Help us, O God, to be masters of ourselves that we may become the servants of others. Take our lips and speak though them, our minds and think through them, and take our hearts and set them on fire, for Christ’s sake. Amen.
A visiting preacher in a grand Cathedral began his sermon by saying: “In 100 years, every member of this cathedral will be dead.”
And a man in the third row began to laugh. The preacher thought the man must have misheard him, so he said again “In 100 years every member of this cathedral will be dead.”
The man laughed again. The preacher was getting a little distressed and said to the laughing man “So you think it’s funny?”
“Yes I do”
“And why do you think it’s funny?”
“Because I’m not a member of this cathedral.”
I’m George Regas, and I am not a member of this cathedral. Maybe someday I will be. But I know Gary Hall, your Dean, up close and down deep. Years ago we worked together in Pasadena. When Gary Hall was gloriously instituted as Dean, 14 months ago, I was your preacher. Gary is still here, a little challenged by the enormity of the job, but he is here with great insight and deep commitment; and that’s terrific. You are very lucky. And he has a great companion in Cathy Hall. You’re lucky to have them.
It is a joy and a privilege to be your preacher again. I’m honored to be here.
This third Sunday of advent is known as a Sunday of Joy. A few years ago, a very sick man said something that fascinated me. “I want to leave the world smiling.”
In the midst of the holiday cheer, you have to admit not many people in America truly enjoy life. There isn’t much joy in our hearts. The expectations for happiness are so great, yet the sense of inner joy so frequently absent.
Today I want to give you permission to be happy; to be able to sing on Christmas Day, “Joy to the World.”
“I want to leave this world smiling.” My friend, Nelson, knew that joy is an inside job. It grows out of one’s relationship with one’s self, and with those who share the earth with you, and with the Divine Creator.
A man was very despondent and sought the help of a counselor. The counselor listened to his problems and then suggested the man go and listen to a famous comedian who was in town that particular week. “He will make you laugh and bring joy to your life. He can dispel the darkness from your heart, for he is able to make the crowds roar. You should go and seek his help.” There was a long silence until the man said, “I am that comedian.”
“I want to leave the world smiling;” that was my friend’s deep desire. It was a joy that came from inner peace and not from outer security of accomplishments. He was a man of the greatest achievement and success, but he left this earthly pilgrimage with joy because he had kept faith with his highest ideals. He knew the real joys of life are inside of us—they spring from our character, from who we are and what we care deepest about and what we believe in most passionately.
I, along with many of you have been fascinated, stirred, empowered by all the information over the past week coming to us about Nelson Mandela. What an incredible human being.
My first of six visits to South Africa was in 1977, when Mary Regas and I, with three of our children, spent a month in that remarkable country. In the work I’ve done in South Africa, over 35 years, I have come to love the term “Ubuntu.” It is at the very core of South African experience. “Ubuntu”—It means “I cannot be “me” without “you.” Our human lives, our human destinies are inextricably bound together. We need each other; we need a community, to sustain us in the mission of peace and justice. “Ubuntu”—I need you if I am to be fully what God has created me to be.
I think God is speaking to us today, and says again and again, joy is a gift.
Out of the cosmic, cold, eternal darkness comes a whisper on the wind: “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”
Emmanuel—God is with us and loves us forever. That is the proclamation that undergirds our joy and infuses it with meaning.
It is amazing what one encounters on a Christmas gift-shopping spree. A few years ago I had an experience that is still fresh in my memory. I was in the book department of a very nice store. I overheard a young woman making a suggestion to a man I presumed was her husband. “Here is something you can give your Dad for Christmas.” She was weary as though they had been looking and arguing for some time. The husband came over and looked at the present she had picked out. It was a model ship nicely crafted in wood. The young man grabbed the price tag and acted stunned, blurting out, “Good God, $125!” Then he snapped, “Dad’s not worth that much!”
I winced—wondering what had happened to tarnish that relationship. What price would have pleased him? How much is a Dad worth?
“Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee.” In the coming of Jesus, God Proclaims: “You are a wonderful person; you are of incalculable worth; you are loved forever, just as you are.” It is God’s gift.
Joy is the byproduct of a holy life.
The real joy of Christmas comes to those who do the work of Christmas. Joy awaits those who dare to live as God intends it—feeding the hungry, forgiving the offenders, struggling for justice, working for peace, loving all children, reconciling difficult people, seeking a righteous life.
