November 17, 2002
Ordinary Sunday 33 Matt 25:14-15, 19-29 1 Thessalonians 5:1-10
I was intrigued to read in yesterday's paper of a Christian man who heads up an ethical investment fund; a born again Christian man, no less.
He invests according to what he sees as the morals of the Bible. So he'll have nothing to do with products tied to alcohol, tobacco, gambling, pornography or abortion. Gun makers and arms contractors are alright because the Bible says you should defend yourself. And instead of the alcohol, tobacco, pornography and abortion products, he invests in McDonalds, Burger King and Wendys because (I guess) they are wholesome family companies. It seems his Bible's morals have no issue with slave labour or the health of our children, nor with a globalised economy where the rich get richer.
Its no wonder that society generally holds the belief that Christianity has a black and white, if inconsistent, morality. And so it was no surprise that a journalist rang me yesterday to ask more about my attitude to the decriminalisation of prostitution, after our latest e-zine hit the streets. She wondered how a Christian could support such a move in the light of the morality of our faith. Isn't it like night and day, she said, to foster sex work? I suggested to her that the morality question is secondary, that this is about an ethic of retrieval. Prostitution, and gambling for that matter, are here to stay. The question is how we can retrieve fragile situations and regulate them for the safest and healthiest outcome?
Today's Epistle reading is a lead-in to Advent, and uses analogies of light and dark, as if there are such neat categories. Morality is not central, as it changes constantly. Our Advent challenge is to live reality, to allow the edges to shift and change and to hold on to what is the centre.
Having just had six weeks off, I stand before you today with new energy and greater clarity. The past weeks have been filled with reflection on what is the centre for me. It came in the form of a word. The word was 'authentic'. With nothing to prove, no-one to impress, simply living in the present. Other people's expectations, stereotypes, judgments in their rightful place. A church which is authentic enough to stand naked before each other in our struggles.
On September 11 2001, The then Archbishop of Wales, Rowan Williams, was in New York to deliver the Hobart Lecture at Trinity Cathedral on Wall St. He arrived for a television interview at 9am, to begin at 9.30. Moments after arriving the unthinkable took place. The Archbishop was herded with the crowds into a stair well where the smoke almost overwhelmed them. As an indication of the desperation one of the guests turned to Rowan and said, "I can't think of anyone with whom I'd rather die." They all thought it was the end.
The Archbishop was asked to pray, and he read the anxieties of the group and put them in words which filled the room with calm. It was the first of a series of impromptu prayers and speeches and dialogues he was to engage in that week. They all spoke to pain and doubt as he opened his own life to these people. His was an authentic presence in New York City that fateful week. Fred Burnham from Trinity wrote about his experience of the Archbishop in an article entitled The Power Of Authentic Theology: "Following the Eucharist and lunch, he got up to deliver an endowed lecture on "Pastoral Theology," that he had probably spent weeks preparing. Once again, he set his text aside and spoke to the moment. He admitted that he had been scared to death the day before. Then he proceeded to argue that the apprehension of death and the experience of vulnerability are the wellspring of compassion and the rudimentary teachers of sound and authentic pastoral theology. Throughout the rest of the week as Archbishop Williams visited our seminary and other parishes, he continued to put his text aside and practice the authentic theology which he had espoused in the Hobart Lecture. When I put him on the plane back to Wales on Friday, I knew that his powerful presence in New York during that angry and fearful week had brought healing to many a shattered soul."
As we approach Advent we are reminded of the God who arrives into our world, always and constantly into our present when we least expect that it is possible to find calm and walks alongside us through the dark moments of pain. In that we might just have our centre regarding sex work and the law. Not morals, but walking alongside a minority group who face great oppression due to a lack of regulation in their industry. Walking alongside in authentic humanity.
Enough about social issues. We have our own personal issues currently. We face the possibility of church without Michael Earthy at the helm of so much which is crucial to our future. There is nothing I can say to ease the anxiety that we feel about Michael at the moment. There's nothing we can say to him which explains why he is suffering. There's no glib reassurances that St Matthew's will be fine without its rock of so many years. All we have is our ability to live authentically, acknowledge our fears and walk alongside one another through to clarity.
I offer to you as an Advent theme for this year - the power of authentic living, here and now in the present, God's way.
Allow the edges to shift and move, hold on to the centre.
Ian Lawton Vicar, St Matthew-in-the-City