June 10, 2012
II Corinthians 4:7-13
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
Afflicted in every way, but not crushed. Perplexed, but not driven to despair. Persecuted, but not forsaken. Struck down, but not destroyed. The rhetoric of the Apostle Paul can sometimes just reach off the page and stop you in your tracks, and burr deep into your ear, and never let go. Like a great line of a famous speech; “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself”. Or an unforgettable verse of literature, “Good night, good night, parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall day good night till it be morrow.” Or a moment in a movie “You know how to whistle don’t you Steve?” Or in a famous sermon “If God be God, follow him, if Baal be god follow him and go to hell” Or in a classic song, “for the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside, that it ain’t no sin to be glad your alive.” We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken, struck down, but not destroyed. Paul and his soaring description of the life of faith; life in clay jars. It sort of dominates the landscape of II Corinthians 4. Afflicted in every way, but not crushed. Perplexed, but not driven to despair. Persecuted, but not forsaken. Struck down, but not destroyed. These clay jars.
This is the Sunday in the life of our congregation when we ordain and install new elders and deacons. It would seem only natural to follow Paul’s lead and allow our attention to fall on the rich metaphor of clay jars. On this day when individuals respond to the call of God through the voice of this congregation and step into roles of leadership in ministry, it makes sense that we would remind one another of our clay jar-ness. That this life in the community of faith, that our leadership of the congregation, that officers, and pastors, and staff, and congregants, and choir members, and youth, and children, and visitors, that, despite our best efforts, we are little more than clay jars.
Frail, scarred, worn down, broken vessels. What we have here today is a perfect match of biblical text and congregational occasion. II Corinthians 4, Paul on the clay jar, and Nassau Church laying hands on those we have elected to serve. Clay jars. Such an obvious and timely match of metaphor and liturgical event, that there really isn’t much more to say. In a moment we will have our own object lesson, a real time sermon illustration. Those to be ordained and installed will come forward and others come for the laying on of hands. You will see it. With all due respect, you won’t be able to miss it. All you will have to do is look around, truth be told you won’t even have to work very hard to notice, just glance around and you will see the clay jar-ness of Nassau Presbyterian Church; on full display.
Every year The Christian Century devotes an issue to the best selling and most influential books in various disciplines related to faith, ministry and the church. Way back in 2001, in addition to the positive lists, they also ask a few scholars to offer a title of a volume whose influence over the years had been problematic. One surprising book that made the list was Henri Nouwen’s Wounded Healer. Surprising because in my generation of pastors, Henri Nouwen sort of walks on water in terms of a devotional, prayerful, spiritually rooted, relationship with God approach to ministry. Way too simply put, Nouwen’s book is about pastors getting in touch with and understanding their own wounds in order to assist and bring others closer to God. The critique in the article was about the book’s impact on a generation of ministers. Too many pastors, one seminary professor wrote, turn Nouwen’s work into “an invitation to make their own healing a primary agenda of their ministry…producing a confusion between readiness for healing and readiness to be a healing.” The caution expressed relates to overplaying brokenness in ministry.
My intent this morning is not to agree or disagree about Nouwen’s influence, that is a longer and different conversation. What is relevant this morning is the concern about placing too much emphasis on the brokenness of ministry, too many exclamation points coming after “clay jars.” Or, when it comes to the text, allowing Paul’s poetic memory verse to overshadow is the point. Placing too much weight on the syllable of our clay jar-ness. Because what is very clear when you place a bunch of Presbyterians in a huddle and lay hands is our brokenness. You don’t really have to say much more. What is very clear in these verses of II Corinthians 4 is: Afflicted in every way, but not crushed. Perplexed, but not driven to despair. Persecuted, but not forsaken. Struck down, but not destroyed. But what is far too easy to miss or gloss over or forget all together when it comes to Paul and this ministry, when it comes to our broken vessel leadership, when it comes to our prayer for God’s future in this congregation, what is far too easy to miss is “the treasure.” This treasure. This treasure in clay jars. The title of the sermon shouldn’t be “clay jars”. It should be “this treasure.”
It is a figure-ground shift from the clay jars to this treasure. It’s an subject-object correction from the clay jars to this treasure. This treasure. The treasure pointed to when proclaiming not ourselves, but proclaiming Christ as Lord. But the treasure’s not the proclamation. The treasure alluded to in the light that shines in our hearts. But the treasure is not our own heart shining with the light of faith. The treasure, according to Paul here, is “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” The treasure is the power and promise of God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The treasure is the reign of God, the kingdom of God set loose on the world in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The treasure is what Paul describes in the next chapter of II Corinthians: that in Christ God was reconciling the world to Godself. New creation. Reconciliation. That in him we might become the righteousness of God. The treasure is the gospel itself. You and I, we have this gospel in such clay jars.
