Saturday, 3 April 2021

Celebrating Easter while waiting for Covid vaccines

The text of the sermon preached at the Easter Vigil at St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town, Easter 2021:

Lections: Romans 6:3-11; Ps 114; Mark 16:1-8

Alleluia! Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Mr Dean, Cathedral staff, clergy, wardens, lay leaders, choristers and members of the congregation both here and online, and I want to call you Canon Andile [Weeder], because you are enabling us to project and ensure that we all hear the word of God. Thank you for your dedication and support at this difficult time in our lives. Thank you for who you are and for what you do for God and God’s people in this city and beyond. And thank you all for being here tonight. I also want to wish my predecessor, Archbishop Njongonkulu, a happy birthday - he turned 80 yesterday.

[Text continues below video]

Our readings this evening speak of transformation, the transformation of our lives, firstly through our baptism, as Paul explains to the Romans, and then through the Resurrection of our Lord in Mark’s account, that saving act of God which assures us that death does not have the last word, that life ultimately triumphs over death. 

Mark is very deliberate in the way he frames the Easter narrative. He says, very poignantly, “early in the morning, the first day of the week, the sun had just risen.” He is clear that there is a definitive shift out of darkness, out of the shadows of the past week, a week characterised by betrayal, denials, death, the brutal display of state power, and the desire of religious authorities to destroy a force that was disruptive for them. Something new has dawned; the entrance to a tomb blocked by a stone is now a space filled with good news, delivered by an angel sitting on the right-hand side, the place of power and authority, assuring the women that the crucifixion was not the end of the story, that Jesus “is risen and gone before you.”

Note that the angel doesn’t send the women to Jerusalem, the site of political and religious power, but instead to Galilee, to the margins, the place in which Jesus’s ministry had brought transformation. It was in Galilee that a little girl was raised to life. It was in Galilee that the strength of the faith of believers was such that they made a hole in a roof through which to lower a sick man into Jesus’s presence. It was in Galilee that Jesus changed water into wine to spare embarrassment to a couple at a wedding. It was a place where those doomed to the margins of society, unnoticed by elites, were taken out of the shadows and transformed by Jesus. And the angel tells the women to go back to Galilee, where they will meet the Risen Lord, who continues to work miracles, to transform situations, to give voice to those on the margins and to bring the hope of Easter. 

In many ways the past year has been a time of darkness. It has been gruelling, a year of grief and anxiety, a year of challenge and adaptation in which we have had to rethink the way we do things. The long months of lockdown have been hard for many, especially for the women and children who are victims of domestic and gender-based violence. Competition for resources has added to racial tensions. And the suffering continues for those impoverished by the lockdown, those who have lost jobs, whose businesses have been destroyed, whose dreams have been shattered. Even as humankind achieved new heights in a ground-breaking mission to Mars, the pandemic has forcefully reminded us that our human existence is conditional, impermanent and reliant on the infinite grace of the God we worship.

The stresses created by the pandemic have sadly sometimes brought out the worst in us. There are those who have stolen from the common purse, who have plumbed the depths of the scandalous corruption in our society, who have stolen the very breath of those struggling to breathe in intensive-care units. They have denied others, especially the poor, the means to cope with the effects of the pandemic. Their behaviour is all the more sad when we think back on how we hoped that by throwing us together to face a common crisis, the pandemic would make us rise to the occasion by creating a different future. 

Across the world we spoke of different economic models, of systemic ways of caring, of respectful relationships and honouring difference. But with time we seem to have slipped into a business-as-usual approach where the few benefit and the many suffer. We stand accused of missing the moment and condemning our sisters and brothers, and the earth which nurtures us, to relentless injustice and human wrong. In our own country we see again how our democracy is being tested, how constitutionalism stands at the crossroads and how too many with power abuse it to their own selfish ends.

And yet – and yet, we recall again the good that we have seen emerge from this crisis, the sacrifices of frontline health workers, of those who ensure that we have food on our tables and keep our environment clean, of all who take great risks and with generosity of spirit have kept us going. Their dedication is perhaps epitomised best by those in hospitals and other institutions who have gone above and beyond their everyday duties, and have taken the trouble to hold up cellphones to enable those who are ill or dying to speak to members of their families. 

Above all, we can celebrate the achievements of the world’s scientists, who have achieved the extraordinary feat of developing, in record time, vaccines to fight a pandemic which threatened to destroy us all. We owe much to our scientists, including the world-class researchers South Africa has brought to this task. 

