Easter Vigil – St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town
Ez. 36:24-28; Ps 114; Rom 6:3-11; Lk 24:1-12
Christ is risen, He is risen indeed! Alleluia!Ever since I was a little boy, I have continually felt attracted by all the details of our Easter celebrations and of the Easter service, and am especially inspired by the pervasive feeling of optimism and hope that characterises Eastertide.I hope that all of you – everyone in this congregation, as well as the many, many South Africans who will hear at least parts of this sermon – are as optimistic as I am about today and the future of South Africa. Call me a slave to hope in the midst of the growing global trend toward the contrary, but the detail and spirit of Easter renews my heart and resolve. I hear the Ezekiel God say, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you… and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”One of the wonderful, small details that frame this Easter Gospel which has just been opened for us to reflect upon, is the indication that it all takes place “while it was still dark,” very early in the morning, or – as some versions translate it – “just before the first streaks of dawn.” Indeed the juncture at which the women learn the mind-blowing news of the Resurrection is situated precisely in that moment that all of us grapple with, the moment when darkness or uncertainty or the long shadow of death seems to hang immutably over us, a moment that seems overwhelming, when we are unsure of what follows next. It occurs at that moment of the night picked up in the anguished cry of the psalmist recorded in Ps 88: “Can your wonders indeed be made known in the dark?”That cry is a contemporary cry, a cry we hear in our own time in the darkness of our nights. It is a cry echoed in the voices of those caught up in the crossfire of taxi violence and gang warfare not many kilometres from here; it is echoed in the wailing of the poorest communities of Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, displaced by Cyclone Idai and rendered wanderers in their own land whilst leaders quibble about climate warming; and it is echoed in the cries of the forcibly displaced Rohiynga people in Bangladesh and in the cries of Palestinians trapped in that open-air prison called the Gaza Strip, subjected in these last weeks to aerial bombardment.In the darkness we hear too the terrified cries of the 44 women and girl children raped every hour in South Africa and the cries of the people of Joe Slovo. And when we hear from commissions of inquiry what was stolen from the poor of this country by those we trusted so much, the cries are ours too. The cries are relentless: “Can your wonders be known in the dark, O Lord?” The facts at the moment seem to suggest a disheartening, overwhelming NO!Yet this night, which is “different to all others” (as the Church’s ancient Easter hymn says) carries an alternative narrative. A narrative of light against darkness, a narrative of hope, restoration, and renewal and salvation. Just as we have seen the light of our candles break through the darkness tonight, I recall vividly how, during Easter plays at my primary school in Alexandra Township, the curtains would be drawn until the moment someone entered with a candle, and then the teacher would sweep open the curtains and declare: “Easter has burst into this darkness.”And just as the light of the Resurrection bursts in upon us tonight, I believe that in South Africa we are about to receive our second wind, and that our forthcoming elections have the potential to be the genesis and catalyst of our nation’s renewal, thus writing the beginning of not only a new chapter in our history, but an entire new book that will define our children’s and our grandchildren’s lifetimes.Against the darkness represented by the violence being perpetrated against women in our country today, I love the way the account of the Resurrection places three women right at the centre of the Easter story, and thus at the heart of the call for the transformation of societies. Those women, one of whom becomes the first bearer of the Resurrection story, were resurrection people because in the first place they were prepared to contest the power of the darkness. Every generation raises women and men who are prepared to defy darkness and the culture of death and create spaces for Easter light to break through. In the darkness of segregation and discrimination, Nkosi Albert Luthuli refused to bow to the inevitability of the triumph of apartheid but nurtured a dream of a “home for all.” In the gathering spiral of violence that engulfed Northern Ireland for so long, Mairead Corrigan Maguire and Betty Williams refused to bow to scepticism and the logic of revenge, and together took a “first step to peace.” Ultimately Luthuli, Williams and Maguire began to confront the darkness with small gestures but gestures pregnant with hope.Just as Albert Luthuli and other Nobel peace laureates confronted the powers of darkness of their times, and brought light and hope, as we seek the risen light of Christ in the South Africa of today, we too can transform the upcoming elections into the most important moment in modern South African history.On May 8 we are not voting for a party or a candidate. We are voting to put YES into our future. The reality is that we have had to live through a horrendous period of NO. That is inevitable in life: on the way to YES, there will sometimes be NOs. The mistake that many of us have made is that in recent years we have become discouraged by the