Tuesday 23 October 2018

Archbishop pays tribute to Albertina Sisulu - "One of the mothers of our nation"

Sermon preached at the Thanksgiving Service for Mrs Nontsikelelo Albertina Sisulu, on her 100th birthday, at Holy Cross Parish, Orlando West, on October 21, 2018:

Readings: Job 38: 1-7 (34-41), Psalm 104:1-10, 35-36; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

May I speak in the name of God the Father, Son and the Comforter. Amen
A warm welcome to you all on this wonderful occasion where we commemorate one of the icons of our struggle. Welcome especially to you, leaders in Government, and to all the members of the Sisulu family here present.
Thank you also to the church representatives present, to you Bishop Steve for hosting us in your Diocese, and to the Revd Lankiri Thaba, the Rector of Holy Cross Parish, situated just across the way from the home from which Mama Sisulu held her family together through so many years and through so much sacrifice.
Thank you for inviting me to share in this Thanksgiving Service with you as we mark the 100th year of Mama Sisulu's birth. When we gathered for her funeral at Orlando Stadium across the valley seven years ago, I shared a message about encouragement and comfort, of how Mama Sisulu, who never saw herself as a leader, embodied the characteristics of a great leader. She inspired others to dream more, to learn more, to do more and to become more. Today, celebrating Mama’s 100th birthday. we meet to give thanks to God for her life.
Nontsikelelo Albertina Sisulu was never here merely to exist. She lived to make a difference, and her contributions are what makes her life so significant. She not only made South Africa a better place, but she made the world immeasurably better, and that ultimately is what reallly counts. We are her legacy.
I am grateful that there are others here whose task it will be to pay an adequate tribute to Mama Sisulu, since the scope and quality of her life and work is such that it defies description in a short sermon. However, there are a few points that I do feel qualified to make. The first arises from my own experience as a young person growing up in Pimville. One of my most vivid memories is going with other young activists to consult Mama in the 1980s to guide us around the Release Mandela Campaign. We were embarking by bus from Johannesburg to Cape Town for the launch of the United Democratic Front, of which she was to become the co-president. And what I remember most clearly is the forthright questioning she subjected us to. It wasn’t enough that we were protesting – she wouldn’t let us leave until we had clearly, carefully and succinctly explained to her, not what we were doing, but why we were doing it. She was both confirming and galvanizing our conviction, so that our cause was driven by our hearts as much as by our heads.
I remember that during her funeral, I reflected on the fact that these days – or at least in those days – criticism was too often labelled anti-revolutionary. It is a refreshing ray of hope and sunshine that our current administration encourages, not discourages, speaking out. We’re seeing the rule of law taken very seriously, and our most senior leaders are following both Mama and Jesus’ admonition, “the truth will set you free.”
The second observation I want to make is that in many ways, the story of Mama Albertina Sisulu encapsulates in a single, remarkable human being, the story of our people, and especially the story of our struggle. She was both a leader in her own right, as her presidency of the UDF demonstrates, and at the same time she was also the matriarch of a generation of fighters against injustice and oppression. If she were alive today, I’m confident that she again would be on the front lines of the New Struggle: the struggle for equality of opportunity.
As one writer said in the early 1990s, Mama’s family story is heroic: “There can be few families in the history of South Africa,” the writer said, “that have been torn apart as relentlessly by the political struggle, and few that have survived it so intact.” That is a sad fact, but it's true. For a period of 30 years, at least one member of the family was always in prison and at least one in exile. At one time in the 1980s, six were in prison. Albertina spent most of the 24 years Walter was in prison either restricted, under house-arrest or detained—and once, in solitary confinement for almost a year.
My third observation arises from my second. Elinor Sisulu writes in her wonderful biography of the Sisulus of how when Mama went to a Roman Catholic boarding school at Matatiele in 1936, she was introduced to a routine in which the school day began at 4 am. Elinor quotes Mama as saying, "We were generally trained to be orderly and organised." It seems to me, that this could be said of Mama Sisulu for the whole of her life. Through all of her suffering and the suffering of her children, she remained a model of heroism, and a figure of dignity and discipline. I like to think that it was in recognition both of her own leadership in the struggle and her status as a disciplined member of her movement that she was chosen in 1994 to be the Member of Parliament who would rise to formally propose that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela should be elected as the first President of a democratic South Africa. I think we can justifiably describe Mama Sisulu as one of the mothers of our nation.
Turning to today's readings, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews (5:1-10) says that those called to high priestly office have to fulfil certain qualifications. A candidate had to be selected from among the people and thus be able to represent them before God. Also he or she had to be called by God. The writer moves on to show how Jesus more than fulfilled these qualifications during his time on earth.
