The Rev. Ryan Slifka and Ingrid Brown were away at the Annual General Meeting of British Columbia Conference of the United Church, where Ingrid was set to be ordained. Our guest preacher was the Rev. Elaine Julian, former Minister of Cumberland United Church, which closed its doors at the end of 2017.
Second Sunday After Pentecost
Rev. Elaine Julian
First, let me say how very good it is to be here with you, to worship and celebrate together. It’s good to see the familiar faces of friends from Cumberland United Church, and friends from St. George’s who worshiped with us during our joint services and walked with us as we closed or church last year. We thank you for that loving support, and for your new outreach ministry in Cumberland.
Of course as we gather today, our hearts and our prayers are with Ingrid and Ryan and others from this Presbytery who have been sharing both the hard work and the celebration of the last meeting of the BC Conference of the United Church of Canada in its present configuration. It is a historic time in the life of the church, and a joyful day as Ingrid is ordained to the ministry of word, sacrament and pastoral care.
I also have to confess that I was not thrilled when Ryan asked me to preach on today’s passage from 2 Corinthians because I really wanted to preach on the story from 1 Samuel about God’s call to the little boy Samuel. So I hope Ryan will forgive me for sneaking that story into the children’s time!
But the truth is that it is from struggling with the hard stories that we often learn and grow the most - the stories that don’t make sense, even the stories that we don’t like. That means that for me, there is a lot of potential for learning and growth every time I approach one of St. Paul’s letters.
2 Corinthians is one of the more challenging of Paul’s letters, probably because it’s a hard time for Paul in his relationship with the church in Corinth. In this letter he is defending his authority as an apostle in the face of competition from outside missionaries, and he approaches his defence from many different angles. But woven throughout the letter is the theme of power in weakness.
Power in weakness, treasure in clay jars. At the time when Paul was writing, clay jars were used to store and transport many different goods. They were cheap, fragile and disposable. They were the plastic containers of the ancient world.
But unlike plastic, clay jars are the result of a process that intimately links the maker and the user to the earth itself. The earth itself provides the raw material, the fine particulate that hardens into a rock-like surface when it dries out. Farmers aren’t very fond of clay soil. When it’s wet, it’s a sticky gooey mess. Cars get stuck and rubber boots get sucked right off of your feet. When it dries out, it repels water and keeps it from getting to the roots of the crop. And it has very little organic matter to nourish growing plants.
But way back in ancient history, someone figured out that these very qualities made clay an extremely valuable material for human use. They dug it up, added water, shaped it into vessels, and fired it to harden it into cooking pots and containers, everyday dishes and beautiful ornamental vases and urns. Earth, water, fire and human hands worked together to create something new and useful and accessible to everyone.
That tradition has carried right down to the present day. Many potters today buy their clay and their glazes, but their close connection to the earth through their craft persists. And some still strive for the even more intimate connection of harvesting their own raw materials. Cumberland friends may remember my stories about Mort, a university friend of my husband Harvey, who lived and made his living as a potter in southern Saskatchewan. Mort’s dream was to use nothing but native materials in his pottery. He dug his own clay, screened and sifted and processed it until it was ready to be thrown onto a wheel and turned into a bowl or a pitcher or a plate. Ditto for his glazes – nothing was purchased, the minerals he used were all from the surrounding countryside, purified and tested until he could be fairly confident of the colours they would produce. Our cupboards are full of the work of his hands and the raw materials of the south Saskatchewan clay banks, linking us to our friend and our prairie roots.
But of course, pottery is fragile, easily cracked or broken. And that is the quality that Paul seems to emphasize in this passage. He relates his own weakness to that of a clay jar: he is afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. He confesses his own human frailty and failing. Just as a rough clay jar seems like an unlikely container for a treasure, he knows himself to be an unlikely container for the knowledge of the glory of God.
And don’t we all feel that way? Aren’t we all only too aware of our own human weakness and fragility?
Maybe you or someone close to you is struggling with illness or injury, or a mental or physical disability.
Maybe the dishonesty and meanness so prominent now in public life and discourse confuses and dismays you.
Maybe as a person of colour, a refugee, a transgender or homosexual person, a woman, a person living in poverty, you are the victim of discrimination and violence.
Maybe as a church we worry about the vulnerability of the structures that we have built, whether those structures are the physical buildings we worship in or the governing bodies we elect and support.
But Paul insists that God has chosen him, and us, to be the containers of God’s treasure, to carry the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Paul insists that we are not crushed or despairing or forsaken or destroyed because we are the life of Jesus made visible.
We are the life of Jesus made visible because God in Jesus has chosen to join us in our imperfect bodies in an imperfect world. God in Jesus has chosen to shine in the middle of creation, in the middle of our messy lives. God did not enter creation as a wealthy businessman or a powerful king, but as a brown peasant in a conquered land. The treasure of God’s glory and love for us is not on display under spotlights in a heavily guarded museum or palace. It is not, like bitcoins, an imaginary currency existing only in ultra-secure digital format. It is real and it lives in the commonplace, the mundane, the vulnerable, and the oppressed. Treasure in clay jars, incarnation, God entering our world to share our suffering and our oppression.
In fact, liberation theology challenges us to see Christ in those who are oppressed and to follow him there. We are challenged to understand Jesus as black, as indigenous, as disabled, as female. James Cone, an American black liberation theologian who died just over a month ago, put it this way in his 1997 book “God of the Oppressed”:
Jesus Christ is not a proposition, not a theological concept which exists merely in our heads. He is an event of liberation, a happening in the lives of oppressed people struggling for political freedom. Therefore, to know him is to encounter him in the history of the weak and the helpless. That is why it can be rightly said that there can be no knowledge of Jesus independent of the history and culture of the oppressed. It is impossible to interpret the Scripture correctly and thus understand Jesus aright unless the interpretation is done in the light of the consciousness of the oppressed in their struggle for liberation.
These are strong and frightening words. For Jesus to be made visible in us, we must follow him into lives of sacrifice and service rather than wealth and privilege, into the struggle for liberation. Or, as Paul puts it, to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. Paul is speaking of his own call to act as apostle and servant to the Christians in Corinth. Who are we called to serve today?
Some of us, like Ingrid, are called to serve God by ministering to Christ’s body, the church. Many of you here are called to serve the poor and the homeless through your lunch and drop-in program and your Safehaven refugee project. Some of you are called to fight oppression on many different fronts, working for racial or economic equality, painting crosswalk rainbows to symbolize LGBTQ inclusion, walking with indigenous defenders of the land. Whenever you accompany, honour and serve those with less power and privilege than yourself, you are holding and sharing the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
And so as clay jars carrying this treasure, expressing the love and light of God in the midst of hatred and death, we are strengthened and encouraged by Paul’s promise: we are afflicted but not crushed, perplexed but not despairing, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed.
The great grace of the Christian story is that in Jesus, God gives us a new covenant, celebrated in the sacrament of Holy Communion. In Jesus, Godself entered creation and became the very clay from which God began to build a new world to contain the treasure of God’s love. This new plan gives us yet another chance to become transformed into the covenant partners God needs to heal ourselves and creation and our beautifully complex yet broken web of relationships.
Let us pray: Holy One, we thank you for the gift of your treasure in clay jars, Christ made visible to us in mortal flesh us to strengthen and encourage us as we seek to serve God’s hurting world. Amen.