Now that we know science can beat Covid-19, we face the next big challenge: to live up to the highest ideals of our different faiths and moral codes, and to ensure that everyone, whether rich or poor, whether they live in Africa or in Europe, are vaccinated quickly. The scientists have done and continue to do their work splendidly; now it is for leaders in other fields, in government, in the pharmaceutical industry, in the transport business, to match the achievements of the scientists and to find ways of rolling out vaccines which ensure that the citizens of every country on earth receive their jabs at a similar rate. 

Internationally, the prospects are looking bad. Vaccine nationalism has already taken hold. A quick check this week showed that while the United States had vaccinated 16 percent of its population, we had covered less than half a percent of ours, and many countries haven’t seen vaccines at all. As I told Dr Fauci in a recent letter, the voluntary vaccine supply mechanisms, such as COVAX, and the bi-lateral agreements used to procure vaccines across the world, are failing. And they are failing especially for the Global South, where we can with justification say that the poor of the world are suffering from vaccine apartheid. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement this week that agreements with pharmaceutical companies will bring us enough doses to vaccinate 41 million of our people, and that the most vulnerable among us will begin receiving our jabs in the middle of May, is welcome. But in view of the fragility of some of our health insfrastructure, the President will understand if I am sceptical of how quickly the roll-out will progress. Those covered by the private healthcare industry and on medical aids can feel more confident. But I am worried that, as is often the case, it is the poor and the marginalised who will suffer. 

We know very well that there are large areas of our country where political corruption has poisoned public healthcare systems. We know that political leadership has been woefully lacking in the worst areas affected: shame on those who have left hospitals and clinics short of people, equipment and protection. I have read that on the current strategy it would take 18 years to vaccinate our entire present population! We cannot allow that to happen.

Make no mistake: we are a world-class country. Our medical scientists are world-class. Ten years ago, we built world-class soccer stadiums and ran a world-class World Cup. Distributing and administering vaccines is not rocket science: it’s just a matter of getting the logistics right. If humankind can send a spacecraft 470 million kilometres to Mars and gently drop a landing rover onto the planet’s surface, surely South Africans can come up with a co-ordinated plan to collaborate in getting vaccines quickly to every corner of our country? 

It is time for the unheard, the unlistened to, the unnoticed and the young in South Africa to draw on the hope that Easter gives us, and to raise their voices. Insist that those who have power and resources, including government and business, come up with a clear, achievable, published timetable for getting everyone their vaccines. 

My call today, to all people of faith, and those of no faith, is: we are never alone; let us renew our determination, let us remember our resilience, let us bemoan the corruption which brings death, let us weep for the 52,000 people who have died in the pandemic so far. But above all, let us challenge our government to be transparent and fair in the roll-out, for while vaccines will not do away with Covid-19, they will help us cope better with it. And let us take those vaccines as soon as they become available. 

Let us also challenge vaccine nationalism - you can't put a flag on the vaccine and hope that the virus will not cross borders – and let us challenge the vaccine apartheid practised by those who play God and determine who is condemned to suffer and die on the cross of coronavirus. Let us fight against those with money and who are greedy, who put profits above human life, and who determine who can have access to a vaccine and who not.

Easter provides answers to the deepest questions of the human spirit. Easter provides a degree of certainty and answers to questions that have puzzled the probing minds of philosophers and theologians over the generations. This is the Easter message. It says that love is the most durable power in the world; that we will solve Covid; that we will get our families, friends and neighbours vaccinated. And through a devotion to equality and justice we will solve all our problems and challenges. 

Easter says we can live with hope. Hope, says Denise Ackermann, is not a “blithe sense that all will end well (or alles sal regkom)”. Rather, to live out hope “is to try to make that which I hope for come about – sooner rather than later.” Every time we take action aimed at giving practical expression to our hopes, we join the journey to Galilee and we honour the command of the angel at the tomb to “Go and tell.” If we don’t take up this challenge the peddlers of fake news and false hopes will colonise people’s hearts with untruths that lengthen the time in the tomb. 

Now is the moment for boldness, to retake those places where once death held sway and say “He is not here, He has gone before you.” Into all those places we must take our Easter anthems of alleluias because whatever else has occurred, the tomb is empty. Therein lies our ultimate hope. Amen, alleluia. 

God bless you, your families and God bless South Africa. 

And most importantly, remember…God loves you and so do I. 


