Sermon on Clay Jars and God’s Power

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Date:  May 29, 2016

Title:  “Treasure Hunt”

Preaching:  The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard

Scripture:  2 Corinthians 4:1, 7-18

            The summer I graduated from high school was a rough one for me.  I was living at home, trying to earn as much money as possible before starting college in the fall.  I worked for minimum wage, doing the laundry at Motel 6.  Now that was some great motivation for getting a college degree!

That summer I also was constantly vying for the use of the family car, alongside my sister Debby, who worked at another job equally detestable as mine.  All in all, it was a pretty miserable time.  So we were ready when someone suggested we go on a “treasure hunt”.

Every July Lakefair is celebrated in Olympia, Washington.  And in 1977 the local radio station sponsored an epic treasure hunt in conjunction with the festival.  Somewhere in Thurston Count (which takes in not only Olympia  but also Tumwater, Yelm, and my hometown of Lacey), somewhere in the county they had hidden a key which would unlock a chest full of treasures. There were things like vacation trips, restaurant vouchers, a small boat, even a brand new car.  And every day the station would offer up tantalizing clues to help with the hunt.

So Debby and I would listen each morning as Mom drove us to each of our uninspiring jobs.  Every day we would jot down the clues and imagine the fun we would have when we won the treasure hunt.  About two weeks in, we were certain we knew where the key was hidden.  It was just a matter of getting to it before anyone else figured it out.  I’ll never forget the evening we spent in the Pioneer Cemetery, checking out every tombstone and climbing every tree; and coming home empty-handed.

The key was not hidden in the cemetery, but someplace entirely difference (and significantly less creative, if you ask me).  The key to that treasure turned out to be just as unpredictable as the “keys to the kingdom” – what some would call the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We looked all the places we thought it should be.  And then, in our disappointment and disillusionment, we decided the hunt was nothing but a waste of time.  We had no treasure to console ourselves with, no fame or fortune to redeem what felt like a miserable, lost, throw-away summer.  We were fast heading back to our grumpy, self-pitying mood.  Until we started thinking about it; and then laughing about it.  Eventually, we realized that we had found treasure after all.

It had not come in the form of a key.  We had not unlocked any box or treasure chest or secret hideaway, other than the love we had for one another.  Joining together on a common quest, we rediscovered a relationship that went well beyond sibling rivalry, or disagreement or irritation and we remembered the love with which we were connected – a greater treasure than any other we could imagine.

This is the kind of treasure St. Paul writes about in the Scripture we read today.  Oh, Paul… now there was a person who had to be aware of his own limitations and vulnerabilities.  You remember his story, how Paul starts out as a sort of religious terrorist.  He was a zealous persecutor of the Christians who later became Christianity’s premier missionary and evangelist.  Paul spent time in jail and became known as a famous troublemaker – probably because he didn’t mince his words or hold back his opinions when it came to the inclusive love of God or the ways that Christians were to share that love with each other and with the world.  And Paul had his share of set-backs and challenges.  But it was the Corinthians who nearly broke his heart.  They were such an odd mixture of unlikely people.  The Corinthians were drawn to whatever “next new thing” blew into town, and would eagerly embrace whatever traveling preacher showed up at the door.  And they divided themselves over petty issues which distracted them from ministry.  The Corinthians argued about whether you had to be a Jew (and therefore be circumcised) before you could become a Christian.  They argued about whether or not it was lawful to eat food which had been offered to idols.  And they didn’t seem to understand how they should wait until everybody was present before helping themselves to the bread and wine intended for the Eucharist.

It was not easy being a part of that diverse congregation.  There was always an undercurrent of suspicion and tension and fear.  So Paul writes to them – not once but twice – telling them to hang on, to stay the course, to not lose heart.  He says

We have this treasure in clay jars…

            We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;

            Perplexed but not driven to despair;

            Persecuted, but not forsaken;

            Struck down but not destroyed… so we do not lose heart.

             We are perplexed but not driven to despair.   Someone once asked Daniel Boone, the famous frontier guide, if he had ever been lost.  “No”, he replied, “I’ve not been lost.  But I’ve been perplexed a couple of times.”

Perplexed.  That may be a good way to describe what I’ve been feeling about our United Methodist Church coming out of General Conference, 2016.  When I think about the challenges of living together as a global church, a diverse mix of different and sometimes conflicting cultures; when I reflect on the issues (many of them petty) which distract us from doing the ministry we are called to do, “perplexed” is a good way to describe my feeling.  When I remember the countless “Points of Order”, and the parliamentary shenanigans which kept us stuck in places where nobody was particularly pleased to be, “perplexed” seems to sum it all up for me.

It’s a great word – perplexed.  It comes from the Latin and it means to inter-weave, or to entangle in a complex pattern.  To be perplexed is to find yourself in the midst of a complicated situation where simple solutions and quick fixes are not going to resolve the problem.  We are not so very different from Paul’s Corinthian friends.  We are perplexed about so many things.  But we need not be driven to despair.

For however hard we might search the Connection – the Jurisdictions, the Central Conferences, the Boards and Agencies, the Bishops – the treasure is always going to be found in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives.  We are the ones who carry God’s love and Christ’s Gospel to the world.  The treasure of God’s presence, the treasure of Christ’s love, the treasure of the Spirit’s power … all that is held and played out in the midst of our ordinary, everyday lives.

And when we get discouraged, we need to remind one another that we are not the first to argue for an inclusive church. We are not the first Church which has struggled mightily within itself.  Beginning with the very first church it has been tempting to pull up stakes, go home and quit.  And Paul’s words to the Corinthians are equally valuable for us today:

Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us,

on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without God’s unfolding grace…  There’s far more here than meets the eye.  The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow.  But the things we can’t see (things like love and justice, peace and hope) – these things will last forever.

             I really believe that.  There is far more to our Church than meets the eye.  And the struggles we endure, the setbacks we encounter are here today, gone tomorrow.  Because God has not given up on us, we cannot give up on God – or for that matter, on each other.  For we have this treasure in earthen vessels.  And the transcendent power belongs to God, who is not finished with us yet.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

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