On Being Clay Jars
2 Corinthians 4:5-12
Second Sunday after Pentecost
June 3rd 2018

For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For 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. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 11 For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.
NRSV

5-6 Remember, our Message is not about ourselves; we’re proclaiming Jesus Christ, the Master. All we are is messengers, errand runners from Jesus for you. It started when God said, “Light up the darkness!” and our lives filled up with light as we saw and understood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful.

7-12 If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us. As it is, there’s not much chance of that. You know for yourselves that we’re not much to look at. We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken. What they did to Jesus, they do to us—trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, he does in us—he lives! Our lives are at constant risk for Jesus’ sake, which makes Jesus’ life all the more evident in us. While we’re going through the worst, you’re getting in on the best!

The Message

Way back in 1885 (when some of us were very young) Andrew Murray published a book titled With Christ in the School of Prayer.  I like the title because to me the Church of Jesus Christ is very much a school…full of students who figuratively sit at Jesus’ feet and, like Mary of Bethany, soak up what the Master teaches.  Pentecost marked the dramatic coming of the Holy Spirit to teach us everything we need to know and to remind us of all that Jesus taught, while bringing us into his peace.  (John 14:26-27)  As Jesus’ disciples we are students, constantly learning to live and act like Jesus….which is to say to live and act the ways God created us to be.  At least when we’re paying attention.

I like the notion of being a life-long learner.  It suggests curiosity, vitality, dynamic engagement, which is especially apt for followers of Christ….for who among us has mastered loving and serving….who among us has reached wholeness in fruitful living.  We all have a lot yet to learn.

For instance, how are we doing these days with the homework assignment of bearing fruits of the Spirit:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?

It’s been a privilege to wrestle with and preach the gospel for nearly 40 years.  I’ve learned a few things as Jesus’ gospel has informed, even transformed, my thinking and hopefully my actions.  The apostle Paul’s interpretation of the gospel has been important, but honestly I don’t always get him.

In the passage from 2 Corinthians we’ve heard Paul claims: 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.”  (NRSV)

There’s a ring of truth here, but I don’t really understand it.

What does make sense in this passage is that God is in the light-shining business…and that God’s crowning work with light is seen in Jesus….who, as The Message puts it, “gives us the best picture of God we’ll ever get.”  (2 Cor. 4:4)   Each one of us may be created in God’s image, but no one shines forth the fullness of humanity and human possibility like Jesus.  In his face we see the glorious goodness, power and grace of God…incarnate…embodied… And it is the Creator’s intention that this Light shines forth in us and through our lives.  That’s the claim of the gospel.

I haven’t shared that much about our family’s experience last June following our grandson’s premature birth.  To say the 27 days of Finn’s life and the grieving which followed his death were difficult is an understatement.  Josh and Bryn’s decision to remove life support on the 27th day was brave but wrenching.  Your thoughts and prayers helped sustain us…and we’re forever grateful.

In his tragically brief life, Jesus’ light shined forth in and through little Finn Kamuela Starbuck.  From the moment I first saw this little one pound eleven ounce baby boy I asked God to hold him in compassionate care.  I believe that prayer was answered.  Though the odds of him surviving were long and the medical obstacles he experienced daunting, Finn inspired everyone around him.  He was tiny and physically frail, but in spirit he was fully alive.  We admired his courage and will to live.  He breathed on his own for the first five days, then things went south.  Finn was a person…is a person…a much beloved child of God, and completely a gift of God….even in his premie incompleteness.

Along the road there were many disappointing set-backs in the NICU, yet we all felt moments of joy, communion and blessing.  We shared many tears and much laughter, along with moments of sobering silence.  Members of two families got to hang out and support each other….which was a blessing.

I’m probably projecting my own needs, but it seemed like Finn was pulling for us as much as we were praying and pulling for him.  How can one so weak and small give?  All I know is that Finn gave life to us and blessed us, even as he was dying.  There was real connection with him…a relationship with him even though only Bryn and Josh and the nurses could hold him.  Love, hope and tenderness were palpable…and shined on us during the more harrowing nights and days.

What I’m saying is, it wasn’t all awful.  It was human, and our humanity was enhanced through the experience.

Paul says we have this treasure in clay pots…earthen vessels.  The treasure of divine light and power…of purposeful grace…comes packaged in our very human, very vulnerable lives which are so susceptible to loss and suffering.

Joanna Adams offers: “We are all clay jars…….This is not bad news, it is simply the truth, and only the truth will allow us to be free and human in the way God intended.  Here is the truth: from dust we came, to dust we will return, and for the time we are on this earth, what we are is somewhat analogous to a piece of pottery.  Useful to be sure, but also subject to chipping and cracking and likely to contain imperfections.  (yeah!!)  Earthen vessels have little reason to boast. The most appropriate attitude for them is humble gratitude for the privilege of serving a function in the eternal scheme of things.”   (“Treasure in Clay Jars”, 5/10/1998, cited on textweek.com)

Our little grandson served a precious function in the eternal scheme of things—and we are grateful.

We have this treasure in clay pots.  Whether we’re born prematurely or are turning ninety, life is an up and down journey…with troubles and tragedies as well as successes and joys.  Jesus died an awful painful death, and in his end he committed his spirit into God’s care.  Then God did something unexpected.  God brought Jesus back to life, and gave him back to the human family….so that now we can find life in remembering and identifying with his death and resurrection.  In Jesus was death…in us, life….wrapped in all the ambiguities of being human.

Paul knew the bitter-sweetness characteristic of our humanity.  So he could write:  “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed”

Grieving is complicated and each of us has our own unique and mysterious road to travel.  My grieving over Finn has been clumsy and incomplete…not always honest and true.  The wrenching anguish Finn’s mother felt for months and still feels…the gut-wrenching pain Cindy carried…and still carries…is more than I can grasp or understand.  They will never get over it.  In some ways none of us in Finn’s circle of care will get over it.  Nor would we choose to get over him.

But loss and grief isn’t all there is, nor does it necessarily have to stunt life…over the long run.  As I’ve said there was beauty alongside the awfulness…and grace in the midst of the tragedy.  We have all grown because of it.  Maybe become more fully human.  We are dust and to dust we shall return, but we’re also blessed to be alive and have relationship with one another.   And Finn continues to be part of that, just as beloved ones in your lives are part of it for you.

I’ve told some of you how a hummingbird caught my attention in a campsite in Colorado several weeks after Finn died.  I’d just been to a peaceful chapel in the village of Redstone where I wept.  When I noticed this hummingbird hanging around, my mind immediately went to “Finn.”  The hummingbird came back again and again…each time “Finn.”  I took it as the little guy’s spirit, alive in God’s everlasting care, assuring me he was OK.  Every time I see a hummingbird the same thought comes to me.  Finn is alive and well and still pulling for us.  We carry around death, the death of Jesus, in our mortal bodies, but greater than death is the Light of life.  Thanks be to God!

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