Last Sunday afternoon, together with the clergy from Trinity Church, I was a celebrity wine server at a benefit reception for Housing Initiatives of Princeton held in Joy Saville’s backyard garden. In the hustle and bustle of the wine tasting, as we were pouring various wines and serving matching pairings of food, I had a rather surprising conversation with one of the guests. He knew who I was. I didn’t know him. As I filled his class, he leaned into me and asked with some vigor, “You don’t believe in the resurrection, do you?” My response should have been “how do you like the bouquet on this California Chardonnay.” Before I could say anything, he added, “I’ve lived in Princeton for 40 years and I have yet to find anyone who believes in the resurrection.” “What do you mean by the resurrection?” I asked. “You know, that you and this body will rise from the dead?” and he pointed to my hair and my face and grabbed my arm and by the time he got to my girth he sort of grimaced. “This body?” I said, “goodness, I hope not. This body in heaven? Ugh!” As I intentionally turned to make another pour and head in the other direction, I said over my shoulder, “I believe in the resurrection power of God to ultimately win out when it comes to the power of darkness and death in this world and in the world to come.” And I was off before he could say another word, or more accurately, before I could hear another word. What I was talking about was “this treasure.”
So it sounds kind of kitchy, calling it treasure. I get that. But I think Paul is referring to the gospel itself. And for some, the term gospel will sound too religious or evangelical. But we have been entrusted with the message, the promise, this word. And we who are stewards of the gospel, we are such clay jars. Therefore, it becomes crystal clear that the extraordinary power belongs to God and not to us. It’s not about our brokenness becoming clear, though for Paul it would be rather self-evident as well. It is about the power of God becoming clear. This treasure. It’s not a doctrinal check list or a formulaic expression of faith. It is the breaking in of the kingdom of God, a kingdom revealed in the ministry of Jesus, a kingdom defined by his teaching, his ministry, his selfless death, a kingdom whose victory is etched forever in the plan of God through his resurrection. This treasure, it’s not about your piety, or the seed of faith planted within you. It is not a yearning after God, more for some, less for others. As if Aunt Jessie (who was such a good Christian) as if she had more of the treasure. No, it is the promise of God at work in the world in which we live; working for that which is good, establishing fenceposts of righteousness, inspiring justice, transforming lives, redeeming hearts, working for reconciliation and love, pumping a life-giving, grace-filled forgiveness into a closed system of hatred and greed and power. The promise of God today and forever carrying out a plan of salvation that has as much to do with this life as it has to do with the life to come.
This treasure. It’s not this ministry, this institution passed on to us. When the Apostle Paul affirms that “such by God’s mercy to we have this ministry”, and that “therefore we will not waver, we don’t lose heart” and when Paul points to “this treasure in clay jars,” its not religion and the institutional church he’s pointing to. It’s the gospel itself. At the core of our Reformed tradition is the commitment that the church is called to carry out its mission even at the risk of losing its life. The church is called to live the gospel, to proclaim the gospel in word and deed, to embody this treasure, even at the risk of sacrificing its own life. Embodying, serving, working toward, enabling, reflecting the resurrection, life-giving, power of God.
I was in the airport in Tel Aviv working my way through the incredible security there. On my visit to Jerusalem I had purchased two ancient oil lamps as gifts for my family. When packing, I gave these lamps the utmost of care and protection. I wadded up tissue and shoved it inside the lamps. I carefully wrapped each on in dirty socks. I then too some more tissue paper and wrapped them again. I calculated very carefully so they were placed inside a shoe smack in the middle of all my belongings, so as not to be too close to one side of the suitcase or the other. I wasn’t trying hide them just protect them. After the suitcase went through one of the machines, the security officer said to me, “so, you collect oil lamps”. There were so many layers of stuff in that big bag, and he knew right away what was at the center.
A congregation like this one, Nassau Presbyterian Church, we are blessed with a whole lot of ministry going on. It can be busy place, a lot of layers wrapped up here in any given year, week, Sunday. Music. Education. Outreach. Preaching. Care. Youth. Church School. Vacation Bible School. Mission partners. Trips. Fellowship. Small Groups. Bible Teaching. Faith and life. Montreat. Budget. Capital Campaign. Discipleship. Bible Study. Services of Healing and Wholeness. Deacon visits. Concerts. Campus Ministry. A whole lot….all of it in such clay jars.
And make no mistake about it, the prayer request, the hope, the yearned for identity of the Body of Christ here and now in this place. When our church’s ministry is run through the scanning machine of life and someone anointed by nothing other than their observation has something to say…”so, you have this treasure.” Of all that could be said about life around here, would that people would know of our stewardship of the gospel.
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