June 7, 2015 – Treasure in clay jars

Pentecost 2 June 7, 2015 (Psalm 138, 1 Samuel 8:4-20, Acts 2:42-47) 2 Corinthians 4:5-15          Treasure in clay jars

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We have this treasure in jars of clay.” This image describes our human condition…probably as well as any single phrase can do… The same God who said “let there be light” in the beginning– “has made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory… in the face of Christ.” Good News! The same light that lit up the cosmic darkness in the beginning lives in us… God’s awesome presence is alive, embodied in us… Treasure beyond all price…

“But – we have this treasure in jars of clay.” We have the light and life of God within us – in the fragile shell of earthly bodies. I expect I don’t have to unpack this part in much detail… We all know by now what it is to be human… Living in human bodies… Exposed to time and aging, vulnerable, subject to chipping, bruising, even shattering… We have this treasure in jars of clay. Our bodies resemble the clay jars and jugs manufactured in great quantities in Corinth of old. (Corinth, bible commentaries say, was home to one of the first century’s biggest Pottery Barn Outlets.) Pottery is notoriously breakable… (Maybe this sermon should be titled “Crack pot theology?”)

Human bodies are fragile and breakable. Together we are the body of Christ. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are filled with references to life in the body, with all of life’s bodily pains and afflictions. We should expect much the same kinds of difficulties and sufferings as others. (Paul tells us elsewhere in this same letter that he’s experienced far more beatings, floggings, imprisonments, shipwrecks, and disasters by far than anyone he knows.) To be Christian is not to escape sufferings, but to be fully human, and suffer the common sufferings of humankind, as well as to know deep joy…

So we shouldn’t be surprised, Paul reminds us, when troubles happen. We who follow Jesus should expect problems and difficulties much like those Christ himself and the apostles experienced. We too will often be (in the words of scripture) “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed – perplexed, but not in despair – persecuted, but not abandoned – struck down, but not destroyed.”

Suffering and struggle comes with the turf of being human and being Christian. As believers we’re blessed beyond measure… and subject to all the mix of human perplexities and troubles also common to life on earth…(for example –)

This week someone defaced our (Cataumet) church’s message board sign on County Road. The sign that’s always there, sharing words of encouragement, humor, and hope… But this past Friday someone changed the letters of the sign around to say ‘worship Satan…’ Words to that effect.

Joyce, who carefully chooses our messages, and spends considerable time and effort putting up these messages, was of course disturbed by the vandalism. (As I was of course also.)

Joyce called me up when she noticed the damage as she happened to be driving by. After we talked she called the police. The officer who came to talk turned out to be a classmate of her daughter, someone she knew. A very nice guy. He said, ‘Unfortunately there are some bad apples out there…’

This was a rather unfortunate incident. Hopefully this kind of incident will never happen again. But probably, in fact, things like this will happen again. Reading the local newspapers, we can’t help noticing – robberies, break-ins, acts of destruction and violence are all part of life in this otherwise beautiful town we live in. And in all the neighboring towns around us. And probably just about everywhere on earth. This is the human condition. We’re not immune.

I remember other acts of vandalism in churches I’ve served. In Dannemora New York we had gang-related graffiti painted on an outside wall of the church several times. In Plainfield Vermont a cross was burned in the front yard of our church… one Christmas morning… And even that was rather mild, compared with

the brutal and senseless shooting that took the life of one woman and seriously injured another woman and a police officer, here in Bourne, just last winter… That was far worse.

And I remember also the everyday falls and stumbles, literal and metaphoric, that remind us daily… of the frailty of our human condition… and of our earthly bodies… which really are a lot like jars of clay…

And… Hearts and minds are also parts of the body… Parts that also chip and break and suffer damage…

We still really don’t know why so many young, otherwise intelligent adults become addicted to drugs… There’s probably many different reasons. But we know heroin addiction is epidemic. Addiction to legal prescription opiate drugs is also epidemic. As a culture we’re strung out on all manner of addictions… People who feel lost, lonely, hurting, troubled…People who for all sorts of reasons are unhappy… Often do foolish things and make foolish choices…

People who are lost or hurting often “self-medicate” with drugs or alcohol. They also often lash out and do destructive things to themselves and others… Lash out at those they love and at those they don’t understand… Lash out sometimes at anyone who reminds them of someone or something they associate with the pain and the despair they feel.

We may be blamed sometimes for the failings of the church. We may be blamed for someone’s imagined image of a punishing God… A god who is imagined in a distorted way, in the image of someone’s own difficult earthly father or mother.. We don’t understand the whole spectrum of human illnesses…

But we should expect to suffer at times not just for our own sins and errors but sometimes also for the sins and mistakes of others… We’re all connected in the web of life. What happens to anyone has consequences for everyone. John Donne the poet-pastor said 400 years ago – No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Christian author Madeleine L’Engle echoes John Donne’s thought in contemporary context, writing: “(Can) I separate my own health from the rest of the world? My own good nutrition from the poor nutrition of billions?… In a universe where the lifting of the wings of a butterfly is felt across galaxies, I cannot isolate myself, because my separation may add to the starvation and the anger and the violence.”

The church of old understood – sharing in the suffering of the world is part of our Christian witness to the world. The danger now is, in the words of theologian Phil Kenneson (quoted, along with Madeleine L’Engle, in the book, Slow Church, that I’m reading) – is that “Few people seem genuinely willing to slow down and offer real presence to those who otherwise weep alone. As a result, so many among us suffer in deadly silence and isolation…”

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In days of old people often hid their most valuable items in the plainest of pottery jars. Reasoning that a thief would more likely look elsewhere – look in fancier or more beautiful or more carefully concealed or better padlocked places for silver, gold and jewelry. Treasure in clay jars might be overlooked by thieves. And treasure in clay jars was already a familiar metaphor in Paul’s day.

Probably the apostle and all his listeners also knew – how often we forget where we’ve hidden our treasure. I often forget where I’ve put something… Then I go seeking and searching all over… Looking, most often, for a book I’ve been reading… Till, usually after a long search, I finally find it… Hidden in plain sight – just a few inches down… Under one of the stacks of magazines, newspapers and other books… Right where I left it.

Isn’t this how it often goes with our spiritual life? Isn’t it easy to become distracted, and spend a lot more time thinking about clay-jar-exteriors – rather than exercising our treasure, hidden away within these jars we inhabit?

Probably this is why the apostle starts this whole discussion off by reminding us – the gospel we preach isn’t really about us – it’s about Jesus, our Lord.

And “all this is for …our benefit (the apostle writes) so… the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.”

It’s actually very good news – and all for our benefit – that God gets all the glory.

Because we really don’t know what to do with glory anyway. Only God really does…

Only God always employs all his glory properly – to reach out… to all the hurting, all the lost…

Shining the pure light of his glory in us…and for us… and for all…

In patient persistent hope… that we God’s people…

Will stir up the light and life of God within us…

That all may know the love of God…

Who calls us to be Christ’s body on earth.

Calls us to make our home in God…

And make our lives a home… for the light of God…

Till all the darkness is light…

May it be so.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.