Happiness and joy are not qualities that we go out seeking. Not in the pursuit of joy is joy to be found. Rather in pursuit of high goals, worthy causes, eternal values, righteous living, one is surprised by joy. It comes along in the parenthesis.
My sick friend wanted to share with me what was central in his mind and conscience. He said, “There is so much hatred everywhere in the world. But Mandela had a vision about love.” It is love that is strongest; it is love that conquers; it is love that lasts; it is love that we need. My friend felt challenged to love in a hate-filled and war-fractured world—and so joy came along in the parenthesis.
When Mandela was released from prison in 1990 he made a tour of six cities in America. His last stop was Los Angeles, and Mary Regas and I were among the 100,000 in the Los Angeles Coliseum to hear Mandela in 1990. Few at the Coliseum in 1990 knew about Mandela’s politics, but it didn’t matter. All put him on the right side of the struggle between good and evil. Standing in the Coliseum, Mandela struck a grateful tone:
“We who have suffered and continue to suffer the pain of oppression know that underneath the face of Los Angeles lies the great and noble spirit of the citizenry.”
“We who fight for human rights know the depths of the human spirit running thru the hills and valleys of the state of California.”
And South Africa elected Mandela President in 1994 on a platform of reconciliation and peace.
His life in prison at Robben Island gave him reason to be embittered. Changed circumstances now gave him power and provided an opportunity to be punitive. But Mandela shunned these possibilities. In a world weary of unending conflict, he proved himself an anomaly, setting the wounds of the past aside with optimism and hope.
In my years on this planet, I’ve needed my companions at All Saints Church in Pasadena. I have needed my close friends like Rabbi Leonard Beerman, Islamic leader Maher Hathout, Bob Egelston, my greatest supporter over 45 years, and my wife, Mary Regas , to be with me, in order to live out “Ubuntu.” That South African word means that we belong together, and my friendships with Dean Gary Hall, and Cathy Hall have enriched me hugely.
The word “religion” comes from the same Latin word “ligament.” Religion’s essential meaning is to “bind.” Yes, I believe but I also belong—Ubuntu—we need each other if there is to be any hope of peace.
A story is told of President Lincoln following the Battle of Shiloh. He was approached by the frantic brother and sister of General Lew Wallace. They had heard the General had been killed in the Battle of Shiloh, but President Lincoln assured them he had not. He was alive. It was not their Lew Wallace who had been killed. The people sighed with relief. But the President responded with the compassion that had so marked his life: “Oh, but it was somebody’s Lew Wallace.”
So standing on sacred soil of the great religious traditions, I see this as one world with God’s arms of mercy and love outstretched to all God’s children across the planet, inseparably connected—embracing friend and foe. And the first heart to break when we plunder the countries of the Middle East and kill the children and the mothers is God’s heart. We must try to prevent it.
I believe that much of the evil at the heart of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the belief that an American child is of more value than an Iraqi or Afghan child. We must know that God has created us all equal and God loves us all passionately. And we must live differently.
We experienced undiluted joy many times in South Africa. Whenever we entered a township, running along the cars, carrying support banners for Mandela, shouting deliriously for Madiba, the clan name he was affectionately called. At last Mandela would leave the car, smiling and waving with a different, brightly colored, patterned shirt every day. He spoke in that unmistakable, raspy voice in slow cadence, lending gravitas to his message. He upbraided his followers like a stern uncle, saying that they were embarrassing the cause when they acted violently toward their opponents. They must live with the love and peace for which we all aspire.
I give thanks for a moral giant, who lived among us, whose strength and sacrifice changed the world. Mandela’s greatest legacy was his ability to successfully break the bridge between the conflicts of the past and peace today.
In President Obama’s speech right after his death, he said Nelson Mandela has gone home. I say, “Yes, he has gone home.” Lucky Heaven, Lucky Heaven.
Gratitude always leads to action and this nation has been so grateful for the life of Nelson Mandela. I pray that somehow, some way, that from our gratitude will come the courage and the power to live a different life. To overcome the enmity that is here, to overcome the violence, especially the gun violence, and to overcome the estrangement we have with people who have different opinions.
I pray that this season will bring us that new vision of hope that comes when we know that we have been blessed, and that we belong together in shaping a new world. God bless you and fill your life with the joys of forgiveness and love this advent.