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faith & spirituality | legacies

Nelson Mandala and the Resurrection

Babylon, captivity and estrangement is not only a placein the ancient orient.. Those who wait for God can expect something other than the law of the stronger that evconomizes away the weakest.. God gives us strength for the years in Babylon, a strength that breaks the stone.

By Barbel Wartenberg-Potter

[This sermon delivered on April 7, 2002 in the Berlin cathedral is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  link to www.berliner-dom.de.. Barbel Wartenberg-Potter is a bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North Elbe, Germany.]

Isaiah 40,26-31

Lift up your eyes on high and see:
who created these stars?
He who brings out their host by number,
calling them all by name;
by the greatness of his might,
and because he is strong in power
not one is missing..
Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel,
"My way is hid from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God"?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary,
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

In the name of the Resurrected Lord, peace be with you.

Dear community.

When the gates of the prison in Cape town, South Africa opened on February 11, 1990 and a man left the prison after 27 years of humiliation and the most severe incarceration, the eyes of the world were focused on this man. My husband and I sat in Jamaica before the television - thanks to CNN - and stared at the locked prison gates from which an older Nelson Mandela emerged. Upright, free and unbound, he set out in freedom acclaimed by people in all parts of the world who had prayed, worked, demonstrated, argued and boycotted for his release.

This was a resurrection of a particular kind. With Nelson Mandela, all the many victims and martyrs were alive who gave their lives in the struggle against racism and injustice: Steve Biko, Mapella Mohapi, Ruth First, Richard Turner and many others, nameless and known, young and old, black and white.

The man who held out thousands of bleak days and nights without perspective was full of hope and perspective for a new South Africa, for reconciliation and cooperation of the races worthy of human beings. Many times he was asked: what is the source of your strength? Why aren't you full of hatred and revenge? How are you a free, perhaps the freest person under the sun since death and the devil could not drag you to the brink of ruin?

Mandela did not answer these questions; he only told stories. "The greatness of the moment," he said, " is often lost in the thousand details." On the morning of his release, he did his gym exercises, washed, dressed, saw the doctor and made a telephone call. He was not an explicitly pious man. Still his life is an answer to the question: What does Easter mean? - Overcoming the power of death. The good and just life that God gives to us is never lost. Easter means believing that God since that first Easter always proves stronger than all the powers of death, hatred, racism, revenge and violence.

We know this from our own experience and through many witnesses. Often experiences on the edge bring us very near to God.

The prophet Isaiah speaks about this, the captivity of a whole people, the humiliation that he shared, the people of Israel dragged in chains to Babylon 600 years before Christ's birth. The temple in Jerusalem, God's dwelling place, was in ashes. Babylon's star gods were apparently stronger than Israel's God. Laughing and singing vanished from the Israelites in the 40 years of captivity. The anxious question arose: "Where is God's strength that delivered our ancestors from Egypt? Will not or cannot God liberate any more?"

Babylon with its captivity and estrangement is not only a place in the ancient orient. It is also the experience that every person can have in normal life today, living in the midst of one's culture and society and yet not of them, no longer agreeing with what is "in," with the majorities and constantly opposing those monopolizing the right to join in the conversation. Babylon is the absence of the God of justice and love, the rule of other gods who know nothing of mercy and humanliness.

Martin Luther also knew about Babylon when he spoke of the Babylonian captivity of the church where he no longer felt at home and sharply attacked its estranged use of the sacraments.

Dear sisters and brothers, we are not in captivity here. Our leaders are not in chains and we can hold church services. And yet we are also strangely in need of comfort. Too many in our midst are aggressive or sullen, frenzied, plagued with stress and resigned to short-lived joys.

Where do we gain strength for life, courage for the future and joy in God's world?

