Jars of Clay

Jars of Clay

2 Corinthians 4:4-12

by Daniel Harrell

Leading this year’s Confirmation Class has been a delight. I cut my ministry teeth with students years ago, first in Young Life then as a church youth minister for 15 years. I wrote articles and and taught classes—using overhead projectors and cassette tapes as my technology. Reagan was president. Everybody wanted to rule the word, money for nothing and was crazy for you. Don’t you forget about me. Lots of big hair, or in my case, just hair. It was a long time ago. I’m not hip anymore. So thanks for putting up with me, and all that Bible reading we did. You’re surrounded and supported by a church and families that obviously love you.

Last year I baked pizza on the Communion Table for Confirmation Sunday. Pizza is one thing that hasn’t changed much. The lesson was about the power of yeast in the dough, which Jesus used as an analogy for the kingdom of God. A little bit goes a long way.

We worship a God who made the heavens and earth. Our solar system swirls like pizza sauce. God said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” and unleashed a vast universe, 13.5 billion years old with more stars than grains of sand on earth. From this immensity emerged of a minuscule scrap of dust inhabitable for human life: life that took millions of years to unfold, through untold waste and sacrifice. The Lord picked an obscure blip of a planet to populate with people, but then went on to pick the most obscure bunch of people with whom to have a relationship, a people for whom he eventually showed up in person, as an indiscriminate carpenter in a backwater village in a backward time in history, one who ended up rejected, unjustly convicted and executed.

God takes human form only to die on a cross. And we praise the Lord for it and call it good news. This is the enduring mystery of the gospel. The horror of the cross bears inexplicable fruit, a wondrous capacity to rise above violence and hatred and racism, above injustice and evil with true love, pure grace and genuine joy. Christ’s power to redeem and reconcile patiently persists from the margins, loving enemies and welcoming strangers, caring for the poor, shunning privilege and the pursuit of wealth, going a second mile, doing its good in secret and not for applause. It’s like that bit of yeast, so small you can hardly see it sometimes, seemingly insignificant and susceptible to being blown away at a moment, but then breaking forth in bounteous glory with golden splendor, sweet aroma and delicious flavor.

None of this is our doing. In this morning’s passage, the apostle Paul is emphatic: the gospel’s extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. On the Communion Table this morning is a clay pot—beautifully crafted two Sundays ago by a gifted artisan, Jon Kamrath. Potter and clay illustrate a central truth of human existence: we are the work of God’s hands, formed and reformed according to his purposes. And yet we resist this. We’re self-centered creatures who want to mold our own lives and do what we want—even as Christians.

As you know, I got to travel with our Confirmation students, parents and others to Colombia this past summer. On our last day, some of us hiked to a remote Benedictine monastery where we were unexpectedly greeted by a monk who spoke some English and described how he’d given up a lucrative travel business for a life singularly devoted to prayer and service. His lived with 24 other men, ranging in age from 22 to 85, with whom he’ll spend the rest of his life. We asked what was the hardest thing about being a monk, thinking he’d say the detachment from society or the ritual of prayer every three hours a day, or the obedience to the rules and rhythms of monastic life. No, he loved all of that, he said. The hardest part about being a monk was the other monks. Loving your enemies can be easy compared to loving your friends. OFF

“All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment,” said the prophet Isaiah, from whom we read two weeks ago. “We fade like autumn leaves, and our iniquities, like the wind, sweep us away.” Who are we to be saved or loved? We are prodigal children and deformed lumps of dirt—clay in the hands of a potter, our Father in heaven who so loved the world that he sent his only Son to die for it, to remake and reshape even when we resist, to form and reform for our benefit and his pleasure and purpose.

We’ve entered a reformation year for our church—an opportunity presented by a windfall of financial good fortune, new staff, new initiatives in mission and student ministry, challenges of changing culture and the commemoration next month of the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses nailed to a church door in Wittenberg  Germany. Luther hammered onto our hearts how God loves us because he loves us—there is nothing we do to deserve it. Christ empties himself out on the cross for our sake. Filled with his spirit to overflowing, we can now pour out ourselves for God and others.

The clay pot on the Communion Table is a pot poured out. Last Sunday we read from Mark’s gospel about a woman who adoringly emptied a whole jar of expensive perfume on Jesus’ head. Bystanders were aghast—why all this waste? Could not the perfume had been sold and money given to the poor? The posh perfume ran down Jesus’ hair, over his shoulders, and drips off of his sleeves. A whole year’s salary—a fragrant puddle on the floor. Who does that?

Jesus received the woman’s extravagant gift as good and beautiful, but also timely. Perfume expressed love and honor to the living, but also expressed respect for the dead. Jesus would be crucified as an outlaw, and therefore denied the grace of a fitting burial. But Mark makes sure we see that Jesus did not sustain the disgrace his opponents later assumed he had. Though executed as a criminal; the woman provided his proper funeral. Her act would be remembered for what it was: an expression of extravagant waste that vindicated Jesus as Son of God and Savior—the one who extravagantly wasted himself on us because he loved us.

