Treasure in Clay
Sermon by Jennifer Davis Sensenig
Scripture: Mark 1:4-11; Acts 19:1-7; II Corinthians 4:1-12
SLIDE #1 [Scripture Verses]
We do not lose heart? Well, I’ve been a pastor for nearly 20 years and I’ve been a Christian for more than 30 and I’ve been hanging out with church folks for my entire life. Now and again I lose heart. Sometimes it’s been fatigue that has caused me to lose heart, but I’ve never been burned out and I tend to have good mental health, so at those times, a little break, a belly laugh, a connection with friends, a long walk, or a good conversation with Kent and my heart for ministry is restored.
Sometimes I’ve lost heart when individual Christians have failed miserably to live as Christ. But I’ve also bounced back pretty readily from these experiences, even when the failures were my own, because I have a strong confidence that the compassion and judgment of God will be in the right measure and that each day one begins again and there is forgiveness and reconciliation for all we who, like sheep, have gone astray.
But sometimes I lose heart noticing ways in which the church, more generally, has become captive to the meritocracy, affluenza, or militarism of our culture, or ways the church perpetuates various oppressions, sometimes even justifying ourselves rather than repenting. This is probably the most insidious way that the devil–the divider–divides me from myself, divides me from exercising my gifts from the Spirit, divides me from Christ and the church. This is when I lose heart. Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. Easy for Paul to say. Except that it wasn’t at all easy for Paul to say. Here’s a bit of context to understand this letter.
SLIDE #2–[Shops in Ancient Corinth]
In the mid-50s AD, Paul visited the Greek city of Corinth. Paul supported himself in a trade. He was a tentmaker–he made awnings and stuff out of leather. He worked like this for a year-and-a-half in Corinth while sharing his experience of the person and the way of Jesus with co-workers and others.
As a result, an assembly, in Greek an ekklesia, a church was born in Corinth. These people assembled in homes or businesses after hours or courtyards that had enough space for the assembly, the ekklesia. They worshiped God, baptized in the name of Christ, studied the scripture and learned to live according to the kingdom of God–quite different from the kingdom or Empire of Rome. Paul left Corinth, he heard that the congregation was dealing with a lot of problems, so he wrote them a letter–and we still have it. We call it First Corinthians. First Corinthians addresses several problems in the church: division, sex, food, worship gatherings, and what to believe about resurrection. In his letter, Paul gives practical advice in each of these 5 matters, and more importantly, he appeals to their shared faith, encouraging the Corinthians to view all of life through the lens of Jesus.
SLIDE #3 [mountain in background of ancient Corinth]
He writes about love, for example, love of each other in the ekklesia–love being the test for whether and when to eat meat, or whether and how to speak up in worship. Remember that big chapter on love? Love is patient, kind, doesn’t boast, love doesn’t insist on it’s own way. On top of that mountain outside Corinth was an altar to Aphrodite–goddess of love, but that was a mixed up understanding of love.
Now some of the people in Corinth rejected Paul’s letter. Furthermore, they rejected Paul. They said he was not a very impressive representative of Jesus. They preferred some other apostles who were better speakers, who were wealthy, and more successful. (Paul was always getting in trouble.) So there was a lot of tension between Paul and the congregation in Corinth, but they didn’t lose heart, at least not completely. I suppose that’s why we have this letter. Paul visited Corinth again in person. After that “painful visit” as he called it, Paul wrote again–and we don’t have that letter. By the time of this letter–the one we do have, called Second Corinthians–the relationship between the church and Paul is being restored. Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.
The church has always been a work in progress. Paul was surely in touch with the underbelly of church life–not just conflict, but serious power struggles; not just distinct approaches to Christ and the life of the Spirit, but undermining the gospel; not just dizzying diversity in the community, but factions, insults, and rejection. Paul puts it bluntly: we are afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down and so much as crucified–by each other. And yet, Paul is confident that by the work of the Spirit of Christ within us, the church can repent, be reconciled, and demonstrate a spiritual resiliency that is extraordinarily powerful–we can change, by love. So what Paul writes in full is we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed, perplexed, but not driven to despair, persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body of believers the death of Jesus, so that the resurrection life of Jesus can be made visible.
Friends, it’s no surprise that a group of people tears each other up. We see that in families, communities, and nations of every faith tradition, every nationality, every economic status. This past week the racist insults against whole countries by our nation’s president raises this deeply spiritual matter. Our society, right now, needs assemblies–churches–that are turning daily toward Christ Jesus as our model for how to live, how to speak, how to be in the world as the extraordinary power of divine love. On this MLK Jr. weekend we must not lose heart–even if requires facing the racism, materialism, and militarism that poisons not just this country, but the churches.
