The Freedom of Forgiveness
To read the lessons appointed for this day, click here.
Text: Matthew 3:2: “This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness...”
The images in the readings today are of the Tree of Jesse, an old idea deeply written into our own Jewish ancestry, and my plan this morning had been to speak to Jesse and that old and fertile idea of his family tree.
But once in a while—once in a great while—the world breaks in in such a way that you need to play the hand you’ve been dealt, and this is one of those Sundays. And so the title of this sermon is not as indicated in your leaflet. Instead this is a sermon under the title “The Freedom of Forgiveness,” and it is on that marvelous line from Isaiah, quoted in our listening this morning by the evangelist Matthew: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness.”
Of course I am speaking about the death of Nelson Mandela late on Thursday. None of us will be able to escape the torrent of words said about him and in commendation of him in the week to come, and I do not pretend this morning to add to them in any substantial or unique way. But there is something about this remarkable man’s passing that I think we must take account of in a Christian church in the early years of the twenty-first century.
I want to be clear about why we do this. We don’t take note of Nelson Mandela’s passing because he was a president, or even because he was a prisoner. We don’t take note of him because he was a great leader of the church, because quite simply he was not; in fact Mandela’s memoir contains a trenchant critique of the collaboration of many of South Africa’s churches with the institution of apartheid and the white supremacist governments that depended on it for power.
Nelson Mandela was a highly accomplished, highly influential figure in one of the most significant world-historical movements in our lifetimes—the final undoing of any shred of legitimacy to a politics based on race. He not only saw the truth of the evils of such a regime, he not only proclaimed with great courage and at great cost, but to him goes as well the credit for forging out of that horror a new government with at least the opportunity of genuine legitimacy in the eyes of its own people.
Mandela was an accomplished, courageous, bold, complicated man. But none of that is a reason for us to remember him.
• • •
The reading we heard this morning from Isaiah, that beautiful description of the peaceable kingdom, all of that seems like an impossible dream in our world of conflict and contention. It’s meant to have exactly that effect on us; it’s meant to strike us as not just lovely, but impossible. It is a world in which the insoluble conflicts of this world, the fundamental struggles between predator and prey, between powerful and powerless, are not just ended—they are utterly transformed. Things that were impossible have become possible.
This doesn’t happen by accident, and it doesn’t happen by chance. It happens because something comes and changes the whole situation.
For Isaiah what happens is the restoration of Israel’s place as a nation among nations, a people gathered together under its own king—a continuation of the kingship of David, the first great king of Israel, the beloved and youngest son of Jesse.
For Paul what happens is the coming of Jesus Christ, who breaks down the barrier between the chosen people of Israel and the outsiders, the Gentiles, showing that God has acted to be reconciled to all people.
And for us what happens is the single most important message of the Christian revelation—that God is love, that love is more powerful than hate, and that the means by which love conquers, the way reconciliation happens, is by the audacious act of forgiveness.
It is only forgiveness that wields the power to transform what is disordered into something that conforms with God’s dream for us. It is only forgiveness that holds the potential to unlock possibilities in human relationships that are believed to be impossible. And it is only forgiveness that has the strength to break down the prisons of hate that we build for ourselves in inventing reasons to hate and suspect others.
• • •
If there is a single supreme Christian discipline, it is surely the discipline of forgiveness—and forgiveness is a discipline. It is not something that comes to us naturally, at least not the costly kind-—not the kind that has the power to change anything.
So as we prepare for the coming of the child who will change everything, the little child who will proclaim the good news to the captives and defeat the love of power with the power of love, it is entirely fitting that as part of our preparations we should reflect on the lessons of Nelson Mandela’s life.
History would have forgiven him translating the authority of his unjust imprisonment into an exercise of political leadership dedicated to the proposition, and the practice, of revenge against those who led the cruel and repressive regime that had taken nearly thirty years of life away from him, and snuffed out the lives of so many more.
But Mandela chose no such path. The government of national reconciliation that he created upon his election included some of the very leaders who had enforced the laws that jailed him. Instead of persecuting his persecutors, he gave substance and power to the search for truth and reconciliation.
Nelson Mandela not only expressed forgiveness, but he lived it out—and what is more, he shaped a social norm for forgiveness that made harmony and unity possible in a society once bitterly divided by the legacy of hatred and injustice.
Accomplishing this also came at cost, as any genuine act of forgiveness has a cost. We now have an image of Mandela sanitized for inclusion in the pantheon of moral leadership, but many in his own land—even many of his own people-—suspected him as a compromiser, a leader of weak resolve, or worse. That is all now forgotten; but in the hard and heavy days of shaping a new South Africa it was a constant refrain. Forgiveness is a discipline, and it is not one that wins anyone universal admiration.
Some of you may have heard former President Clinton recall this past week a conversation he had with Mandela after both had retired from political life.
Clinton asked him, “When you were finally leaving that prison, didn’t you hate them all over again?”
Mandela’s answer was by no means angelic. “Absolutely I did, because they had imprisoned me for so long. I was abused. I didn’t get to see my children grow up. I lost my marriage and the best years of my life. I was angry. And I was afraid, because I had not been free in so long. But as I got closer to the car that would take me away, I realized that when I went through that gate, if I still hated them, they would still have me. I wanted to be free. And so I let it go.”
Forgiveness is a discipline. But it is not only a discipline in the interest of others. It is ultimately a self-interested discipline, because it is the means by which we secure our own freedom—our freedom from hate, our freedom from suspicion, our freedom from separateness and division, our freedom from fear.
I’ll end with words from Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela’s own autobiography, part of his concluding chapter.
“I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Nelson Mandela lived a life of forgiveness, that most Christian of disciplines, in a way perhaps more significant, more profound, than any single other human of our day. And that is why, no matter what else history may make of him, it is right that we in the church should give thanks for the example of his life in our own time of preparation, as we make ready to receive the little child who comes to teach us to love, and to lead us into the ways of peace. Amen.