Nelson Mandela - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Nelson Mandela

James 5:7-10

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Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.

Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh.

Grudge not one against another, brethren, lest ye be condemned: behold, the judge standeth before the door.

10 Take, my brethren, the prophets, who have spoken in the name of the Lord, for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience.

Nelson Mandela
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If we were asked to name the biggest global figures who have made the biggest positive impact on our world in the 20th century, we might name Martin Luther King, or Mahatma Ghandi, and we would certainly add the name of Nelson Mandela - whose funeral takes place today in Qunu, his ancestral home in the hills of Eastern Cape Province.

Like Ghandi, Mandela became in his lifetime a global icon. He was so well respected that on his 90th birthday he received 750,000 messages of goodwill. Streets all over the world have been named after him; merchandise imprinted with his face, he has become a brand in his own right - in the eyes of some the next best thing to Jesus.

Mandela himself hated all that. He did not like this commercialisation or the glorification of his name. He never wanted to be seen as a saint, and so I wonder what he would have made of all the razzamatazz of the past two weeks. In all the millions of words that have been written about him since his death.

It is difficult to separate the facts and the real man from the myth. After all this was a man who became a freedom fighter, some would say a terrorist, in the cause of resistance to apartheid and the fight for justice for black people in South Africa as a new member of the ANC. He spent a third of his life in prison, convicted of sabotage and terrorism, a crime which carried the death penalty.

He could easily during those long years in prison and afterwards, have become embittered and have wallowed in his victim status, but he didn't. That is why the world honours him today, not simply as a political leader, and a crafty and ruthless one at that, but as a man of reconciliation and forgiveness, a man who taught his people to forgive the unforgiveable and move on in peace, with a large chunk of his life stolen from him he still spoke of optimism, of hope, and his belief that while hatred is something humans learn, love of our neighbours is a natural human quality that needs to be allowed to grow and flourish.

When Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he didn't say "Now those selfish, cruel white people have it coming to them." He said "If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner."

His refusal of bitterness went along with his lack of arrogance. He often poked fun at himself. His political opponent Tony Leon, the leader of the Democratic Alliance, tells a lovely story about Mandela's sense of humour.

The year was 1998 -
He says, "I was going to hospital for quite a big operation. Two weeks before that there had been a bit of a row between Mandela and I. Mandela had stood up in parliament and said of the Democratic party, which I led at the time, 'I'm sick and tired of these Mickey Mouse parties.' So in the tradition of the great Socratic political dialogue we have in this country, I responded: 'I may be head of a Mickey Mouse party, but you're leading a Goofy government.' "Two weeks later I'm in hospital fretting about my operation the next day, siting in the room with my wife, when there is a knock on the door and a voice: 'Hello. It's Goofy here, is Mickey Mouse there?' That was Mandela; he'd come to visit me in hospital the night before my operation. That's emblematic of how he operated. He was a great man, who enjoyed a joke"

Mandela had the ability to reach out to people, he was curious about people, he had that greatness of heart that is so rare. In all these ways Nelson Mandela was a one-off - a man who had taken to heart the words we heard this morning in the Epistle of James: "Be patient, stand firm, do not grumble against each other or judge one another, but persevere and leave the rest to God."

Nelson Mandela lived out those virtues in his own life, and in doing so became a unifying figure in South African politics. Now that he has gone, and as we pray for the repose of his soul today, we must also pray for the future of South Africa without him, a beautiful land of democratic freedom but huge inequality, the ANC riddled with corruption, high unemployment and a younger generation with the nostalgia of the past. As South Africa enters the post-Mandela era we pray for leaders of vision and stature to carry forward that legacy of reconciliation and hope which Nelson Mandela has bequeathed his people.

Bishop Trevor Huddleston's Prayer -
    God Bless Africa
    Guard her children
    Guide her rulers
    And give her peace
        For Jesus Christ's sake.

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