Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

Treasure in Clay Jars

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church – The Rev. Bart Smith
The Third Sunday after Pentecost (June 5, 2016)
2 Corinthians 4:1-15 – “Treasure in Clay Jars”

Get comfortable… we’ll be in 2 Corinthians for the month of June. Mike Smith did a fantastic job kicking us off on this series last Sunday while I was visiting family in Georgia. You should have seen the look on his face when I told him what the text was for that Sunday! It was the same contorted look I had when I looked at the Narrative Lectionary calendar. As I’ve said before, the Apostle Paul is not the easiest author to track, and 2 Corinthians is a bit of a rat’s nest for Biblical scholars. But I think the Narrative Lectionary folks are on to something. I think they chose 2 Corinthians for a monthlong series for the same reason I, personally, love the Bible as a whole: it’s messy, like real life is messy and, as with life itself, there’s still a lot of beauty in the mess.

Paul has written here what is at least his fourth letter to the church at Corinth (it’s called 2 Corinthians because it’s only one of the two remaining). This is a church with which Paul has a tumultuous relationship, and that’s an understatement– lots of conflict, a lot of passionate investment on Paul’s part, many misunderstandings and bruised feelings. But what we can learn from this situation is something about how God works through the likes of people like us. Let’s listen for God’s word to us today:

This is why we don’t get discouraged, given that we received this ministry in the same way that we received God’s mercy… We don’t preach about ourselves. Instead, we preach about Jesus Christ as Lord, and we describe ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. God said that light should shine out of the darkness. He is the same one who shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay pots so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn’t come from us. We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out.

We always carry Jesus’ death around in our bodies so that Jesus’ life can also be seen in our bodies. We who are alive are always being handed over to death for Jesus’ sake so that Jesus’ life can also be seen in our bodies that are dying. So death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. We have the same faithful spirit as what is written in scripture: I had faith, and so I spoke. We also have faith, and so we also speak. We do this because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will also raise us with Jesus, and he will bring us into his presence along with you. All these things are for your benefit. As grace increases to benefit more and more people, it will cause gratitude to increase, which results in God’s glory.

Let’s try a little exercise: raise your hand if you’re perfect… No? Good. That’s a healthy place to start.

And guess what? God can use you.

“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.” Or expressed another way, as one commentator did: “Human fragility is not a prohibition for, but a prerequisite of, authentic ministry.”

Paul knew a thing or two about fragility. If you read his letters, you find out he spilt a lot of ink defending himself against critics and saboteurs. Not to mention the beatings, trials, imprisonments, shipwreck, arguments, illness, and emotional breakdowns. But not for nothing; for the sake of the gospel.

But many of us–and I’m speaking from personal experience here–don’t do well with fragility. We thrive on being capable. Strong. Smart. Experienced. Good at “stuff.” We move about in a capitalist system that is founded on what you can produce. And within American culture our value is measured in dollars paid, achievements made, reputations earned. But not so in the economy of God, according to 2 Corinthians. God works through broken vessels.

And it’s that conviction, I think, that keeps Paul going:

We are experiencing all kinds of trouble,, but we aren’t crushed.
We are confused, but we aren’t depressed.
We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned.
We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out.

It’s as if he’s saying, “Yes, this hard, really hard, trying to live out the love and carry the message of Jesus. Yes, we face opposition, we risk failure, we’ve tasted defeat, for sure, but we keep going. We have faith along this journey because it’s God at work within us. We’re not running on our own steam here. We are instruments of God’s grace.”

But that’s something else we struggle with besides fragility: self-surrender. That same part of us that yearns to be capable, to make things happen by our own talents or ingenuity, has trouble releasing the grip on control. We would rather have power than be vessels of God’s power.

Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote that “the problem that has always hampered [humankind] has been [its] inability to conquer evil by [our] own power.” He asked the question, “How can evil be best cast out of our individual and collective lives. If the world is not to be purified by God alone nor by [humankind] alone, who will do it?”

A mixture of the two, he said. On the social level, “Our age-old and noble dream of a world of peace may yet become a reality, but it will come neither by [humankind] working alone nor by God destroying the wicked schemes of [humankind], but when [people] so open their lives to God that he may fill them with love, mutual respect, understanding, and goodwill.” And on a personal level, “one cannot remove an evil habit by mere resolution nor by simply calling on God to do the job, but only as [they] surrender [themselves] and become an instrument of God.”

In other words, to be a “clay jar”–fragile, broken, imperfect–yet open to being filled.

Yesterday, I was down in Agua Prieta, Sonora at the dedication and grand opening of Cafe Justo y Mas, the coffee shop/community gathering space/anti-drug effort established by our ministry partner, Frontera de Cristo. That coffee that many of us will drink this morning, that coffee many of us buy week after week–listen to me–you have no idea its impact! Jane Coffey, Alison Wood, and Elizabeth Smith were down there, too. We had breakfast with, among other people, some of the farmers from Chiapas who have grown those very beans. I cannot begin to describe how powerful it was to hear their story! Buying that coffee makes such a tremendous difference in the lives of those 25+ families, hundreds of people in Salvador Urbina, Chiapas. So buy more!

In hearing the success of the cooperative, and of Cafe Justo itself, and seeing this incredibly impressive new building, what struck me when listening to the speeches during the dedication was how all these farmers, and Mark Adams himself, was how humble they were. They began their speeches by giving God credit. I was thinking in my heart of hearts, while listening to Mark speak, “My head would be so huge at this event because of what I would have accomplished! I’d be so proud. ‘I’m awesome at what I do!’” The whole time, through these Herculean feats, despite all the odds, these folks persevered because they believed God was at work among them. Clay jars, if you will. You can’t measure the ripple effect of these projects!

There’s a verse in Ephesians, “Glory to God, who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us.” There are so many uphill battles many of us face in our personal lives, and as a church that seeks to “be a force for justice in the world,” as our purpose statement says. Only you know your private challenges…

But in terms of the “biggies”–improving education, reducing gun violence, feeding the hungry, you name it–those issues seem awash with impossibility. It’s easy to get discouraged, isn’t it? Take for instance this issue of gun violence. Last Thursday was National Gun Violence Awareness Day. There were events here in Tucson and all over the country and a flurry of activity online, all aimed at calling attention to gun violence. Yet even on that day there were 35 shootings in the U.S., leaving 12 dead and 22 injured.

Yet I hear Paul’s words ringing loudly, “God said that light should shine out of the darkness. [She] is the same one who shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay pots so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn’t come from us… I had faith, and so I spoke.”

We can’t do it all on our own. But maybe that’s the point.

May it be so…