Sitting in the cell with Madiba… Proper 11*

So this past Sunday I totally wrote my sermon on next week’s epistle (Romans 8:26-39), rather than the text assigned for the day. Whoops. I owned up to it before I began, I am thankful to be serving such a wonderful and understanding group of people.

Proper 11 – Sitting in the cell with Madiba

Calvary Episcopal Church

20 July 2014


This past Friday would have been Nelson Mandela’s 96th birthday; people around the world celebrated Mandela day. It was easy to miss this amongst the horrific news headlines; over 300 dead in the conflict between Israel and Hamas, 298 killed in the tragic attack on Malaysian flight 17, and ISIS continues its march across Iraq forcing the last Christians from the city of Mosul. Last December we were driving from Austin, Texas to my mom’s farm in Indiana on the day of Madiba’s funeral. Leaders from across the globe gathered to pay their respect to a man who changed the course of history. Without the leadership and witness of Madiba, Apartheid may still be the norm in South Africa.

Before his death I cannot recall hearing Nelson Mandela referred to as Madiba, but upon his death it was everywhere. Madiba was his family name; it was used in intimate circumstances, its use shows respect and affection.[1] It is a way of breaking down the barrier between such a giant of a human and us. Madiba. As I was driving and listening to the funeral on the BBC World Service, I remember thinking to myself that the world is worse off without Madiba. There are not many people who could spend almost thirty years in prison and emerge without hate. I do not know about you, but I find anger welling up inside of me during my drive home, as I think that each minute spent stuck at this stupid light is one less minute that I will spend with my family before the day is over.

As I look at the violence in our world, I long for the witness of a Madiba. Where is Madiba when we need him in Gaza? Where is Madiba when we need him in the Ukraine? Where is Madiba when we need him on the US/ Mexico border? 52,000 children have been caught crossing the border since last October. 52,000 and those are the ones who were caught. A short-lived ceasefire in Gaza has turned into a full on ground assault by the Israeli Defense Forces. A war begun when three children were murdered, then another was murdered in response, then rockets were fired, then even more rockets were fired, and then the tanks began their march. Women and children are not spared in this conflict. Last Thursday a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down as it flew over eastern Ukraine. 298 men, women, and children lost their lives and for what?

Many of those aboard were on their way to the International AIDS Society Conference. These people had dedicated their lives to serving others and to searching for a cure for a deadly disease. Yesterday morning I read a news story about a Christian community in Iraq that had been given until noon the next day to leave the area. I do not think I have to say what was going to happen to them if they did not leave. A community that has existed in this location for 1,700 years is now running for its life, praying for the day when peace will come and they can return to their home.

As I think about all of that, I want to crumble to the ground under the weight of the oppression of others, the oppression of our brothers and sisters across creation. With so much violence and hate in the world, I am not even sure how to pray. How do we keep hoping when faced with a world filled with such tragedies? If we can force ourselves to step back from the edge for just a moment to clear our minds of worry, and to listen for God, we can find a way forward. The curse of being blessed with so much power is that we forget from whence our power comes. Our power is not ours and it does not come from us. I imagine as Madiba sat in that isolated cell on Robben Island, that this confusion was made clearer for him. He had no power other than what God had given to him and he could do no good works other than those that God did through him.

Our dear Apostle Paul spent time in prison also. In his letter to the Romans he wrote words that are perfectly fitting for our situation this day. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”[2] In these moments when the world is too overwhelming for words to come, we cannot fear or lose heart. Our God will strengthen us in our weakness; the Spirit will intercede on our behalf. Now that does not mean that we can give up our prayer lives, it means that we must commit ourselves to prayer even more fully, but we must let go of the worry about praying in the correct way.

The act of coming to God in prayer is infinitely more important than the words that come forth from our lips. If all we can manage is a sigh, that is enough; the Spirit will give wings to our prayers. As we sit and bemoan the fact that we cannot affect the tumultuous times in this world, we must take comfort in the fact that God is with us in our pain. God weeps with us. God will never let us be separated from God’s love. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[3]

Before too long another prophet will rise from among our midst. Will God send Madiba back to us? Archbishop Tutu joked about this last week; “God has just called Madiba to say… ‘I am thinking seriously of sending you back there, but no, I’ve changed my mind. I won’t send you back because you have done wonderful work; because it’s not only in South Africa we are celebrating. It’s all over the world. And there is peace in places that know war.”[4] God may not send Madiba back to us, but God will send us a prophet in the mold of Madiba, in the mold of Paul, and greater yet God will send Jesus back to us.

Madiba spoke these words about Jesus at Easter in 1994.

“The Good News borne by our risen Messiah who chose not one race, who chose not one country, who chose not one language, who chose not one tribe, who chose all of humankind!

Each Easter marks the rebirth of our faith. It marks the victory of our risen Saviour over the torture of the cross and the grave.

Our Messiah, who came to us in the form of a mortal man, but who by his suffering and crucifixion attained immortality.

Our Messiah, born like an outcast in a stable, and executed like a criminal on the cross.

Our Messiah, whose life bears testimony to the truth that there is no shame in poverty: Those who should be ashamed are they who impoverish others.

Whose life testifies to the truth that there is no shame in being persecuted: Those who should be ashamed are they who persecute others.

Whose life proclaims the truth that there is no shame in being conquered: Those who should be ashamed are they who conquer others.

Whose life testifies to the truth that there is no shame in being dispossessed: Those who should be ashamed are they who dispossess others.

Whose life testifies to the truth that there is no shame in being oppressed: Those who should be ashamed are they who oppress others.”[5]

Madiba and Paul both spoke wonderful words that can motivate and encourage, but there were more instances where they sighed the same sighs of frustration that we do. Where they had nothing more to offer to God than their being and their willingness to be with God. Take heart in this. God asks and expects nothing more from us than ourselves, which is at its heart the most powerful thing that we can offer. Even in those moments of utter despair we are never alone; we are in the same cell as Madiba, the same cell as Paul, and Christ’s love is always with us.


[1] “Why is Nelson Mandela Called Madiba?” USA Today,, accessed 19 July 2014.

[2] Romans 8:26-27 NRSV.

[3] Romans 8:31 NRSV.

[4] “Mandela Looking Down on Earth – Desmond Tutu.” The Citizen,, accessed 19 July 2014.

[5] “Nelson Mandela and His Faith.” Christian Today,, accessed 19 July 2014.


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