Sermon preached on the Third Sunday of Lent (28 February 2016 ) by Revd Canon Mark Oakley, Chancellor

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12:30pm Eucharist
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5:00pm Evening Prayer
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Sermon preached on the Third Sunday of Lent (28 February 2016 ) by Revd Canon Mark Oakley, Chancellor

When Canon Mark grows up, he wants to be just a little like bit like his Saint for our Day - Desmond Tutu 

There was a Victorian bishop here in England who wrote an unusual will. It was very short and he wrote it in verse and he asked that it be read out to all of his clergy on his death. It said: ‘Tell my priests when I am gone, o’er me to shed no tears. For I shall be no deader then, than they have been for years’.  

Now it is no great secret that not all clergy are exactly fireflies in the dark night of the world. One British comedian used to start their variety act with the words: I don’t feel well today, in fact I feel as limp as a vicar’s handshake.

But, my goodness, the man I want to praise today is no listless or saggy priest. He is a firefly, with a volcano for a soul, a whirl of energy which, when it comes into the room, you don’t quite know what’s hit you.

In the summer I was in San Francisco and I visited the church of St Gregory of Nyssa. Inside the church around the walls are painted icons of 100 saints and friends of God’s justice. They are not all Christian and some are surprising. They range from Dante to Anne Frank, from Malcom X to William Byrd, from Ella Fitzgerald to Mary Magdalene: and they are linked up in a great dance together, dancing in tune with heaven and each other. All of them have halos except one – Desmond Mpilo Tutu.

This is not because he’s not as holy as the others. It’s because he is the only saint depicted on the walls there who is still alive. He’s there already. It’s as if, and if you know him you’ll know how this is believable, he couldn’t stay out of the dance. He had to get on the floor, join in and get down. He loves a party. 

Now of course, at 85 years old Tutu is retired but like a helium balloon it's hard to keep him down.

His is an extraordinary life. Born in the Transvaal in the apartheid era to a teacher and a cook, his family moved to Johannesburg and it was here that he met Trevor Huddleston who was at the time a parish priest in the black slum of Sophiatown.

‘One day’, says Tutu, ‘I was standing in the street with my mother when a white man in a priest’s clothing walked past. As he passed he took off his hat to my mother. I couldn’t believe my eyes – a white man who greeted a black working class woman!’

Tutu wanted to be a doctor but his family couldn’t afford the training and he followed his father into teaching but was eventually ordained as an Anglican priest in 1961, inspired by Huddleston, and came the following year to study down the road at King’s college London and work as a part-time curate in Golders Green.

He returned to South Africa in 1975 where he moved into his house on VilaKazi street in Soweto, the street where Nelson Mandela used to live, and consequently one of the few streets in the world where two Nobel Prize winners have lived.

In the church he moved from Dean of Johannesburg to Bishop of Lesotho, Bishop of Johannesburg and then Archbishop of Capetown. And this series of sermons asks us to look at saints for our times, those who have kept the rumour of God alive on the face of this earth, and for me Tutu is high up there as a man whose faith has been courageous, outspoken, resilient, unapologetic but generous, liberating, attractive and who let his faith in Jesus Christ fire him up into both fight and fun so that the world really has been changed by it. So, briefly why is he my inspiration today?

First, there is that faith.

He has joked that when the English colonials arrived in Africa they had the Bible and the Africans had the land. The English said ‘let us pray’ and, he says, they closed their eyes and when they opened them the Africans had the Bible and the English had the land. They like to say the sun never sets on their empire but that’s only because God doesn’t trust them in the dark.

But Tutu, acknowledging gratefully too, much of what was brought to their shores educationally and so on, also says that it was a dangerous thing to do to give them the Bible because the Bible is a book about fighting oppression, about a God who isn’t neutral but who is a biased God, biased in favour of the weak, the oppressed, the downtrodden and the despised.

If you don’t see that, he says, you are not reading the Bible but your own agenda. His is a faith that believes that saints always have a past and sinners always have a future, that a life of grace is always giving more than you owe and receiving more than you deserve. His faith is rooted in a biased, liberating, passionate God of mercy.

And wherever he has been on his travels he always asks for some bread and wine to celebrate each day this God who is in communion with everyone, longing for their freedom. Once on a plane as he asked for the bread the helpful cabin crew asked if he’d like some butter with it. Well you can’t butter up God and ignore the truth that ‘He took the side of the slaves, the victims.