NOs, have given up and have quit trying. But we have to go through our closed doors before we reach our open doors. We have to get through our NOs to get to our YESes. And that’s the key. When you come to ‘no’, instead of being discouraged, the correct attitude is, “I’m one step closer to my YES.”In past years at Easter, you have heard me warn against believing we will solve all our problems by replacing one president with another. Changing individual leaders is no panacea for all that is wrong with governance in South Africa today. For while President Ramaphosa has given us some of the hope and optimism I have referred to, he is not all-powerful. He too can be replaced – and the events of the past 15 months have shown us that we cannot rely solely on changes in the presidency to turn our country around.In South Africa today, we face a New Struggle, a struggle about values and institutions rather than about personalities. We need to build strong systems which cannot be undermined by one person or party’s whim. If we want to ensure that government works to improve the lives of all our people, especially those of the poorest of the poor, we have to strengthen our institutions.If we examine the state of health of the three main institutions of our government – the judiciary, the executive and the legislature – we see that the judiciary has performed well in the face of the challenges of the last decade. In the last year, the executive has begun to perform better, although there are areas in which improvements are needed and its performance in the future depends too much on the decisions of a single individual.But we cannot say that Parliament has fulfilled its oversight obligations in the way we would expect in a healthy democracy. With some exceptions, it has failed abysmally over the years to hold our government to account. Too often, the behaviour of our members of Parliament has been disgraceful. I don’t exempt any of the major parties from this criticism. All have been guilty on occasion of opportunistic stunts and shameful attacks. In the public mind, Parliament has become a place of spectacle instead of serious debate about the laws and policies needed to improve people’s lives. Moreover, too many members of the governing party hold their leaders to account only when they sense the leader’s influence in their own party is ebbing.So in the spirit of the new life that Easter promises us, let us as citizens in this democracy now act to reform and renew Parliament. If we are to build Parliament into a strong institution which holds the executive to account, we should approach the election on May 8 with the aim of transforming the institution. Sadly, the party list system stops us as voters from passing judgement in local constituencies on the performance of MPs responsible for the areas in which we live. Instead I want to suggest that as responsible citizens we all examine carefully the complete list of candidates each party has drawn up.Let us as active citizens examine all the names on the lists of all the parties and bring pressure to bear on the parties to re-examine them. Then let us cast our votes, not on the basis of blind party loyalty, but for the group of prospective parliamentarians we believe represents our values best and will act in the interests of the country as a whole.My proposal is not aimed only at the ANC. It applies to all parties, for I haven’t seen anyone subject the lists drawn up by the DA, the EFF, or other parties, to the same scrutiny. Our people deserve a Parliament made up of Members of the highest moral calibre, whether in government or in opposition. To elect anyone else to this sacred institution is to spit in the faces of our ancestors who have sacrificed their lives and their liberty for democracy.May 8 is our “YES moment.” It is your opportunity to let your voice be heard. When Election Day comes, we must all vote, including the many young people who are telling us they are too disillusioned with the way politicians behave to vote. Simply stated, voting is an expression of our commitment to ourselves. Or said another way, bad officials are elected by good citizens who don’t vote.You must vote and you must vote for the party that you believe will finally bring to an end a system which promises equality but produces inequality. You must vote for the party that you believe will create equality of opportunity. And most importantly, you must ask your heart as well as your head, which party will unquestionably remove violence as a way of achieving our objectives.Returning to the Scriptures, there is a sense that even after the testimony of the empty tomb, the disciples were still not finding the fullness of the risen life because they were looking in either the wrong places or maybe in tired, worn-out places. Instead, the disciples were challenged to go to Galilee, to move beyond the confines of the political and religious hegemony of Jerusalem and to explore the margins.The Galilees of today, the margins of our contemporary world, are places where voices that are often silenced find their space. Just as for Jesus, contact with the poor and the broken revealed the presence of God, and just as His compassionate response disclosed the presence of God, for us it is among the marginalised that we can hear new voices and learn new insights.Easter says you can put truth in the grave, but it won’t stay there.The greatest gift of Easter is hope.My friends, go in peace. Go in hope.God bless you and your family. And God bless South Africa.God loves you. And so do I.Amen.