SLIDE # 4 [Bible verses]
The church community is flawed and our history is full of failures–worse than those painful words from our president. Yet the church community is more than the sum of our sins and frailties. We carry within us and among us a divine treasure. I believe this treasure, this extraordinary power is the power of love–love as Jesus lived it. The church–people baptized into Christ–has an extraordinary power to influence the world. And the Spirit of Christ is always urging us on, inspiring new demonstrations of love. We practice with each other, so that we can be a sign to the world.
Sometimes as I think about our district and conference context I’ve focused on the failures, the flaws, the places where our local church structures are stuck replicating abuses of power that don’t belong in the church. Sometimes I lose heart. But having received a report from our district minister Roy Hange, I’m reminded of the treasure–the love that we churches carry, embody and share with the world. Listen:
The 2017th year of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is passing into another. As we the 13 churches of the Harrisonburg District of Virginia Mennonite Conference have continued on our missional journey of hope together, we celebrate the work of the new creating Spirit among and beyond us through these paths of righteousness:
The Kids Club movement born in our circle and now held by Virginia Mennonite Missions has grown to involve this year the lives of 700 children the Shenandoah Valley as led by Seth and Theresa Crissman…
Two new prison chaplains have been called from our midst both from Early Church: Jason Wagner at the Harrisonburg/Rockingham Regional Jail and Nick Meyer at Coffeewood Correctional Center where he baptized four last month. The “Welcome Your Neighbors” signs born in a vision from Immanuel Mennonite Church has become a national and international movement to welcome the wayfarer, stranger and refugee.
Churches in our district are engaged in or have finished 6 building projects expanding vessels for the Body of Christ to be held in living hope. We continue to work at formation for pastors and strengthening congregational life through the growth of various inner healing ministries.
The Spirit is stirring two maybe three church plants from our midst. The work for the healing of the nations continues as members of our churches have been peacemakers in the tensions in Charlottesville, justice-makers through Faith in Action in Harrisonburg and peace-builders in various national and international contexts where hope and peace is needed.
Please pray that the Spirit would lead and guide us together into gracious service in the New Year.
In Christ’s hope and peace, Roy…
But we have this treasure in clay jars. In fact, we don’t even know what kind of jars or structures will best allow our gifts to flow from our VMC congregations to the world. The scriptures are clear that God works in and through people and communities who are humble enough to admit our flaws, humble enough to know our need for God and to help each other be changed by love and for love. II Corinthians is written by the humble apostle who identifies with slaves, clay jars, an earthly tent. The apostle loves the church enough to stay in relationship despite rejection.
And Paul keeps up some degree of challenge. Since the topics of division, food, sex, worship, and resurrection had been flashpoints in an earlier letter, in this letter the only nitty-gritty matter he addresses is non-controversial: money.
Paul doesn’t excuse bad behavior by individuals or church communities. Nor should we. But God’s word today steers us away from the edge of despair and toward the hope that God’s love has made a difference for us and makes a difference for others. The treasure of divine love within us will not make us rich, or secure our reputation or prevent hardship. The treasure we carry together is the way of forgiveness and spiritual renewal, the truth of God’s eternal love, the practice of following Jesus in daily life and the habits of faithful ministry on behalf of the world God loves.
SLIDE #5 [Link to website–www.fivefoldsurvey.com ]
If all this sounds too general, then we’re at a good place. Next Sunday our scripture reading will be from another New Testament letter that describes this extraordinary power within the church, the gifts we have. On the screen you’ll see a link to a survey that I encourage each person to take. If you’re an older person, a young adult, a youth, take this survey sometime this week. The survey questions will take you about five minutes to complete. The questions are about ordinary life and the responses are simple–rarely, sometimes, or often. The language in the survey isn’t particularly churchy, which is helpful because the extraordinary power we carry is not meant for permanent storage in the clay jar of church structures. We’re to open these clay jars and let our gifts flow to the world. Next Sunday, bring your results from the survey with you. I’ll include some teaching about gifts in the my sermon next Sunday. And, for those of you who love to critique survey instruments, have at it. The organization 3DM who prepared the instrument takes seriously the power and the gifts of the church. And even though I’m not in agreement with all dimensions of their theology I have learned so much for their tools. And actually, they helped me to not lose heart in ministry.[/otw_shortcode_content_toggle]
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