Scripture Readings: 1 John 3.16-24
‘Not just words and talk’
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Some time ago, an episode of David Attenborough’s latest series Blue Planet II seemed to make an incredible impression on people. It showed, graphically, the mess we are making of the oceans. Two thirds of the planet is covered by oceans. In the complex ecosystem of Planet Earth, healthy water is essential for a healthy planet- all life depends on it. But we are in danger if slowing killing the seas and the life within them. But way far out to sea, there is tons of plastic floating in the ocean. Not only is it unsightly- it’s dangerous to sea creatures of all kinds. The Blue Planet series was a reminder of how we have failed in out stewardship of creation.
For plastic is not really a natural material. It’s made from oil, that we do things to in refineries it to produce a material which is virtually indestructible. We used to use bags made of canvas, leather, or paper- bags we used again and again, and which, when they reached the end of their life, was biodegradable- that is, they broke down in the ground, for they are made of natural materials. But it’s really, really hard to destroy a plastic bag.
We used to get water from the tap, or a drinking fountain. But somehow we were lulled into buying water in plastic bottles which are used once, thrown away, and which will float in the ocean forever. We used to put coffee in proper cups that would be washed and used over and over again. We used to give children paper straws which, once used, would rot in the ground. We used to buy cola in bottles which you took back to the shop to collect a deposit on, so they could be reused.
But we have got used to a throwaway culture. Use it once and throw it away. And when we throw things away, they are out of sight, and usually out of mind. Until you come across a huge rubbish tip despoiling a scenic landscape- or go to the beach and start to find plastic all over the place. Eight million tons of plastic goes into the ocean every year, David Attenborough told his viewers: stuff which too easily, poisons or kills the birds, animals and fish which depend on the sea.
Since the episode was broadcast, there has been lots of reaction. Now we are hearing anew calls to use plastic less and less. Since a plastic toothpick can kill and albatross chick, why not switch back to wooden ones? Politicians and businesses, reacting to public concerns, have said they would ban plastic straws and throwaway cups. It seems we might be changing our ways- and thinking about the impact our lives have on the rest of God’s good creation.
Or are we?
It was a sunny bank holiday last weekend- I hope you got out to enjoy it! But afterwards, I saw a picture which shocked me. It was a picture of the beach at Brighton after the Bank Holiday crowds had left. But it looked less like a beach and more like a rubbish dump.
Apparently there was 20 tonnes of litter taken off the beach by the local council after the Bank Holiday. Twenty tons of rubbish- much of it plastic, left behind to be forgotten. Apparently we have not, yet, given our throwaway culture. We all know that there is a problem with rubbish in the seas- and yet many people thoughtlessly left their litter on a beach, for goodness sake!
At the end of Luke’s Gospel, the risen Christ meets his disciples one final time. And he gives them a charge: they are the ones who will now take his message to the world:
‘…the message about repentance and the forgiveness of sins must be preached to all nations’.
Repentance means turning around, changing the direction of our lives. And often we understand that in personal terms. So the Christian message is that people must turn from their sins, turn to God, turn their lives around so that they can find forgiveness they need to make a new start at living a better life. Did people watch Blue Planet II and repent? Well, many people on Brighton Beach last weekend apparently didn’t, and carried on as usual, abandoning and forgetting their rubbish- leaving it to the council, or the incoming tide, to take away what they couldn’t be bothered to take home or put in a bin.
Repentance is a personal act. We all of us, as individuals, need to turn out lives around. Leaving plastic on a beach is a sin against creation. But we also need to be looking for the sort of change in society which- maybe- can begin to happen if we take the message of the Blue Planet II seriously. It needs and government and industry also to act, so that we are not constantly getting plastic, throwaways stuff foisted on us. The recent law to make us pay for plastic bags in shops was a good move in that direction: it reminds us every times we shop of our personal responsibility for the state of the ocean.
For repentance is for both individuals and society. We need to change our personal lives, and work to change the way society is going. Luke’s Gospel is right to tell us that we need to repent: for we need to repent if we are to save ourselves, and our planet. We cannot go on the way we have been doing. The throwaway culture will not do. We need to repent of thinking only of ourselves, and not of the consequences. All people- all nations- need to turn away- repent- from those things which are causing us to harm our planet.
What I like about Christian Aid Week is that it reminds us of our personal responsibility to work for changes in the wider world. In the First Letter of John we read,
If we are rich and see others in need, yet close our hearts against them, how can we claim that we love God? My children, our love should not be just words and talk; it must be true love, which shows itself in action.
