Thursday 23 February 2023

A Homily for Ash Wednesday



St George's Cathedral

22nd FEBRUARY 2023

Readings: Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 51:1-17, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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

Thank you Mr Dean and your team, together with the Cathedral Churchwardens, for preparing for this service so well. I am always encouraged to be with you in this service as we begin a new season in the calendar, ending the season of the Epiphany and beginning that of Lent.

Every year, Ash Wednesday and Lent give us the opportunity to re-consider our dependence on God’s grace in transforming our lives for the better. This year our lives as South Africans have been turned upside down, so much so that it is hard to focus on what it means to work to transform them for the better, other than to pray for a quick solution to load-shedding and for relief from the effects of the floods that have displaced so many. 

Nonetheless, the size of the challenges that face our worshipping communities, our places of work and our families as a result of the scandalous gap between the rich and the poor underlines how totally dependent we are on God at this difficult time in our and our country's lives. 

Today's passage from Isaiah, written in captivity in Babylon, as well as the passage from Matthew, and the context in which we read them, remind us as never before the importance of discerning the times as we embark on our journey through Lent, Passion-tide and to Easter.

Ash Wednesday and Lent this year invite us to dig deeper, and to attempt to imitate the Holiness of God in our moral and ethical living in our society. As we contemplate how we should be working for the common good in our democracy, it is – perhaps as never before – a time for stock-taking, for deepening our faith, for repentance and renewal, and for focusing on God rather than seeking praise or affirmation for ourselves. 

Our efforts to fast and pray during Lent are important and necessary. But both of today's passages ask us not simply to reduce our consumption but rather pose a deeper question: to what end are we fasting and praying? They challenge us to move out of our comfort zones, and to repudiate conceit. They call on us to put God first, and in South Africa today to speak up and speak out against the abuse of God's children, the corruption which is disrupting our society, the exploitation and oppression of the powerless and the inequality of opportunity that afflicts the poor. And not only do they demand we speak up and speak out, they demand that we then do something about it.

To be more specific, the abuse we are called to speak out against this Lent includes in particular the scourge of gender-based violence. Against the backdrop of the surge in activism on this issue, it is deeply disturbing to see how many so-called celebrities are not adequately being called out for their misogyny. We are also called to speak out in particular against the corruption which plagues Eskom and the energy industry, such as in the supply of coal to power stations. 

In the international arena, we must remain relentless in speaking out against nations pursuing their national interests through aggression and war. After my visit to Ukraine at Christmas, of course we have to repudiate all aggressors but I reject the view that because we distrust the strategic designs of the West and especially of NATO, we should overlook the flagrant breach of the United Nations Charter by Russia's invasion of a sovereign nation. 

At the same time, those of us living in the Global South have reason to fear the escalating words of war coming from world leaders. As the United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, has said, it is not as if the world is sleepwalking into a wider war, we fear that it is doing so with its eyes wide open. The warlike rhetoric coming out of Europe raises the dreadful prospect of Europe and the West dragging us into yet another world war, with all the untold death and suffering it would bring. 

The issues around the invasion of Ukraine are difficult and contested, but on one thing we must be clear: as the Church, our calling as those who aspire to inherit the Kingdom promised by the Prince of Peace is, no matter the circumstances, to be active peace-makers, and constantly to refrain from being carried along by events into supporting death and destruction.

This Lent, let us recommit ourselves to being restorers and repairers of human dignity as we strive for the common good. Let us condemn violence against women and children with renewed vigour. Please pray for an end to political polarisation and for a common understanding of what it will take to renew our society. Pray that we will recognise that the chasm between the rich and poor cannot be tolerated any longer, and that we will act on that recognition.

As South Africans our New Struggle must seek to regain our moral compass, end economic inequality,  bring about equality of opportunity and realise the promises enshrined in our Constitution.  

Let us also re-dedicate ourselves to the struggle against greed, corruption, nepotism, and the lust for power; to the struggle against the pursuit of narrow self-interest, personal gain, status and material wealth – in short let us commit ourselves to the struggle for true justice, including economic justice. 

Put simply, as we enter Lent I invite you to turn to loving ways and become conduits of His peace.

God loves you, and so do I. God bless South Africa. Amen.

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