Saturday 11 June 2011

Sermon at the Funeral of Albertina Sisulu

This is the text of the sermon preached at the Funeral of Albertina Sisulu, in Orlando Stadium on 11 June 1011.

1 Pet 1:3-9

'Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.'

Matthew 5:3-10

'Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.'

May I speak in the name of God, who comforts those who mourn. Amen.

In his name, and in the precious name of Jesus – who died and rose again, to be the resurrection and the life – I greet you all once again, as we ask God’s comfort and strength upon all who grieve at the death of Mama Albertina Sisulu; even as we gather to celebrate the life of this remarkable woman.

Allow me to acknowledge all the important guests here today – the President of the country, the Deputy President, and all the other important visitors to our country at this time of mourning and yet a time of celebration. I also want to say to the Sisulu family – God is with you at this difficult time.

Within the Catholic and Anglican traditions today we remember St Barnabas – whose name means ‘The Son of Encouragement’, the one who encourages. And most of you will know that tomorrow is Pentecost, when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, whose name in the Greek of the New Testament is often translated ‘The Comforter’.

So my message today, my message of consolation, is about Encouragement and Comfort, as we celebrate Mama Albertina Sisulu’s life, and as we mourn her passing – commending her into the eternal arms of the God of love, the God whom she loved. Encouragement and Comfort are God’s words to us, as we heard in today’s two readings; they are the words we have for each other; and, it is fair to say, they are the words that Mama Sisulu speaks to us through her remarkable life.

Let me begin with speaking of encouragement. Many profound tributes have been paid to this outstanding woman, who dedicated her life to the cause of justice, to the vision of a non-racial South Africa, and lived to vote in democratic general elections.

I personally knew her when I was a student at Wits University and stayed in a residence called Glyn Thomas; and we consulted her on various issues before travelling by bus from Johannesburg to Cape Town for the launch of the UDF. We also consulted her around the Release Mandela Campaign and whether it would be at all sensible for us to drive Aubrey Mokoena’s Toyota Skyline – when we didn’t have driver’s licenses! – and when we were going to Brandfort to the take track suits for Tata Madiba. She gave us forthright criticism: but it was criticism we needed, in order to build us up and point us in a better direction.

Sadly today, too often, criticism is labelled anti-revolutionary, and we are discouraged from speaking out. But we should follow Mama Sisulu’s lead, and say what needs to be said – for the good of our leaders and for the good of our country. Mama Sisulu knew the power of Jesus’ words, that ‘the truth will set you free’ (Jn 8:32).

My experience of Ma Sisulu, confirmed also in the tributes, told me that here was a woman of enormous principles, of enormous moral strength. I must say, I am still in awe of her. Albertina Sisulu was a struggle icon from a struggle icon family. She was a fighter for family and women's rights and indeed the rights of all South Africans. In the Bible in Psalm 94:16, the Psalmist wrote ‘Who rises up for me against the wicked? Who stands up for me against the evildoers?’ I am sure that all of us can testify that Mama Sisulu did answer that call.

But we’ve heard that answering that call was not without costs to her and her family. For example, I was very moved to hear the story of how Zwelakhe and Sheila took to shouting Lindiwe’s name outside the prisons in Pretoria and Johannesburg, trying to find where she had been taken following her arrest, with their mother unable to look for her, because she was banned; and I was also moved by how Zwelakhe was arrested for calling his sister’s name outside the Pretoria Women’s Prison.

These stories, dear friends, illustrate the cost to family life and to Albertina, but also show the great love they all shared. Another example was Mama Sisulu’s deep concern for Lindiwe a year after her release – when, still traumatised by her experiences she would sometimes wake in the night, fearing that the police were surrounding the house and back to arrest her. Albertina used to speak of how Lindiwe had been tortured, pulled by her hair and bashed against the wall. I am told she would add, like a typical mother, ‘Lindiwe had long hair.’

Mama Sisulu’s example, dear friends, of dedication to her family and nation, is one we should take as encouragement. We should also be encouraged to follow her wider example of service, not only as a nurse, but in politics too. This we know she shared with her husband Walter – both are to us wonderful examples of selfless service in pursuit of all that is good and all that is right and all that is true and just: and they pursued these values for their own sake, and not because they knew they would get something out of it. Not for them, the pursuit of power for personal gain!

