June 03, 2018/ 3rd Sunday After Pentecost / Richard E. Holmer
First Lesson: Deuteronomy 5:12-15/Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 4:5-12/ Gospel: Mark 2:23-3:6
I sometimes wonder if St. Paul is actually trying to discourage prospective disciples by what he writes – instead of trying to encourage them. The picture he paints of the faithful life to which believers are called can, at times, be daunting – even a bit bleak. Some verses we heard in our reading today from Second Corinthians would not be the first ones selected for a promotional ad campaign for becoming a Christian. Listen again: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” Who wants to sign up for being afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down? Yet consider your own experience. Have you ever been troubled? Have you found yourself completely perplexed and confused? Have you had adversaries, persons who seem to be out to get you? Have you been wounded? If not – trust me, you will be. Every life includes some measure of struggle, sacrifice and suffering. There are times of drought in all our lives – dry spells when hope fades, and our souls wither, and refreshing love seems out of reach. We all have had (or will have) battles that we lose. Battles with: circumstances beyond our control; temptation; disasters, both natural and man-made; foes who seek to undermine us; with illness; and finally, with death itself. Every life includes its share of failure and defeats: whether moral or relational or financial or spiritual. But no defeat is final – as far as Christ is concerned.
Today Paul reminds us that we are ordinary, fragile clay pots. In many ways, you and I are unimpressive, and quite breakable. Yet though we are plain, earthen vessels, we contain a great treasure – a treasure that cannot be diminished or destroyed. Call it the grace of God, call it the Holy Spirit, call it the abiding presence of Jesus Christ, call it the love that bears and hopes and endures all things. However you describe it, this treasure is genuine – finally even more real, more lasting than all the afflictions, doubts, sufferings and defeats we experience along life’s way. Paul points to the very heart of our lives as Christians. Christian faith is…
-more than commandments to live by
-more than creeds and doctrines to affirm
-more than the right theology and the correct viewpoint on social issues.
The heart of our faith is the assurance that we have been given a blessing that will endure, a hope that will not disappoint us. God’s love has been poured into our ordinary human hearts – which is to say hearts that are at various times broken, divided, hardened, conflicted or uncertain. God’s gracious love empowers us to persevere – and make no mistake; it is no easy thing to persevere in this world. We are called “to run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1) We get knocked around in this life. We can get knocked down. Yet Paul assures us that you and I will never be knocked out. This is the bottom line, good news of the gospel.
Many of you know this hard won truth through your own experience. You have known devastating setbacks: lost opportunities, lost jobs, lost friendships, lost marriages, lost health. You have experienced tragic losses of friends and relatives through accidents, suicide, cancer, heart attacks. As you know, my brother Peter died just four weeks ago. He was only 67. He was my lifelong friend and colleague. Hs wife died less than a year before him. I’ve spoken to you before of my good friend, Kevin, who is suffering the debilitating ravages of Lou Gehrig’s disease. He has been struck down – but he’s not out. His faith is strong. Even those who have died are not lost or destroyed. They are with God.
As Christians we have some essential truths to absorb and observe. For starters, you and I are made in the image of God. We are wonderfully created. As Psalm 8 says, “We are a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor.” At the same time we are by no means indestructible. We are actually quite vulnerable. We come from dust and we will return to dust. God forms that dust into common clay pots – earthen vessels – and breathes life into us. We are not formed of titanium or steel. We can be cracked and broken. We are far from perfect.
This world we call home is full of beauty and blessings. The wonders of creation are marvelous and inspiring. Scripture says, “The earth is filled with the glory of God.” (Isaiah 6:3) The world can also be a threatening, inhospitable place. You can count on this: there will be trouble and affliction, there will be moments of confusion and frustration. You will encounter perplexing persons and bewildering circumstances. You will get knocked around – even knocked down.
Yet the great truth, the saving truth, is this: We will never be forsaken. After all, that’s the greatest fear of all, is it not? To be abandoned, forlorn, beyond redemption? That’s when discouragement can turn into despair: when you feel forsaken, without a friend, without any reason to hope. Jesus was at his most human on the cross – when in his extreme pain, his emotional and spiritual agony – when he felt betrayed, denied and deserted by his closest friends – he cried out in mortal desperation: “My God, my God – why have you forsaken me?” In that perilous moment, Jesus walked right up to the brink of despair. And in doing so, Jesus forever showed us that he truly knows what it is to live as a vulnerable human in this broken world. Jesus allows us to witness that even the strongest soul can be stretched to the breaking point. But then Jesus steps back from the edge of that abyss of despair – and says: “it is accomplished.” I have finished what I came to do. And then finally: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Three days later on Easter, Christ is raised to life – the sure and lasting sign that God did not forsake him. Jesus was not forsaken, but vindicated and restored and elevated to God’s right hand.
Paul describes the treasure that you and I carry around in our ordinary, clay pot lives in this way: “It is the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” You and I are children of light – because we are children of God. “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” (I John 1:5) The God who commanded light to shine on the first day of Creation sent Jesus to be the light of the world – a light shining in the darkness of this world, a light no darkness can overcome. This is the light that blesses and sustains us through all our trials and tribulations. The light of Christ overcomes doubt and despair; it is a resurrection light that vanquishes the darkness of the shadow of death. Which is why we can sing hopeful, joyful songs – even at a funeral service. We sang a number of beautiful hymns at my brother’s funeral. And we sang, “This Little Light of Mine.” That gracious light shined through Peter’s fragile, mortal vessel made of clay – and it continues to shine. That same light has been given to each of us. You and I carry the light of Christ our Lord – and we need to let it shine.
Thanks be to God!