The voice / The Rev. Ruth Hainsworth: Reflections on Mandela during Advent
The voice / The Rev. Ruth Hainsworth: Reflections on Mandela during Advent
The Rev. Ruth Shilling-Hainsworth
December 24, 2013 11:06AM
Peace is the focal point of the second Sunday of the Christian liturgical season of Advent for many churches around the world. How cosmically ironic, then, that this year, this Peace Sunday was preceded by the death of Nelson Mandela, an extraordinary man who lived peace in ways most of us can scarcely imagine. Still another of those cosmic coincidences of this Peace Sunday just passed is that its Gospel focal point was John the Baptist, another man with a single-minded focus on a clear goal — the kingdom of God breaking into the realm of the everyday world.
John the Baptist was an interesting character, to put it mildly. An ascetic and a prophet who dressed intentionally to conjure up images of the Old Testament prophet Elijah, John was on a mission to preach the coming of the kingdom of God. He preached that the people should repent of their sins, all that distanced them from God. He was called “the Baptist” because the primary way he encouraged folks to show they were indeed serious about repenting of sin was to be baptized in the Jordan River, confessing their sins as the waters washed them away. But, no one, then or now, would argue that John the Baptist was preaching peace. In fact, he was preaching quite the opposite.
Think about it. If peace is, as Webster’s defines it, a “state of tranquility or quiet,” then John was doing just the opposite as he railed against the manifold sins of the people who came to hear him. John wanted people to be upset, off kilter, out of sorts as they worried that their distance from God brought about through sin was permanent. He wanted them not to be quiet or tranquil, but instead loud and agitated in their confession of sins as they prepared to descend into the swirling waters of the Jordan. John was not about peace. He was about making noise and calling attention to all that was wrong with the people as individuals and with the society in which they lived.
John was, as the Gospel of Matthew described him, the embodiment of the prophet Isaiah’s “voice of one crying out in the wilderness” for the people to “prepare the way of the Lord.” Those preparations for the coming of the Lord meant change was needed to an entire way of life. And change by its very nature is rarely peaceful. And yet, here is John the Baptist as the central figure for Peace Sunday. So we need to ask: What is peace? Most of us think of peace as the absence of strife in our personal lives or the absence of war between nations, but this is only one of its definitions. Webster’s offers several, the baseline of which is peace as a state of tranquility or quiet. This state of tranquility or quiet results when one has freedom from civil disturbance and a sense of security and well-being. Peace can also be understood as freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts and situations, and as a sense of harmony in one’s interpersonal relationships. Peace is multi-layered, very much dependent on other conditions in play along with it. Peace is not just an “is” all on its own.
Peace only happens when people have the hope of a real life with work that provides them with food to eat and a place to live. Peace only happens when people can transcend their anger about all the injustices of life and understand that love is always more powerful than hate. Peace only happens when justice is the reality of all, not just for some. Peace only happens when sin is named and confronted and disavowed in our lives. Peace only happens when people realize that sin, which is the result of getting stuck in your own anger or sense of entitlement, leads nowhere. Peace only happens when someone like John the Baptist — the voice crying in the wilderness — makes room for it to happen.
Every time John got someone to see that their own sins were keeping them from being their best selves, he brought peace and the realm of God one tiny step closer. Every time he got someone to see in themselves sin in the form of selfishness, of mindless anger, of apathy in the face of another’s pain he made the dream of peace more tangible. Every time John convinced people they had to become the change they wanted to experience, he was leading them to peace. John was teaching them — and us — that peace is not a gift given to us by some unseen hand. For John the Baptist, peace was something every single person had to work for all the time and that work began with realizing how he or she was part of the problem, as well as part of the solution.
Peace is indeed a complicated thing, more so than we tend to think about most of the time. But think about peace, we must, if we want things to change, if we want peace to be more than a word on a greeting card at Christmastime. That’s why it is so incredible that Nelson Mandela, another voice crying out in the wilderness, died just a few days before this Peace Sunday of Advent. Nelson Mandela — a familiar name and yet how many of us really know much about him? I knew some things but learned more as I read about him these past few days. I knew he had won the Nobel Peace Prize and that he had been in prison because of his efforts to rid South Africa of the horrible apartheid system designed to keep the races rigidly separate and essentially unequal. I knew he was an articulate and passionate voice for peace and justice as a basic human right for everyone. I thought he was Christian, but I didn’t know he had gone to a Methodist school as a child at which a teacher gave him the English name of Nelson. I knew he was educated, but I didn’t know he was a lawyer who spent decades earning the academic credentials the profession required, some by correspondence school while he was in prison. I knew he had been in prison for decades, but I didn’t know that he confessed to the crimes that saw him imprisoned so that he could have his day in the white man’s court on his own terms. I also didn’t know that Mandela refused several offers to have his jail sentence commuted if he would just agree to go and live quietly. He couldn’t, he explained, because justice for all would never be served by putting his own desires first.
I was surprised that it was only four years from when Mandela was released from prison in 1990 to when he was elected President of South Africa in 1994. I was surprised that he didn’t win his 1993 Nobel Peace Prize on his own. Instead, the prize was awarded jointly to Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk, a white man and former president of apartheid-ridden South Africa, “for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.” I didn’t know that there were some South African blacks who hated Nelson Mandela as much as the racist whites who imprisoned him. I didn’t know that this happened because Nelson put preventing a race war and building a solid foundation for the peaceful co-existence of the races in South Africa and around the world above everything else. And the foundation to his approach to achieving this impossible dream of a newly recreated South African nation was forgiveness. Nelson Mandela literally fought for forgiveness as the cornerstone of a new beginning for the country he loved. He once said, “courageous people do not fear forgiving for the sake of peace” and he brought those words to life in a way no one else could or would, ever. Nelson Mandela lived his commitment to peace in ways most of us could never imagine, facing the wrath of friend and foe alike in the process. He quite literally sacrificed everything for it — family, friends, his own health. And he changed the world forever by doing so.
As the world remembers and celebrates the life of Nelson Mandela, what is his legacy to us in our community? None of us is a Nelson Mandela or a John the Baptist, after all. Maybe. Maybe not. The real lesson of Nelson Mandela’s life is that one person can make a difference — a tremendous difference in the lives of others. One person — any person — can make peace a reality in their own lives each day. This, I think, is our challenge. Making peace real in our lives, and the lives of others every day. How do we do that? John the Baptist would say that peace becomes real when we look at ourselves honestly and recognize where we fall short and try to change. Peace comes alive when sin is named and confronted in our own lives because only then can it be named and confronted in the society in which we live. Nelson Mandela would say that peace is only possible if we have the courage to forgive anyone and everyone who has ever wronged us — whether they forgive us or not. Jesus would say that peace comes to life in each of us in any moment when we allow our love for God and for the other people in our lives to transform us into the individuals we would like to be. So the lesson for us is surprisingly simple. If you want to change the world, you don’t have to be Nelson Mandela. You just have to be the best “you” you can be. It will take some effort, that’s for sure. But if we give it a try, wouldn’t that make for a simply amazing Christmas?
The Rev. Ruth Shilling Hainsworth is the pastor of the United Congregational Church of Westerly, United Church of Christ, in Pawcatuck. She delivered this sermon on the second Sunday of Advent (text: Matthew 3:1-6).