A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
October 28, 2018
University Baptist Church
What an honor it is to have Brendon Adams here with us today. He’s not only sharing his music with us, but he will also hare his story and his country’s people’s story after church at the forum.
This is the year that marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Nelson Mandela. The MN orchestra and Chorale has been joining the celebration all year. I remember back in the mid-1980’s I was working at Denison University. I was on the recreational staff for something called the South African Education Project. During Apartheid, several universities around the country had agreed to provide education for a select cadre of non-white South African students. They arranged for them to come to Denison for a 3-week orientation to US culture and college life. This is where I first learned the racial differences between Indian, Black and Colored South Africans. It was all part of the stratification in South Africa. And as long as you could get these people fighting with each other, you could get away with anything.
We worked to break down the barriers that Apartheid had created. We offered movies about US culture, we had professors try to explain the way the US government worked. We let people know that they could check out any book from the library. At first they didn’t think we were telling the truth. They were used to a society where knowledge was the enemy and certain books were banned. We played a lot of football which I called soccer and I even showed some curious few how to throw an American football.
We sang and danced a lot in the evenings of that intense few weeks. I learned to love the music of Hugh Masekela. I learned to eat with my hands and enjoy intense spices. I learned to imitate the clicks of the Xosa language. And every once in a while, the group spontaneously stood and sang Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika the national anthem of the struggle against Apartheid. They sang with fists raised in defiance and solidarity. It was a powerful month.
We probably sang Shosholoza as well back then. I learned to sing and appreciate the music of my new South African friends. They knew that singing and dancing was the necessary soundtrack of the world they imagined. Imagine what we could imagine together if we had more singing and dancing in our lives!
Many of you know that Nelson Mandela was the prominent leader of the African National Congress. The ANC advocated an end to apartheid, initially by nonviolent means. But when hundreds of nonviolent protestors were gunned down by the military, the ANC made the hard decision to expand its tactics to include violence. Mandela was put in jail and remained there for 27 years, 18 of them in a small cell on Robben Island. He was asked to renounce violence. He responded, I’ll renounce violence when the military renounces violence. When the violent system of apartheid ends.
When Nelson Mandela was finally freed and Apartheid fell a good twenty something years ago, I was serving my first church in Hartford Connecticut, one of the only whites in the congregation. I chucked my sermon and instead preached about Philemon the slave for whom Paul advocated. I’m not sure it was the best sermon, but I was young and inexperienced. I also know that today, I should not be talking about south Africa when we have an expert in our midst. I’ll just say these few words as a prequel to our forum with Brandon Adams. He can tell us where I went wrong.
Nelson Mandela reminds me of the suffering servant depicted in Isaiah’s prophecy. His very presence is a judgment against the sin of dominant control. When he is tortured, Isaiah says he is wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities. Isaiah poetically describes selfishness like this: “Like sheep we have all gone astray and have turned to our own ways.” It’s too easy for people in dominant cultures to disavow people of the out-group. And it can lead to deadly consequences. Some as dramatic as apartheid, some as dramatic as pipe bombs sent to political opponents and armed anti-Semites shooting up a synagogue. But here’s the thing about the suffering servants. They don’t suffer in a vacuum. They are remembered by those who suffer in similar ways. They inspire people to imagine a better future. That’s why the suffering servant prophecies of Isaiah are so prevalent in the Gospels. In the suffering servant, in Jesus, in Mandela, they all pointed to something greater. Not only an end to injustice, but the ushering in of a new kind of community. One where we remember our unjustly accused and punished sisters and brothers and find ways to do better the next time.
Today is reformation day across Christendom. Nelson Mandela helped usher in a reformation of South African Society. But as Brendon will likely tell us, the reformation is not over. It’s evolving, and sometimes even devolving as movements tend to do.
One of the things that happened after the fall of apartheid was the movement for truth and reconciliation. They recognized that reconciliation cannot happen until the truth has been told. Reconciliation without truth is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace. Bonhoeffer said, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession...Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
If we want to truly have reconciliation, then the truth needs to be told. We need to be held accountable for our role in the system that put us in to this mess.
What would that look like in the US? About what might we need to tell the truth? About slavery? About white privilege? About robbing land and culture from our indigenous sisters and brothers? How about compulsory heterosexuality? Or about sexism? Or the rape culture? Some of this truth-telling is happening which is good, but is it enough? When will it be enough?
One thing I know, it was hard work and it is not done in South Africa and it is hardly even tried here in the US.
I met with the Rev. Jackie Saxon, the new Executive Minister of Mid-America Baptist Churches on Tuesday. She is a long-time friend from the Peace Fellowship. She even served on the pastoral staff of University Baptist Church in Austin, Texas. Our church was part of the Mid-America Region which serves churches is Minnesota and Iowa until they changed their by-laws in 2005 to say that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching and that they would never recognize the ordination of an openly gay or lesbian pastor. We found this statement not only mean-spirited but un-Baptist. As Baptists, we don’t make creedal statements about theological stances. So, in 2006, we found a loving, if geographically challenged home with the American Baptist Churches of the Rochester/Genesee Region. That’s Rochester, New York. She told me that she wanted to have a conversation with me about what happened and how we might find a way to move forward. She said she wants to keep it real. Maybe it’s time for a truth and reconciliation commission. I’m not sure I’m up for having a reconciliation without an acknowledgment of the truth. And yet, there are a lot of people with very short memories and we’ve been gone for a dozen years. Might there be an opening for a new relationship with new leadership? Might we be willing to move forward without needing to settle old scores? I’m not sure of the answer to this, but I’m willing to explore it in good faith.
Shosholoza is an unofficial anthem of struggle. It means move on. Keep going. Even when the labor is hard. Even when your dignity has been degraded. Move on, dance, embody your power. The power that comes from working together. It’s a train of justice that we are on. South African music is an embodied art form.
In this day when pipe bombs are mailed to people who oppose the current president; when that same president incites violence against those who don’t think like him, who militarizes our police force and imprisons people seeking a better life for their children; when synagogues are bombed and gun control continues to be opposed; when the government wants to erase our transgender friends, we need to move forward toward the mountains, with the power of a force greater than ourselves.
Shosholoza. We might need to move forward in power and together. No matter what people throw at us, say our south African sisters and brothers, we can pick each other up and move forward if we stick together. That sounds like good news to me.
The church, when it is at its best, is a movement of justice.
It’s a train of mercy.
It’s journey over the mountains of prejudice and hate.
Its tools are compassion. Its methods are solidarity.
Its soundtrack is the singing and dancing feet of its membership.
Its hope comes from following alongside one who was wounded for our transgressions, for the people of this movement seek to take away the sinful practice of the world.
This movement offers sanctuary to those facing deportation.
This movement uses this grand old building as an incubator for more opportunities for doing good in the world.
This movement votes the values of love, justice, mercy and compassion.
This movement sustains others when they are down.
This movement seeks new partnerships with people that are seeking to break down barriers of division.
And so in the words of the worker’s anthem, we move together, sounding like a train, shosholoza, shosholoza. This train’s bound for glory.
And when we sing, we are joined with those who have gone before and those who will follow us. Together, we are a force that is more powerful than guns, more sustaining than oppressive policies. For together, we shall overcome someday.