1 Sam 3.1-10
2. Cor. 4.1-12
A few years ago now, when we were living in Oxford, my husband Myles was applying for a PGCE course. He went into town to get some photocopies of his CV, and to run a few errands. He returned home with the shopping but minus the copies of his CV. We wondered about that for a few minutes but soon forgot about it, and moved on. There was however a niggling question about the whereabouts of the the CVs that was answered about 10 days later when a letter arrived from Boots.
‘Dear Mr Hartley, thank you very much for leaving us copies of your CV. We were pleased to receive them. We weren’t sure which position you were applying for, but we do have a number of openings in our Oxford branch’. Anyone who knows Myles knows that his CV pretty much announces in bold, capitals, largest possible font, underlined several times:
‘I am a musician’
and I don’t think Boots uses piano accompaniment to help us choose our toothpaste?
It’s not really the same of course, but I can sort of understand Samuel’s situation: the misheard call of God – it’s not Eli on the line, it’s actually God! Samuel doesn’t quite get it, but when he does, everything changes. We can (well I can, anyway) relate to that. Life’s journey is full of all sorts of stuff; sometimes the way ahead is clear, but most of the time it isn’t. But that’s the point. We don’t know what lies ahead, but we do have a hope that is grounded on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, everything that preceded it, and its light that illumines our path in the present.
Ordination to the diaconate marks a point in your lives. What happens today is shaped and structured by the liturgy which includes the ordination vows, the oaths, the Eucharist, and the sending out.
As the Manager of Liverpool football club Jürgen Klopp once said in an answer to the question: ‘how does it feel to beat Manchester City?’, ‘The best word I can say to describe this is: “Boom!”’
Well you might not feel ‘boom’ at the point of the laying on of hands, but in a sense that is what is happening. The Holy Spirit is being invoked to enable you to take on the role of deacon, and there is plenty of form in the Biblical narrative that the result often was ‘boom’. But steady on, I hear you say, we are Anglican! Ok then, let’s have an ‘all things decently and in order’ sort of ‘boom’. But it is serious work; our Gospel reading makes that clear. We have to be confident that the message we proclaim is good news, and need to be able to explain how and why that is so.
Someone for whom the word ‘Boom’ would probably be appropriate is the author of our Epistle reading, St Paul: afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down. But Paul doesn’t wallow in those feelings, he balances them: he is not crushed or forsaken or destroyed. He carries in his body the death of Jesus so that the life may also be manifested. It’s a profound image – death is at work in us, but life in you.
In chapter 4 of 2 Corinthians, Paul is responding to people who are denigrating his ministry by setting himself apart from his rivals, and the values of honour and shame frame the text. What gives shape to Paul’s answer is his theology of the cross: shame is transformed, as is weakness and humility. And it is into this that the beautiful image of treasure in clay jars is used. That I suggest is where the DNA of the ordained life is held. Those being ordained deacon today are being entrusted with a treasure in clay jars. It’s not yours or mine, it belongs to God; your fragile bodies hold it so that by it and by your vocation others might have life.
But how are we to understand this word ‘treasure’, and what are we to make of it?
One clue lies in the putting together of an understanding of the illumination of the human heart with the creation of light out of darkness. This is the glory by which we see God. Paul’s own Damascus Road meeting with Jesus is characterised by light – this for Paul is the experience of the Resurrection – being filled with the light of God.
It follows that the treasure is beyond price: the idea of a deposit that is always spending and expending itself, and is never depleted. This is the nature of light. So it is both a moral outworking (it matters what you do) and a formational infilling (the resurrected life of Jesus manifested in our mortal flesh) – the two go together.
Some of you might have heard the story of the artist Theaster Gates, who won the Cardiff-based Artes Mundi art prize in 2015. He was born and raised in Chicago, but on the South Side, which is a less attractive part of the city. He bought a single-storey house which had once been a sweet shop, and he converted one of its rooms into a pottery studio so he could follow his hobby of making clay jars. The art critic Will Gompertz writes that Theaster ‘was drawn to the craft because he liked the notion of taking the lowliest of materials, mud, and transforming it into something beautiful and valued.’ He took his jars and pots to local fairs but he found that he didn’t like people haggling over them, and so he decided to try something a bit different. In 2007 he mounted an exhibition of his pottery but he presented the work not as his own but by the legendary oriental ceramicist Shoji Yamaguchi, who, unbeknown to all, didn’t actually exist. He needed a back-story to convince people that the pots were made not by a local, middle-aged African-American man but by an exotic Japanese master. People liked the show, and they liked Shoji Yamaguchi, but when the truth was revealed people loved the artist! And so, Theaster Gates became a cultural entrepreneur in his own right: an artist using his position to improve the area where he lives. His artworks are constructed from the worthless materials he has found in the abandoned buildings in his run-down neighbourhood: broken floorboards, chipped concrete pillars and old fire-hoses. He is in a quite literal sense allowing his neighbourhood to breathe.
Now being a deacon is not about passing off clay jars with an alternate back story, but it is about allowing the treasure in your clay jars to breathe fresh life into neighbourhoods. Paul’s presentation of the cross turned its shame on its head with an outrageous hope of resurrection glory. Paul’s role in all of that was to enable others to catch that vision of transformation to change a context and turn old cultural norms around. But he did that knowing that he couldn’t totally collapse the way society worked, only he could allow people to see things differently as he himself had been forced to see things differently: from one who imprisoned others to one put in prison for Christ Jesus, who in and through that experience and in the darkest of places to breath hope and light: resurrection itself.
‘We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.‘
In other words: ‘Boom!’