that everyone has plenty to eat.
In the end, the message is that we should feed, respect and care for each other, both in a practical and collective sense. That is what a genuine community of communities does. Because that is what we are: a community of communities, the baptised – the body of Christ as Paul says. Another word for it is a nation; a “we” society. This is our challenge if we are to channel the joy of this birth as recorded in Luke’s gospel, into the joy of a lifetime.
Many feel that for our nation to have survived under apartheid and to have been reborn was a once-in-a-lifetime miracle. I used to believe that. But not anymore. Our achievements have been gained through struggle, guided by hope and following the light. In our faith, that light is Jesus, who at this time breaks into our lives and gives us courage to break all barriers.
So this Christmas let us commit ourselves to a new struggle; a new struggle for a new generation; a struggle to end the economic inequities and related consumerism, to end the inequalities of service delivery, health care and education – but most of all a struggle to bring about equality of opportunity. Human progress is never guaranteed unless there is struggle. Every step we take towards the goal of ending inequality requires sacrifice, requires suffering, and most of all requires struggle. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. The good news is, as Christians we struggle with a firm hope, that Christ our light and our hope, has already triumphed and broken all barriers.
So whether “in this Roman census”, you are recorded as being 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 or 70 years old, the question is, do you have the courage to take up this challenge? Are you ready to define your children's destinies? Then, metaphorically speaking, light up your lamps and become bearers of hope this Christmas season.
God bless you, your family and South Africa, and may you have a blessed Christmas.