Thinking Anew – ‘We have this treasure in earthen vessels’

Despite our failings, God’s Holy Spirit still gets through to empower people

We should not become prisoners of our failures because we cannot be perfect. Photograph: Getty Images

We should not become prisoners of our failures because we cannot be perfect. Photograph: Getty Images

 

In his writings, Canadian-born Jewish novelist and songwriter Leonard Cohen reflected on issues of human-interest, such as religion, politics, loss and death. He believed that we should not become prisoners of our failures because we cannot be perfect. In his song Anthem he argues that perfection is beyond us even in marriage, work, love of family or love of God so we should “Ring the bells that still can ring, / forget (our) perfect offering, / there is a crack, a crack in everything/ that’s how the light gets in.”

Forgetting our “perfect offering” ought to resonate with the Christian church given the tsunami of scandal it has faced in recent years involving clergy and religious. People are understandably upset, and credibility undermined. Religious scandals are not new, however, as we are shown in the scriptures where there are many examples of ideals mocked and discarded. Consider what the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah said about his religious leaders: “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush.” (Jeremiah 5). In the gospels Jesus made the same point by cleansing of the Temple. Serious problems too in the medieval church, the spiritual ancestor of all Western Christians, which led to the Reformation. Paul writing to the Corinthians offered this explanation: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.” Earthen vessels! Clearly on display in tomorrow’s gospel reading (St Mark chapter 9) where we read that while Jesus was speaking about his mission and forecasting his death, key followers were preoccupied with their personal leadership ambitions.

Leonard Cohen tells us that even though there is a crack in everything light can still get in, which is consistent with what St Paul said: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us”. In other words, despite our failings God’s Holy Spirit still gets through to empower people, lay and ordained, to do extraordinary things. We see this for example in the ministry of 84-year-old Indian priest Fr Stan Swamy who devoted his life to the untouchables of the Hindu caste system. He was arrested last year, accused of links with rebels, imprisoned and denied bail, even though he was so ill with Parkinson’s disease that he could scarcely hold a cup to drink. He died in July, still a prisoner. His was ministry at its best and typical of thousands of clergy who despite the failures of colleagues and poor leadership, faithfully continue to walk with people in good times and bad often unknown and increasingly unsung. These are challenging times for the ordained ministry, and some may feel downhearted like Elijah, one of the great prophets, who once had celebrity status until he found himself in the wilderness of the disillusioned and with a mood to match. We call it burnout today. He felt that all his work had been in vain, declaring “and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” But God tells him he’s wrong; that the work continues and during these September Ember Days of prayer for those already ordained and those preparing for ordination we are reminded of that. In the Church of Ireland, for example, we give thanks for the women and men newly ordained this year, nine to the diaconate and nine to the priesthood. They remind us that despite all the failings of the churches the Holy Spirit always finds ways to engage and do something special with what Paul called earthen vessels. Leonard Cohen got it right: “Ring the bells that still can ring, / forget your perfect offering, / there is a crack, a crack in everything/ that’s how the light gets in.”

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