Posted by on August 31, 2021

Sermon by Kenneth Padley 29th August 2021

Readings: Deuteronomy 4.1-2,6-9; James 1.17-27; Mk 7.1-8,14-15,21-23

[This sermon is heavily informed by Chapter 8 of Tom Wright’s God in Public (2016)]

Mid afternoon on Thursday 15th January 2009, an Airbus A320 took off from La Guardia airport in the United States. Flight 1549 was due to head down the east coast to Charlotte in North Carolina. However, as the plane was climbing into the sky, just a few miles out of the airport, it struck a flock of geese. Feathers flew and the passengers heard a series of loud bangs. Both engines stopped. At this point, the plane was at a mere three thousand feet above the densely populated suburbs of New York City. The lead pilot, Chesley Sullenberger reviewed his situation. He rapidly knew that his only option was to attempt a landing on the Hudson River. Within a matter of seconds, he and his co-pilot performed dozens of small but significant tasks, shutting down some systems and activating others. The plane swung in a tight anti-clockwise arc before a descent onto the river. The time taken between take off and emergency landing was five precious minutes. Sullenberger then walked through the plane – now filling with water – to check that everyone had exited via the inflatable ramps. He even gave his shirt to a passenger who was in distress because of the winter cold.

In the days which followed, pundits described the survival of all 150 passengers and 5 crew with only minor injuries as nothing short of a miracle. Indeed, the film later made about the incident was called Sully: Miracle on the Hudson. Now while I wouldn’t want to exclude the possibility of divine intervention, suggestions of a miracle can downplay the enormous skill of Captain Sullenberger and his co-pilot. They had trained for years for just such an eventuality with the result that they calmly and professionally effected an emergency landing. They had a strength of character to secure a safe outcome for all concerned.

This point about strength of character opens a window onto today’s readings and in particular what they say about how we make good choices. I hope to show why this is so as over the next few minutes we explore the four basic systems for the conduct of ethics.

The first and perhaps most obvious form of ethics is that which is based on rules. In this system, an authority – political, religious or military – lays down a list of what people should and should not do. Participants are required to learn the rules and obey them to the best of their ability. This way of thinking heavily influenced the culture which gave birth to the Old Testament, as we heard in first reading from the book Deuteronomy:

[Moses spoke to the people and said], ‘So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe… You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the LORD your God with which I am charging you…

On the one hand we know that we need rules. On the other hand, rules can be a straightjacket. This is the critique which Jesus levels against the Pharisees in today’s gospel: while we might commend the corona-hygiene of their hand-washing, Jesus’ point is that the Pharisees are so focused on minutiae that they have lost sight of bigger principles.

Binary morality based on law codes is popular with folks like the Taliban. Anyone who looks back on the twentieth century knows the risks of totalitarianism. This is one of the reasons why I have been very concerned that those who have passed draconian statutes in the last eighteen months (for example about who might sit at my dinner table) should appreciate that they do so only for a clearly-communicated common good and for a strictly limited period of time. I note that the Council of European Churches is warning some members of the European Union not to use the coronavirus crisis as a cover for restricting religious freedoms.

Reacting against the strictures of such rules-based ethics are those who advocate the principle of ‘doing what comes naturally’. The instinct of many in the west is to let it all hang out and that the only guide to ethical choices should be what feels true to self. Alas, all sorts of problems ensue if we are guided merely by a culture of spontaneity and what feels authentic. None of us is perfect. Each of us is self-centred and this may take expression in greed, laziness, or unreliability. I therefore suggest that abandoning all rules-based ethics for the laissez faire alternative may bring as many problems as it does solutions.

So what about a middle way between these two opposites? This is the goal which is claimed by the third form of ethics, utilitarianism. Utilitarianism aims for the greatest happiness by the largest number of people. It sounds fine in theory doesn’t it?  However, in practice it can lead to some difficult situations. The traditional illustration is the ‘trolley dilemma’. Imagine a runaway railway carriage careering down the track. Five people are tied up on the line in the path of the oncoming vehicle. They will die unless an intervention is made. You have the power to pull a set of points and divert the trolley onto a siding. However, another person is tied up in the siding. The trolley dilemma doesn’t explain who has been doing all this fancy rope-work but it invites us to say whether we would pull that lever and change the points. Utilitarianism dictates that you must pull the lever and sacrifice the one in order to save the five. However, the opponents of such a choice argue that, if you make the switch, you become actively responsible for the death of the hitherto safe person in the siding. Moreover, in such tricky situations our mental calculus is likely to be swayed by self-interest or prejudice. What if the person in the siding is your wife or husband? (Note that I haven’t said which way this might influence your decision.)

Now I have no doubt that Captain Sullenberger wanted to achieve the best outcome for those on his plane and on the ground. However, this in itself would not have been enough to save any of them. What he had were skills and instincts honed by the decades of his professional career. This leads us to the fourth and highest form of morality: virtue ethics. Virtues are those qualities which are infused into us through hard graft. They train us to behave in a certain way. In the Christian tradition, virtues are also godly habits for which we should pray and which make us more like Jesus. Becoming virtuous is not something that happens in an instant. It is the task of a lifetime wrought through the grace of God, a process of sanctification, of becoming holy.

This is where our middle reading, the one from the epistle of James lands us. The reading begins, ‘Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.’ In other words, Christian acts of kindness and witness find their inspiration in the goodness of God and their example in the life of Jesus. It’s not to say that Christians will always get it right – heaven knows we sometimes get things so wrong! However, it is to assert a higher form of moral system which is more than the sum of the other three.

Bishop Tom Wright commends the lifelong shaping of our souls by virtue in this way: ‘when you become fluent in a language, you stop thinking about the rules of grammar, not because you’re getting them all wrong but because you’re getting them all right. At the same point, you are not forcing yourselves to do something peculiar, or, as we say, out of “character”. You have had to do a lot of that kind of hard work on the way to the destination, just like someone going into training for an athletics event. But now you’re doing what comes naturally – naturally, that is for someone who’s done all the hard work up front. And whereas utilitarianism would require you, under the sudden pressure of a moral or practical dilemma, to make complex calculations containing lots of unknowns, virtue has done the calculations long ago, and trusts that the unknowns will look after themselves. [Bishop Tom concludes that] What we have, in short, is the acquired facility… for acting in a particular way: the ingrained habit that makes particular patterns of life, thought, feeling and action appear natural, even though, to begin with they may have been anything but.’[1]  

The writer of the Letter of James knew that genuine hearers of God’s word become doers also. As Christians, we seek to grow in holiness, that strength of character which shapes us daily to become more like Jesus.

[1] God in Public, 136-37.

Posted in: Kenneth Padley, Sermons