Believing (with Nelson Mandela)

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Mandela Memorial in Howick, South Africa

A sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 21, 2013.  The lectionary readings are Genesis 18:1-10a, Psalm 15, Colossians 1:15-28, and Luke 10:38-42.

When you’ve worked at something so hard, worked every angle, exerted all possible effort, and there’s nothing else to be done, what do you do?  You’ve given it your all—muscle, know-how, the help of others, and yet…. nothing.  The result just doesn’t happen.  You’re stuck.

Where, then, do you go?  Where do you go emotionally?  Where do you go spiritually?

Or, perhaps you’re not the active type.  You’re more contemplative.  You think, and meditate.  You pray.  You pray hard, formally and informally.  You pray in quiet, in words, in music, in church, and in nature.  You visit holy places, light candles, and receive Communion until you’re full. And yet, you’re still empty.  Prayer isn’t working and God seems to be busy with other business.  And you’re stuck.

Where, then, do you go?  Where do you go emotionally?  Where do you go spiritually?

To try to answer that question, I first need to relay a story—even before we look at the scriptures.

In this week after the Zimmerman trial and with all the questions lingering over the killing of Trayvon Martin, Dr. John Silvanus Wilson, Jr. has been asked for his thoughts and opinions.  Wilson is the president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, head of that famous all-male, private, historically black college.  When asked for his thoughts, Wilson responds to the issues of the day, but he does so based on something that happened a little over ten years ago.  In 1992, he was able to meet Nelson Mandela.  And so in this difficult week of confusion and anger out of Florida and beyond, many around the world have also been celebrating the 95th birthday of Mandela with works of justice, action, and purpose.  Wilson manages to bring all of this together as he remembers Mandela’s words, words he’s never forgotten.

As Dr. Wilson and some others spent a little time with Mandela, they soaked it all in, listening and talking some.  After a while, Wilson says he felt comfortable enough to ask that a lot of people might like to ask Nelson Mandela.  He asked him, “What kept you strong through 27 years in prison…”  [What kept you strong through] four [years] in solitary confinement?”  Dr. Wilson remembers, “…[H]e looked me in the eye and he said, ‘I believe.’

“And, you know, there was a pregnant pause, and I wanted to say, you believe what? And he interrupted me.  He just asserted, ‘I believe.’”  Wilson goes on to say, “It kind of shook me. It was … profound. It was a very deep kind of communication. And that has affected me ever since, that there’s a place that is deeper that we can go in our religion, in our spirituality, in our belief that rarely, rarely do we go there. Very few of us get there in life.”  [From an interview with Michelle Martin, “Tell Me More,” heard on NPR, Thursday, July 18, 2013.]

Wilson is describing a place Mandela found.  Not a physical place, but a spiritual one.  It’s not boxed neatly in any particular dogma or denomination, any one set of beliefs or traditions, though the place Mandela has found is informed by religion and respectful of religion.  But whether Mandela was making that huge decision to about supporting the national (white) South African rugby team in 1995 (which you know all about if you’ve read the book or seen the movie, Invictus), or whether Mandela is forgiving his captors,  counseling the youth who are so eager for change, or helping the country to figure out how to move forward—Mandela sounds like he’s speaking from another place, thinking from another place, praying from some other place.

The spiritual place Mandela goes and operates out of is a place visited and inhabited by saints of every age.  Yes the famous saints have been there, but also the more homey saints some of us have known—the grandmothers and grandfather, the shopkeepers, and farmers, and dockworkers… all kinds of people in every age have also found this spiritual place from which they can make decisions, respond to the world, and maintain an almost surreal serenity.

This spiritual place was especially mapped and charted by an anonymous 14th century writer who, in order to talk about this higher, better spiritual place, uses Martha and Mary to help explain.

This 14th century author suggests that Martha and Mary stand for two great approaches or tendencies or character sets that God uses within us to be bring us closer to God.  Martha symbolizes those people who are primarily active in their faith.  They do things.  They accomplish things.  They march and protest.  They write letters and launch campaigns.  The make things happen.  They represent the active spiritual life.