We heard in today’s gospel: ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled’ Jesus said. God’s reward, dear friends, is greater than anything money can buy. This is his encouragement also, to us, if we are tempted to do less than our best. But God’s greater encouragement is this, that, though he fills our hearts, our souls, with a deep abiding sense of satisfaction, when we follow the path to which Jesus Christ calls us in our life on earth – the rewards of heaven are far, far, greater.

Jesus himself, through his resurrection – as our first reading says – has given us ‘a living hope’, a sure and certain hope, of this ‘inheritance that is not perishable’ which we know is there for our dear mother Albertina. She, we can be certain, is one of those for whom St Peter was writing when he said ‘you have had to suffer various trials’. But the genuineness of her faith, the genuineness of her commitment to do what was right in the eyes of God, was found indeed to be more precious than gold – and so we know that she will receive all the blessings that God has in store for her.

Remembering Mama Sisulu and her husband, reminds me, as speaker after speaker in tributes have said, that we are also caught up in the wonder of how they somehow became the great love story of the struggle years. Their love was a testimony that nothing could defeat – not separation, not even incarceration. Such love, such true love, draws strength from the love of God, which, the Bible tells us, nothing can overcome – not hardship, not distress, not even persecution.

As those famous verses from St Paul’s letter to the Romans go on to say, nothing can separate us from God’s love for us shown in Jesus Christ – nothing in this life, and not even death itself. This is the source of God’s encouragement, and of God’s comfort, to all of us. Albertina’s death cannot separate her from God’s love – and her death cannot separate us from God’s love either.

This is the love of the God who desires to take each one of us in his arms, and comfort us, like a mother who comforts her child. For God knows that death is still almost too much for us to bear. Jesus himself wept, as we know, for Lazarus, even though he knew that Lazarus would be returned to life. And we mourn Mama Sisulu’s passing, even though we know she had a long, long life, and achieved so much, of such deep and lasting value. Even though we know that, in Christ, she now knows the new life of heaven – we should not be afraid to grieve and to cry for her.

Jesus tells us this, when he says ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’ And so these are my words to the family -to Max, to Mlungisi, to Zwelakhe, to Lindiwe, to Nonkululeko – and to all the children: Do not be afraid to mourn and to grieve. Grieve what you have lost, in the death of your mother, your mother-in-law, your grandmother, your sister, your aunt, this child of God whom you loved. And grieve the losses of your life with her – the times you lost a mother to imprisonment; the times you lost her, even to the high calling of the struggle and political office.

All the rest of us who are here today, know that we owe you a great debt of gratitude – far greater than we probably can begin to imagine – that you shared your parents with us, and that you in turn have also given us so much. And I want to say - Thank you, thank you, more than we can say.

No doubt there were times when you might have preferred a normal family life, a mother and father at home for their children; a life free of persecution because of all they stood for and fought for. So God’s words of comfort are with you – for those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. The promises of heaven are with you, and for all of us. God invites us to come to him, with all our grief, our sorrows, our anger, our disappointments – to mourn what is gone, to mourn what might have been.

In the book of the Revelation to St John, the Bible tells us God will one day wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more. But before then, we should not be afraid to weep at all the sadnesses of human life and the losses of death – to bring them to God and to let God surround us with his love, and his comfort. We must also weep, that the ideals of the Freedom Charter have not yet been realised; we must weep too that so many have used political power to enrich themselves and their relatives and friends, sometimes through blatant corruption – and so betray the legacy for which this family has striven.

But the God who comforts is also the God who encourages. He is the one who strengthens us, to say ‘no’ to such temptations. He is the one who helps us to make a fresh start where we need it and to hold fast to all that is good, and right and true. For what better way to celebrate Mama Sisulu than to follow the example that she gave us: to go forward, in the paths of justice, of honesty, of righteousness; the life of dedication, the commitment of a life serving through others.

And now, in our sadness, we nonetheless rejoice to know that she will hear those words of God who promised to all who follow the example and call of Jesus Christ. So we want to say to Mama Sisulu ‘Well done, true and faithful servant – enter now into your Lord’s joy’ (Matt 25:21). May she rest in peace – and rise in glory. Amen.

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