Editor’s note: The following sermon was was preached on Oct. 7, 20201, during a Desmond Tutu Birthday Eucharist Service at St. George’s Cathedral, Cape Town, South Africa.
Dear family and siblings in Christ, what a great idea this was to have this eucharist in celebration of our beloved Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 90th birthday. What an absolutely wonderful occasion this has turned out to be.
Thank you, Mama Leah, father Desmond and family, for affording me the great honor and joy of being here today, sharing this service of thanksgiving with you and the friends of the Tutus across the country and the world.
I am humbled, standing here, sharing the Word on this milestone day for my friend and brother, Desmond Mpilo Tutu, whom we all love so much, with whom I have shared so many, many years in the struggle, in the ecumenical movement, in the church, all in the service of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Our text for this occasion is Psalm 37:23 and 24: “The footsteps of the righteous are ordered by the Lord, and God delights in their way. Though they stumble, they shall not be cast down, for the Lord holds them by the hand.”
Today, Desmond Mpilo Tutu is 90 years old. That’s ninety years of steps, one foot in front of the other, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, for ninety years.
In a talk some years ago at Stellenbosch University, you suggested a 2% tax on white wealth to do some restoration to Black South Africans. A young white man responded on social media, “This old man must just die now.” For people like that young man, this is a day of unfulfilled desires.
For us, though, this is a day of great jubilation. This is the day that the Lord has made, and we shall rejoice and be glad in it, for here you are today, with us, and why? Because the footsteps of the righteous are ordered by the Lord.
Ninety years! If some people had their way, you would have been dead already, and at times, make no mistake, they had their plans ready. They had their plans, but God had other plans.
If they could, the powerful of the world, from Pretoria to Washington, D.C., from London to Paris and Moscow, would long ago have shut you up. They had those plans. But God had other plans. So today, please meditate with me on the subject, “God Has Other Plans.”
“Do not fret because of the wicked,” Psalm 37 begins. Some scholars speak disapprovingly of what they call the “didactic tone” of the first verses of the psalm. They act as if the words, “Trust in the Lord,” and “commit yourself to the Lord,” are some kind of finger-wagging admonition.
I don’t know why. To be “didactic,” the dictionaries tell us, is to speak in the tones of a patronizing teacher, one creating a teaching moment to show off, to impart some moral lesson they assume the other does not know.
But the opening verses of Psalm 37 are not didactic. They are a confession of confident faith, shaken but confident, assailed but confident. These are the words of someone who has seen life, who knows what they are talking about. Someone who had seen too many tears, heard too many cries, seen too much suffering.
This is someone who has been challenged by life, been battered by the winds of adversity, swamped by the rivers of doubt, tossed about by the waves of hostility. Someone who has seen the reality of evil, who knows the power of the wicked, those who think God does not matter, that God makes no difference, that God does not care what they do.
But also, these are the words of someone who knows that those who deem themselves so powerful, whose arrogance knows no bounds and chokes the life out of the weak and the defenseless, they will soon “fade like grass,” that the Lord is a God of love and justice and judgement, that God will act. So, don’t fret.
Don’t be afraid. Don’t be anxious. Trust in the Lord. Because God has other plans.
I have been young, says verse 25, and now I am old. I still see the wicked draw the sword and bend the bow. They still seem to thrive because they profit from injustice and exploitation. They benefit from the suffering of my people. They still plan and plot and gnash their teeth in vengeful anger. They think themselves invincible.
But don’t fret, for God has other plans. Only a little while and the wicked will be no more.
I have been young and now am old. I have seen the righteous pressed and pressured, suppressed and oppressed, shoved aside and marginalized. I have seen the righteous threatened and manipulated, reviled and despised, but never forsaken. Because God had other plans.
They will find their way. They will be firm in their walk because the footsteps of the righteous are ordered by the Lord who always holds their hand.
Desmond Tutu was born in 1931, in Klerksdorp, a dark place for Black people at a dark time for Black people. The wicked were triumphant. Their plans for apartheid, the natural spawn of imperialism and colonialism, were coming to fruition. They had plans for you that suited their apartheid mold.
At birth, they classified you a “Bantu,” but in their homes, and on the street, and sometimes to your face, they called you a “Kaffir.” They forced you into Bantu education, made you go to Johannesburg Bantu High School. That’s how you ended up teaching at Bantu Normal College. They made you carry a dompas (a pass that authorized travel).
They thought they had you pegged, classified, defined, and confined. But God had other plans.
So, you insisted that you were a South African, a human being with human rights to be respected, promoted, and protected. Because God had other plans, you declared that you are a child of God, created by Almighty God, worthy of the love of God, and the respect of humanity.
Their experts on Bantus and Bantucology from their prestigious universities sat down to studiously define and redefine you from “Natives” to “Bantus” to “Plurals” and they declared you inferior, of lesser worth. But you turned around and mocked them. “What”, you asked, “has the size of my nose, or the color of my skin, to do with whether I am intelligent?” You made us laugh at them with your jokes about “The Republic of Big Noses.”
Oh, they had their plans, but God had other plans. You refused to be what they had determined you to be, because the steps of the righteous are ordered by the Lord. Not by Malan, or Strijdom or Verwoerd – by the Lord.
Because you loved the Lord, because you trusted in the Lord, because you committed your way to the Lord, you met Father Trevor Huddleston, whose love for God, God’s people and for justice influenced you profoundly.
They thought that being a teacher in Bantu education was as far as they would allow you to go. But God had other plans.