Yesterday we came together at our Coffee Morning for Christian Aid. We ate scones, we bought plants, we bought baking, we enjoyed each other’s company- and we did so for the sake of some of the poorest people in the world.
This coming week, many of you will tramp the streets of our parish to collect for Christian Aid. And you will do so for the sake of some of the poorest people in the world. All of this is truly ‘love which shows itself in action’, as St John calls it. After all, he says,
If we are rich and see others in need, yet close our hearts against them, how can we claim that we love God?
Talking about the love of God, enjoying the love of God, claiming to be followers of Christ- all is just talk, if we don’t put our faith into action. For true love is love that shows itself in action.
Poverty in our world is something we think is beyond us, as individuals, to fix. In a way, it is- it needs society, governments, businesses to turn around, repent, and change things so that people are not left in dire need. Yet we can make a difference as individuals- which is why we support Christian Aid in this congregation.
As well as helping people in poverty directly, Christian Aid campaigns on issues such as tax justice. Why campaign about tax? Because many multinational companies avoid tax in poor countries through complicated arrangements, often involving tax havens (many of which are British territories like the Cayman Islands). The companies make their money from activities like mining in these countries, but don’t contribute to roads, security, education, health care and all the other things which governments provide to their people through the taxes they raise. Companies avoiding tax in this way are contributing to poverty in places where they are taking out profits. Organisations such as the UN and the IMF have estimated that developing countries lose between $100billion and $300billion every year to tax dodging. These funds could be used to provide clean water, healthcare, education and many other essentials that we take for granted, and which in developing countries can make the difference between life and death.
Complicated tax rules, and a veneer of secrecy, allows all this to happen. This ethical issue is simple- these big companies ought to pay their way. Change is complicated- but even we as individuals can help, by taking part in campaigning and calling on government to change the rules. For repentance is not just for individuals. The message of God’s justice must go out to all nations. The poorest in the world don’t deserve to be treated in this way. When we are able to find ways to campaign and protest for a more just world, then our love is no longer just words and talk, but true love, which shows itself in action.
And when we give directly to Christian Aid, through our donations and activities, change for the better also happens. Listen to this story:
Vilia and her family lived in Port-au-Prince when the earthquake hit Haiti in 2010. Her home was destroyed, and her mother was killed. Vilia went back to her hometown in the south of Haiti with her husband and seven children. But life was a struggle, and they had nowhere safe to stay.
Christian Aid’s partner KORAL realised how dire Vilia’s situation was, and reached out to help her. KORAL (which is funded by your Christian Aid contributions) built her a new home, one safe and strong enough to stand up to natural disasters.
On that terrifying night in 2016 when Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti, Vilia’s house was the only one in her area sturdy enough to survive. One by one, her neighbours ﬂed to her house and she welcomed them in. Fifty-four people sheltered safely from the hurricane in Vilia’s house – she potentially saved fifty-four lives that night. ‘I formed a chain of solidarity so that we could eat together, share with each other and sleep together, until they went back to their own homes, or found a shelter,’ she said.
Vilia is incredibly grateful for the help she’s received, and she’s used her new home to help others. Faced with incredibly difficult challenges, Vilia finds her strength in God: ‘I stay connected with God, I pray. I pray every time something like this happens. You have to put your knees on the ground, pray and call out to God. Only God can do anything in these situations. There’s nothing that our God cannot do.’
‘If we are rich and see others in need, yet close our hearts against them, how can we claim that we love God?’ asks John’s Epistle. Vilia’s neighbours were in need when the hurricane hit, and with her ‘chain of solidarity’ and generosity of spirit, she saved them by welcoming into her house. And that strong house was part built by you and me- everyone who donates to and works to raise money for Christian Aid. When we fundraise for and give to Christian Aid, then our love is no longer just words and talk, but true love, which shows itself in action.
The risen Christ gave his disciples a mission- to take this message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins to all nations. Christians have carried that message in all sorts of ways to all kinds of places. And it’s a message which is most attractive to other people when they realise that it is about love. Our God is a loving God- he loved us so much he sent us his Son. Now his Son sends us to take love into the world.
Now, that is a big task. It is hard to do, and we often think we are not successful at it. But that is the mission of the Church- to call people to repentance. Repentance is when we make a change, in our lives, and in the wider world. We have to do that if our live better lives, if the world is to be saved from destruction due to our polluting it, if we to help make the world a fairer place by challenging and combating poverty.
Jesus once said, ‘If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples’ (John 13.35). For people will take Christianity seriously only when, we St John puts it, we put our love into action. God grant us the grace and strength to be people who put our words into action, so that out of faith will come ‘true love, which shows itself in action’.
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2018 Peter W Nimmo