This is a strange time, a strange week, and it will continue to be strange for long afterwards. For some it will mark the end of life; for many it will bring suffering to those seriously affected by illness, for the bereaved, for those who find their livelihoods threatened. The cry from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’[Mark 15:34] resounds in so many ways. Even the Church has been muted, for if we were to join together in worship, sharing the bread of life and the common cup the virus would spread all the faster.
Why has this happened to us, to your human family, O God? All I can do at this time is to give my own response upon which I have meditated in lonely walks across the fields, watching the trees and bushes burst into life, hearing the joyous dawn chorus of the birds enjoying the freedom of the spring, and even at home the sparrows flock together and chirp to each other, certainly not ‘alone upon the house top’.[Psalm 102:7]
For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land. [Song of Solomon 2:11-12]
As my favourite book in the Bible puts it, though sadly the turtle dove is no longer much heard in our land, the result both of the desiccation of the bird’s winter haunts and persecution by humans on its migration. And that brings me to the theme of this homily. Before we accuse God, should we not rather accuse ourselves, human beings? Virtually all human organisations are simply concerned with themselves or with other humans. The Church worries about the size of human congregations inside the church rather than with the whole Creation, mainly centred outside its walls. For me the tranquil churchyard of St Margaret’s [tranquil that is apart from the constant roar of the traffic on the A34] symbolises all that wider creation, and reminds me that the whole earth should be holy ground.
How did this pandemic begin? It started in a scene from hell, a Chinese ‘wet market’ in Wuhan, China where wild animals of all sorts and domestic animals (including dogs and cats) are sold and slaughtered in scenes of intolerable cruelty. It is said that the epidemic spread from bats via snakes sold in the market and spread to humans. However, before we single out a single nation for blame, consider how we treat other creatures as commodity in intensive, factory farming; pigs who in the past have given us Swine flu, poultry, which have spread Bird flu, Cattle and hence ‘Mad cow disease’. We have been warned. Indeed, the Bible warns us: Easter corresponds quite neatly this year with Jewish Pesach, in which the Exodus is recalled. In the book of Numbers, we read of how the children of Israel feasted on quails,
And while the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the wrath of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord smote the people with a very great plague. [Numbers 11:33].
I suspect that they died of botulism. In fact, we find in the Bible again and again, the world of nature punishing the human species who alone abuse it. The plagues of Egypt include visitations by frogs, lice, flies and locusts and in the books of Joel and of Amos locusts devastate the land at God’s behest.
Apart from deliberate acts of unspeakable cruelty for which nobody in our congregations is I trust guilty, we all abuse the environment in our greed and in our desire for domination, by which I mean the urge to possess which of course advertisers cater for. Many of our desires, car and plane journeys for example pollute the atmosphere and are also agents of climate change. What we eat (and this, to a degree, even applies to vegans results in landscape despoliation, inevitable in the light of our too burgeoning population: where was that soya, or indeed other crops, grown, and how has our agriculture diminished the life chances of other species? God’s command to humans ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ [Genesis 1:28], has to have limits, if we are not to court disaster. Creation was never just about us, and this is reiterated in the Hebrew Bible from the first chapter of Genesis, and finds its most magnificent expression in Psalm 104 and the final chapters of the book of Job. Yes, the animals matter as much as us, hard as it is for a species so very used to having its own way taking this to heart. Other species live for themselves, and certainly not for the benefit of homo sapiens! I often find myself quoting verses from Isaiah which for me sums up the extent of our sin against heaven and against earth:
The earth mourneth and fadeth away, the world languisheth and fadeth away, the haughty people of the earth do languish.
The earth also is defiled under the inhabitants thereof: because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant. [Isaiah 24:4-5].
It is Good Friday: Jesus Christ, the Wisdom of God, came to earth to save us from our greed and our pride, but did we listen? He came to save us from our cruelty, and we nailed him to a cross.
Today we look back to all the plans of only a couple of months ago to increase our impact on our ravaged planet. What price now on extra airport runways, extra roads, extra railways and all just for us? What price now on our armaments for war, when a little virus, released through our own lack of respect for our ‘common home’ as Pope Francis rightly describes our planet in his great encyclical, Laudato si’, has brought our plans to naught?
‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? I hope we can begin to see why.