Sunday 27 March 2016

Sermon for the Easter Vigil, St George's Cathedral, Cape Town

Luke 24: 1-9  
Alleluia, Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Sisters and Brothers in Christ, as we hear again the glorious story of the Resurrection and its message of new beginnings, may each one of you experience the fullness of Christ’s gift of abundant life. May you know the joy, the hope and the peace that the Season of Easter brings.

Thank you to the Dean, the clergy, the Churchwardens and other lay leaders of the parish, the music director and the organist, the choir, lay ministers, servers, those who arranged the flowers, and everyone responsible, year in and year out, for this wonderful service and, indeed, all the worship in this, the mother church of our Province. We are indebted to you all.

Luke’s account of the Resurrection tells us of two men in dazzling raiment who meet the women at the tomb. In Mark, it is a young man with a long white robe. In Matthew it is an angel of the Lord. In John it is two angels, and yet for all the discrepancies, there is no querying the most basic fact and that is that the tomb was empty. And that is what matters. The empty tomb is what constitutes the beginning of something new, of seeing things differently. In Luke’s poetic way, he describes it as “the first day of the week”! 
It is the threshold of something radically new. It comes up hard against the details of the neatly-folded grave clothes, the stone that has been rolled away and the perennial question of why – when Jesus seems to have “evaporated” out of the grave clothes and left them lying in perfect order, why did He need to roll the stone away? Could he not just as easily have evaporated through the rock of the tomb? But that kind of speculation is surely missing the point of the empty tomb and the stone which is rolled away: it is not about finding a way for Jesus to get out of the tomb, it is about opening the tomb so that we can enter. 
It is about helping us to come face-to-face with all that lies dead inside of us, all the possibilities and potential that have been crushed, the inspirations that we have been too afraid to follow and have buried safely out of sight. It is a call to enter the tomb and acknowledge that something new has come to life, that those powerful negative forces in our lives do not have to define us or paralyse us eternally. Something greater is at work here. 
Before reflecting further on the hope that Easter can bring, let me talk a little about the reason we need it so desperately in our national life in South Africa today. For Easter’s message of hope, of new beginnings, can be a powerful counter to the mood of hopelessness and fear that pervade the lives of many as we contemplate the state of our nation at this time. 
Why do I say there is a mood of hopelessness? Well, many live without hope because 50 to 60% of our young people are unemployed, and those without jobs see no sign of the growth in the economy that we need if we are to create decent work. Many live without hope because some of the teachers responsible for preparing the young for jobs in the modern economy are failing – in many cases they are failing even to turn up on time to take their classes. Many people live without hope because their relatives are dying unnecessarily in badly-run public hospitals. Many live without hope of seeing efficient service delivery to their homes – witness the 14,700 public protests over poor service delivery every year. 
And many are living in fear because they see no clear prospects for a better future. In the Old Struggle, that against apartheid, I recall living in fear because at 15 I was too young to carry a pass, but looked older than I actually was, so got arrested and disappeared into a jail until I could persuade a magistrate that I had a valid reason for not carrying one. I recall the fear of being chased by a Hippo armoured car and being hidden by a mechanic in Alexandra Township under the oily cars he was fixing. Later, in my activist years, I feared the knock on the door at night.

Now my, and our, fears are different. But they are just as real and they weigh down on us just as much as our old fears. I am feeling a heavy burden of fear – fear for my family and yours, fear for South Africa. We fear the consequences of a downgrade in our creditworthiness, leading to recession and even more job losses. Will those of us who have jobs lose them next month or next year? What will we do to replace our wages if we do? What happens when the State runs out of money to pay social benefits? And as your Archbishop, when I see the absence of moral authority in our country, I feel fear. When I see public representatives on gravy trains of sleaze and dishonesty, oblivious to those who are hungry, I feel fear. 
Someone said recently, “This isn't the South Africa we all want!” In the case of those who benefit from the corrupt awarding of government contracts, I disagree. This is the South Africa they want. Those on the gravy train of corruption don't want to get off.  They don't want the “train” to stop. They love this South Africa just as it is – serving their and their families’ needs. They have forgotten the poor and they are shameless about having done so.

Why is it, when I watch what goes on in our Parliament, as I did on the night of the State of the Nation Address, am I so disheartened? A friend of mine quips that if there was a roll call in Parliament, many MPs wouldn't know whether to say “present” or “not guilty”. There is no sign that Parliament as a whole, comprised as it is of people deployed by their parties to serve party interests, shows any interest in holding the Executive accountable.

The outcome of the ANC’s national executive meeting last weekend gives me no more hope than Parliament does. I read that the meeting mandated the ANC's top six officials and its National Working Committee “to gather all pertinent information about the allegations (around the Gupta family) to enable the ANC to take appropriate action...” But President Zuma is one of the top six and a member of the National Working Committee. How can he be both player and referee?

From this pulpit at Christmas, I said we should not make the mistake of thinking that the solution to our problems lies in simply replacing one leader with another. I said our new struggle for justice and true liberation is about values and institutions rather than personalities. I stand by that, despite the feelings of some in the religious community that we should issue a joint call for the President to step down from office. But on this matter of investigating his relationship with business families, President Zuma needs to step aside – not step down as President of the country, but to step aside from his party role and recuse himself from the ANC’s deliberations. He cannot investigate himself.
The only alternative to him doing that would be for the ANC to do what it did very credibly when there were accusations of abuses in its military camps in exile, and that is to appoint an independent commission made up of elders of the movement, respected by all sides, to investigate and make recommendations on the matter. I cannot see how anything else will have credibility, even for those within the movement.

I appeal to President Zuma: Mr President, give the country hope. We, and you, deserve better. We, and you, can do better. We, and you, must do better. We need to rise up and find the same courage that emboldened us to fight and win the Old Struggle, to fight the New Struggle, a struggle to end inequality, especially the inequality of opportunity. 
For us as Christians, Easter empowers us for this struggle. Easter dispels hopelessness. Easter banishes fear. I came across a thought-provoking line in the reflections of the spiritual writer, Ronald Rolheiser. He says: “I received an Easter card which said ‘May you leave behind you a string of empty tombs.’ That is the challenge of Easter: to resurrect daily, to leave behind us a string of empty tombs, to let our crucified hopes and dreams be resurrected so that, like Christ, our lives will radiate the truth that in the end, everything is good and reality can be trusted.”

In times of personal darkness, in times of national distress, when hopelessness and fear seem to be all around us, it is worth holding onto the truth which Rolheiser underlines, that given half a chance, life wins out over and above all our tombs, healing breaks through even the most stubborn grief, hope emerges in places that we often least expect to find it. 
That truth, not the discrepancies of the number of witnesses, is – I believe – at the heart of the empty tomb, and that makes every Easter a wonderfully consoling moment for us.

May God bless you and your family this Easter. 

†Thabo Cape Town 

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