Wednesday, May 21, 2014

On Being Vessels of Light in this World

Earlham School of Religion Geraldine Leatherock Professor of Quaker Studies Stephen W. Angell delivered this address as part of ESR's Baccalaureate Service on May 9, 2014.

1.        Jeremiah 18:1-6
The Potter and the Clay
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’ So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.
 Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.

2.        2 Corinthians 4:6-7
For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

3.        Samuel Fisher
Ye Rulers and Judges of the Earth, serve the Lord with Fear and Trembling, … sweeping every one of you your own Houses first, even your own Hearts, that they may be fit Temples to receive the King of Glory, that he may come into them, and ye be made Holy Habitations for God through the Spirit … Be ye therefore personally reformed … [Turning away from] those that have misguided you into … blind and bloody wayes of suppressing Saints as Hereticks by your Civil Sword, you shall at last … look to yourselves … They shall be even smitten with Shame and madness, to see all their wayes turn'd (as they have turned the wayes of God) upside down, and esteemed as the Potters Clay: Therefore kiss the Son, turn to him, seek his Face, see him, submit to him in his own Light, walk with him in his own Light, and walk with him in his own Way. – Samuel Fisher, ScornedQuaker’s Second Account of his Second Attempt to Give Testimony to the Truth of Jesus.


I am especially thankful for the Cross-Cultural part of the ESR curriculum that has taken wing while you have been students at ESR. I have been privileged to teach Quakerism courses at the Cuban Quaker Institute for Peace, and I am glad that one of your class of graduates, Michael Sherman, will be accompanying Phil Baisley to Cuba to teach in the Cuban Quaker Institute next month.

I would like to begin with my translation of one of the poems of my Cuban students, Julio Cuesta, a distinguished poet and author, and a recently convinced Friend, a member of the Pueblo Nuevo meeting in Gibara:

First Psalm
Most loving heavenly father
Don’t forget to call me one day
Call me
Call me

Thou, I know my will
The will that kindles
The hungers of sacrifice

Let my pain remain
The pain of the brother
The pain of the neighbor

Explore my depths
There where the love is returning
Permanent essence of the Spirit

Cause my soul to remain water
Water in the desert areas
Of the soul of neighbor
That is also mine
Cause your Light to shine
Within me, always
And these verses to be yours.

One of the texts just read by Tandy Scheffler is from a Quaker, Samuel Fisher, who I have been studying and writing on recently, but who may be unfamiliar to many of you. He was a graduate of Oxford University, who later became a radical on the basis of his study of Scripture and also his spiritual experience, and became first a Baptist and then later a Quaker.  The text read today was written when he was 52 years old and on the occasion of his attempt to address in 1656 the Parliament  of Oliver Cromwell. He was violently prevented from speaking but later he wrote out what he would have said to Parliament.  He accused Parliament and Cromwell of “suppressing Saints” and judging them to be heretics, that is, of persecuting radical Christians such as Baptists and Quakers.

Persecution was also part of the spiritual experiences of the Apostle Paul and the Prophet Jeremiah. Passages from both of their writings were also read today. Clay jugs (or “earthen vessels”) were an important part of Jeremiah’s ministry.  Not only did he witness to the vessel imperfectly formed on the potter’s wheel being reduced swiftly to a wet lump of clay, as we read in chapter 18, but in the next chapter 19, Jeremiah smashed a jug that had been fired.

These were intended as signs of what he prophesied would happen to the kingdom of Judah in which he lived; Yahweh would humble Judah at the hands of the Babylonians. “My people have forgotten me,” Jeremiah prophesied on behalf of Yahweh, as the Babylonian armies menaced Jerusalem. “They have departed from the ancient ways.”  To have blamed the plight of Judah on the inhabitants of Judah was not a popular message to say the least. Jeremiah testifies eloquently to the persecution that he experienced. The priests plotted against his life, he complained. The priests put him in the stocks to expose him to public ridicule. Jeremiah vigorously opposed the priests’ high-handed ways; the New Interpreters’ Dictionary of the Bible entitles Jeremiah’s message in this unit (Chapters 18 to 20) as “dismantling insider privilege.” (Is that still a relevant theme in our society today?) All of the opposition cannot quiet Jeremiah, because, he says, “there is a burning fire shut up in my bones.” He could not hold his message in.