God called you to the priesthood, which opened the door to the UK and the World Council of Churches and the ecumenical movement, which opened the door to the Deanship of Johannesburg Cathedral. Before they knew it, you were a bishop of the Church. When they turned around, you were the dynamic and inspirational leader of the South African Council of Churches. The wicked plan and plot, but God has other plans.
Your mentor, Father Huddleston, had a saying which became famous. “The church,” he said, referring to the church’s silence in the face of the horrors of racism, apartheid, and exploitation, and the suffering of our people, “is asleep, but occasionally, it talks in its sleep.”
So, you determined to change that. Your leadership of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) was a wake-up call to the church. It was a rude awakening for the apartheid regime, who thought that after the vicious repressions of the 1960s they had silenced the voice of the prophetic church forever.
You woke the church up! You shook the church up! “Awake!” you said. “Get up!” you said.
See the suffering and the pain of our people. Wake up, and see the oppression, and the racism, and the hatred. Wake up, and see the tears of our mothers and fathers, and the bewilderment of our people.
“Get up!” you said. Smell the tear gas, see the dogs and the guns, and feel the stinging lash of the sjambok (that is, a heavy leather whip).
See the overcrowded prisons, filled with those detained without trial. Hear the children marching. Hear the children singing. See the blood of our children on the streets.
“Wake up!” you said. There is a struggle going on, and it is a struggle for freedom and justice. Neutrality is no longer possible.
See the courage of the children! “Wake up!” you said. Remember those in prison as if you were in prison with them.
To the children and the young people, you said, do not let your anger consume you. Don’t give in to violence. Don’t become like your oppressor. Keep your hearts pure. Don’t fret because God is a God who loves justice.
Don’t be afraid, you said, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them. Don’t give up, you said, for if God be for us, who can be against us? Who can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord? Know and believe that it is only a little while, and the wicked shall be no more. Their sword shall go through their own heart. God will let you inherit the land.
Like the prophet Jeremiah, you shouted truth from every pulpit, every stage, every roof top: “O land, land, land! Hear the Word of the Lord!”
Why did you do all that? Not because you always wanted to, but because you could not help it, could not stop yourself even if you wanted to. Because the steps of the righteous are ordered by the Lord.
The wicked mocked you, laughed at you, but because they feared you, they tried to shut you up. They took away your passport so you could not do your work, could no longer represent our churches, could no longer speak encouragement to the hearts of the ecumenical church.
They made their plans, and they threatened and tried to intimidate you. They smeared your name and lied about you, but the Lord let your vindication shine like the light.
They plotted and planned. They set up the Eloff Commission to try to snare you, to discredit the churches, to close the Council. They had plans.
But you stood there. You testified and told Judge Eloff and his government who and what we are as a church and as followers of Jesus of Nazareth. “We are what we are in obedience to God and in response to the gracious Gospel of His Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We owe ultimate loyalty not to any human authority however prestigious or powerful, but to God and to His Son our Lord Jesus Christ alone from whom we obtain our mandate. We must obey the divine imperative and word whatever the cost.”
Oh, they had plans. They sent Eloff to carry out those plans. But God had other plans.
So, you told them, “Apartheid is as evil as Nazism and Communism and this government will fail completely.” You followed a path not stipulated by them because the steps of the righteous are ordered by the Lord— not by Vorster, or P W Botha, or FW De Klerk, but by the Lord.
You told Eloff, “The government is not God. They are just ordinary human beings who very soon, like other tyrants before them, will bite the dust.”
You said what you said. You stood where you stood. You did what you did— not because you thought you were strong or powerful. But because the footsteps of the righteous are ordered by the Lord.
“The wicked,” reads verse 12, “gnash their teeth at the righteous, but the Lord laughs at them.” We know that’s true because we heard God’s laugh in that famous and infectious Tutu giggle.
“I was young, now I am old,” says verse 25. I saw much then, and I am seeing much now. South Africa is the most unequal society in the world. Our politics has become a kleptocratic monster. Corruption, poverty, and hunger are stalking the streets of our townships.
Our liberation movement has become the thief of the dreams, hopes and aspirations of our children. Gender-based violence is a scourge; patriarchy, homophobia, and transphobia are running rampant in society and find refuge in the church.
Justice is stumbling in the streets, hardly anyone believes in reconciliation anymore, and half your recommendations that would have brought us more justice are gathering dust on government shelves.
Our people are bewildered, and like in the times of Isaiah, “We grope like the blind along a wall; we stumble at noon as in the twilight; we wait for justice, but there is none.” They may have their plans, but God has other plans for this land and for our people.
For ninety years, you have walked this earth. You have fought, you have struggled, you have prayed, and we with you. You have cried, you have admonished, you have walked with us and we with you.
You have spoken to our hearts, and you are still speaking to us through the words of this psalm:
I have been young, and now am old. I have seen all I wanted to see, and I know the LORD is faithful; God has made our vindication shine like the light, and the justice of our cause like the noonday.
I have been young, and now I am old. I have tripped. I have slipped. I have stumbled, but I have not been downcast, for the Lord holds me by the hand.
I have been young, and now I am old, and I know that our struggles will never be in vain, for the Lord loves justice. God will not forsake God’s faithful ones.
I have been young, and now I am old, and those in power and those with power have their plans. But God has other plans. Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more.
I have been young, now I am old. Yet, I have never seen the righteous forsaken, for the Lord is faithful and steadfast in love.
We have heard you. We have seen you. We have walked with you, Desmond Mpilo Tutu, son of the soil, bishop of the church, shepherd of God’s people, child of God.
We thank God for you, for, in you, we can see and believe what it means that God has other plans, what it means when the steps of the righteous are ordered by the Lord.
So today, on this happy, blessed day, we sing, “Order my steps in your way, O Lord!”