Imagine that you are hiring somebody for an important job. There are two candidates. The first, let’s call this person Candidate A, has earned degrees from excellent schools and has received honors and awards for their work. They have glowing references and try as you might, you can’t find anyone who will say a bad thing about them. Besides that, they have a certain charisma - an air of confidence and certainty. They are well-spoken, they dress well, and they look the part.
Then there is candidate B. You don’t have to go digging to find dirt on this candidate; he just tells you right up front. In his cover letter, he says that he has been afflicted, perplexed, persecuted. He has done time in jail. He has been beaten repeatedly. He has been shipwrecked. (Shipwrecked? Who puts that on a resume?) He does not have much of a physical presence and he has been criticized as a sub-par public speaker. He has been on the outs both with his own people and with other groups. He seems to be in danger a lot, at least that’s what he says, and to just read his resume you would wonder if maybe he is paranoid. And then he admits to being weak.
It’s a tough choice, candidate A or Candidate B. Who would you choose?
Well, you may have figured out that Candidate B is none other than the Apostle Paul. In Second Corinthians, Paul is frequently on the defensive. He has been criticized and his identity and calling as an apostle has been called into question. We caught some of that in chapter 2, which we looked at last week. It is disheartening to be criticized by those we are trying to help, by those we care for and have maybe sacrificed for. Later in this letter, in chapter 10 and following, it is clear that outsiders have shown up at the church in Corinth, complete with letters of recommendation, who are questioning Paul’s authority and wanting to steer the church in another direction. This latter part of the letter is where Paul gives the long list of his background that includes being beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, and in near-constant danger.
Paul’s defense to his critics is that the ministry to which we are all called is not really about us. Our power and our skills and our qualifications are not what really matter. And there is this wonderful line, maybe the best known verse in Second Corinthians, “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 have this treasure in jars of clay.” Mark Wilson, a Professor of Early Christianity, sheds light on the background of Paul’s words. He says that in the Cypress National Museum, you will find a clay pot lying on its side with a bunch of coins spilling out of its mouth. Wilson wrote,
The description says it was a coin hoard found nearby dating from the first century. The topic of coin hoards caught my interest, and I discovered that archaeologists and treasure hunters working in the Greco-Roman world have found thousands of such hoards. The size of these hoards ranges from fifty to fifty thousand coins. The coins were buried in clay jars for safe keeping, often in times of warfare or instability…What Paul is saying is clear. We are fragile. We are imperfect.
The phenomenon was so well known that Jesus told a parable about a man who found such a hoard [in a field] and sold all his possessions to buy the field (Matthew 13:44). The Greek word for “treasure” (thesaurus) used by Jesus is the same word that Paul used in 2 Corinthians 4:7. So they seem to be talking about the same thing!
One of my earliest memories was of a time when I was 3 or 4 years old and for some reason decided I needed something off the top of the dresser in my parents’ bedroom. The dresser was pretty tall, but being the industrious, problem-solving kid that I was, I pulled out the bottom drawer and stood on it in order to reach the top of the dresser. Well, you can maybe guess what happened. The whole thing came toppling over on me. Fortunately, the dresser hit the bed, which kept the full weight from coming down on me. But on top of the dresser was an antique pitcher and basin that had belonged to great-grandparents. The pitcher survived but the basin did not. It shattered.
Vessels made of clay are breakable. And that is us. We are fragile. And clay pots were very common. They were ordinary. They were a dime a dozen, unremarkable.
We may have faults and cracks, and we may be fragile. We are not necessarily superstars, but the Good News we share, the light we carry, the value of our ministry and our life together, is not dependent upon us. We are simply vessels through which God’s light might shine. We are the messengers, not the message. We have a great treasure. We carry a great treasure. But the treasure is not our own.
Paul did not claim to be perfect. He pretty well embraced his brokenness and fragility. He said, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” Gabe and Lyndsay – it occurs to me that this sounds kind of like parenting! Afflicted, perplexed, persecuted… you can feel like that as a new parent, but then again you can also feel like that as parent of a teenager. And there are those times when it isn’t easy to be a parent to adult children either, but then I suppose children can say the same thing about parents.
At some point, we begin to realize that it’s not just us. Everybody we know, everybody we meet, is made of clay. We all have faults, weaknesses, vulnerabilities. Bob Dylan put it this way: “Ain’t no use jivin’, ain’t no use jokin’: everything is broken.”
Even the people we know who seem the most with it, the most on top of the things, even those who are seemingly the most successful and well-adjusted and happiest have hurts and pains and hidden cracks.
