Diocese of Madhya Kerala, Church of South India
Sunday January 29, 2017
Micah 6: 1-8
Good morning! How exciting it is to be with you, here in the Church of South India, a church with such a rich and glorious history, in this vast nation. Coming from a country which finally overthrew its colonial past and achieved democracy only 20 years ago, it is inspiring to be here with you in the largest democracy on earth. Thank you Bishop Thomas for inviting us to your Diocese and for asking me to preach at this auspicious Convention Mass, and warm congratulations to you on your election as Moderator.
We have spent the last eight days in Kerala and most in your Diocese. At the heart of the Eucharist that will be celebrated later is gratitude. We are grateful for the generosity and care we have experienced here and for all of you, the people we have met, and for the experiences we have shared. There is so much that we have learned here with you, so much that we have valued, so much that we have enjoyed: the preaching and teaching with the clergy, young people, and the opening evening; the projects of the Women's Fellowship, such as the Baker School for girls, the preschool and others; the youth centre where the liberation movement started; the sisters at Bethel Ashram whose motto is “seeing him who is invisible” with orphaned and semi-orphaned children impacted by parents who have made bad choices. As one with a passionate concern for the environment, I have been particularly impressed by the concept and the beautry of the Diocese's eco-spirituality centre, where you minister to the body, mind and soul, and by the focus on the scarcity of water and the harvesting of water. Hearing about “the spirituality of enough” and of contentment was moving – all too often in this 21st century world we are led by greed instead of marvelling at the providence of God and the importance of sharing. Thank you so much for the hospitality that all of you have extended to us, and the warm welcome you have given us.
We are considering today the theme of piety. At the heart of our piety is our ability to listen, and it is good that we listen again today to those poignant words of Micah, a man from a poor rural village many miles south-west of Jerusalem, far from the centers of political power and distant from the institutions of ritual worship. A man, if you like, from the margins who finds his voice as he listens to the multiple cries of the those who suffer with him on the margins and who with every new oppressive law seem further and further from the realisation of their potential. Micah listens to their cries and raises them to heaven, stands in the gap and intuitively trusts a God whose ear is always inclined to the poor.
Those who know the Scriptures know that these lines from Micah have been masterfully woven together from the deep insights of his spiritual forebears and his contemporaries. It means that he has listened not only to the poor but also to the teachings of the wisdom of the teachers. He has listened to Amos who cried out incessantly for justice. He has listened and pondered Hosea’s appeal to lift the high the banner of love. He has also heard Isaiah’s call for a quiet, humble walk with God in utter confidence. From these earlier teachings he has woven together what Thomas Groome has called the “Magna Carta” of prophetic religion. For us, brothers and sisters, who ponder this day the calling to grow in true piety, it is worth noting that the piety that is pleasing to the Lord, is one that is rooted in listening, in listening both to the poor and the most disadvantaged who are so close to God. And in listening to the wisdom that is passed on to us and then making it our own. However the true piety takes shape, it always formed as a response to acts of listening.
I cannot stand as a South African on this sacred soil of India and not reflect on how this live prophetic tradition has also enriched us through the great prophetic figures whose wisdom our countries share. I think especially of the great Mahatma Gandhi whose later life was so profoundly shaped by the cries of the poor, the pain of the oppressed in the town of Puna here in India as much as in the town of Pietermaritzburg in South Africa and who cried out against human wrongs. He was a man who also listened to the wisdom of many teachers, took to heart spiritual truths and held it out as a vehicle to ensure the progress of people. In time Martin Luther King Junior would spend a night in Gandhi’s house in Mumbai and respond to the cries of the disenfranchised in the United States of America, and Nelson Mandela would draw the contours of Gandhi’s heart into our South African struggle for liberation. The Biblical principle of listening, the pious practise of learning from the poor and the wise is a powerfully transformational truth. Embedded in it is the praxis of justice which Micah understands as a way of knowing God.
We live in a world today in which too many of the powerful, and too many of those who rule, have stopped listening – stopped listening to the cries of the poor, stopped listening to the cries of the prophets. We see it in the West, in Europe and America, where many of those who are relatively privileged in global terms, want to turn their back on refugees and victims of war. We see it in the resurgence of nationalisms in Europe, exemplified best by Britain's decision to turn its back on Europe and retreat into itself, suspicious and hostile to foreign workers. We see it in the “America First” policy expounded by the new American president, which claims to represent the interests of those who say they have been left behind by globalisation and the effects of free trade, but who fail to recognise the much worse plight of those who Jesus says are their brothers and sisters both in the United States and abroad.
We also see it in my own country, South Africa, where despite our liberation, we live with shocking levels of inequality. There are huge differences between the development of the wealthy parts of our cities and that nearly everywhere else. We live with massive disparities of income, largely based on race – which dates back to the years of apartheid, where white South Africans were given privileges and advantages under the law – but increasingly based on whether you have made it into a new middle class. I have said at home that it sometimes feels as if some of our leaders stopped their fight for a new South Africa at the point at which they joined the ranks of those who corruptly and immorally amassed wealth under colonialism and apartheid. Our there now is not against racism per se (although that still exists in a stubbornly pervasive way). Nor should our struggle be – as some think it is – for the new, multiracial middle class to live as the white elite lived under apartheid. No, our struggle in South Africa today should be for a new society, a more equal society, a society of equality of opportunity in which the wealth that comes from new economic growth is shared equitably among all. In South Africa, we speak of our historic struggle for liberation, which was won in 1994 when democracy came and when we elected Nelson Mandela as our first democratically-chosen president. Well, I refer to that struggle now – the struggle against apartheid and racism – as the “old struggle” as I am now recruiting my sister and brother citizens to what I call the “New Struggle” – the struggle against inequality.
