Saturday 4 April 2015

Sermon for the Easter Vigil – St George’s Cathedral Cape Town

Romans 6:3-11; Psalm 118:14-18; Mark 16:1-8

Alleluia, Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! Sisters and brothers in Christ, may all the fullness of Easter Resurrection life be yours!

It is a great joy to be sharing this Easter celebration with you in the mother church of the Diocese and Province. It is particularly special to be sharing with our Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who for me epitomizes in reality Julian of Norwich’s saying that “...all shall be well, and all manner of thing[s] shall be well.”

Mr Dean, your staff, licensed and unlicensed, the clergy, the wardens, the lay leaders of the Cathedral, those who conduct music and all your other ministries, including the office staff, the cleaners as well as the verger, thank you for all that you are and all that you do.

Everywhere I look, everywhere I go, there is a great anticipation about Easter. Unquestionably, Easter, and Holy Week leading up to Easter, are profoundly personal for Christians everywhere. But why do we celebrate Easter? What makes Easter so intensely important?

To me, Easter is a season that reminds us of our possibilities and of the potential of second chances. Easter is the greatest feast of the Church’s year, when we listen to the story of our salvation, and when we recognise, as the Psalm says “The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”

Of course, Easter is about many things. The scripture readings and the liturgy for tonight remind us that this is a critical day in the Christian calendar: that we celebrate God’s power to overcome death, fear, sin and injustice; that we also celebrate the voices and wounds of those who died on Good Friday. Easter is the day Jesus proved who he claimed to be, God in the flesh, who came to earth to save us from ourselves. It is also the season of new life, and tonight we extend a special welcome and word of congratulation to those who have come for baptism.

I have always been intrigued by the details which the different Gospel writers either include or omit in their recollections of that first Easter Sunday morning. Mark remembers the young man clothed in white. John on the other hand remembers the details of the burial cloths undisturbed, “still in their folds” with the head cover lying precisely in its place. These different emphases raise all sorts of possibilities, many conjectures!

The Gospel writers all agree, however, that no matter what they saw, this much is true: that the disciples entered the tomb and faced the reality that it was empty; the tomb had been robbed of its ancient sting. That surely is the core of the Resurrection: that you and I are also invited to enter the myriad of tombs that fill our lives negatively and so often limit our relationships. The Risen Lord bids us enter those dark places and reminds us that we can do so fearlessly because He has been there before us and has emptied those places of captivity, of their power over us. In the Risen Christ we are freed from the power of darkness and have the opportunity to live victoriously, with new spiritual power!

Salome and the two Marys whom the Lord had loved, taught and journeyed with, walked to the tomb very early in the morning. These women were bravely risking hostile attention and Roman scrutiny, not to mention possibly defying cultural stereotypes about women seen lurking around tombs. In their private conversation they were probably asking if this was the right path to have taken, and worrying about who might help them to roll the big stone away. Mark tells us that God was ahead of these questions; the stone was already rolled away. God had done the work. Courageously they ventured into the grave, wondering what they would find: a decomposing corpse, perhaps? Or since the tomb was open, would the body have been torn apart by dogs or other vermin?

We now know that the empty tomb testifies not only to the broken power of death over us, but our exploration of the tomb’s emptiness also pours into us an energy, a new life that is able to sustain us on the long road of discipleship. Jesus leaves us in no doubt about the reality of the powers of the grave, and of darkness. We know them well in our times: nation against nation, wars, violence in our townships and natural catastrophes, all flowing from leadership that is self-serving or from our lack of stewardship of the earth.

But in the midst of all of these painful pathologies, Jesus says quite categorically: “Do not be alarmed. I am risen. I am ahead of you, back into Galilee, the centre of my ministry.” We, as people of God who have been united with him in His death in baptism, are united with Him also in His risen life.

That hope is realized when we are willing to engage in life around us, whether in the crowds longing for a word of encouragement at the entrance of the tomb, or with the powerful Roman authorities abusing others to satisfy their egos, or by engaging in our own context in our own times.

We cannot stand by idly as if we have nothing to say when justice demands otherwise. We have to go into those places we fear to enter. We have to broach the subjects we fear to talk about. In a world where we often speak past each other, where conflicts are resolved by violent means, hope lies in dialogue, in trying in slow, respectful ways to understand each other. When dialogue and engagement are are part of our daily way of life, then no matter how dark the dungeon, we can indeed say to others, “Here is our plan...,” Christ has overcome!

Before I invite you to broach the tombs, the rot and the decomposition of our society, let me re-state the obvious: the point of Easter is that Jesus the Son of God was crucified for the sake of the world and rose to new life to break the power of death, oppression, deceit, inequality of opportunity and tyranny, and to bring abundant life and redemptive hope to all humanity and to God’s creation. By His death and resurrection, Jesus unveils for us a living hope and encourages us to be fearless in demanding that we be served by our elected leaders as we too serve others.

