There are some Sundays when you wake up and realize that the sermon you prepared is not adequate for the day. Sometimes there is a hurricane, or a shooting, or an event so significant it cannot be ignored. This was one of those Sundays. Because I woke up to learn a great man and faithful Christian leader had passed away.
This morning, at the age of 90, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa left this world to claim his baptismal promise. Archbishop Tutu has been an inspiration to me and many other Christians for decades.
The 80s were a tumultuous time. We had the fall of the Berlin wall. I remember watching with amazement as an unknown young man stood in front of a tank all by himself in Tiananmen Square. And the racist policy of apartheid ravaged South Africa. The all-white Government controlled the population, a majority of which were not white.
The national party institutionalized racism, passing laws that enforced racial segregation. They controlled where black people could live and what jobs they could hold. Schools and other facilities were segregated. Contact between white people and Black people was limited. A black child could never grow up to be a pilot or hold public office.
Desmond Tutu’s family grew up Methodist but in time joined the Anglican church, 80% of which was black. He was moved to see the white Anglican priest tip his hat to his mother. He eventually became a priest.
Apartheid (apartness) was a scourge, Ann affront to the gospel. Some believe the church should never become involved in political issues. We should ignore and look the other way. Tutu understood the gospel, which never allows us to turn our backs on injustice and oppression. He knew the role of the prophets. This inspired me as a pastor-in-training.
By the time Tutu was Archbishop, everyone understood the country was headed for Civil War. Tutu was a man of peace. He believed the teachings of Jesus, to love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, and to turn the other cheek, rather than run away or resort to violence. We are prone to fight or flight, but the gospel calls us to a third way, to stand up to evil, without resorting to evil ourselves.
He would not resort to evil, but he would also not be silent in the face of injustice. He believed that religion was not the opiate of the people, but the powerful Word of God in the world.
He sang their hope. Tutu promised the people, “Freedom is coming!”
Trinity Seminary, Columbus, Ohio, 1984
In 1984 I was a financially-struggling theological student excited beyond description that Archbishop Desmond Tutu had been invited to come and speak at our seminary. I would get to hear him speak, and possibly even meet him.
Imagine our surprise when he won the Nobel Peace Prize. But we students were also sad, because we knew this meant his life was about to change, and it was unlikely he would come to a small seminary in Ohio to speak.
Imagine our surprise when we found out that he was going to keep his engagement at the seminary. The event, however, and the guest list shifted. Now the mayor was going to come, maybe the governor, bishops and other dignitaries. There was now a substantial charge for the dinner. The price was too steep for us poor seminary students and the guest list too tight for the small refectory.
We found a work around. We volunteered to set up, clean, serve and wash dishes in the kitchen and serve the dinner. We wore black pants, black ties, and white shirts, serving the dignitaries who are coming to hear the Archbishop speak. I was excited.
After the dinner had concluded, we retired to the kitchen to wash dishes while the dignitaries greeted the Archbishop. As I was washing a pot I heard a commotion behind me. I turned around to see a short South African Archbishop standing in the middle of our seminary kitchen. He went around to each one of us, shaking our hands, and thanking us with his infectious smile for being servants. This simple gesture of kindness to those of lowest degree in the room had a profound and lasting affect on me.
We then went out into the dining room where someone snapped a picture of all of us with a cheap Instamatic camera.
Due to the soulful work of many leaders, the policies of apartheid came to an end in the early 90s without Civil War.
When the ANC took office, Tutu did not stop his vocal criticism of injustice by the government. If anything it increased.
This morning death affected me profoundly. It is the end of an era.
I found myself wondering: Who are the Desmond Tutus of today? Who will be the Desmond Tutus of tomorrow? Who will hear the gospel call to tend to the least, the last, and the lost? Who will be the good Samaritans caring for the stranger by the road? Who will speak out against corruption as the prophets did? Who will be the faithful, who follow Christ into the world, even when the keepers of the status quo protest? Could it perhaps be you?
We have our own racism to deal with. Who will be our leaders?
Brothers and sisters in Christ, May the peace of Christ dwell in you richly this Christmas. May you know the power of Christ love in your life. Come, all ye faithful: live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.