I cannot speak for India – I do not know your condition, and it is for you to speak for your country – but I have to say that both in South Africa and in Western countries I have visited, it is distressing to see the degree to which societies have become societies of “me” instead of societies of “we”. What do I mean by that? Well, in a “me” society, we ask: what are “my” and my family's and friends' needs and aspirations, not what are “our” needs and aspirations as a society. A “me” country is an “I-centered” country, characterised by cultures that are high on fear and low on trust. Organizations, ministries, departments preach team-work but many “team members” and “team leaders” operate as lone wolves. In “me"-based societies, leaders and elected officials feel they have to protect their territory. As a result, these “leaders” are perceived as ineffectual or autocratic and self-protection is the dominant feeling. I have said that for my country, South Africa, to flourish, we need to move from “me” to “we”, asking not what I can do, but what we can do, together, to meet not my needs or those of my immediate circle, but our needs, and to work for the common good. “We"-focussed societies bring out the best in their citizens. “We"-centred leaders are characterised by caring, courage and vision. Environments that foster “we"-centred behaviours encourage diversity of thought and expression of feeling. They encourage risk-taking and tolerate “failure.” “We” cultures support sharing. They are dedicated to fairness and the achievement of the full potential within everyone. They open opportunity,
Too many of our leaders seem to have forgotten what it is to seek the common good, which – simply put – is based on the recognition that what is good and beneficial for the other who is my neighbour is what is good and beneficial for me. My own passion is to fight the inequality of opportunity in our society, for it undermines people’s capacity to use their God-given gifts to improve their own lives; my passion is to work, as your Moderator does, for better education, for ecological justice so that we create an environment which benefits all, and against the continued exclusion of the marginalised in our society.
Returning to those of our leaders of the past who listened to the cries of the poor and the marginalised, it is noticeable, and so poignant, that each of those leaders who consciously or unconsciously entered the world of piety, shared another practice and that is that they grappled with the call to practice forgiveness. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Junior and Mandela, the great wisdom figures in our times, knew that they could not pretend that unpardonable things had not occurred, they could not forget. But they understood the words of Robert Schreiter: “In forgiveness we do not forget, we remember in a different way.” Schreiter makes the point that when Jesus rose from the dead, his body was clearly transformed – no one was able to recognise him initially. Yet even on his resurrected body he carried the wounds of the crucifixion. Resurrection didn’t “fix” or erase the crucifixion. It had happened, but it did not determine Jesus’ future. In that little insight we capture a profound truth of our piety that follows on from our listening, our learning and the ultimate lesson that a new humanity is predicated on a forgiveness that offers the world a different way of remembering. Many commentators say that Micah’s understanding of Hosea’s love is indeed about a tenacious love, a fierce love. It doesn’t let go easily. To forgive, to create spaces for another’s growth is ultimately also a profound expression of Hosea’s understanding of tenacious love. Forgiveness is nothing less. Herein is our piety deeply validated.
Following the examples that these letters have set – to strive for equality, on the basis of forgiveness and reconciliation – is a tall order. But we are not alone when we embark on this struggle. For God is with us. Yes, God is with us! And those who suffer and eke out an existence on the peripheries of our societies need not be alone either, because solidarity means that we live with sensitivity and support, alongside them. It means that we take up with them the issues that alienate and marginalise them; that they know we are with them because our vulnerable God is with us. In this endeavour, we can draw hope from the prophet Isaiah. Addressing circumstances in which the Israelites had been feeling despondent after their return from exile, and Jerusalem was in shambles, the prophet reminds the people that they needed to be persistent in their faith, and adds:
You who remind the Lord,
take no rest,
and give him no rest
until he establishes Jerusalem
and makes it renowned throughout the earth.
If we listen to the prophets, learn from the wisdom of others and allow our actions to validate our piety, then we open up to the core value of piety. But true piety does not mean that we have all the answers. It is a fallacy that we are often guilty of perpetrating. We often think that we have to have all the answers if we are to successfully lead people to God. Yet history shows that people come to God when we have run out of answers, because its then that people come to dwell in mystery and encounter the presence of God. That is the power of our walk with God, not to rely on answers but to be open to engaging the mystery, the rawness, the nakedness of the presence of God. The mystics of old would advise: ‘Just honour fully what you meet each day and you will find it drenched with grace and divinity.’
I leave the last word to the African saint, Augustine of Hippo, in his famous treatise on John. “I am about to lay aside this book, and you are going away, each to his own business. It has been good for us to share the common light, good to have enjoyed ourselves, good to have been glad together. When we part from one another let us not depart from Him.”
Archbishop Thabo Makgoba