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Sunday, May 13, 2018 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
2 Corinthians 4:1, 5–12
Lord, let me
Grieve my losses
Ponder my sorrows
Engage my limits
Acknowledge my betrayals
That I may
Celebrate my gains
Weather into wisdom
Value my freedom
I returned to Chicago late last night from preaching the baccalaureate sermon at Monmouth College here in Illinois. It was one of those experiences where, all of the sudden, time kind of collapses. Even though it has been almost twenty-five years now, I still remember clearly the way I felt both on the day of and in the months following my college graduation. I remembering thinking it was delightful to watch my friends walk across the stage in celebration. I loved hearing my name and making the short journey up the stairs and across the stage in order to receive my own diploma. Then we did the whole “move the tassel from one side of the cap to the other” before throwing them up in the air—it was like every cheesy movie I had ever seen. I felt that day as I felt standing in front of those almost-college graduates yesterday, like we had really accomplished something wonderful, something beautiful, something holy.
On that day almost twenty-five years ago, I felt proud and excited—and completely terrified. Even though I theoretically felt on top of the world, I also felt like at any moment somebody was going to point out that I had absolutely no idea how to be an actual adult in the world and navigate life on my own, with responsibilities and independence. Did any of you feel that way at all?
I now know that those kinds of feelings are rather normal. Some call it “the imposter syndrome.” Regardless, though, of how normal it might be, I carried that fear of “being found out” with me for a long time. For quite a while after graduation, even after beginning work in Houston and getting married, I kept feeling like I was playing dress-up in a grown-up world. I might appear to know what I am doing—with my work clothes and wedding ring—but on the inside, yikes!
That mixed up “seemingly fine on the outside while all squeamish and scared on the inside” is why I have always loved this part of Paul’s letter to the new church in the Greek port city of Corinth. “We have this treasure in clay jars,” Paul writes, “so it may be clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” Another way to put Paul’s words is that we are all basically cracked pots, cheap jars, fragile and porous. I love that description of you and me, because it acknowledges the truth that none of us has it all together. Paul’s metaphor gives me some breathing space. But a friend of mine, Andrew Foster-Connors, recently reflected to me that where I find breathing space in Paul’s depiction of humanity, he finds hypocrisy, primarily his own.
“I feel conflicted by Paul’s words,” he wrote. “This sense that we are just cheap jars is certainly not the assurance that I’ve been giving to my children. And I don’t think I am the only one. [So many of us tell our children] how valuable they are, how precious their lives are, how significant they are to us, and how significant they will be to the world. We build up their self-esteem. I’ve never called them or anyone else nothing but cheap, clay pots. . . . Still,” he continued, “Paul’s cheap jars image [might actually be] more truthful [than] what I’ve been telling my children. Life is not going to last forever. We age. We struggle with loss; with disability and disappointment; with the limits that we come up against in ourselves and in our politics. And following Jesus isn’t going to make us any less fragile. If anything, feeding, clothing, and loving the poor is going to cost you something. Resisting the demonic forces of greed and racism on the rise in our culture, sometimes poisoning our hearts, is going to cost you something. Investing your time to strengthen Christ’s body, the church, is going to cost you something. [None of that leads to an easier life].” The truth of who we are is closer to Paul’s truth than we might want to admit.
Have I succeeded in bringing you down yet on this Mother’s Day Sunday? I promise you that is not my objective. But in all honesty, Paul’s imagery of us being nothing more and nothing less than a bunch of cracked pots, fragile cheap jars, is true. Yet, as Andrew said, it does not exactly build up one’s sense that one can go out and conquer the world!
Paul’s imagery and message of the strength found in vulnerability and brokenness did not exactly fly well in his own culture, either. His constant talk about suffering and the cross did not elicit applause or amens. This is why his message was challenged, successfully for a time, by so-called “super-apostles” who came into that church at Corinth, determined to counteract Paul and his leadership. Paul, those new leaders suggested, was nothing but a weakling, a snowflake really. He was spiritually anemic.
What was up with all of his talk of suffering and brokenness and conflict? You think that is going to grow a church? You think that is going to attract people to the good news? Calling people a bunch of cracked pots, fragile and cheap, was not exactly inspiring. Paul, those super-apostles claimed, was preaching a low-voltage gospel, one that only proved Paul’s own failure to lead. Stick with them, they suggested, for a high-voltage religious experience—one that would make you strong and influential and powerful, one that would help you live your best life, regardless of anyone else’s life. The super-apostles taught that real faith comes with dramatic spirituality: with intense feelings, miracles, and revelations from God on a regular basis. No dark nights of the soul for them. No doubt or uncertainty or wondering. Vulnerability absolutely not required!
Apparently Paul caught wind of what was going on and fired off this letter as his response, but you might have noticed that, in his response, Paul did not match the super-apostles’ call for strength and glory. He did not jump on the bandwagon of high-voltage religion. He did not flex his muscles and stand in the pulpit to prove that he was anything but an imposter, that he was important enough, good enough, strong enough to be there. He did not drop his talk of brokenness, weakness, suffering, or conflict. He did not get rid of that pesky cross. If anything, in response to those celebrity preachers, Paul talked more about suffering, about brokenness, about his own weakness and servitude to God.
“For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 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.”
We have no idea what the Corinthians made of his countercultural response. It was the opposite of what they had been hearing from that group of super-apostles. Yet all Paul was doing was simply leveling with the Corinthians. He was honestly sharing with them the truth about all of us.
