Saturday, June 2, 2018

Year B, Pentecost 2, 2 Corinthians 4.5-12, Rothchilds Wine in a box. . .

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
“We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
2 Cor. 4:7
I bought a bottle of Vodka when I went to Russia.
Never much cared for Vodka, but when in Russia do as the Russians do, right?
I didn’t actually buy it for the Vodka.  It was a cool bottle.
Tolstoy Vodka.  Named for the great Russian author.
What was neat about the bottle was that on the front of the bottle was a frame, and then you looked through the frame to see the portrait of Tolstoy on the back of the bottle.  It was kind of cool.
When I purchased it, my friend Bradn informed me that Russians have a saying.
“Nice bottle, bad vodka.”
The point being that if you have to rely on fancy packaging to sell the vodka, there’s not much to be said for the vodka itself.

“We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
Earthen Vessels.
Red pots.
For ages the most common and ordinary of vessels.
Clay molded by hands, fired in a kiln, sometimes with a pretty glaze, often not.
This is not crystal.
Actually, today, in large part because of the efforts of many fine artists who’ve devoted themselves to the craft of pottery, we love hand thrown pottery as pieces of art.
Personally, I’d love to have a full set of dishes all done by a local potter.  It’d be a true treasure in a world too often typified by mass produced junk.
But that misses the point.
Earthen vessels.
Clay pots.
The most common and everyday.
And yet a treasure within.
I recall another bottle of alcohol.  (Kind of ironic for me to be preaching about alcohol, as a recovering alcoholic, but bear with me.)
One of the first residents to move into Luther Park in Sandpoint was a World War II veteran.
Shortly after moving in, he decided that this was the time to share a bottle with us.
When he, together with the other allied troops liberated France, they were issued a bottle of Brandy, actually Cognac.
It was a plain bottle, with a simple label reading:  “Special Reserve by order of the French Government for the Allied Troops”.
He had carried this bottle home with him in his bed roll and preserved it for the last 65 or so years, and then on this day, shared it with us.
A treasure for what it represented.
“We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
Treasure in clay jars.
The finest wine, in a paper cup.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ, and this motley crew we call the Church.
The treasure.  The clay pot.
Our human tendency is to focus on the packaging, at times, and lose sight of the true treasure.
We want the finest chalice.  And the chalice itself becomes our treasure. 
I did a quick online search for chalices.  It didn’t take much effort to find a chalice and paten, heavily gold plated pieces of art, on sale for $25,000.
That’s the way we tend to think about these things.  The blood of Christ ought to be contained in a sacred vessel, a golden chalice, something worthy of the treasure within.
And yet it’s not about the chalice.
“We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
If the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the treasure, the Church is the earthen vessel, the clay pot.
And you know what?
I wish the Church was a gold plated, gem encrusted, piece of art, but it isn’t.  It is simply a vessel.  Common.  Ordinary.  Simple.  Plain.
This too often is painfully obvious.
We’re a rag-tag army at best.
At our worst we are a stumbling block, a major hurdle for people to overcome.
The problem with the Church, you see, is that we are all sorts of sinners.
And you don’t have to be part of the church for long before this becomes painfully obvious.
When I look back over my life, and the experience of being in the church, and think about the things that have happened to my parents, to myself, and to my children, I wonder why, just why would I ever want to be part of the church?
I was thinking the other day about the Church and how I would describe it.
The phrase came to me:  “’Minnesota nice’ with a deep mean streak that lies just below the surface.”
There is part of the church that is just plain nice.  “Minnesota nice.”  That’s the part we like to think about.  We say nice things.  We think nice things.  We are friendly.  Sometimes we are even outgoing.  We bring hot dishes to each other when we are sick, or if someone dies.  We make cookies.  Nice.
And then there is the other side.
There is a mean streak that raises its ugly head every once in a while.  Just mean. 
This dynamic was never clearer to me than when I went on disability and had to step away from ministry for a while. 
On the one hand, I had to be in Church, absolutely had to be there.  It was my life line.
And yet, because of the trauma I had experienced in the Church, when I went to church for next few months I experienced seizures, partial complex seizures, brought about in no small part by the emotional strife that simply being in church caused.
“We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
“We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
We proclaim a message of forgiveness, but often we ourselves are not very forgiving.
We proclaim a message of love, when our actions are often not loving.
We speak of peace, amid all the tensions of our world and the interpersonal strife of our communities.
We talk of mercy, all the while that we are judgmental.
In short, we preach Christ, while not being very Christ like ourselves.
But the point is this:   We are not the message, but merely the messengers.  We are not the treasure, merely the clay jars.
We often fail to forgive—
                But God never does.
We are not as loving as we could be—
                Yet God’s love endures forever.
Our world is filled with hostilities—
                God’s kingdom is one of peace.
Amid all our judgmentalism—
                Jesus shows mercy.
The point is that we in the Church are not the Christ.
Never have been.
Never will be.
But Christ is here.
Christ is the treasure, not us.
If you come to the Church and experience grace and mercy, love and forgiveness, peace and reconciliation and all that the Lord has to offer, know this.
That it is not because the church is full of grace and mercy, love and forgiveness, peace and reconciliation. 
No, quite often it is exactly the opposite.
But this is so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
It’s not about us.
It’s about Jesus.

One final note.
As a pastor, I wish I were more forgiving.
I try to be, but often am not.  I remember.  To forgive and forget is not always my strong suit.
And then each Sunday morning I stand before you and declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins.
There is a disconnect there.  I, who am not as forgiving as I should be, declaring to you that you are forgiven. 
The clay pot.  And the treasure.
You see the point is that it is Christ who forgives you, not I.  Christ does what we as humans are unable to do. 
We are but messengers, earthly vessels that bear a priceless treasure to the world.
The most expensive wine in the world is Rothchilds Wine, with one bottle alone fetching more than $156,000.
Imagine purchasing such a wine in a box. 
The finest wine in the world, sold in a box.
We are like the cardboard box, the humblest of vessels that contains within itself the rarest of treasurers, namely the love and mercy of God in Christ Jesus.
Hard to imagine, but it is so.

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