Friday, 2 April 2021

A Homily for Good Friday

 Reflection on the Via Dolorosa, recorded for a Good Friday Service arranged by the SA Council of Churches on SABC2: 

 May I speak in the name of God, who is our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen

 I've been asked to reflect on the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Suffering which Jesus followed on that original Good Friday as he carried his cross to Golgotha, helped only by an African, Simon of Cyrene.

 [Transcript continues below video]

 

For all of us in South Africa and the world, I dare say that we have all been given heavy crosses to carry in this past year. Reflecting on the account of Jesus's walk to the place of his crucifixion in Mark, Chapter 15 verses 16 to 21, it was a journey of betrayal, a journey of suffering, a journey of demeaning others, a journey of grief and a journey of sorrow. 

But in the Christian tradition, drawing on Paul's words in Philippians Chapter 3, verses 10 and 11, we read that journey as one that helps us to know Christ; to share in his suffering by becoming like him in death, and then to know the power of his resurrection. Just as Paul at one and the same time shares both the suffering of the Cross and the joyful triumph of the Resurrection, this has been the experience of all of us, at least in this past year, and no doubt throughout many years for some of us.

We have seen during the time of the pandemic both death and life at work in many different ways. In a Christmas message I said that in the past year my mind and heart have been flooded with the lives, the hardships, the challenges and the resilience of everyone I have encountered; everyone whom I think of, whom I cry for and whom I pray for every day. And I recall especially those who have died, whose names and faces I will never forget; those who died without saying goodbye to their loved ones. I remember also those whose families are going hungry, those who have had struggles beyond the usual challenges they face, and those, dear friends, for whom the stringent lockdowns have brought enormous psychological problems. And let us never forget the victims of gender-based violence, the incidence of which has gone up during the pandemic. 

So we have faced our fair share of trials in the past year, experiencing just a little of what Jesus must have suffered on the via dolorosa: the mocking, the spitting and the beating. Like the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, we have carried these trials, these charges and this suffering. In South Africa in the past year, these crosses were not only carried by Christians. They were carried by people of all faiths, and of no faith. Today, as the South African Council of Churches, the Anglican Church, other member  churches, as people of faith, we pause today and want to say:

“Thank you, God, you were in solidarity with us, for you were in solidarity with Christ in those painfully lonely, dying moments. And you're in solidarity with us through the crosses we carry, for within those crosses lie our redemption and victory and hope.”

We are never alone. We were crucified with Christ and we will be raised with Christ. Paul, in a beautifully poetic manner, says in the Letter to the Colossians that through the Cross of Jesus Christ, God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in Heaven by making peace through the blood of the Cross. 

So my call today, to all people of faith and no faith, is: we are never alone; let us renew our determination, let us remember our resilience, let us bemoan the corruption which brings death, let us weep for the 52,000 people who have died in the pandemic so far. Let us reflect on the thorns around Jesus Christ's head, and remember our own thorns which have brought pain to our hearts and souls during this past year. 

Let us renew our resolve that we will speak out and really speak up for the people of Cabo Delgado in Mocambique and for the people of Tigray in Ethiopia. Let us speak out on the issue of the world's climate, for the changes in climate are impacting most severely those who are contributing least to those changes. 

Let us challenge our government to be transparent and fair in the roll-out of vaccines, for although they will not do away with Covid-19, they will help us as humanity to cope better with Covid. And let us take those vaccines as soon as they become available. Equally, let us join the voices of those who are calling for vaccines to be free, or at least affordable, and easily accessible. Let us challenge the pharmaceutical industry in Africa to manufacture vaccines ourselves – I am sure we can make more drugs ourselves instead of importing them. 

Let us also challenge vaccine nationalism - you can't put a flag on the vaccine and hope that the virus will not cross borders. Let us challenge the vaccine apartheid practised by those who play God and determine who is condemned to suffer and die on the cross of coronavirus. Let us fight against those with money and who are greedy, who put profits above human life, and who determine which people can have access to a vaccine and which not.

Dear friends, as Christians, as people of faith, as people of hope: 

We know that the Cross repaired the damage that was caused by frail and sinful human beings. It transfigured all that our sins had marred. It rescued the lost. It mended the broken-hearted and it healed the wounded. So let us hold onto our trust in God, for Good Friday leads to Easter. The Cross leads to eternal life. The darkness of sin is transformed by the body of Christ. And we too are saved, even in a time of coronavirus.

God bless you, and God bless South Africa. Amen.