I say this not with a holier-than-thou attitude, but in fear and trembling like the women in the entrance of the tomb who needed encouragement from the angel:

  • But if there was ever a day in the past 21 years that South Africans needed to be saved from ourselves, it is this Easter.
  • If there ever was a day in the past 21 years that South Africans needed to chose a new pathway, it is this Easter.
  • And, if there was ever a time that we needed to say to our leaders, we’ll give you a second chance, but give us the leadership to help South Africa achieve its unique potential and its great destiny, it is THIS Easter.

South Africans are tired of the inequalities that plague us. We hear it from the tens of thousands of unemployed youth of our country; from the middle-class who see their hard-earned quality of life being eroded; from those within government who are tired of corruption and mismanagement; from those in business and industry who struggle to operate under inconsistent public policy; and from the leaders of civil society and the unions who feel like pawns on the chessboard of an amateur chess player. They, we, are tired, so tired that we are saying: “Enough is enough.” Brand South Africa has been ridiculed because of the behaviour of some of our political parties and leaders. When was the last time we saw good public policy come from a clear, values-based political decision?

As I have said before, my own passion is to fight the inequality of opportunity, for it undermines people’s capacity to use their God-given gifts to improve their own lives. The problem is: Who is listening? And that is why I am speaking to you. You are God’s soldiers on earth. You are fellow heirs of the Kingdom of God. Only through you, only through your voice and only through your courage can we hope to choose the right path and use the second chance God is giving us this Easter.

Last Monday, I gave the inaugural Memorial Lecture for Bishop Alphaeus Zulu, the first African Bishop within our Anglican province of Southern Africa. I contrasted his leadership with that of our current business as well as political elites and directed their critique through our President. These are the words that I said in anticipation of Easter: that each of us has an important role to play in the moral drama of our South African context and the world around us. Each of us can play a bigger role in shaping the course of our life, our family’s life, our community’s life and our country’s life. Before I turn to what that means for us, in Cape Town, in South Africa, today, let me look beyond our borders and express our collective pain, and convey our heartfelt condolences to the parents and relatives of those who were so cruelly murdered in Garissa this week. Who is Al Shabaab, and who benefits from these unspeakable acts, we want to ask? Why should they kill not only our sons, but our defenceless, innocent daughters? Coming within days of successful Nigerian elections, when an opposition party which won at the polls will take power for the first time in the country's history, we have to condemn Al Shabaab and their backers in the strongest of terms as a stain on the African continent.

In South Africa, twenty years ago, in 1994, we seized our first chance for redemption. Now, like the women in today’s Gospel, we need to summon up our courage, and choose the path of which I have spoken here before: the path of what I have called the “New Struggle” in South Africa. In this struggle, we have the opportunity to seize our second chance for redemption: to be part of something bigger than ourselves, to redefine the meaning of transformation and to end the shocking inequalities that, against all the expectations of the first struggle, have taken deep root in our country.

The New Struggle will not be easy: there will be moments on mountaintops and moments in deep valleys of despair. But as Martin Luther King Junior reminded us, “the ultimate measure of a man [and now we say a woman too] is not where [she] stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where [she] stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Are we ready for this struggle? The most important ingredient in the recipe for achieving democracy, the most important quality in the Old Struggle, was that displayed by the women about to enter the tomb: it was courage. Our current leaders, who took part in the first struggle with great courage, now penalise and punish South Africans for showing courage or speaking about courage. But in the past, thousands paid the price of laying down their lives or sacrificing their liberty so their families and their communities could reap the benefits of democracy. To keep faith with them, we need to emulate the courage of the heroes of the old struggle.

Many of our leaders in South Africa, in both the private and public sector are stained in their attitudes to what constitutes the common good. Their values have become corrupted by the compulsion to secure their own material needs before thinking of anyone else’s. At the very heart of evil, which causes cruelty, corruption and untold suffering throughout South Africa, is human sin, a condition which enslaves all of us. Redemption through Christ can break this chain. We need not continue sinning; God in his infinite wisdom, knowing the human condition, wants to lavish upon us the riches of his grace – redemption, through the Cross of Jesus, the forgiveness of sins. When we receive this gift we have a second chance at life.

The message of Easter is that redemption is available to everyone, including our fallible leaders. Second chances are the specialty of our people and of our Saviour! But giving people second chances needs to be done with caution. As someone once said, when a person continues unrepentantly to violate another person’s boundaries, a wise person learns to set firmer boundaries; if a man has repeatedly punched you in the face, you can forgive him; but you don’t stand within arm’s distance until he has proved over time that he has changed.

This Easter I’m asking the nation to ask our President and ruling party a simple question, “Which values-based road are you going to take? Which values-based road are you asking us to take? Which values-based road are we going to travel together?"“Will you join us on the road to redemption, by joining our New Struggle?”

Whether from our leaders or from the people, a new era of democratic transformation will come in South Africa. Are you, gathered here tonight, ready to join them in achieving it? Are you ready to become a soldier in God’s army to end inequality?

God bless you, your family and South Africa.

God loves you. And so do I.

Christ is risen! He is risen again, Alleluia! 

+Thabo Makgoba

Easter 2015