Formed by the Lord and filled with the Spirit, poured out for God and for others—we still remain fragile clay jars. Baked to perfection, bread still molds and pots still break. Paul wrote, “We have our treasure in clay jars so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” It comes from Christ in us.

In Colombia, a glorious but broken country with a long and tortuous history of drug cartels, violence and civil war. The church withstood as Paul said it would: “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” We experienced a lot of Colombian churches—some deeply traditional and proven by time, others that jumped and danced with a fervency of worship—one church basement congregation of former drug addicts, a rock concert light and sound spectacle, complete with smoke machines and video. And a small rural congregation that took two hours and two buses and a lot of asking for directions (from that man on his horse). Their pastor led a sincere if simple service, feeding us the words of Jesus and then sandwiches afterward since it was a long way back home. OFF

What made all the worship of these churches so genuine was Christ who was in it.  Filled with the Spirit these churches poured out. The basement church doubled as a homeless shelter. The rock and roll church ran a school and mission in a rough neighborhood, helping and teaching children of families wracked by drugs and war. Rural churches funded and staffed a home for troubled girls, which instead of being located in one of their impoverished neighborhoods, was perched high on a mountainside far from their troubles, each girl treated as a beloved daughter and not as throwaway children.

“Afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” This is the treasure we carry in clay jars so to confuse the potter with the clay.

But why not dispense with the affliction and the perplexity and the persecution and all that getting knocked down? If God loves us so much, just skip the hard stuff. Be plastic instead of pottery. Take power. Become the answer to your own prayers. Do what you think is right. Refuse to biodegrade.

Self-made and assured, Paul had been a first rate Pharisee, successful and strong, he needed nobody’s grace. In the book of Acts, he was on his way to Damascus to kill with a few heretics, when “a great light from heaven,” stopped Paul in his tracks. He probably assumed God was spotlighting him for being such a good person. But the spotlight turned out to be the hot light of Jesus—that blinded Paul on account of his arrogance. Prestige had been his poison, walling him off from the God he pretended to serve. Jesus exposed his spiritual deficiency as a spiritual necessity. Presuming God’s favor, Paul did as he pleased and gave glory to himself, he refashioned his sin as a virtue. And Jesus broke him for it.

Out of this brokenness, finally filled with the Spirit, Paul found his purpose and power. The Lord always prefers broken pots to porcelain perfection—even to the point of being broken himself. “We always carry in our body the death of Jesus,” Paul finally realized, “so that the life of Jesus may be seen in us.”  being given up to death for Jesus sake.” The greatest heroes of the Bible were always damaged goods: Moses was a murderer, Noah a drunk, Jonah a racist, Jacob a liar, Rebekah a conniver, Rahab a prostitute, Naomi an opportunist; Elijah burned out, Jeremiah was depressed, Mary wanted Jesus committed, Peter denied ever knowing Jesus, Judas betrayed him and Paul was a self-righteous prig.

To be sure, there is brokenness we bring onto ourselves. But even in pieces, we are not cursed or unlovable or worthless. On the contrary, in Christ, to be broken is to be ripe for redemption by a crucified Savior whose body was broken for us. The late Catholic mystic Henri Nouwen, greatly regarded by Christians of every stripe, went so far as to equate being broken with being blessed. “In a strange way,” he wrote, “the spiritual life isn’t ‘useful’ or ‘successful.’ But it is meant to be fruitful. And fruitfulness comes out of brokenness.” I know this is true. And truth sets us free.

Henri Nouwen went on to write about a mass composed many years ago by Leonard Bernstein. It was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to open the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in New York. Bernstein’s score requires an orchestra, but also at least two electric guitar players that can play in five-four time, as well as a blues band, four different keyboards and a 500-member boys choir. It’s some strange music. Baltimore symphony maestro Marin Alsop described parts of the mass as a complete disaster by design. I think Nouwen saw this as the point.

In the final movement, a Catholic priest, splendidly adorned in his colorful robes, confident in his beliefs and in his religious system, waltzes in singing about how faith is so simple and so easy, and about how he understands everything and has it all under control. He’s carrying an elaborate communion chalice—a handcrafted clay jar if you will—skipping along, counting all of his blessings of which he has plenty. Self-made and assured, successful and proud, he needed nobody’s grace. Soon this chorus enters, one person at a time, all troubled people from the streets: a war protestor who’d lost a son, a wounded soldier, a homeless woman, an abandoned child, an addict, emotionally abused and fearful—confused and disillusioned victims of all kinds of brokenness, all looking at their own lives, they surround the priest and demand to know why they should ever believe in God. They press hard against him, and the priest starts to doubt his own faith.

In the crush, the priest loses his balance and his chalice falls to the ground and shatters to pieces. His robes and his pride now in tatters, he stumbles through all the debris of his former glory as the voices rise as one and start to praise the Lord. The priest stares at the mess and the truth sets him free. He confesses: “I never knew brokenness could be so beautiful.”