Second Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 9], rcl yr b
Sunday, June 2nd, 2024
1 SAMUEL 3:1-10; PSALM 139:1-5, 12-17; 2 CORINTHIANS 4:5-12; MARK 2:23-3:6

we have this treasure in clay jars

Karen and I have been renovating our condo, and we are now at the stage of slowly unpacking things we packed up some time ago. And after many boxings and unboxings of our things, I’ve learned to tell myself: “some of these things will break; I don’t know what will break, I just know that some things will be broken.”

You can do the best packing job in the world—but even things that look strong are fragile. This includes the stoneware from our wedding, stuff that has been practically indestructible, even with all the moves and renovations—but still, you put a couple of bowls together the wrong way in a box, and they find a way to chip, or even crack into pieces.

In Corinth, where Paul is sending his letter, they didn’t make the same beautiful stoneware that Karen and I collected many moons ago; instead, they made cheap and fragile pottery lamps. And it’s this sort of fragility that Paul wants us to have in mind when he writes to the church in Corinth, saying that “we have this treasure in clay jars.”For Paul, we are the clay jars—we are the fragile bearers of a divine treasure, the treasure that is the Good News of Jesus Christ.

For Paul, to call us—the bearers of the light of Christ—fragile and broken vessels, accomplishes two things. Firstly, it speaks to our fragility, even our bodily fragility. It’s something that is often hard to admit, right? The reality of our frailty.

And you might think, looking at me, that this is an easier thing for me to admit. But you’d be dead wrong. I’ve spent most of my post-injury life denying this reality. Who wants to be seen as a cracked and fragile vessel? Me neither! In a world that values strength, a low Body Mass Index, endurance and resilience, in this world I’ve worked hard to fit in, to be strong, to endure. It’s been a long struggle, sometimes against reality itself, a struggle to simply be honest with myself, and to recognize my own limitations.

But Paul isn’t calling us clay jars because it’s a healthy thing  to recognize our bodily fragility, and our life as creatures with limitations. And this brings us to the second, and perhaps more important reason that Paul is calling us clay jars. He’s saying we are clay jars so that we can get a better grasp on the ways in which God works.

“But we have this treasure”—a treasure that is the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”—“we have this treasure in clay jars”—clay jars, the fragile cracked vessels that we are, “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”

That’s to say: we are fragile and cracked vessels because this is God’s way of making clear that the power of God—a power seen in sharing the Good News of Jesus through our words, our work and our ministry—this power can transcend even our fragility, even our weakness.

Or to put it another way: any divine goodness that comes to bear in the world comes through us, not from us. God acts with power and might in his church; and we are cracked, fragile, even weak vessels, so that it can be clear who exactly is at work.

There is a struggle that some of us feel in positions like mine—that we need to work hard and be a charismatic presence to the church for the sake of its success. And if we are good enough at what we do, then the church might come out ok. Paul is telling me that this is the opposite of how God works; not through my strength and virtue, by according to God’s strength and goodness.

But it’s not just about ministers and priests. I see a lot of us working hard, feeling the weight of expectation, living in the hope that if we just do things right St. John’s will be ok, we will beat the system that wants to beat us down, that we will dodge the demographics and defy decline. Paul is telling us that this is not how God works; not through our hard work and praiseworthiness, by according to God’s work and goodness.

Now I do think that we are called here to be a community of diversity, a resilient community, and one that will be sustainable for the sake of past and future generations. But I can’t help but hear St. Paul saying, and reminding me, and perhaps us together, that we are fragile, that we are cracked vessels, and that we are even kind of useless in the eyes of the world.

I can’t help but hear St. Paul saying, and reminding me, and perhaps us together, that our weakness, our powerlessness, is precisely how God works—that is through us, as cracked vessels that are so clearly weak and largely powerless, that God works mighty deeds. And that any apparent success, that any growth, that any good outcome for us—that all the good we do and are experiencing is wrought and made not according to our strength, but according to God’s strength. Reminding me that I am not the author of the good things we are experiencing—I mean, clearly now, look at me! But neither are we the origin of what’s good, the ragtag, odd, and weird bunch that we are.

So I’m saying this now for a couple of reasons. I will be on sabbatical for a number of months. And it’s been really touching to hear many of you express the fact that you will miss me. I will miss being here. Being the Rector of St. John’s is about the best job I know of right now! (I mean, I will enjoy my sabbatical, too …) We have come a long way together, and we still have a good deal of adventure left to share with one another.

But it isn’t about me. Clearly! I’m a tired man in pain. And that’s on a good day. Neither do I want you thinking to yourselves, “well now that Preston will be away, we’re going to have to work hard.” Well, you many need to work hard, learning more and more about how to be a ministering community, rather than a community that is ministered to; a community that will continue to struggle with what it means to serve well the people on our doorstep. Just don’t forget that we are all cracked and fragile vessels.

Take care of one another. And be reminded that our God is a God of grace, so much so that God would rather have you—the cracked, and fragile vessels that you are—than to have Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, or even Bill Gates on his team. God has chosen you to minister to others, to care for one another, to celebrate the sacraments together.

Our God is such a God of grace that even our weakness is just another opportunity for God to be strong for us: the strength of a God who beats down death for us, and the strength of a God who is resurrected for us, that we might live in him.

No matter how cracked a vessel we might be.

The Revd Canon Preston Parsons PhD