So persecution is a common theme among all of the authorities I have drawn upon for this address. Speaking serious truths almost always arouses opposition from entrenched interests.  And the metaphor of the earthen vessel comes up often.  In the last four years of his life, before his death from the bubonic plague in 1665, Fisher was imprisoned almost all of the time. Still, he kept writing and protesting. One of his writings of this period bore the authorial designation as coming from the “earthen vessel who is Samuel Fisher imprisoned in Newgate prison.”

There are both fragility and incredible strength and durability in clay pots that have been through the fire. Let us recall that the Dead Sea Scrolls were preserved in clay pots for two thousand years prior to their discovery.

Paul tells us that there is treasure held in these earthen vessels. What is that treasure? What do our vessels hold, and how do they hold it?

Quakers have always interpreted verse 7 of 2 Corinthians 4 by the verse immediately preceding it, verse 6. That is, the treasure is the light of the glory of God, the knowledge of Christ. We are vessels of Light.

Let us consider a passage from a Quaker contemporary of Fisher’s, Alexander Parker. Parker was imprisoned in Chester when he wrote the following:

“My life is bound up with you, in the holy love and blessed covenant which cannot be broken; and though this earthen vessel be shut up and kept under locks and chains, from the fellowship and communion of my Father’s children and family, yet the treasure, the heavenly riches of love, life and power, which my heavenly Father has put into this earthen vessel, cannot be locked up by the powers of this world, neither can it be stopped, but it flows forth, according to the promise of the Lord of life, who has said, ‘Whoever shall drink of the water that I shall give, it shall be in him a well of water, springing up unto everlasting life.’ From this well, do streams of love flow forth, even to my very enemies and persecutors, desiring also that their souls might live.” (Alexander Parker to Friends, Oct. 13, 1660)

So the jars that Paul and Parker are talking about are different from the jars in your kitchen, that are meant to hold stuff. What is held in our vessels cannot properly be held, because the contents of the vessel effervesce. The contents flow forth, as Alexander Parker said. Light cannot be held by a vessel; it shines forth. The heavenly riches of love, life, and power flow forth. Graduates, may it be so also with your ministry. May the Light, Love, Life and Power that God has granted you flow forth to your communities , wherever you find yourselves. May it flow forth to Cuban Friends, Michael, in the ministry that you and Phil perform there. May the Light, Love, Life and Power flow forth to both friends and enemies. May that divine Power flow forth from you to the ends of the earth.

I now wish to switch gears a bit and talk, not so much to the graduates, but to those of you who are witnessing this ceremony. The philosophy of ministry that is taught at the Earlham School of Religion is an “equipping” and “encouraging” ministry, something that was highlighted especially by D. Elton Trueblood, one of the founders of ESR. An “equipping ministry” means that we have not trained these graduates to do everything in their chosen field of ministry, but rather to equip and to empower others, everyone, to act. That means that, when they are doing their ministry, they will be calling upon you also to do acts of ministry. Ministries are not undertaken by individuals but by individuals in communities. I charge you to support these ministers. When they equip you and encourage you to let your own gifts of ministry emerge and flourish, do not resist. Quench not the Spirit.

In closing I would like to share another poem by Cuban Friend Julio Cuesta:
I want to live in the wind
Which is not constrained
Like the river in its bitterness
I ought to say what I feel
I know that in my strength there is courage
To be Christ in my living
But I should not sleep
If weakness dwells in me
Because for the truths to slumber in me
Is to see me die little by little.

Graduates, as you go forward in your life and ministries, I charge you in the words of Samuel Fisher:  Submit to Christ in his own Light! Walk with him in his own Light! Walk with him in his own Way!

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