A couple of weeks ago, I visited our largest ‘parish’ in France (it’s actually about the size of my native Wales) to do something I had never done before which was to license a Reader, in this instance Michael Torne. It was a wonderful 48 hours and I especially appreciated Tony and Ingrid Lomas’ warm hospitality as they settle into their new ministry.
On the occasion of Michael’s licensing this is the sermon I preached, in the beautiful setting of the school chapel of Notre Dame de Piétat in Condom, in the Gers department, within the context of a well-crafted service of the Word by Fr Tony.
Recently, when I was watching the evening news on TF1, Marine Le Pen was being interviewed. She was on swash-buckling form, and was in no mood to be intimidated by the journalist grilling her. At one point, an economist was brought on to explain how realistic – or not – Madame Le Pen’s fiscal projections would be for her first few years in office, should she be elected. She derided the economist by calling him ‘Monsieur l’Expert’ (Mr Expert)!
Like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen doesn’t trust experts. She doesn’t have much time for people who have studied and researched, who have wide experience, and sport impressive qualifications. You may remember that, during the Brexit debate last summer, several British politicians, notably the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, also cast doubt on the importance of experts. ‘People in the country’, he said, with an alarming degree of self-assurance, ‘have had enough of experts.’
I was told, recently, about a Christmas card someone had received, last December. It features the three Kings on their way to Bethlehem to greet the new-born King of the Jews. One turns to the other two and says ‘Now remember, lads, we’re Kings, not Wise Men. No one trusts experts anymore.’
If that’s the case, what on earth are we doing here, this morning, preparing to authorise Michael to lead public worship and to preach? What we’re doing, in effect, is saying that we recognise Michael as someone who will hold the Bishop’s licence, who has undertaken a course of study, who has gained experience of the wider Church, whose manner of life has been judged to be an example of Christian discipleship, and whose desire to carry out this ministry is also affirmed by the local Church.
The conundrum that faces us when we talk about experts is that there is a huge expectation laid on their shoulders. We expect them to be right all the time; to know everything there is to know; to be able to think quickly and react with the right words at any given moment. And when we talk about experts in the Church, the picture becomes even more hazy. Jesus isn’t that fussed about them either. In fact, whenever he seems to encounter experts, he was either disagreeing with them, or they were trying to catch him out.
In the reading we’ve just heard from Luke’s Gospel (Luke 10. 1-9) Jesus sends his disciples out to the places where he himself would later follow. He sends them in pairs (it’s almost as if he’s expecting there to be trouble). He doesn’t equip them with very much, nor does he talk-up their credentials. In fact, it sounds like a pretty rum set-up, with very little regard for employee rights or health and safety. No experts here, it would seem; just a motley bunch of fishermen, farm labourers and, what the poet, W.H. Auden called ‘persons of no importance.’
This episode in Luke’s Gospel comes in the middle of some uncharacteristically harsh language from Jesus about the demands and the opposition his followers will face. So when we hear Jesus telling his followers that they are being sent out like lambs in the midst of wolves, and telling them to take nothing that will sustain them for this journey (no appropriate footwear, no money and no spare clothing) it sounds all the more alarming, and you begin to wonder where all this is leading.
It is as if Luke is telling us to wake up and recognise that we are reaching a decisive moment in the mission of Jesus. He is facing opposition and hostility, and his followers will also face it. The message is not getting through. It’s time to tell the world that it doesn’t have to be like it is. There is another way. And for those with ears to hear, this is a transforming and life-giving opportunity.
Michael, we’re not here, today, to cast you into the role of an expert. None of us who exercise a public ministry in the Church should be in any hurry to claim that title – even when we have a Venerable title like the Archdeacon of France! Rather, in our own way, and for this place at this time, we are asking you to step into the shoes of the 70 whom Jesus sent out to proclaim ‘peace to this house.’ We see you as part of that 70 because none of us who exercise a public ministry is a lone ranger: we speak and act in the name of Christ, in company with the whole Church, under the authority of the Bishop and the leadership of the Chaplain. We don’t expect you to fulfil this ministry alone, unsupported and, somehow, quarantined away from the pilgrimage of the whole people of God. And, because none of us is an expert, we want you to keep mucking-in to this enterprise of Christian life, praying with us, being fed by the sacraments of the Church, helping us to ask questions and make new discoveries, as we discern where the Spirit of God is leading us. And we trust you will do this because you be energised to continue to reflect on the holy scriptures. There is always more to learn, more to discover, as new insights emerge to challenge us and enlarge us. None of us should ever forget the bracing honesty and humility of Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who said ‘I preach not to simply convert others, but as someone who is, myself, in the process of conversion.’
Jesus sent his followers out into hostile territory, just as Moses sent the 70 elders out into the unforgiving waste places of the Sinai desert. That is, perhaps, a telling image for the Church at this point in time. In a desert of superficial consumerism and growing political isolationism, people are still thirsting for something more, something else, that will sustain them for their pilgrimage through this world into the next. Isaiah’s vision, in our first reading (Isaiah 55. 6-11) of the word of the Lord refreshing the desert like showers of long hoped-for rain, is a good motto for what those of us who preach should be aiming for.
So, today, we send Michael, not as an expert, but as someone who is being entrusted with a demanding task at a demanding time: to help us all recognise the closeness of the kingdom of God; to speak with imagination and intelligence; to encourage us to be different at a time when the world is tired of conflict and the competitive posturing that divides nations, languages, cultures and faith communities. We do all this because the living word of God became flesh in Jesus Christ and lived among us, and we have seen his glory. But we see that glory in a crucified and defeated body that has confounded death. In his risen body, he sends each one of us, into the places where the harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few.