Treasure in Clay Jars

Community United Church of Christ (St. Paul Park, Minnesota)

Scripture: 2 Corinthians 4:1-15

Yesterday my great-uncle and great-aunt—Ralph and Lois—celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary. They live in Coon Rapids, and are members of First Congregational UCC in Anoka. Lois and Ralph are both retired teachers, and they make retirement look good! They are healthy in body and soul, take in all manner of cultural experiences, and travel regularly to see their many friends. They just completed a move to independent living, wisely preparing for the day when they may need more care. They’ve stayed close enough to remain active members of their church, the League of Women Voters, and other community organizations. At fifty years together and going strong, Ralph and Lois went out last night to a fancy restaurant in downtown Saint Paul to celebrate. There is a cascade of light to give thanks for in their life together.

Yet there are shadows too. Not long ago Javen and I were helping Lois and Ralph prepare to move. I brought boxes down from the rafters in their garage, then Lois and I opened each one. After old ornaments and seasonal decorations, we unsealed another box with gentle care. In a hushed voice, Lois said, “These are Peter’s things.” Peter was their only child. He was a beloved and talented young man, off to a great start in life. But Peter died in a car accident when he was eighteen. Glimpsing his things in that treasured box was like looking into a time capsule, back before this beautiful family was so terribly shattered. Today—Father’s Day—I think about Ralph and all who grieve on what should be a day of loving celebration.

“We have this treasure in clay jars”, the apostle Paul writes. How many of us can relate to both the treasure in life, and the temporariness of a jar made of clay? I think about those who observe milestones like graduation, seeing children or grandchildren cross the stage and start a new era in life. I think about the church member who loves to serve and help in so many ways, yet told me recently, “I just don’t have the strength I used to have.” I think about the folks we know who are in grief at spouses dying, even as there’s gladness for many years of rich life together. Our new administrative assistant Kim Heilmann used a new word recently to describe this complex of emotions: “sad-glad”. Human lives are “sad-glad”, sorrowful yet glorious, all at the same time.

As it is with our lives, so it is with broader society. Last Sunday’s massacre in Orlando took our breath away, when fifty beautiful and beloved children of God died at a place for joyful dancing and self-expression. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people were targeted in the one place that has most reliably been our sanctuary—during Pride month. That’s like attacking a church on Christmas Eve. What’s more, most of the victims were people of color who joined together in this rainbow space to heal from a majority culture of sexism, racism, and queer-phobias. To top it off, the killer claimed to be a person of Muslim faith. God condemns such violence any time; how much more so during the month of Ramadan, intended for holy compassion and service?

The carnage set off a tsunami of tears, grief and righteous anger. In the days since, I have also seen countless examples of fabulous, peaceful resistance to hate. Our own congregation’s interfaith vigil on Monday night was among them. With barely a day’s notice, and only through the work of many members here, we gathered almost sixty members of this broader community: Christians alongside Muslims, people of color alongside white folks, public officials alongside children, to light candles and pray for peace. It was our chance to shine an emergency beacon of compassion against a midnight sky of anguish.

Something even more powerful happened with an Orthodox Jewish synagogue in Washington D.C. When the massacre happened, Jews were celebrating the festival of Shavuot, when Orthodox Jews can’t travel or use the internet. But at 9:17pm on Monday night, as the sun set and the festival came to an end, members met up and walked together to a gay bar as an act of solidarity and support. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfelt said he hadn’t been to a bar in more than 20 years, and he’d certainly never been to a gay bar. Someone in the congregation told him about a bar called the Fireplace, so he announced that would be their destination. Afterward, they found out this bar was frequented predominantly by gay African Americans.

When they arrived at the bar, one member of the synagogue approached the bouncer and explained why they were there. The bouncer immediately broke down in tears, explaining that one of his cousins had been killed at the Pulse nightclub. He embraced them, thanked them for coming, and invited them inside. “It turned out that we had so much in common,” the rabbi says. “We met everyone in the bar. …The bartender shut off all of the music in the room, and the crowd became silent as we offered words of prayer and healing. We shared a blessing related to the holiday of Shavuot, and lit memorial candles on the bar ledge. Then everyone in the bar put their hands around each other’s shoulders, and we sang soulful tunes. …It was powerful and moving and real and raw.”[1]

That’s the way it is: treasure in clay jars. We are mindful of all the fragility and pain in the world—who could miss it?? Yet somehow, just inside that brokenness, is also the very splendor of God.

The church—as a community of broken and beautiful people in a broken and beautiful world—bears witness to divine light, particularly in places of sorrow. We too are a clay vessel with imperfections and fragility, yet God chooses to be visible through us anyway. In fact, God’s power acts in just this way—even though every hardship and trouble are present, light is nevertheless manifest as well. The very limits that human beings, human society, and human church have, are the cracks through which divine light shines. So we tell the truth about Good Friday: The death of Jesus is real, and suffering is very real. But the life of Jesus is also real, made visible in our finite, mortal flesh. Though death is at work, life is at work as well, and by the power of Easter’s resurrection, life triumphs over all the powers of death. Let the knowledge of this grace abound in us, until that time when death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for these things will pass away, and God will wipe every tear from our eyes.

Let us pray: O Everlasting Light, thank you for your faithfulness in every season. Grant us grace to glimpse you, in our lives and in the world. Flow through us as witnesses to your love, cracks and all. Amen.

[1] Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, “What happened when an Orthodox Jewish congregation went to a gay bar to mourn Orlando.” The Washington Post, June 15, 2016.

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