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Sunday, May 13, 2018 | 4:00 p.m.
Treasure in Clay Jars
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Psalm 139:1–6, 13–18
2 Corinthians 4:5–12
Have you ever doubted yourself? Has there ever been a night when you woke up, or you could not go to sleep in the first place, and you worried about what you had done or what you would do tomorrow?
Have you ever felt regret? Have you felt ashamed for what you said or embarrassed about what you did?
Have you ever felt overwhelmed and afraid? Have you been bewildered by the impossible choices that lay before you?
Have you ever been paralyzed by uncertainty? Have you ever felt controlled by an anger that you could not control?
Have you ever harmed another, even knowing that your actions, or your words, would harm them?
On the other hand, have you been the recipient of a harm like that? Have you been betrayed? Abandoned? Dominated?
Have you suffered illness? Experienced grief? Have you wept into your pillow at night or wished that you had a pillow to cry into?
These are the human, the mortal, the perishable lives that we lead—like clay jars that can be broken, that do grow old, that one day crack and shatter. They look different for each of us, but there is vulnerability for all of us.
We carry this affliction in our bodies, Paul says. We carry the death of Jesus in our bodies in the form of the many weaknesses and suffering that we experience.
But if we carry the death of Jesus in us, then we also carry the resurrection of Jesus in us, too.
Paul describes God as “the compassionate Father and God of all comfort. . . . [God’s] the one who comforts us in all our trouble so that we can comfort other people who are in every kind of trouble. We offer the same comfort that we ourselves received from God. That is because we receive so much comfort through Christ in the same way that we share so many of Christ’s sufferings” (2 Corinthians 1:3–5, CEB).
The relationship between suffering and comfort is one of the themes that weaves through this letter of 2 Corinthians. Paul is writing about affliction and consolation as one way to talk about God’s presence and action in his life and in the lives of the people in the church at Corinth.
You see, Paul is defending his ministry, trying to make the argument that he is reliable, truly a minister of God and not just some huckster.
He writes, “We are not peddlers of God’s word like so many; but in Christ we speak as persons of sincerity, persons sent from God and standing in [God’s] presence” (2 Corinthians 2:17).
Paul makes his case, defending his ministry, by showing his vulnerability and God’s support through comfort and consolation. Paul is trying to strike a balance by affirming his authority without seeming to be arrogant about it.
There are other apostles who, he says, are boasting, and Paul doesn’t want to do that. Those “boasters are false apostles,” he says, and “deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:13).
Paul wants to show that he is legitimate without seeming to boast himself. So his argument seems a little confusing at first. He says, “I am not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing” (2 Corinthians 12:11). Paul’s “nothingness” is not inferior, he says.
He doesn’t want to boast about his strengths, so instead he boasts about his weaknesses. He describes his sufferings.
Five times I have received . . . the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. (2 Corinthians 11:24–30)
Paul’s argument is that even though he is so weak, even though he is “nothing,” even though he has suffered so much, still God chose him. Still God sent him with the good news of Jesus Christ.
Those other apostles, the ones Paul called “super-apostles,” they boasted about themselves and their accomplishments. They didn’t give credit to God for what they did; they claimed the credit for themselves.
One of Paul’s primary points here is that his weakness shows God’s strength. If he, such a weak person, such a cheap clay jar, can achieve what he has achieved, surely it must be God who makes that possible. Surely it must be the treasure of God that gives that power and that capacity.
God’s promises to Paul, and also to us, are real in this life and even in this body. God’s covenant with us is written on our hearts, it says in the book of Jeremiah, and Paul reiterates that here, in the Second Letter to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 3:2–3).
This covenant of belonging to God is part of our very being, and it is the treasure that we have within these vulnerable clay jars of our lives.
This morning in church, right here at this font, we celebrated several baptisms. There was one adult and eight infants who were baptized. In each baptism Pastor Shannon, with the water of baptism still on her finger, made the sign of the cross on the forehead of each person, saying, “Child of the Covenant, you have been sealed by the Spirit in your baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
We make this physical sign with water, marking each baptized person, reminding them that they belong to God, that God has promised to be their God. We mark this covenant with water, but Jeremiah and 2 Corinthians say that this covenant of belonging is also written on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33, 2 Corinthians 3:3).
