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Sunday, October 21, 2018 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Our Legacy in Faith
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
2 Corinthians 4:1–12
No one ever died saying, “I’m so glad for the self-centered, self-serving, self-protective life I’ve lived.” Offer yourself to the world—your energies, your gifts, your visions, your spirit—with openhearted generosity.
On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old
The Apostle Paul, in this second letter to the Corinthians, is toe-to-toe with a community that has questioned his very legacy. The world of church politics and church history often takes us to more mud-slinging and undercutting in our life together than we like to admit. If it is not the big issues of money and power, it is the smaller concerns for priorities and consequences of behavior. Such was the case of the relationship between the Apostle Paul and the Corinthian church.
Though the love chapter in 1 Corinthians 13 is the most familiar portion of the letters to this church, the backdrop that is rarely held to the light is that there was trouble in the church and Paul’s authority was in question. Paul describes in the second chapter of 2 Corinthians a “painful visit” to the church. He wrote this in a letter, which we don’t have record of, and sent it to Corinth via Titus, a fellow worker.
Paul was extremely distressed and held anguish in his heart for this church. He was going to return to Corinth after his first visit but made the decision to delay because things were so difficult. Instead, he traveled to Titus, one of his fellow workers in Macedonia, where they met up. The report Paul received from Titus was reassuring, both in regard to the direction the church was going and also the attitude of the church toward him. Second Corinthians is Paul’s letter of relief and gratitude. Today’s portion of the letter reveals Paul at his most vulnerable and is also among his most exquisite expressions of the concern and care for the churches he had established. Paul is close to the end of his life, and in many ways the letter is a distillation of Paul’s assumptions about his legacy and the legacy of Jesus Christ.
The language is high language of light shining out of darkness that was the prelude to the most familiar line in this text. As if Paul is straining to find words that might hold the power of God, he speaks of this God who spoke light into being in the first chapters of Genesis. It is Paul tipping his own hand, intimations of his own spiritual autobiography: right in the midst of in his riotous activity of persecuting and complicity in killing the early followers of Jesus, the light breaks into that shadowy time, shining forth in the face of Jesus. Then to the community of followers who were rebellious and critical of Paul’s ministry, he offers his own recognition that we mortals hold a treasure that is worth it all, when he says, “We hold these treasures in clay pots . . . or perhaps more familiar, we hold these treasures in earthen vessels, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
The persistent theme in Paul’s writing is that the very vulnerability, the suffering, the fear, the anxiety that is seen as an impediment is the very place where God’s strength flourishes. It is the treasure that is the focus, the legacy of faith and grace that is carried in the frail, faltering, finite self, that Paul puts before them, as at this point in his ministry he has been beaten, stoned, had broken bones and body. His outer nature carried in his body the death of Jesus, and in his mind was the anguish of his own Christian community, the Corinthians. But the treasure was made manifest fully in the clay pot of his finitude.
Indeed, this declaration arouses our own realization that we carry death in our skin and that the power, the life of Jesus, is made visible in our very flesh! There are many points in our own lives where we encounter the clay pots of finitude and the mighty sweep of God’s abundant treasure that presses toward a legacy of faith. It might arise from a personal crisis or a health scare. It might come from worry about something we did in the past that holds its grip on us. But most often we are aware of the vulnerable clay pot in our mortality.
In early September I had the opportunity to speak with some of you in the Cornerstones group about the middle and older years of faith development. We surveyed some of the challenges of the aging process from the perspectives of psychology to physical aging, to big questions that emerge, to shifting questions of faith. One of the realities of the middle and later years of life is the abrupt and halting question: How much time do I have left? And the next question: Did my life mean anything anyway?
Indeed, these questions arise with challenging authority in the mid-life crisis time, but actually the seed bed of them awakens in the teenage years as the challenges of that time in life take adolescents to the big questions. In the clay jars, the vulnerable, fragile container of our life, in the diminishment of our capabilities, we come face-to-face with what might live on in our life, what our legacy will be, and the move is often to think of legacy as something that will continue beyond our life—a gift, a plaque on a wall, a grave marker, an endowment, a book, our photos. And though these are treasured by giver and recipient, middle years, generativity, comes to the fore when the welfare of future generations becomes an essential part of one’s own generativity. The virtue of caring. Knowing that we are creating benefit for the next generation. The capacities one has gained in earlier stages serve as a storehouse for this time—hope, will, purpose, skill, fidelity, and love. In our faith life, this treasure arises from the life that came about at the creation of the world and that runs through our lives and that extends beyond us through the extraordinary power of God.
There are many examples of individuals and communities that remind us of the treasure that is housed in the vulnerable clay pots. I think of two.
Probably no other time in one’s life is the power of these words about treasures in clay pots more evident than when faced with loss of loved ones through death. Last week Tom, my spouse, and I traveled to my hometown in Iowa to attend the funeral of my Uncle Billy. Billy was the family patriarch, the oldest son, of the oldest son, of the oldest son. He had served in the army and retired as a colonel. He was the mayor of my hometown. He was a father, a grandfather, a catcher in the church baseball league, and also a master at yo-yo tricks. At the visitation, all of his awards, his high school and college letter jackets, his honors and plaques, were laid out on the table by the open casket, where his almost unrecognizable body lay. His earthen vessel had endured cancer treatments and strain for many years.
As I stood by his body and also his awards, I realized that his legacy was not in that room. Certainly, one might say that his legacy lived on in his two children, who stood in a receiving line that snaked its way out the funeral home door. But I think it was much more than that! I thought of the way his thin baritone voice sang out with joy from the third row of the choir stall; I recalled the greetings he’d give me when I came to the shop where he worked; I heard in my mind the moments when he let go of his usually contained affect, with a snorting laugh that embarrassed him more than any of us.
But I think his truest legacy was in the foundation of his faith, which was the church that we both grew up in, the church that was founded by our great-great-grandfather several generations ago, who set in motion the vision of God’s treasure in that city in Iowa in the 1850s. That church shone brightly as a treasure of hope, the brilliant glory of God’s light in darkness and in light. And most often the light of faith in that community shone most brightly when those of us in that congregation walked courageously through difficult days; when we dwelled in the land of deep darkness; when we stumbled in our faith or faithfulness or when our hearts broke for reasons that we cannot fully know.
Such treasures in clay pots also lives its way out in this congregation. In post-Civil War America, many congregations were faced with decisions about how they might arise from the heat of that war stemming from their views of slavery. In the national Presbyterian church, the northern and southern church split over this issue. What may not be as well known is that even in the North of the United States, some Presbyterian churches were sympathetic with the views of the American South and believed that slavery should be sustained. As the Civil War trudged on, two congregations in Chicago came together in their opposition to slavery. Though earlier in their history North Presbyterian Church and Westminster Presbyterian Church diverged on issues of theology as well as social and political issues of the day, they came to agreement on an abolitionist agenda in the post-Civil War years and in the early 1870s decided to merge congregations. When the Presbytery agreed to the merger, Fourth Presbyterian Church was formed on February 12, 1871.
The two congregations decided to renovate the former North Church building in order to accommodate the growing congregation. The building was closed for several months, and on Sunday, October 8, 1871, the congregation worshiped in the newly renovated church. It was a day of great celebration and great hope. The future of a vibrant congregation in Chicago looked bright. “Yet, scarcely had the evening service concluded that day when fire broke out in the stable of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary in the center of the city. The fire started at 9:00 p.m., spread rapidly, burning northward for twenty-five hours, coming at last to a halt at Fullerton.” The newly renovated church was destroyed by 3:30 a.m. Of the 130 member families, 125 families lost their homes in the fire. One day the church opened; the next day it was gone. (You can see posters showing the before and after of the church in Anderson Hall today.)
The earthen vessel of this community, a church made of bricks and mortar, went up in flames. But what is amazing and incredibly moving is that even with nearly every family member homeless and many penniless, “the congregation of Fourth Church gathered two weeks after the fire to worship and to begin making plans to rebuild.” (Material drawn from Marilee Munger Scroggs, A Light in the City, 1990.)
I would never romanticize the tragedy of having a church burn down, or an entire city for that matter. But I also must say that the light of faith burned brighter than that tragedy in 1871, and that light has not been quenched. The treasure, the absolutely essential treasure of God’s abundant life made known in Jesus, shapes the legacy of this congregation to this day.
The challenge of being crushed and despairing, being perplexed and struck down, are realities of our lives. They will not go away. But as we carry these infirmities, the extraordinary power comes from God, and we can say with the apostle, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” We carry death in our very lives, but the life of Jesus is manifest in our mortal flesh.
Think of what it would be like if you trusted that your life was not your own but God’s own? Think of how differently you would live if your legacy was invested in sharing the way God has been involved in your life—to friends, family, and your wider community? Think of what might arise from your days—whether you are a young person, a middle-aged or older adult—if a new sense of calling focused the welfare of future generations, and the stewardship of the treasure that is held in our very lives, through hope, will, purpose, skill, fidelity, and love grounded in Jesus Christ. And even more, think of how our life together as a congregation would engage this city if the worry about survival or sustaining what has been gave way to a radical trust in the power of God, whose precious and magnificent treasure is entrusted to our very mortal, very fragile earthen vessel as a legacy of grace and a legacy of joy!
Parker Palmer says in his new book, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old, “I no longer ask, ‘What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to hang on to?’ Instead I ask, ‘What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to give myself to?’” He goes on to reflect on the comment “The desire to ‘hang on’ comes from a sense of scarcity and fear. The desire to ‘give myself’ comes from a sense of abundance and generosity” (Parker J. Palmer, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old, p. 27). If this is the key concern, then questions of my legacy—what I leave and what I give myself to—lead us to the very face of Christ that shines out of our faces onto this world: a treasure worth a lifetime and beyond!
Thanks and glory be to the one who loves us with such a life that strengthens us in our vulnerability and is our legacy of grace and hope! Amen.