Mary represents the contemplatives.  She gazes and prays. She takes all things in and watches.  She’s slower, but often deeper.

Martha is doing good work.  Obviously someone needs to do what she’s doing, and Jesus doesn’t really criticize her.  He doesn’t tell Martha to stop. (After all, Jesus wants to eat, as much as anyone and knows that it’s not going to happen unless Martha gets busy.)   But Jesus does point out that, of the two, Mary has chosen “the better part.”

Martha, according to the 14th century author, in doing her good work, is choosing what could be thought of as a kind of “first part.”  But Mary is doing something slightly better by pausing and contemplating.  Jesus calls this “better part,” which the author says could be thought of as the  “second part.”  But our author imagines a third part. This third part of the two lives of Martha and Mary is a “cloud of unknowing.”  And this is the best of all. This third, higher part “is wholly caught up in darkness…[it is a] cloud of unknowing, with an outreaching love and a blind groping for the naked being of God,” God and God only. [Cloud of Unknowing, chapter 8].

The “cloud of unknowing” is a place of forgetting oneself, one’s own agenda, both one’s business and one’s prayer list.  It’s a place of falling in the arms of God and just being there, in the presence that might be absence, in the light that might be dark, and in the closeness that might feel more like infinite distance.  But belief takes one there.

Abraham and Sarah get to this place—this place beyond their wildest imagining.  It’s a place beyond their expectations or hopes.  When Sarah first hears God’s plans for her life, she laughs.  Abraham thinks he’s misheard God. But by believing, Abraham and Sarah reach a new place—a place in which the three strangers are recognized as angels, a place in which simple food from the cupboard is transformed into a holy communion, and a place in which what was barren is given new life.

Mary and Martha, over time, seem to reach this place, as well.  They watch Jesus come and go through their lives.  One brings her busyness to God and has it consecrated.  The other brings her contemplation to God and has it blessed.  They believe and from that place beyond the place of their own striving, they seen their brother Lazarus raised from the dead.

Belief is what kept Nelson Mandela going.  I love that he doesn’t define that belief.  It’s beyond definition for him, but it has transformed him.  Though he was in prison, he was, at some level, NOT in prison.  Though he was a victim, at some level he was NOBODY’s victim.  Even now, though he approaches death to this world, belief enables him already to be in another place.

To live out of this cloud of unknowing doesn’t mean one moves around floating above the ground or dreamy-eyed and ineffective.  But knowing that there is a place beyond us, a refuge, gives us strength for our work, power in our purpose, content and texture and sense to our prayers.  “To believe” is to live leaning forward, looking for God, going with God.

Back in the fall, when we first began thinking about this month, who’d have thought we could rally so much fun and faith to offer this music festival?  Several years ago, when we first began seriously to meet and plan around accessibility in our building, who’d have thought that this weekend, our vestry would be finalizing a contract with the builder and we’d be looking a construction in a month or so?

Who’d have thought Allison and Ryan would be here today, baptizing Michael?  Who’d have thought seventeen years ago when Bob and Bill met, that they’d be celebrating a marriage this afternoon on their eighteenth anniversary?

Not many of us may ever know the kind of belief that allowed Nelson Mandela to make through prison and beyond. But belief of depth, connection to a higher place, can move us and our world in ways we can barely imagine.  How will our nation ever come to grips with race and class and issues of individual versus community rights?  How will we figure out immigration?  How will we lift up the poor, the hungry, the forgotten?    And add to this all the individual questions we bring to God both through our work and our wavering faith—the answer lies somewhere in a cloud of unknowing, a place where belief takes over and allows us to open our eyes one more day, to open our hearts again, and believe. When my belief falters, I’ll lean on yours.  And when yours in shaky, chances are good that mine will be strong enough for you to lean this way.  And that’s how we do it.

The Collect of the Day reminds us that God “knows our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking.” God invites us through belief into a cloud of care, a cloud of unknowing, and a cloud that wraps and enfolds us in love unending.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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