There is a musical group named for a neighborhood in Cincinnati called Over the Rhine. They have a song that gets at the heart of the human condition. The song is “All My Favorite People are Broken.”
And it is totally true. The longer and the better and the more deeply we get to know one another, the more we appreciate the fact that we all have hurts. We all have pains. We all have flaws. We all have shortcomings.
Martin Luther said that as Christians, we are simultaneously saints and sinners. He absolutely got that one right.
We are jars of clay, but then - we have this treasure. Flawed as we are, human as we are, we are called by God to carry the light of God. We are to bear the treasure of the gospel in and through our lives.
You might think that we have this treasure in spite of the fact that we are jars of clay. But there is a sense in which we are able to carry the light of God because we are jars of clay, because we are imperfect vessels.
The story is told that back in the days when pots and pans could talk, which indeed they still do, there lived a man. And in order to have water, every day he had to walk down the hill and fill two pots and walk them home. One day, it was discovered one of the pots had a crack, and as time went on, the crack widened.
Finally, the pot turned to the man and said, “You know, every day you take me to the river, and by the time you get home, half of the water's leaked out. Why don’t you replace me with a better pot?” And the man said, “You don’t understand. As you spill, you water the wildflowers by the side of the path.” And sure enough, on the side of the path where the cracked pot was carried, beautiful flowers grew, while the other side was barren.
Our very brokenness can be used by God. The setbacks and disappointments and pain we have endured can make us wiser, more sensitive, more empathetic, more compassionate, and help us connect with others in their struggles.
I think of my friends, I think of my family, I think of each of you. We have all experienced pain, sometimes tragedy. We have all experienced loss. Many of us have physical limitations, and if we don’t yet, our time is coming. Right after this passage, Paul goes on to speak about the vulnerability of our human bodies and using another metaphor, he writes, “We know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”
Clay jars crack. They can get broken. Maybe the good news is that we are all clay jars. We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to earn God’s love or earn God’s grace. We don’t have to earn the right to carry the treasure of God’s light and life and love. All we have to do is be a willing vessel.
When we were in Europe several years ago now, we went to a little restaurant in Germany. The 3 or 4 cars that were there had backed their vehicles into their parking spots, so I thought I would follow suit. Here’s the deal: we rented the car in advance and reserved a Volkswagen Golf, but instead we were given an Alfa Romeo. It was awesome. This was not a high-performance luxury vehicle like the new Alfa Romeos being sold in the U.S., but still. It was an Alfa Romeo. This was great.
The little place sold Turkish döner kebabs, which are very big in Germany. We thought we would try them. The restaurant was on the edge of town and there was a fence along the parking lot, at the edge of the property. So I backed our car into the parking space up against the fence when we heard a terrible sound. As it turned out, one of the concrete fenceposts behind us was crumbling. I couldn’t see it backing up, but a downed piece of concrete left a scratch on the back bumper. The back bumper of our rented Alfa Romeo.
If I would have just pulled into the place to start with, or if I hadn’t tried to back the car in just right, we would have been OK. Then and there, I decided that my new philosophy was going to be, “Good enough.” If I had just settled for “good enough,” I wouldn’t have scratched the car. I haven’t always lived up to that philosophy, and I can struggle with perfectionism, but it has often been a helpful way of thinking about things. “Good enough.”
Our cat Harry is quite a character. He has gotten into trouble more than a couple times. We had a very nice pottery plate that Susan’s sister had given us. It was sitting on the coffee table and it was decorative more than anything, but it would get used occasionally to set things on, maybe the remote control, or it would get used as a big coaster. Anyway, Harry and our dog Rudy were chasing each other, having a big time, when Harry leaped onto the coffee table and ran into the plate. It’s a good-sized plate and heavy, more of a platter. The plate scooted across the table and then, in slow motion, it fell from the coffee table. It wasn’t a long way to fall and it landed on the rug but it must have hit just right because improbably, a big piece broke off of the plate.
We were not happy about this, of course. So I went to Ace Hardware and got some super-glue. The repair worked, I looked at it, and while it wasn’t perfect, I said, “Good enough.”
We are jars of clay. We are not perfect. We are fragile. We can become broken. But God is there to repair the broken places. And God looks at us and says, “Good enough.” In fact, God looks at us in all of our brokenness and says, “You are just right. You are fantastic.” God can use our very brokenness to build the kingdom. Because who better to serve broken people, who better to take the Good News to a broken world, than broken people – people like you and me? Amen.