Scripture for this Sunday: Romans 6.12-23; Matthew 10.40-42
The beaches in Menorca are – at the moment – mostly well-spaced and clean, the cleanliness being the result of volunteer effort. It’s rather a contrast with the crowded scenes from the south coast of England last weekend – and images the following day of litter and rubbish left behind.
There was some suggestion that families who went to the beach deserved some tolerance, having been “cooped up in their homes for weeks with their children,” and that they “deserved the opportunity to go to the beach.” Maybe. Or maybe it could have been a teaching opportunity: “Look, kids, I know we said that we would go to the beach, but it would be irresponsible to join a huge crowd, so we are not doing it. Sorry about the broken promise, but there are priorities.”
During the quarantine period there has been a refreshing breathing space, which many people hoped would carry forward into the ‘new normal,’ and not be dumped in favour of a return to previous ways. The virus is still around; and the earth deserves to be treated with respect. Brighton beach on Monday morning would suggest that we still have a lot to do, as we persist in placing our own desires before the responsibilities that go with our freedom.
The Apostle Paul, writing to the church in Rome, speaks about being freed from sin and ‘slaves to righteousness.’ In many ways, we are still very much slaves to the ways of this world. This is part of a broader challenge, whereby we are challenged to resist being cajoled into thinking that we should aspire to satisfy every personal desire. This manifests itself in rampant materialism and consumerism.
We have to ask ourselves: are our day-to-day values consistent with the values of our faith, or not? What we need is to take advantage of the point of inflection in this stage of humanity, this breathing space, to do what the New Testament repeatedly encourages us to do: turn around. Repent. The Apostle Paul promises that we can be set free. We can become new creations, no longer bound by what marketers or ego or envy tells us we cannot live without.
The world is at a moment of acute risk – but also opportunity. In the past month, 200 companies and 56 charities in the UK have come together to campaign for us to ‘Build Back Better.’ In the gospel, Jesus encourages us to take care of one another, to be the providers of the ‘cup of cold water’ to those who need it. But at the beginning of the passage, he says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me.” Ours are the faces through which others see the face of Christ. Is the face that we present one that shows that we are willing to be set free from the chains of consumerism and materialism? Is the face that we present thinking about the plastic bottles of water that we purchase for ourselves, and then discard, in terms of the cost paid by people whom we thereby deprive of their cup of cold water, whose water is bottled for a pittance and sold to fuel corporate profit?
Do we want to be freed and made new? Because the prerequisite is that we do turn around. It would be nice if repentance stretched to giving us the results of equitable and just distribution of resources, cleaner air and water, less pollution, and less rubbish on our beaches.
Bournemouth and Brighton beaches last weekend might not be the full story about the post-pandemic reassessment of consumerism and self-interest. But sadly, they might be a worrying indicator that there is some way to go before we manage to love our neighbours as ourselves, and not put our own wants before the needs of others.