Sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday of Lent (6 March 2016 ) by Revd Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor

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12:00pm Doors open for sightseeing
12:30pm Eucharist
4:00pm Last entry for sightseeing
5:00pm Evening Prayer
5:30pm Cathedral closes

Sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday of Lent (6 March 2016 ) by Revd Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor

Canon Michael on a Saint for our Day - with a modern-day empty tomb

When we consider the word ‘martyr’ or ‘saint’, we think of people who have given their lives for their faith hundreds of years ago in an historic parallel universe that barely impinges on our own consciousness even if it may still nevertheless prick our conscience.

Janani Luwum who now features large in the Anglican Calendar of Holy Days and whose feast day is 17 February was Archbishop of Uganda not hundreds of years ago but only between 1968 and 1977 and, as we know, we are privileged to have in our midst his granddaughter Barbara who read the lesson for us earlier.

When I was at theological college at Westcott House in Cambridge 25 years ago, I read to Bishop Leslie Brown who lived there in retirement and whose sight was impaired. Bishop Leslie had been instrumental in establishing the United Church of South India and his success there in drawing together opposing interests and in diffusing tensions had made him an ideal candidate to be the first Archbishop of Uganda when the province was inaugurated there by Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher.

When he celebrated 40 years as a bishop in 1992, the University Church of Great St Mary’s gave him Edward Carpenter’s recently published biography of Geoffrey Fisher, a massive tome which he then asked me to read to him.

We didn’t get very far with many interjections from Bishop Leslie – ‘Oh, yes, I remember that!’ or ‘Oh, no, it wasn’t like that at all!’ and then off he’d go expanding many of the events recorded from his own personal perspective. 

But it was during the turning of those pages and the illumination of them by Leslie Brown that I learnt a great deal about the Church of Uganda and was to be deeply moved by the story of Janani Luwum.

Many of you will know of the volatile political situation in Uganda in the 60s and 70s under the dictatorship of Idi Amin. The military regime of that time exercised government in effect by terror and many Ugandans suffered murder, rape and extortion at the hands of soldiers whose actions were overlooked by the Government. 

Since earliest times, the Christian Church has had a central role in saying things which the authorities have not wanted to hear.

It was one of the principal charges against Jesus himself and against his apostles and so it has continued down the years of faith with the Church a thorn in the flesh, speaking on behalf of the poor and the oppressed. 

And so, in time, the baton was handed to Janani Luwum and he took it up with a strength of purpose and a courageous tenacity which his serenity and his humour belied. 

He was the son of a man who was the first of his tribe, the Acholi tribe, to become a Christian who took on the care of a small congregation as a catechist. His father was poor and his children couldn’t go to school although eventually Janani managed to get to primary school where he excelled. 

When he reached maturity, he earned a little money as an unlicensed teacher in an unregistered school and saved up enough to go to teacher training college. Having passed his exams, he felt called to the ministry and was accepted and ordained deacon in 1955.

He was rapidly given responsibilities as his gifts were recognised by the Church, He became Provincial Secretary of the Church of Uganda and was one of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s consultants at the 1968 Lambeth Conference and soon after he was elected Bishop of Northern Uganda and then in 1974 Archbishop of Uganda.

Back in Cambridge in 1992, Bishop Leslie Brown remembered speaking to Luwum at an Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Trinidad in 1976. By this time, the situation under Idid Amin was well known around the world and Bishop Leslie asked Luwum about the reported atrocities. 

Luwum’s response is important for the way in which he maintained a steady perspective and for his insistence that calm was essential. He told Brown that a military regime could not be judged by the standards of a democratic government. ‘Don’t be worried,’ he said. ‘God is in control. One thing is clear. The Church must not compromise truth. Perhaps some of us may be killed, but it is all right. We are in God’s hands.’

It wasn’t many months later in the early part of 1977 that the bishops in Uganda sent a careful and restrained statement to Idi Amin calling for an end to the violence which was being perpetrated against ordinary law-abiding citizens and asking Amin to control his security forces. This letter, written in a tone characteristic of Luwum’s serenity and grace, already evoking the calmness of Jesus in the garden at his arrest, was seen by the authorities as a tantamount to treason. 

