1 Samuel 3:1-10, Psalm 139, Romans 12:1-8, Luke 5.1-10
I’d like to begin by telling you a story from India. It’s a rather silly story, I’m afraid, but it seems to me to be appropriate for this morning nonetheless. It goes like this.
In a little village in India there was once an old potter. One evening he got on his donkey and rode down to the village inn as he always did at the end of the day. Frankly, he was a little more fond of the drink than he ought to have been, and by the end of the evening he was well and truly sozzled. Now, it was a filthy night, pouring with rain and pitch black, and when he came out of the inn into the wild, dark, wet night, he just couldn’t’ remember where he’d left his donkey. He stumbled around for a bit and then, all of a sudden, he felt a rough hairy coat – ah, good, here it was.
What he didn’t know was that during that stormy evening, a tiger had come out of the jungle and, disorientated by the thunder and lightning, had taken shelter under the eaves of the inn. It wasn’t the donkey he had come across in the darkness at all...
Now the tiger was already pretty terrified by the storm, and when the potter climbed on his back, he was so surprised by this turn of events that he decided the safest thing was to do just what the potter told him. So he carried the potter back through the village to his house. The potter got off and tied him to the fence, still none the wiser. “Good donkey… faithful donkey… shleep well…” he said as he went inside.
In the morning he was woken by cries of amazement from outside the house. A crowd had gathered and were shouting out. “Hooray for our brave potter, who has tamed a tiger! What a hero!” The potter tried to set them straight, but they were having none of it, and pretty soon the tale of his amazing feat spread throughout the region and finally reached the ears of the Rajah himself.
Now it so happened that at this time the Rajah was fighting a war against a neighbouring country. The battle lines were drawn up and the two armies faced each other across a broad plain. The Rajah knew that what he needed more than anything was a leader for his army, someone who could inspire people with his courage. Who better than this potter he’d been hearing so much about? So he sent for him straight away. He presented him with his largest, strongest, finest horse, and made the potter climb up onto it. The potter tried to protest, but the Rajah took no notice, thinking that it was just false modesty.
The potter had never ridden a horse like this before. It was a long way down, and he was sure he’d fall off, so while the king wasn’t looking he tied himself firmly to the saddle. Then the king suddenly gave the horse a slap on the rear and with a great shout from the army, sent the potter galloping off towards the enemy lines.
At this point, alas, the potter, clinging on for dear life, realised with a sinking feeling that he had no idea how to make the horse stop. He shouted and screamed but that only made the horse go faster. Then he had a flash of inspiration. There was a small stand of trees ahead. If he could only make a grab for one of them as they passed, surely that would bring the horse to a halt. He lunged for the nearest one, but the horse was big and strong, and the tree roots were shallow. Up came the tree, with the potter still hanging onto it, and on they galloped.
In the distance, the enemy army watched all this with alarm .Who was this mighty warrior who was hurtling towards them, shrieking like a banshee, a man so strong and fearless that he used trees as weapons? They weren’t going to wait around to find out. They all turned tail and ran as fast as they could. And that was the end of that war.
And as you might imagine, the Rajah showered the little potter with wealth beyond his imagination, and he never wanted for anything again.
That story, of course, is not at all the kind of story one ought to tell in a sermon. It is full of deceit and drunkenness for a start, but there’s a message in it that I think is very appropriate for a day like today. Today Stephen begins his priestly ministry among us. Today is also our patronal festival, when we think about the life of this church, and the calling that comes to all of us to serve our community here. We’ve heard Bible stories about calling and ministry. We’re singing stirring hymns about service. It all sounds rather grand and noble, thinking of all the great things we’d like to achieve. But there’s an awful danger that we might get too high-flown for our own good.
You see, the raw truth, from my experience of ministry anyway, is that, just as that Indian potter discovered, a lot of what really matters, what really makes a difference, actually comes about completely by accident, while we thought we were doing something else entirely. It is often the odd, unplanned conversations, not the beautifully crafted sermons that hit home. The things we get wrong are sometimes more important in the end than the things we get right, if we are prepared to let the grace of God shine through the cracks in our lives.
That’s not just the case for priests, deacons or Readers; it is true of anyone who is seriously trying to live out their calling as Christians, whether that is in their job or their family or in some voluntary service they are giving. Love your enemies? Live the Gospel? Who can do these things, really, truly, all the time? Who do we think we are? Why would God think we could make a difference? And yet he does.
That sense of surprise permeates the stories we heard from the Old Testament and the Gospel today. Samuel was just a boy, trying to sleep in the dark of the Temple. He’d never heard the voice of God before, and neither, it seems, had Eli. The whole story seems faintly ridiculous; all Eli wants is a good night’s sleep, but again and again Samuel is there, standing beside his bed with his questions. Why should it occur to either of them that God would want to speak through this child? What did he have to give?
And then there were those Galilean fishermen. Even their fishing skills seemed to have deserted them on the day Jesus met them on the lakeside. They’d fished all night, but caught nothing. Why on earth would Jesus choose them to fish for people?
Simon Peter’s story doesn’t get any better either as he goes on from here. More often than not he seems to get it spectacularly wrong, jumping in with both feet and absolutely no sense of tact and discretion, and when it really counts he denies knowing Jesus at all. When he first meets Jesus he cries,“Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man,” and maybe he knows himself better than we give him credit for. But Jesus chooses him anyway.
Our other patron, Paul, isn’t exactly promising “saint” material either. When we first meet him he is hell-bent on destroying the followers of Jesus, convinced that their message is dangerous and wrong, because they are saying that God is for everyone, Jews and Gentiles. The fact that he eventually becomes the apostle to the Gentiles, the one who, above all others, spreads the message of Jesus to non-Jewish communities shows us, at the very least, that our God has a sense of humour.
Samuel, Peter and Paul end up as heroes of the Bible, but like the potter in my story, they don’t owe that position to any skill, talent or effort of their own. They stumble forward through a series of accidents and failures; but as they get it wrong, again and again in some cases, they discover that God is there with them anyway, and that gives them the courage to believe that if he is there with them, then he can be with anyone else too, anywhere, no matter how badly things seem to have gone wrong for them.
Of course, it is right that we do our best, use our natural talents, act professionally and responsibly with care and love, in priesthood or in any other sphere. But we shouldn't assume that it is our skills and successes which will, in the end, have most impact on others. It’s not about us and what we can do; it is about God and what he does through us, which may include things we’re weren't expecting and wouldn’t have chosen. “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening”, says Samuel when the penny finally drops. Our part in the whole enterprise is to be open to the idea that God just might be there, in the darkness, in the deep water, in the times of failure as much as in the times of success. Knowing that will give us the courage we need to go forward, but we usually only learn it by first looking back at the course of our lives up till now.
When we do that, what do we see? If we are human, and honest, we probably see a path that is full of twists and turns, times of confusion when we went round and round in circles, times when we took what seem like pointless detours, going miles in the wrong direction before we turned round. Half the time we probably felt as if we were in the wrong place completely, not at all where we should have been. What a waste…!
But the truth is that, wherever we were, God was with us, and knowing that changes everything, because no time with God is ever really wasted in the end. In his love the failures of our lives become the wellsprings from which living water flows, teaching us lessons which we could never have learned in any other way, giving us gifts that are unique, and precious to others.
I know that today Stephen will be hoping to get it right, to read all the words in the right order and not drop anything too important. He might even manage it. But I hope that he, and all of us, will know that it is when we learn to get it wrong and still know we are loved that God is most powerfully at work in us.