With our whole life changed into a single market, we wander around in the supermarket of offers and hear the barkers promising us strength:

Strength for life is an attractive offer for youths and persons striving for success. Incessant offers on billboards and tracts promise God's assistance as a recipe for success and advancement, a message that fits very well in the world of globalization. Only arbitrary higher powers seem to decide who are the "winners" and "losers." No message comes to the relegated team.

The power on the stock exchange is the power to buy and sell. Day after day we are encouraged through the omnipresent stock market reports. Through the stock market, one participates in a worldwide game of chance not controlled by any democratic forces that can drag the poor of the world to the abyss through no fault of their own from today to tomorrow.

The promise of power of revived military strength that stylize military intervention as a panacea against terrorism are very striking where a world domestic policy and fair trade could be sought and a more just globalization and nonviolent conflict prevention promoted.

Those who wait on God receive new strength. God gives power to the faint and increases strength to him who has no might, Isaiah says.

We live in Easter time. The God of the good, true, just and eternal life is the source of our strength. The God of Jesus Christ who will not crush the bruised reed makes a person mocked and beaten to death. A "loser," into a "winner" as is said today.

The story of the perseverance of love is told, not a glittering success story.

No magical rituals and no religious efforts occur. There are very different ways that connect us to God's sources of power:

He stars that were bearers of fate to many people as in Babylon have another meaning. They are proof of the divine creative power. A mother sings the little song to her child at night: "Do you know how many little stars twinkle in the blue sky?" She sings reverence for the starry sky into the child's heart so the power to treat heaven and earth with reverence as God's dwelling can grow.

Last week I felt the open and seeking hearts in Taize amid thousands of youths who sought to assure themselves of God's power in simple deep hymns: "My hope and my joy, my strength, my light, Christ my confidence in you I trust and do not fear." They sang, learned to pray and meditated in workshops. What can I do for a just economy? How can I become a peacemaker? For what will I use my life?

"Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted," Isaiah says. The young warriors intent on proving their strength on the battlefields will fall. The machismo of strength, the strength dependent on weapons, does not appear in God's future but rather a story like this:

At the paralympics of the disabled, a few years ago, two runners reached the end of a long race but the first stumbled with his disabled leg and fell down. The second tried to help him and both fell to the ground. In the meantime, the rest of the runners came and helped the two stand on their feet. Together they ran again in the power of solidarian community.

"They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength."

Let us hear God's covenant promises. Accepting them with determination requires strength and an advocate. God does not keep his power to himself but shares it with people. Therefore we can pray confidently: "Give us some of your divine strength today." This Easter God will share the Easter strength with us and make us resurrection persons who face the daily grind with God's strength.

Those who wait for God can expect something other than the law of the stronger that economizes away the weakest, the children in the heavily indebted countries of the third world in their daily milk ration.

Those who wait for God can count on the strength of righteousness, the liberating sharpness of truth and the power of love. They can begin again even in personal needs and relations. God gives us strength for the years in Babylon, for estrangement and sickness. God gives us courage for the magnanimity of pardon and for resistance where it is necessary.

We need this strength: a strength that breaks the stone, that makes friends out of strangers so persons of foreign races are regarded as brothers and sisters and not as intruders and others can be convinced. This is the strength to make peace - where we have drawn demarcation lines of hostility.

The God of the Bible promises this strength, a strength that presses forward without walking over corpses, a strength that can wait with the patience of eternity without becoming weary. We only have this strength together in the community of saints, in remembering our ancestors in faith, women and men and in the power of cooperation today.

The picture of the eagle's mother who encourages her young to fly and flies among them when they are weary and faint so they do not fall elates us.

"They who wait for God shall renew their strength!"

God's wings are spread over us when we freeze and tremble from the threats of peacelessness and swaggering, from the cries of the gods of the present time.

When we respond and take wings, we will fly freely in the vast space toward the goal, the origin of all real strength, God's warm beaming Easter sun before our eyes, the sun of justice and life, the sun that rose on the first Easter Morning and since then illumines and warms the earth.

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