We carry that treasure in these vulnerable clay jars. So we don’t have to live this life based on solely our own power. There is a greater power, a higher power, a treasure that does not come from us but that comes into and through us.
We can ignore that power. We can boast of our own accomplishments or even boast “beyond our limits,” as the super-apostles did, taking credit for things that are not our own. We can rely on our own willpower and wit, thinking we are making it on our own, but at some point this clay jar cracks. At some point we all face affliction, perplexity, persecution, or death. But God is with us in all those times.
Maybe when some big new crack appears in the clay jar that is this body or that is our life, maybe that is the point when we can see more clearly and can’t deny the extraordinary power that belongs to God and does not come from us. We can lean into God’s love for us and let it fill us, like water filling a jar. With surrender, we can let God’s love and God’s promises heal us, let them refresh us and give us the power to keep working for what is right and good.
Edwina Gateley is a Catholic woman who founded the Volunteer Missionary Movement (VMM), which has sent almost 3,000 lay missioners to serve in twenty-six countries. The missioners work with partners, here and overseas, to promote equality, empower people, and challenge unjust systems.
In telling her story, Ms. Gately said that as a child she would often sit in the cathedral, enthralled by the beauty and the mystery and the power of God that she felt was there in the majesty of the place. She let that seep into her and felt she was in the presence of God.
She didn’t know it at the time, but later she realized that what she had been doing automatically and intuitively as a child was a form of prayer. She was doing what we call contemplative prayer: sitting in openness to the mystery of God and letting God’s presence come to her and fill her.
Later in her life, as a lay missionary teacher, and then through her work founding the Volunteer Missionary Movement, she didn’t really have time or take time to sit in prayer and contemplation the way she had as a child. She said that she “was very busy about the business of saving the world.” She went on to say,
But I didn’t save the world. That has already been done. I am in a sense—like everyone else—trying to save myself, to become fully myself for God. My journey is coming full circle. Older, wiser, and deeper than in those earlier years when I sat in the cathedral, I now sit again, not in my cathedral but in myself. I “sit” wherever I find myself, for my cathedral is within me.
I know now that no matter how far we travel, how much we accomplish, how deeply we suffer, or how joyfully we dance, God is always with us in all of those things for the whole of our life’s journey.
That dark, silent, and mysterious place stays with us, housing the holy. . . . [T]here are no extra props. There is just the darkness and the emptiness and, at the very heart of all that the divine presence, the Holy One whom we seek, breathing, hidden within us, eternally loving and waiting. (www.uscatholic.org/blog)
Ms. Gateley describes her contemplative prayer practice as one way that she feels God’s presence with her. Without mentioning clay jars or using the word treasure, she nevertheless describes the hollow center of herself, the dark and holy mysterious place inside her where she finds God, hidden within, loving her, loving you, loving me.
This is the treasure we carry in these clay jars, and nothing less: the covenant of love and belonging, written onto our hearts, to be known and read by all. This covenant is written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts (2 Corinthians 3:2–3).
In her poem called “The Sharing,” Ms. Gately also describes what feels to me like treasure in clay jars.
We told our stories—That’s all.
We sat and listened to each other
and heard the journeys of each soul.
. . .
But in each brave and lonely story
God’s gentle life broke through
and we heard music in the darkness
and smelt flowers in the void.
We felt the budding of creation
in the searching of each soul
and discerned the beauty of God’s hand
in each muddy, twisted path.
And God’s voice sang in each story.
God’s life sprang from each death.
. . .
For you are one though many
and in each of you I live.
So listen to my story
and share my pain and death.
Oh, listen to my story
and rise and live with me.
Where the death of Jesus is, the resurrection of Jesus is also there. In these clay jars, there is a treasure: God’s resurrection; God’s covenant; God’s love.
Lean into that. Trust that. Depend on that. Be changed by that. The Spirit of the living God has written God’s promises on your heart, and the Spirit gives life. May we live that life with faithfulness. Amen.