Sunday 26 February 2017 – Sunday next before Lent

Sermon: Sunday next before Lent (Choral Evensong)
Sunday 26 February 2017
The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester

David Newman’s Farewell as Archdeacon of Loughborough (2 Corinthians 4.1–10)

Last week I received an invitation to the Maundy Service from me to myself. Today I’m grateful for David Newman’s invitation to preach in my pulpit! Archdeacons are easy butts of jokes. Trollope still trumps ‘Rev’ for this. His description of the Archdeacon in the Warden is wonderful. He was ‘a fitting impersonation of the church militant on earth…his full mouth and chin expressed the solidity of his order; one hand ensconced within his pocket, evinced the practical hold which our mother church keeps on her temporal possessions; and the other loose for action; and neat black gaiters showing so admirably that well-turned leg (Antony Trollope, The Warden). My favourite quip about Archdeacons comes from the 12th century Bishop John of Salisbury who said ‘num archidiaconus salvari potest? (‘Can an archdeacon be saved?’ or more accurately ‘Surely an archdeacon can’t be saved’).

This seems a million miles from David. Whether visiting and praying with a clergy household facing illness, supporting our Church schools in their growth and witness, working through the detail of the latest rural church kitchen and loo, establishing vision around the Bishop’s staff table or dealing with a local conflict and crisis, my observation is that David has been himself rather than being constrained by the role and its baggage. And by ‘himself’ what do I mean? We know someone of deep Christian faith, gentle humour, cultured reading, inspiring thoughtfulness, pastoral acumen and kindness whether wielding a carrot or wielding a stick.

2 Corinthians from which our second reading is taken is a good Pauline letter for Archdeacons. It arises from a community called by Jesus Christ to be faithful and distinctive in a city which has been shaped by money and wealth and all that it can offer. Corinth is a place of much religious activity with many religious leaders and many factions including church. Paul had sent his co-worker Timothy to this church to try and sort things out but Timothy failed to make much difference. So Paul was forced to change his plans and made a hasty visit. He took a somewhat gentle conciliatory approach and was much more successful than Timothy – ‘gun’s blazing archdeacons’ usually learn quickly. However Paul was criticised for this and rather than facing further conflict, he headed off to Asia from where he steps back, reflects and writes once more to the community in Corinth.

So 2 Cor 2:4 says ‘For I wrote you out of much pain and distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love I have for you’. This mode of Christian leadership moved the church to follow Paul’s instructions to the fellow who so insulted him. He writes ‘for now on therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view… so if anyone is in Christ there is a new creation’ (2 Co5 516–17). This distinctive Christian discipleship recognised and named the hurt, owned up to its deep personal impact, understood it further within the life of the church and reconciliation was sought. All this produced what he describes as ‘godly grief’ which brings no regret’ which he contrasts with ‘worldly grief which produces death’ (2 Cor 7:10). This is disciplined love at work.

This kind of wisdom sits behind some of our notable missional leaders today, They speak in the light of the challenges for the gospel to be heard of the need for a whole change of culture in the church and with such a vision comes

‘a new responsibility that we are all the church, we are all its ministry and mission, and we are all the change we long to see. The days of a highly subsidised, clericalised and narrowly parochial church are over but the culture can easily live on so new collaborative structures are needed… collaboration needs courtship. We need to build strong churches… but now is certainly not the time to focus our service narrowly into the church, but to maintain our vision for the common good. The future of the church is no-one else’s responsibility. It calls us to a process rather than a destination’
(‘2020 Vision’, David Newman).

So who said that? Is it Pat Keiffer from Partnership for Missional Church; Bob Jackson on church growth or Bishop Philip North on mission to the forgotten peoples of England? This is David Newman laying out the diocesan vision for the 2020 planning we have done. Note this is not some management task but a spur to reveal the nature of the life that we treasure in Christ.

Paul in 2 Corinthians uses this most evocative phrase ‘We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God’. I have a soft spot for ceramics and I am hooked on the Great Pottery Throw Down.  It doesn’t seem to generate the same fevered conversation in my office as did Bake Off. It is the same kind of thing but instead of flour, eggs and butter it is clay. I love it because I know so little about how pots are made and the alchemy of what goes on in the kiln. There are explosions, things stick together. There are soot crises so everything turns black. There are bright red glazes but which turn blue on firing. Drips and dribbles turn into beautiful patterns and flowers. The tiniest of air bubbles in the clay make your hours of throwing, modelling and moulding, measuring and decorating wasted as the pot cracks in firing. It is full of vulnerability.

Corinth was full of potteries. The clay wasn’t as good as to be found at Athens so more of the pots cracked but some could be used nevertheless as lanterns. The cracks let the light shine. A perfect well glazed pot lets nothing shine. The decoration of Corinthian pots was very fine and often showed delicate drawn figures, especially human figures. So our fragile, cracked human figures, our vulnerable physical humanity borne on clay reveals God’s power made perfect in weakness.

This kind of Christian life and ministry is risky but it is beautiful as God’s working with us and within us comes to be seen both in the light and in the cracks which let the light shine. To use another ceramic illustration, it is like a Kintsugi pot. This Japanese tradition mends broken pots with Gold or Silver so that the resulting pot is more beautiful than the one that broke. This is the gospel redefining perfection so that is Godly rather than a human and cruel impossibility.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when imprisoned by the Nazi regime, wrote to a friend a year before he was executed for his faithfulness to Jesus Christ. He said ‘God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way in which he is with us and helps us. The Bible directs humanity (man) to God’s powerlessness and suffering: for only the suffering God can help (p164, 1953, SCM, Letters and Papers from Prison). So a cracked pot is just the kind of vessel to reveal this kind of Godly light that does not blind or impress or startle but instead gets alongside us, with us till repentance, growth and change come. David brings this good ministry now to Launde with Helen. We need not worry that when we all head there for retreat and renewal that we will meet with God; the cracks will not overwhelm us and the light will shine.

© The Very Revd David Monteith