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Sunday September 21, 2008, Saint Matthew the Apostle
Parish Communion, St Mary's Church, Barton-on-Humber
Written and delivered by the Rev. David Rowett

Bilbo Baggins and the Ring

Fr Alan has already pointed out that we are celebrating St Matthew this evening. Howver liturgically correct he may have been from the point of the Anglican calendar, it would have been far more correct to set aside Matthew this evening in favour of the vigil of the feast of Bilbo Baggins, whose birthday it is tomorrow. For some of you will remember the bit in 'The Lord of the Rings' where Gandalf observes that only one person, Bilbo Baggins, has ever given up the Ring of Power voluntarily - and even then he needed help.
Mirroring the Christian tradition of giving something up for Lent, Riazat Butt, religious affairs correspondent for 'The Guardian' announced she was giving up 'gay clergy' stories for Ramadan. She needn't have bothered, as the collapse of the world's financial markets shoved everything else off the front (and middle) pages of everything except 'Angling Times'.
I've no doubt that the various interest groups will be denouncing the behaviour of everyone else and praising their own exemplary conduct in the coming weeks. The blame will be pinned on everyone from the 1980's deregulation of the stock market to 1960's materialism, but I wonder seriously whether the great unexamined assumption of the last half-century - that people's worth is to be assessed almost entirely in financial terms - will remain unexamined. I think it probably will remain untouched, because of all Jesus' uncomfortable sayings, the one about having to choose between discipleship and money is probably the one we westerners find hardest to cope with - if half the energy used in explaining away Christian wealth had been used in dealing with the sexuality issue, Archbishop Akinola would now be presiding at Gay Pride services. After all, the veneration of consumption (in its modern, not its pre-war sense) is almost a patriotic duty. It's all about consumer confidence, making the money markets an act of faith against which merely walking on the water pales into insignificance. I don't know, perhaps the scales are being removed from the eyes. The sudden awareness that the huge billows of cash floating around were gained by lending to people who couldn't afford to borrow sticks in the craw. I remember looking over Poole Harbour the other week at the huge Sunseeker motor yacht yard, whose craft cost upwards of a million pounds, and wondered where the money was being siphoned up from to pay for them. Now we know. And if the credit crunch isn't enough to give us pause, perhaps the sense of impending environmental disaster, or the tales of merciless exploitation of developing world workers might do the necessary.
But at this point I remember Gandalf: Bilbo Baggins only gives over the ring with Gandalf's assistance. To hand over the Precious without encouragement, is beyond him.
Tolkein, of course, as well as being an excellent Anglo-Saxon scholar was also a devout Christian, and I wonder to what extent some of his character Gandalf is built on the person of Christ - less obviously than that of Aslan in CS Lewis' 'Narnia' series, but there nevertheless. Because there's something about his ability to persuade Bilbo to give the Ring away, which is in danger of devouring him, to recognise its dark side, which we see in the story of Matthew the Tax Collector. Matthew is possessed by the need to possess. Like the dodgier of the money marketeers, Matthew's comfortable living is on the backs of the powerless, those who couldn;t afford the accountants to get them out of paying their taxes through him. And in doing this he effectively makes himself a tool of the Roman state, and abandons his own people. He has lost himself to his need to acquire. It is only when he - somehow - gets a vision of something greater than possession that he is able to let go of the cashbags and the two sets of accounts books. On his own, Matthew, even though he doubtless knows full well what he's doing, can't bear to give up his drug. It takes an encounter with a different way of valuing people - including oneself - exemplified in the penniless preacher Jesus of Nazareth, to push Matthew into action.
About twenty years ago the Church got itself into hot water for questioning the accepted wisdom on individual wealth, possessions and consumerism. I wonder whether we actually got it right, and whether, on this feast of St. Matthew, what we were saying then might ring a few bells now. 'Love God. Love your Neighbour'. Nowhere does it say 'love your shares portfolio'. I'm every bit as aware as you are of the draw of possessions (he said, mentally clutching his new-to-me digital camera), and of the need to be able to live in reasonable security. But perhaps we Christians are in the best position of all to start asking again, 'What's the point in gaining everything - and losing yourself?' Are we humans just the sum our our posessions? Or does the Gospel and the story of Matthew - and of Bilbo and the Ring give us a different, more hopeful message to take to fired merchant bankers and negative equity sufferers?


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