Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon in Freetown, Sierra Leone
Tuesday 16th December 2014Read the sermon preached by Archbishop Justin Welby yesterday at St George’s Cathedral in Freetown, Sierra Leone, during his visit to the country amid the Ebola outbreak.
I cannot find words to say how grateful I am to be able to be with you, even for such a short time. Your suffering and your endurance across the afflicted countries have echoed around the world. Those who fight Ebola have been named by Time magazine as people of the year. But it is not only the medical teams: you lead as clergy and community leaders in sharing the suffering and grief of the people.
I come here in grief for you and with you – an easy thing to say because I am not staying long. At the very least may this visit by myself, and one of our cabinet ministers, Justine Greening, be the sign that you are not forgotten. In our churches and mosques in England we pray for you, long for good news, and are in pain because of your pain.
I was anxious to share with you the grief that is experienced in this region and especially in Sierra Leone – a country that has already faced such grief and suffering over the years. But so much of that grief was the result of evil human action. The enemy was visible, the cause obvious.
Now the enemy is invisible, literally within a person’s body, and the very actions of love – to embrace, to wash, to care practically for the dead and dying – have become the very actions that the virus uses to spread its effects.
In moments like this, when the world is suddenly more than normally a cruel and pitiless place, we must turn to God, and we must turn not with our answers only, but with our questions and our grief.
First, we must remember something that, Christian and Muslim, we hold to be true. It is at this time of year that we celebrate the coning of Jesus, and in the Christian year that we remind ourselves that we believe he will come again in triumph to be our judge. At that point Christians believe that all injustice will be set right, all suffering ended, and the reign of God seen.
In his first coming Jesus came in weakness and vulnerability. He was born among the poor, in a stable. He was born as a baby, crying, every need to be met by his parents and especially by Mary – in her we see obedience to the unpredictable events of God. She says to the angel, “Let it be to me as God chooses.”
That simple sentence made it certain that she would suffer – yet she trusted her future to God who is faithful, whose ways are just.
Because Jesus came to be with us and save us, so must the world come alongside you to support the doctors and hospitals and volunteers and people of this land who seek to love those caught by Ebola. The UK has started and is doing what it can, but we must do more. Many medical practitioners are volunteering to come. In the UK we are encouraging the Government to pursue the courageous policy it has begun and continue to support you.
But there is more. In the book of the prophet Isaiah, God begins his message of mercy through the prophet by saying, “Comfort, comfort my people.”
The suffering of this world is inescapable. In our suffering we cry out to God and seek His love. As Christians we call out and challenge him when he seems not to answer. The psalmist does the same.
And His answer is always of love and compassion. All suffering ends, and it ends in the victory of God over all human misery, the liberation of the poor and the vulnerable, justice seen on the earth.
What comfort is there here? You have the comfort of each other. This is one of the few parts of the world that can boast rightly of good relationships between Muslims and Christians. I pray that you will be strong in your love and support for each other.
The world is full of sin and evil, and my prayer for you is that, faced with the evil of Ebola, you will demonstrate that in each other you see that there is human dignity given by God, a dignity which you treasure.
You have the comfort of hope. God is faithful and especially faithful to the poor and the sick, those suffering unjustly through the events of life. In the Gospel of St Matthew, at the end of time Jesus judges those who have loved the sick and the poor and those who have failed to do so. Hope comes to us not because we have solutions, but because God is undefeated. I pray that you will have renewed hope.
You have the comfort of the compassion of God. Why is there suffering? Often we do not know and have no easy answers. As Christians we believe that Jesus suffered. We know that the suffering of war and disease is common to the whole world. If Jesus suffered so will we, and yet in our suffering we can call upon God and find him with us.
He calls others to our aid, filling them with his compassion. He is, in the end, powerful and sovereign. The all-ruling God before whom every knee shall bow and every power of this life will be humbled.
I find myself struggling to know what to say. If I am asked in the next week what was the most important part of Christmas for me this year I will say it was to be with you here, and last week with those suffering from war in the South Sudan.
Your presence is a generous gift, of which I am entirely unworthy. Your faces will be before me in my mind on Christmas day. Your needs will be in my prayers. But far more importantly you are remembered at every moment by God, who is faithful and will bring comfort.