It is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 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. – 2 Cor 4:6-7
Several years ago I attended an event called the Festival of Homiletics, an annual gathering at which clergy from a wide range of denominations gather to hear sermons and talks by some of the greatest preachers and teachers of our time. I heard a lot of good things, but the one that stuck with me the most was a talk by Walter Brueggeman, one of the greatest living scholars of Scripture. He happened to be speaking on today’s Epistle, this portion of Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth.
He began by inviting us to imagine the apostle Paul, leafing through the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible, looking for a sermon text to support what he wants to say to the Corinthians. The Corinthians are majoring in the minors, and Paul wants to remind them about what really matters. And he finds this bit about the clay pots, which we used as our Old Testament reading this morning. As preachers do, he takes that text, this image of God as Divine Potter, and he does something new with it – thinking about the purpose of that clay pot, what it’s meant to hold.
The church in Corinth, the church Paul is addressing, is afflicted and perplexed and persecuted and struck down. We 21st-century mainline Christians can relate! Our budgets and membership rolls are shrinking. Our faith is associated with policies we do not recognize. In the eyes of many, our convictions appear irrelevant at best, oppressive at worst. The temptation for the church, whether long ago or today, when it is afflicted, perplexed, persecuted and struck down, is to give in to being crushed, forsaken, and destroyed. We may feel hopeful about St. Dunstan’s – but there’s plenty of cause to feel helplessness, frustration or despair about the state and future of the larger church.
But when we do that, say Brueggeman and Paul, we are taking our clay pot too seriously, and confusing the pot with the treasure. Paul says, We have confused the container and the stuff contained. As Christians, as church folks, we often start to think our ministry, our mission, is the point. We think that WE’RE the treasure… but we’re really the pot. The container for something much more important – and much less fragile – than anything we can make or do.
The treasure is the good news of God in Christ. It is forgiveness in a society that holds grudges forever. It is generosity that overcomes lack in a society of scarcity and selfishness. It is hospitality in a society that closes doors to the immigrant. It is justice that protects the vulnerable in an unjust society. It is the old old story of God giving Godself for love of God’s creatures. THAT is the treasure. Everything else is clay pots. Fragile. Likely to break. Never able to fully and reliably contain the treasure.
It’s easy for people like me – pastors, but not just pastors; church folk, people who just love the church – it’s easy for us to worry about the pot. But when we think about it, we know the pot is not the treasure. At the Festival, Brueggeman stood at the podium in front of a giant hall full of pastors and preachers and said, NOBODY thought our hymnal would last forever, or our prayer book, or our favorite seminary, or our diocese, or … And I laughed to myself, because I knew, and he knew, that the room was FULL of people who thought exactly that.
But in our most honest moments, we know that no form of the church will last. Because clay pots don’t last. They wear out, they chip, they break. Sometimes they shatter. The church is not durable, not eternal, in any form or manifestation, even the ones that we value the most.
But Paul says, If we keep our focus on the treasure – that should prevent us from taking the vessels so seriously. The value and beauty of the treasure should help us avoid getting too invested in the longevity of any given clay pot. It is the treasure, the Gospel, the very light of God shining forth in the face of Jesus Christ, that lets us say, with Paul: We are afflicted in every way, BUT NOT crushed; perplexed, BUT NOT driven to despair; persecuted, BUT NOT forsaken; struck down, BUT NOT destroyed. It is the “but not” that matters. When we fall into despair and cynicism, when we spend our energy and resources arguing trivialities – I say this as someone who will soon spend ten days at our church’s national convention, God help me! – When we are seized by the urgency of keeping church the way it used to be – or the hubris of creating our own maps of the church of the future! – then we have made the pot more important than its contents. We have forgotten that the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.
And our over-investment in our particular clay pot is often tied up with a certain egotism. Brueggeman said, We have been seduced by the American can-do attitude to trust too much in our own skill and our own work. But transcendent power, the power to change hearts and transform the world, that power does not come from good planning or good scholarship. It certainly doesn’t come from watching the right webinars or hiring the right consultants. It comes from vulnerable self-giving. It comes from trusting in the treasure.
This is a hard time to be Christian in public. Some awful stuff is being said and done in the name of Jesus. There’s cause to worry about how all that will affect our clay pots. I know there are people in this household of faith who find that the toxicity of public Christianity right now makes it hard for them to come to church, even though they know that’s not what we’re about here. I’m sure there are people whose faith and commitment to this body remain strong, but who are more hesitant to speak about those things to friends or acquaintances. Because we wouldn’t want people to get the wrong impression.
But the value of the treasure is not diminished, the light of God’s glory is not dimmed, by prominent people mispreaching a Gospel of prosperity, exclusion, callousness and judgment. The Bible shows us that when people are speaking falsely about God, God sends prophets to speak truly about God – like our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who told a worldwide audience that Love is God’s way, and then marched his convictions right to the White House as part of the Reclaiming Jesus vigil last week – a vigil proclaiming that the God of Scripture, the God made known to us in Jesus Christ, calls us to reject racism and sexism, nationalism and authoritarianism, xenophobia and neglect of the poor.
After that Royal Wedding sermon, lots of clergy I know posted on social media to say, Hey, if you liked what that guy had to say, come check out your local Episcopal church! Friends, I would love it if some folks came to our doors seeking a Gospel of love and justice, and found it preached and lived here. But Bishop Curry isn’t doing what he’s doing to make more Episcopalians. To save and strengthen our particular clay pot. He’s bearing witness to the treasure. He’s letting the light shine.
This conflicted, scary, vulnerable moment for the historic churches, here in the early 21st century, this may be a moment when we need to focus on the treasure and let God take care of the container. Brueggeman said: People in institutional leadership, pastors, treasurers, vestries, are often exhausted and perplexed… The good news is, More is going on than us. In and with and under and behind us and our efforts is this bouyant fidelity – Brueggeman’s words, I love them – this buoyant fidelity that abides and sustains, no matter what.
So we are watching the clay pots being smashed, like Jeremiah imagines old Jerusalem being smashed, for being disobedient and complacent, too comfortable with national ideology and middle-class morality. The pots are being smashed on behalf of Jesus, so the treasure can break loose in the world.
We like our clay pots to be just so. The handles and the shape and the color. The prophet Isaiah names this human tendency to question the potter: What are you making? Where are the handles? A pot has to have handles, you know!… (Isaiah 45:9) We like church just so, and all its trappings, buildings and books and committees and ministries.
But what if, what if, in our days, before our eyes, the pot is being remade because it no longer pleases the potter? Because it’s not the right vessel for the treasure, in this season of the life of the world?
Brueggeman said, This is my word to you, as a white, male, tenured, retired guy who has no risks to run: Care more for the treasure. Because here’s the truth: There is not any single person anywhere who does not eagerly hope for the news of God’s reconciling, liberating love. Not one. That treasure breaks free and fills some new containers, some of which will surprise us, some of which will make us anxious.
For me as a pastor, the clay pot we currently inhabit includes my salary and health care coverage, and my family’s security. For all of us as church people, that clay pot includes our beloved buildings, our denominational structures, our Books of Common Prayer. We worry about all that stuff, we care about it, for some good reasons, but those things are not the treasure. The treasure is not at risk.
We are indeed afflicted… but we are not crushed. We are indeed perplexed… but we are not driven to despair. We are indeed struck down… but we are not destroyed. And because of the treasure, because of the Light shining forth in the face of Jesus, we do not lose heart.
Full text of Brueggeman’s talk:
The Reclaiming Jesus statement: