Homily by Bishop Geoff Davies
Narrated by Fr. Andrew Manning
How do the Scriptures, written two to three thousand years ago, relate to life in our current challenges? COVID-19 has turned our country, our communities and our churches upside down. We don’t know exactly where it came from, but it seems that it probably came from a pangolin, jumped to a bat and at a “wet market” – where sick animals and raw meat were lying together, jumped to humans.
More and more diseases are jumping from animals to humans, as we continue to destroy eco-systems.
Ebola, SARS, swine flu, avian flu, were all wake up calls, but we didn’t listen.
COVID-19 has taught us that the whole world is interconnected, as it has moved across the globe. We have also been made aware of the plight of our neighbours, the homeless, the hungry, the sick and bereaved, and even as the church buildings have been shut down, the church has been at work, being church in the world.
What does Scripture say about our relationship with the rest of the web of life, our relationship with people from other countries, and our relationship with those who are vulnerable in our own context? Who is our neighbour?
Exodus 12:1-14 The Passover, is a key event in the salvation of God’s people. God had a plan for the Israelites, apart from liberating them,
which was to set up a new society based on ethical principles.
During the Israelites’ time in the Wilderness God gave us the Ten Commandments to guide our behaviour and show us the way to living in peace and harmony with God and our neighbour. The first four commandments deal with our relationship with God. We are called to worship God alone, but we have turned instead to worship ‘mammon’ (money) and we idolise our consumer goods, be they the latest car, cell phone or jewellery or fashion clothes. The remaining six commandments provide essential principles for our behaviour towards our neighbour, and we know how devastating and disrupting to our social and personal well-being transgressions of any of those six Commandments can be. We continue to steal; corruption occurs on a massive scale in our contemporary world, and we are also stealing from future generations. We continue to kill, failing to recognise the sanctity of life, violence including gender-based violence is rampant in society. On a global scale we still threaten others with weapons of mass destruction. We don’t speak the truth; we bear false witness, particularly in politics. The tenth commandment; thou shalt not covet, might seem to be the most innocuous, yet our present economic system encourages and drives us to covet, increasing inequalities in our world.
Psalm 149: The last three Psalms in the Psalter are all praise Psalms to God. Praise for God’s Universal Glory (Psalm 148); Praise for God’s Goodness to Israel (Psalm 149) and Praise for God’s Surpassing Greatness (Psalm 150).
It is good to read Psalm 149 in conjunction with Psalm 148 where we hear not only people but all of Creation praising God. Praise comes to God from the highest heavens, from the Sun and Moon, from the Earth and the deeps of the sea, from the mountains and hills, from fruit trees and Cedars, from wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds, kings of the earth and all peoples. Psalm 149 continues the praise, now from Israel and the children of Zion. As humans we praise God with our human neighbours, but also in the company of our neighbours from the great web of life.
Romans 13: 8-14: In the opening verses of Chapter 13, Paul tells us that every person should “be subject to the governing authorities”. These verses were notoriously used and quoted by the Apartheid government of South Africa and continue to be used by authoritarian and undemocratic governments to justify their unjust and often corrupt rule. It was the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town at the time, Bill Burnett, who stated that we could not be subject to the governing authorities if these authorities were not being obedient to God.
The principle of civil disobedience has been followed by many Christians fighting unjust laws. Globally we are now seeing the younger generation rising up in protest and civil disobedience, such as the school strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests, speaking out about climate change.
Paul quotes four of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and concludes that all the commandments are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself……..Love is the fulfilling of the law”. (v 8-12) .
In our modern society we need to ask ourselves – who is my neighbour?
Our neighbours are the people who live downstream of our waste. Our neighbours are those who are impacted by climate change because of our choices of energy or investment income. Our neighbours are the generations to come who will live on a bleak and barren world because of our consumerist society. Our neighbours are also the many living creatures who make up the web of life on which we depend, and which God has called us to safeguard.
Might we be called to civil disobedience on behalf of our neighbour?
Matthew 18: 15 – 20 This passage explains how we should react if a brother or sister, a member of the Christian Church sins. This shows the early church community, who were Jewish converts, grappling with the issue of how the community could save a brother or sister and restore them to the flock or family of the church. If they do not listen, they would be excluded from the church in the way tax collectors and Gentiles were excluded from the synagogue. There should be discipline and disciplinary action by the faith community. We are faced with a new theological question for our time – how do we respond to Church members who are sinning against God’s Creation? For a long time, the Church has focussed on individual sins, particularly sexual sins. And yet our lifestyle is destroying the web of life and hurting the most vulnerable of society. The Patriarch of the Orthodox church says this “We have traditionally regarded sin as being merely what people do to other people. Yet, for human beings to destroy the biological diversity in God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by contributing to climate change, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, land and air ; all of these are sins.” The question is deep, how do we challenge our brothers and sisters in Christ to stop sinning against Creation and the generations to come?
Living the word:
How do we love our neighbour in the current ecological crisis? We know that we must feed the hungry – but the question today is “how do we stop people from becoming hungry?” How do we establish justice and equity for people and all of life? There is enough on this planet for our needs, but not enough for our greed. The destruction of planetary life is not God’s will. This must be loudly proclaimed from every pulpit and Bible study around the world. Environmental care must become a priority. We are commanded to love our neighbour, the vulnerable, the future generations and the whole web of life. To do so, we must consciously seek to live in harmony with God, one another, and the natural world. And we must be an example to all of humanity that we must stop being so selfish in the way we treat nature and our fellow human beings. Encourage your worshipping community to get involved in caring for creation, keep informed about social and environmental issues, and develop a voice to encourage political authorities, locally and nationally, to recognise their environmental responsibilities and to take appropriate action. By establishing Eco-Justice, that is ecological and economic justice, we shall overcome the huge inequality and poverty existing in our world today.
(Bishop Geoff gave some examples of what we can do; but I have replaced that with what we are doing):
- Develop energy saving practices in our homes and church buildings,
- Grow vegetables,
- Address plastic pollution and littering / illegal dumping: see Inkwazi isu website
- Reuse, reduce and recycle and repurpose.
- Plant trees and remove alien invasive,
- Care for our rivers: follow our daily updates to see what is being done in this regard. (CMF/KZN MARINE WASTE NETWORK SOUTH COAST, TOTI CONSERVANCY).
- Change our behaviour to “live lightly on the earth” and be an “Earth Keeper.”
“Resolving the ecological crisis of our planet is no longer a problem we can leave to the scientists. Just as we are all part of the problem, so we are all also part of the solution. We all need to come to terms with the forces that have created this crisis and the resources within our traditions that can motivate us to resolve the crisis. One of those traditions is our biblical heritage” . Bishop concludes with a quote from Archbishop Tutu who In the words of Pope Francis said.
“ let us hear the “Cry of the poor and the Cry of the Earth’ and commit to loving our neighbour.”
Bishop Geoff Davies (Adapted from Word and Worship)