Sermon preached by the Archdeacon of France & Monaco, The Venerable Meurig Williams in St Michael’s, Paris, on Sunday 6 October 2019, being the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity. The Archdeacon licensed Debbie Orléach as a Reader.
If you have access to BBC television, you may have recently spotted a two-part documentary called Inside the Vatican. It offers an unusually frank and transparent behind-the-scenes view of the headquarters of the world’s largest Christian church. For those of us who are not Roman Catholics, the Vatican can often seem like a place shrouded in scheming and secrecy. I’m tempted to think of it as a well-defended fortress, with an inflexible hierarchy; and where the Pope, as leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholic Christians, is kept at a very safe distance.
What this documentary showed is that Pope Francis is a leader who is determined to listen as well as speak; who is trying to break down defensive and divisive barriers; and wants to put himself where the people are – and when I say ‘the people’ I mean the people who are usually exploited, ignored or forgotten. I guess, like me and you, Pope Francis is just another of the world’s flawed and fragile human beings, seeking to be faithful to his call as a Christian; and that there are limits to what he will be able to do. But this documentary left me in no doubt that his choice of name is no empty gesture.
He wants to put into practice the example of St Francis of Assisi, by making friends with the poor and disadvantaged. We saw how the Vatican precincts are now home to hundreds of Rome’s homeless people, who are fed from the Pope’s kitchens every day. He values the destitute for their humanity – and we are told, on the first page of the Bible, that all human beings bear the stamp of God’s image and likeness.
Having watched the documentary, I was interested to read something that Pope Francis has recently said, which offers a helpful backdrop to the passage from Luke’s Gospel that we have just heard – and also to the delightful task I have in giving Debbie the Bishop’s authority to lead worship, to preach and assist with pastoral care here at St Michael’s – and, later, to acknowledge and formally authorise the ministry Claire has been exercising as a pastoral assistant.
I’m not one of those Anglicans who constantly looks over my shoulder at what the Pope is saying, by the way. But his words, spoken as a fellow Christian pilgrim, struck a chord.
Ministry, he said, is not an occupation. It is a gift from God. It is not about ticking off a list of tasks in a job description and being rewarded for what we do. It is about who we are – a reality we embody. Ministry goes wrong, said Pope Francis, when it is all about highlighting achievement and success – and always stressing the importance of what I am doing. His words can speak to us all, whether we are in authorised ministry or not. As baptized people, our lives bear witness to the Gospel simply by virtue of who we are; not because we want the world to know how outstanding we are.
So when we take a closer look at this parable that forms the heart of our Gospel reading today, we might hear it against the backdrop of Pope Francis’s insights. But how do we hear this parable today? What are we to make of this apparent acceptance of slavery, which we know to be such an oppressive evil that still blights millions of lives across the world?
At one level, Luke is simply telling it ‘as it is’ in the world he knew, and the world known by those who first heard his Gospel – the professional and privileged classes in the Greek-speaking hot-spots of the Roman Empire. They lived by the assumption that slavery was necessary to enable adult male citizens to do their democratic duty – even believing that some people were born to be free, and others were destined to be slaves. Nonetheless, Luke knew that the Jewish faith of Jesus was fundamentally at odds with this view of the world, and we know he doesn’t hesitate to proclaim it, and challenge it, throughout his Gospel.
In this parable, Luke tells it as it is to make a loaded point. If you have slaves preparing your meals, that’s the way the world works. You don’t thank them for doing what they are there to do. Once you start thanking slaves for doing what they are there to do, who knows where it might lead? Slaves can never be citizens, so don’t start treating them as if they are equals. You can almost picture Luke’s original hearers nodding in eager agreement as they hear this parable.
But then, in one of those devastating punchlines, Luke drives a bull-dozer through these social norms and squashes the status quo. ‘So it is with you’ – as Luke’s wealthy and respectable audience is eye-balled by the Gospel. ‘When you have done all that is asked of you… you should say “we have only done what was expected of us.”’ That will not have been easy to hear, especially by those who feel they occupy a privileged place in society. Who does Jesus think he is, suggesting that we are all on the same level as slaves, who are so sure of our place in the social pecking order, who were destined to be better than others? If we are all the same, if we are equally honoured, just imagine what life would be like?!
So this parable may begin by accepting slavery as a norm; but it ends by challenging those who flourish by supporting the structures that divide slaves and free citizens. In a world where so many human lives are exploited and diminished, where slavery is still a pressing yet hidden evil, even here in Paris, we need to hear this parable with particular force. It is crucial for us all to be challenged by the assumption that what we can achieve is the measure of our worth and value as human beings. We are valued because of who we are, with all our fears, fragilities and failures – and not because of how much wealth we generate, or how much attention we’re attracting. It undermines the belief that we deserve extra points on the celestial league table. It eye-balls us every time we are tempted to say ‘Look at what I have achieved’ – or when any of us start demanding to know what our ministers are achieving!
And this is why I think those words spoken, last week, by the Pope echo this parable. The less we are preoccupied with promoting ourselves, the more value we can give to others; the less opportunity we have to say ‘Look at what I am doing’, the more energy and time we have for the needs of others. Not insignificantly, one of the most compelling images of Pope Francis in the documentary I referred to, was of him on his knees, washing the feet of convicted prisoners in one of Rome’s prisons; lavishing them with recognition and dignity, assuring them of God’s unconditional love: not because of what they have achieved or failed to achieve; but simply because they are human beings who bear the likeness of God.
Debbie, Claire, Jonathan, and all of us, are called to proclaim the Gospel in a world where we are surrounded by competing assumptions, beliefs and social systems that not only keep people in their place, but which demand more productivity and more profit. In a world where the lonely need friendship, the hungry need feeding, the repressed long for freedom, and the exile yearns for a place to call home, we need to hear the Gospel – and live it – as we hear Christ calling us by name, inviting us to reach out and touch the hands of all who are disadvantaged, exploited and excluded by the social, political and economic status quo. If we are not here for those who cannot be high achievers, who are we here for? What Luke’s Gospel shows us, over and over again, is that salvation comes through the one who hangs on the cross in (what looks to the rest of the world like) crushing defeat and abject failure.
That is why today is a day to be glad and rejoice that Debbie is being authorised to show us how the Gospel is proclaimed when we receive ministry as a gift; when our focus is outwards towards others; when our time and energy is focussed not on our own achievements, but on the value and dignity we give to others. So let’s allow her to begin this ministry without us projecting unrealistic expectations. Ministry is not about meeting performance targets or being at the top of the league table. Debbie’s ministry can be one more way for us to hear the Gospel, telling us that the world does not need celebrity achievers so much as lovers of humanity.
Jesus tells us that this is the true reward, and this is where thankfulness is expressed, as we gather around this table, to give thanks for his self-giving sacrifice that confers dignity and honour on all of us. This is where we do what is asked of us – expected of us – as we do it in memory of him who died and rose again. We serve one another, as he has first served others. We give him our thanks and praise, because he has first bestowed on us the true dignity of being the children of God. This is where we discover our true worth and value, as those who are graced and gifted with God’s own image and likeness.