We are unadorned clay pots, cheap jars, fragile lives that we can’t finally protect even though we exhaust ourselves trying to do so. Kate Bowler, a church historian in the Duke Divinity School came face-to-face with her own cheap jar reality when she was diagnosed in her thirties with stage 4 colon cancer. If you have not done it yet, go and get her book: Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. Part of Bowler’s work had been to study and critique the prosperity gospel phenomenon in our country. That is the philosophy that if you just believe enough, only good things will come to you, including health and wealth. Think televangelists, think Paul’s super-apostle critics. But after her diagnosis, she realized she had been living her own kind of prosperity gospel.
“I would love to report,” she wrote, “that what I found in the prosperity gospel was something so foreign and terrible to me that I was warned away, but what I discovered was both familiar and painfully sweet: [it was] the promise that I could curate my life, minimize my losses, and stand [only] on my successes. And no matter how many times I rolled my eyes at the creeds’ outrageous certainties, I craved them just the same. I had my own Prosperity Gospel, a flowering weed grown in with all the rest” (Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lives I’ve Been Told, introduction).
After a while, though, Bowler decided to walk into the void that her cancer had created in her shield of self-protection, the hole it had punched in her denial of vulnerability. When she did that, Bowler found a kind of good news, one that doesn’t pretend that part of life does not contain moments of tragedy and loss. One that doesn’t pretend that we are something other than vulnerable earthenware, cheap pots that decay. And that good news that she discovered “is similar to the gospel that Paul argues for. But it’s not the good news [preached by the super-apostles], the one rooted in our capacity to get better or stronger or wiser or purer. It’s not achieved by looking past our infirmities or ignoring them. . . . Rather, the good news Bowler found is that we contain a treasure rooted in something larger than ourselves. A power that is mightier than any prosperity gospel that we try to concoct” (Andrew Foster-Connors).
The good news Bowler discovered is rooted in the gift that Paul gave all of us when he refused to play the super-apostles’ game of certainty and power. The good news is the gift of imperfection, the gift of being nothing more and nothing less than a cheap jar, a clay pot. Now, I probably should have told you earlier, but in Paul’s time, earthen vessels, clay pots, were the most imperfect vessel in which one could carry food and drink. Whatever one was carrying would spill all over the place, because those vessels were literally cracked pots. They were absolutely inefficient and a bad choice for the task of carrying something valuable. Yet, as Paul reminds us, it is precisely into our cracked-pot selves that God has purposefully chosen to place the treasure of God’s grace and the promise of God’s healing and wholeness for all.
Here is how Kate talks about that gift: “What would it mean for Christians to give up that little piece of the American Dream that says, ‘You are limitless’? [because, after all,] everything is not possible. The mighty kingdom of God is not yet here. What if ‘rich’ did not have to mean ‘wealthy’, and ‘whole’ did not have to mean ‘healed’? What if being the people of ‘the gospel’ meant that we are simply people with good news? God is here. We are loved. It is enough” (Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lives I’ve Been Told, p. 21). Clay pots entrusted with a treasure that shines through all of our cracks.
That is the other aspect of the truth underneath Paul’s words, you know. It is the truth that, amazingly enough, God has chosen our cracked-pot selves to be some of God’s partners in changing this world. Amazingly enough, God has chosen our cracked-pot selves to be some of the truth-tellers of God’s desire for reconciliation and justice. Amazingly enough, God has chosen our cracked-pot selves to be some of the proclaimers of God’s mercy and the shouters of the good news that God’s arms are long enough to encircle all of God’s creation. Amazingly enough, God has chosen our cracked-pot selves to be shiners of God’s light. “But we have this treasure in clay jars,” Paul writes, “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
Which means, dear friends, that we were set free—before we even knew our own names—from any fear any of us might be carrying around about being “found out.” We were set free—before we even knew our own names—from any fear we might have about feeling rather imperfect. We were and are set free from the pressure of thinking that we sure better have life figured out and get after it or else.
The truth is that every day, when we close our eyes to go to sleep, we are all still the same cracked pots that we were when we awoke that same morning, thanks be to God.
It is through a bunch of cracked pots that our Creator, the Master Potter, has chosen to set God’s good news of grace and mercy loose into the world, and I cannot help but wonder if that is because God hopes that by choosing cracked-pot people like us, even in those moments when we mess up and miss the mark, at least the grace might leak out from our broken places from time to time, that the light of God’s mercy and grace might shine brightly through all of our cracks.
I might have told you this anecdote before, but I cannot preach on this text without telling it again: William Sloane Coffin used to tell a story about the outrageous poet William Blake. Apparently a number of Blake’s friends and readers were conversing about his eccentricities and failures. When the conversation turned especially negative, one friend voiced, “Sure he is cracked. But it is through the cracks that the light shines!” Friends, that is gospel truth. It is through our brokenness, our imperfection, our weakness, that God’s light shines most brilliantly. And that is such good news for us. That is such freeing news for us.
It is news that proclaims that part of our call in this life is to simply be as faithful as we know how to be and to fully embrace with honesty and humility our God-given reality that none of us is ever going to have to be more than a cracked pot, a cheap jar. Nevertheless, God’s love for us and for this world is going to keep leaking out through all of our broken places, and God’s light will keeping shining brightly through the cracks of any kind of façade we might try to put on. So may our cracked-pot reality give us all courage and hope and freedom, for we get to be some of the cracked pots who carry the treasure, the grace, the light around, and there is nothing imposter-like about that. Rather, it is powerful and beautiful and holy.
Thanks be to God. Amen.