This is through the reference to Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. He did not shrink from physical suffering and death by crucifixion, but accepted the indescribable agony of taking humankind’s sin on himself. Jesus was made perfect through temptation, suffering and his ordeal on the Cross. Though he was the eternal son of God, it was necessary for him as the incarnate son to learn obedience – not because he was disobedient but because he was called on to obey to an extent he had never before experienced. The temptations he faced were real and the battle for victory was difficult. Where Adam failed and fell, Jesus resisted and prevailed.
Friends, when we look at the life and witness of Mama Sisulu today through her struggle for freedom and what the Hebrews scripture is saying, there are parallels. What can we learn from the example set before us by Jesus? What can we learn from the example set before us by Mama? Mama was one of my and South Africa’s most influential teachers. As such she affected eternity; history still cannot accurately record where her influence stops.
In our Gospel reading, Mark (10:35-45) gives us another picture of leadership during Jesus’ time, in the story of the desire for positions of prestige and power of the sons of Zebedee, James and John. Matthew in his Gospel (20:20,21) mentions that this request came through their mother, Salome, the sister of Mary – Jesus’ mother. So, James and John would therefore be first cousins to Jesus. This was a family attempt to gain position, probably to steal a march on – to have a surreptitious advantage over – Peter, a third member of the trio.
Jesus’ response to their request was that it would be realised only if they willingly submitted to servanthood. He told the two brothers that the positions to which they aspired – to sit on Jesus's left and right – were only for the Father, that is God, to bestow. And those positions would be bestowed not as a result of favouritism but on the basis of fitness of character.
It is as if Jesus was saying to the relatives of a local mayor in South Africa today: you can get a job if you are fit and qualified to do it, not because you are the mayor's cousin. What would Jesus be saying today to directors of the VBS bank in Venda, whose directors and the politically connected stole from the poor instead of serving them? The sons of Zebedee had forgotten their mission and had misunderstood the mission of Jesus Christ: they were drunk on power, status and position and had forgotten that they were called to be servants of the people. Jesus explains that those who are truly powerful are the ones who deliver: so we can see that service delivery is in the Bible!
When the other disciples heard this, they were bitter at the two brothers. Jesus responded by taking them aside and explaining the essential difference between worldly greatness and spiritual greatness. In the kingdom of God, true greatness flows from lowly and voluntary service, as the Letter to the Hebrews also indicates.
Friends, what is unique about Jesus in this Gospel is that he practised what he preached. He is the embodiment of his own ethic. His work is presented in two parts – to serve and to give. Mark clearly explains that the ministry of the Son is to serve or be of service. What can we learn from the example set before us by Jesus and from the example of service and sacrifice presented to us by Mama Sisulu?
What do their examples tell us about how to respond to the role of values, of values-based decision-making and of moral leadership? We need to support those who are courageously fighting corruption and greed in our country. The worst diseases in the the world are not just AIDS, Ebola or malaria; they include corruption. And while there might not yet be cures for the first three diseases, there is one for corruption. And that is transparency.
As our leaders sit here in God’s church today, please know, we the Church stand with you, behind you and for you – if you say “No” to corruption! You can do better. You must do better. I know, you will do better.
What is our pledge as we move forward from the centenary of Mama Sisulu's birth? It must be to be of service to God's people and our nation. It must be to join the New Struggle with the same fervor, the same passion, and the same conviction as Mama Sisulu had for the Old Struggle. The gap between the rich and the poor is increasing daily. The poor are highly marginalised. The crime rate is alarming. People are picketing for better service delivery in their thousands, in hundreds of places around the country every year. This is a great concern, especially if we are to ensure peaceful elections in 2019. There is a great need to address political stability, education, health care, job creation and the economic welfare of our people.
As Archbishop, I commit myself today to play my part, and to keep on pressing politicians and government to play theirs also. At the same time, we acknowledge the many positive achievements since the dawn of democracy, many bright light achievements which we need to celebrate.
As the Psalmist praises God for all creation and the glory of the natural world, may we also praise God for creating the terrestrial features of sea and land, for supplying our needs and enabling our lives. And may we respond to God's generosity to us by following the examples of Jesus and Mama Sisulu by sharing that generosity for the benefit of all of God's people.
God loves you… and so do I.
God bless you, your families, our President, and God bless South Africa.

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