Clay Jars

A Reading from 2 Corinthians 4:5-12

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness ,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you..

Clay jars, with treasure within

I read a book some time ago, about a young man, a sports writer and broadcaster who took to visiting his old professor who was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. *

The professor had to endure the illness, and the gradual loss of his independence.

The young man felt compelled to spend time with the old man – he didn’t know why.

Most times the old man handled everything well. Other times, not so well. Ted Koppel interviewed him for a television program, and Ted asked him what was his greatest fear.

He said he dreaded the day when someone else would have to wipe his bottom.

As the young man and his old prof talked each week – they met every Tuesday – the young man’s world view began to change. He had fame, money, success – he had everything that he thought mattered.

But he found out that the old man, who was losing everything, had something that he didn’t have. He knew what really mattered in life.

Once, when the old man asked him to move him on the bed, the young man was struck by the frailty of the old man’s body. It was a shell of what it had once been. It was slowly being consumed by the disease.

But the disease had not been able to consume his spirit. That shell of a body still held something precious.

Paul has this notion of us being ‘treasure in clay jars.’

God takes us, as flawed as we are and places within us something that when we are challenged, or when we face hard times, strengthens us – more than that – it empowers us -to do wonderful things.

I am sure you have admired someone going through a really bad patch, and doing amazingly well, and you thought, “Oh I could never handle that the way she has.”

What you were seeing was how the treasure that God placed within us, empowered her.

Do you know that many of those who have achieved great things in history had to overcome some sort of handicap?

There is a notion that great people are somehow possessed of something that you or I don’t have. They used to call it Royal Jelly. Not!

Or sometimes we shrug off their achievements by saying, ‘Well they probably had it easy – good parents, good school, etc.’ Not.!

Some of the world’s greatest men and women came from humble homes, and in addition, were saddled with disabilities which had to be overcome on their way to greatness.

Raise him in abject poverty and you have an Abraham Lincoln.

Strike him down with polio and he becomes Franklin D. Roosevelt. Burn him so severely in a schoolhouse fire that the doctors say he will never walk again and you have a Glen Cunningham, who set a world’s record in 1934 for running a mile in four minutes 6.7 seconds.

Take away his leg and you have a Terry Fox. A young man who ran across Canada and still inspires others even today.

Deafen a genius composer and you have a Ludvig van Beethoven. Have her born black in a society filled with racial discrimination, and you have a Harriet Tubman.

Call him a slow learner, “retarded”, and write him off as uneducable, and you have an Albert Einstein.

Treasures in clay jars.

Paul tells of being afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; struck down but not destroyed. And he gives as his secret, that he always carries in his heart the death of Jesus. That in His suffering Jesus redeemed us. In His death, he gives us life.

Paul says the joy of knowing Christ cannot be separated from the suffering of Christ.

And presumably that we know Christ better when we suffer.

And that idea has been a part of Catholic belief for centuries, one manifestation of which has been the act of ‘Self-flagellation.
Self-flagellation is the disciplinary and devotional practice of flogging oneself with whips or other instruments that inflict pain. In Catholicism, self-flagellation is practiced in the context of the doctrine of the mortification of the flesh and is seen as a spiritual discipline. It is often used as a form of penance and is intended to allow the flagellant to share in the sufferings of Jesus,

I think that sort of thinking might be out of fashion, today.

Suffering is not something we welcome.

We don’t think we should have to suffer.

Pain elimination is a medical science in itself.

But no-one goes through life without experiencing some hardship. Some suffering.

We all will experience hardship, and we all, at some time, will be challenged.

But we are called ‘people of faith’ and as such we should have faith.

Now faith isn’t some blind belief that God will do whatever we want Him to do.

If that is what our faith is, then we are going to be disappointed.

For Paul faith in God is a sure feeling, that whatever happens, for a believing Christian, it is never more than we can handle.

For Paul, faith in God is a sure feeling that whatever we are challenged to do, we can accomplish it in Christ.

He points out that we may feel trapped at times but we are not hemmed in.

We may be persecuted by other people, but we are never abandoned by God.

Joan of Arc, when those who should have stood by her, ran away, said, “It is better to be alone with God. His friendship will never fail me.”

They who have never struggled, have never had to fight for anything, have not experienced the strength that God can give.

When everything is so dark, and God seems so far away, and it seems as if nothing can save us – that is the time when our faith must be strongest.

Because at the end it is all we have.

Sweeping across Germany at the end of World War 2, Allied forces searched farms and houses looking for snipers. At one abandoned house, really just a heap of rubble, searchers with flashlights found their way to the basement. There on the crumbling wall, a victim of the Holocaust had scratched a Star of David, and beneath it, in rough lettering, the message:

 I believe in the sun  - even when it does not shine.
     I believe  in love - even when it is not shown.
 I believe in God - even when He does not speak. 

At the end it is all we have.

Isn’t it?

Paul faced many hardships. He spoke out courageously. He endured everything that happened to him because he believed that even if death took him, then God would raise him up.

We also face hardships. We also need to speak out courageously. And know that whatever happens to us, whatever challenges us, God will help us endure, and in the end will raise us up.

The great Boulder Dam scheme in America brought fertility to vast areas which had once been desert. In the building of the dam, some men inevitably lost their lives.

When the dam was completed a tablet was let into the wall of the dam bearing the names of the workmen who had died.

It said, “These died so that the desert might bloom and rejoice.”

Those men didn’t see what they were doing, that way. They were just glad to have the job. But nevertheless, what they did, and their deaths, did in fact contribute to making the desert bloom and rejoice.

In our life’s journey, we will experience love and loss, joy and sorrow, failure and success. But even as we travel that journey, and even as we struggle, somehow, God helps us help others?

Doesn’t He!

And we become “Clay jars, with treasure within !”

Amen.

  • Tuesdays with Morrie: Mitch Albom, Broadway Books.