Sermon for Ash Wednesday 7 March 2019
Revd Caroline Risdon at Old Royal Naval College
Despite the fact that I talk about being a South African a lot; it’s not often I get to speak about my experience of the end of Apartheid. I was 10 when Nelson Mandela walked out of prison and 14 when South Africa held its’ first general election. I can remember seeing the news reports of seeming endless numbers of people queuing patiently, joyfully, for their turn to finally cast a vote. I remember hearing Nelson Mandela on the radio as he addressed us for the first time as our President. It’s hard to put into words the euphoria of that time- the wave of hopefulness that carried us from one oppressive regime to a new era of freedom and equality.
Of course there was negativity and criticism- things did not change overnight, nor in fact did the plight of the millions living in poverty change at all. The colour of skin of the person holding office; the liberties afforded people by their new constitution cannot alone change the structures that have created and reinforced systemic and systematic injustice. South Africa lives with this even today.
Yet for me, that precious time allowed me to witness the true depths of human resilience and of our capacity to forgive.
Little wonder then that today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah is for me a stirring mandate of our collective mission in the world. “Is this not the fast that I choose; to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”
In the South African context, it is easy to think of the end of Apartheid as releasing the black captives and letting the oppressed black population go free. Certainly, the vast majority of my country’s people are black and had not been at liberty to lead full lives. What was so liberating about the end of Apartheid though was that all of us were set free. Those who had been so blinded by the colour of a person’s skin where able to recover their sight- to see and recognise a whole person for who they were.
I try to read virtually anything written by Archbishop Emmeritus Desmond Tutu and in one book he shared this story. He had visited a neighbouring African country and was seated on an aircraft to fly back to South Africa. It was the host country’s national airline carrier and Tutu recalls being thrilled to see all the staff members were people who looked like him; it was such an unusual experience. But then the Captain addressed the passengers and introduced the co-pilot- both black men. To Tutu’s horror he realised that there were no senior white people on board and his first thought was ‘What will we do if we get into trouble?’
This is how deeply a system like Apartheid can hold people in bondage. Even a man like Desmond Tutu, who has fought oppression all his life, was bound up by its narrative. “What are we going to do if a white man can’t save us?” And this is what I mean when I say we were all set free by the end of that regime. White people were always at the top of the Apartheid system. But as that system was based on the degradation of fellow human beings, it robbed us all of our full humanity. We were all set free.
It’s not often perhaps that we think of our Lenten fast or discipline as freedom. Largely we think of giving up something we enjoy. But if that is the means, what is the purpose? Are we really just giving up something to see how long we can keep going? What spiritual significance does giving up smoking or drinking or chocolate or biscuits really have? How are we closer to God by denying ourselves such seemingly insignificant things?
I’m purposely trying to challenge all of us out of our complacency. Many a time I’ve heard people say, “Oh, I always give up chocolate biscuits for Lent.” This is not taking advantage for the meaningful change that can come from a disciplined choice and observance over Lent.
If you want to do real spiritual work this Lent- what about learning more about God? You could attend the Old Testament course we are running from next week- learning more about God’s covenants and word and actions in the world. What about trying a new method of prayer or reading a book that deepens or challenges your faith? How about volunteering to help the most vulnerable in our society? If you do abstain from something, what about using the money saved to buy food for the foodbank?
The point of my story about the end of Apartheid was to show how easy it is for us to think of others as the poor, the oppressed, the captives. To show how automatically we think of ourselves as the free, the entitled, the ones in control. But that is simply not true. We are all in bondage- sometimes by our own thoughts and actions, sometimes by life circumstances, sometimes by the actions of others.
Lent is our time to consider all this. To fast from the things that bring a type of spiritual death. To make a disciplined and concerted effort to break the chains that bind us and our brothers and sisters. It is both an individual and collective act. Isaiah reassures us that if we make such an acceptable fast, then our lights shall rise in the darkness and we shall be called “repairers of the breach, and restorers of streets to live in.” So shall we be Ambassadors for Christ.