He is still the same even today, he sides with the poor, the hungry, the oppressed and victims of injustice’. You may be sitting in a garage but it doesn’t make you a car. You may be sitting in a church but it doesn’t make you a Christian if you fail to see the God whom we worship can’t help but step in on the side of those who are suffering and demands we do the same. Only then can we dare to say that we meet in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Secondly, there is that courage.

In 1976 the protests in Soweto against the government’s use of Afrikaans as the compulsory language of instruction in black schools became an uprising against apartheid. From then on Tutu took a lead, supporting an economic boycott of his country, advocating non-violent protest, though comparing apartheid to Nazism, and so consequently had his passport revoked twice and was briefly jailed. When he brought his mother to London once they would stop a London policeman for directions even when they knew where they were going just, he says, for the novelty of having a police officer, a white police officer, speak to them courteously addressing them as sir or madam.

His belief is strong: people are beautiful because each is made in the image of God and that therefore to hate, imprison or discriminate is, as he calls it, spitting in the face of God. To degrade the dignity God places in every one of us is blasphemy. So where this happens the people of God must claim it back and free the injured. His bravery seemed to know no boundaries. ‘I want the government to know’, he wrote to them, ‘now and always that I do not fear them. They are trying to defend the utterly indefensible, and they will fail. They will fail because they are ranging themselves on the side of evil and injustice against the church of God.

Like others who have done that in the past – the Neros, the Hitlers, the Idi Amins of this world – they will end up as the flotsam and jetsam of history.

His heading up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, based on the concept of restorative rather than retributive justice, was also rooted in his belief in subsequent reconciliation being the work of God too. Tutu remains controversial into our own day because of the comparisons he sees between apartheid and other injustices. He is outspoken about Israel/Palestine, climate change, China/Tibet, about poverty, HIV/AIDS, cooperation amongst the world’s faiths (God is not a Christian he reminds us), women’s rights, family planning and assisted dying.

He has taken a lead for LGBT people too saying a couple of years ago: ‘I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place. I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this. I am as passionate about this campaign as I ever was about apartheid. For me, it is at the same level.’ You can imagine that many condemn him as being well on his way to the other place for saying this.

But I, along with many others, remain profoundly grateful for his vision for those of us who are LGBT at this time in the Church. Like Jacob’s ladder, it feels as if the messengers of God are in conversation with the earth. St Augustine said that Hope has two beautiful daughters: anger, at the ways things are, and courage, to put them right.

Finally there is his humour.

Last week Canon Tricia played a Dolly Parton song here and I wanted to play a clip of Tutu laughing. It is so infectious but all the clips are too long because once he starts he never stops. In one talk he tells a joke about Mary and Joseph getting to the stable. Joseph bangs on the door and asks ‘please, please let us in, my wife is pregnant’. ‘That’s not my fault’, says the inn keeper. ‘And it’s not mine either’ says Joseph. Tutu then starts giggling, and then shrieking and belly laughing with tears down his cheeks. I defy any of you not to join in.

And that’s it I think…he wants us all to join in, and laughter helps. He wants us all to join in, be part of, church and society. It was he after all that coined the term ‘the rainbow people of God’. He doesn’t want some people to be tolerated. You tolerate haemorrhoids, you don’t tolerate a child of God made in God’s image, you reverence them and celebrate them, making sure you and they live together peaceably. If God is in communion with everyone so should we be even if we must fight ideas and actions that work against this. As he says, my humanity is bound up with yours and we can only be human together.

So, when I grow up I want to be just a little bit like Desmond Tutu.

To have just a bit of his faith, his courage, his laughter and that contagious joy. In some ways we are seeing at the moment that when the Church lives in a cold climate, when people wonder what on earth we are for, the Church can get introverted and self-obsessed. But Tutu teaches us that our faith is not just for us it is to change lives.

Our faith is not to save us from the world. It is for the world.

This means being brave, even when you don’t feel brave, and speaking honestly, passionately, truthfully. It often means being political when people tell you that you shouldn’t be. It means understanding that Christian spirituality is about standing up for other people - seeing human beings as beautiful. And Tutu teaches us in all this not to take ourselves too seriously, not to let the cause of righteousness make us self-righteous but to laugh, surrender, lay down ourselves before God’s mystery and know that no matter how big your head can get at times we are all very small and limited and wrong in the light of eternity.

He once said to his close friend the Dalai Lama as they made their way to a press conference; ‘the camera's on us; for goodness sake try to behave like a holy person’.

Nelson Mandela described Tutu as ‘sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid and seldom without humour. His voice’, he said, ‘will always be the voice of the voiceless’. And if that isn’t a saint for our day then I don’t know what is.