All the bishops were summoned to the army headquarters at a sports stadium in Kampala. They chose to wear their purple cassock and pectoral crosses as symbols of what they represented. What followed was an attempt to punish these ‘turbulent priests’ for their opposition to Amin and it had fatal results. The bishops were made to stand in the presence of specially invited individuals, including the press, in the blazing hot sun with their heads uncovered for over two hours while speeches were made about the importance of loyalty to the government and the need for stability. No doubt something was said about bishops interfering in politics.

Do not be afraid. I see God’s hand in this

Later, the bishops were made to wait in a room together – supposedly for orders to see Amin. Eventually Luwum alone was summoned by two soldiers. Two of the other bishops tried to go with him but were pushed out of the way with the soldiers’ rifle butts. Luwum turned to them and said, ‘Do not be afraid. I see God’s hand in this.’ One can almost imagine him turning back to the soldiers and saying. ‘What you have to do, do quickly.’ He knew what was about to happen since it was later discovered that he had said as much to Erica Sabiti whom Luwum had succeeded as Archbishop, Sabiti himself having succeeded Leslie Brown.

Luwum was stripped and interrogated and thrown into a prison cell, already holding about forty prisoners. As he was chucked on the floor in the cell, with just his underwear on, one of the other prisoners recognised him and said, ‘Archbishop, will you pray for us and give us your blessing?’ And then an extraordinary thing happened. The soldiers who had just deposited Luwum on the floor dragged him out of the cell again and replaced his cassock and pectoral cross, and then he prayed with the prisoners. 

The man who had recognised him met Leslie Brown some years later and told him that the most remarkable thing about that moment was the incredible hush that descended on the room. A great calm and peace came to them all and their despair lifted. But, at the same time, the man noticed blood on the Archbishop’s cassock. And this was the blood which was to draw together different denominations of Christians in Uganda and send them forward with renewed hope and confidence, as we’ll see.

Subsequently, the Archbishop was taken out and shot dead by soldiers still wearing his cassock. Bishop Leslie recalled a nurse who he met later who said that she had been the first to see the Archbishop’s body during a brief moment at the mortuary when the soldiers guarding it were changing over. And she remarked on the peace with which she was filled as she looked at his face and saw his blood-stained cassock – the peace and the violence both seemingly at odds with each other like the great contradiction of the cross which we look towards this Lent.

The story of Janani Luwum doesn’t end with his death, however. The funeral service was to have taken place at the Cathedral in Kampala the following Sunday and a vast crowds gathered there for it. A tomb was dug next to the tomb of James Hannington, himself martyred in 1885, but the Government refused to release Luwum’s body. The service went ahead, however, and the crowds sang inside the Cathedral, joined by those outside who were staring down into the empty tomb. 

And it was the former Archbishop, Erica Sabiti, who held up his hand and, in strong and moving words, turned the people’s thoughts in the direction in which our thoughts are turned this and every Lent. He cried, ‘What does that empty grave remind us of, but that other tomb in Jerusalem? Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here; he is alive. Janani is alive with the Lord. He went straight to heaven. Why bother about the body? There is the empty grave. The Church will continue: we may go but the Church will go on. Be of good courage!’

Our Church rests upon the promise that hope can be found in despair. The empty tomb is the enduring symbol of that promise and of that hope. As the people sang next to the empty tomb in Kampala that day, the sound of their voices was heard far around and many people came up the hill to join them, from other denominations – to stand alongside the Anglicans. 

The Church of Uganda was given renewed hope and confidence in the life and martyrdom of Janani Luwum. His effigy above the entrance to Westminster Abbey, not far from here, and his recent inclusion in the Calendar of Holy Days, and his story told here at St Paul’s this evening, keeps the rumour of God alive by proving that the world needs the Christ-like in our midst – yesterday, today and for ever.