Earthen Vessels and Cracked Pots
I have both a delight and a fright in being here tonight. How's that for poetry on the spur of the moment? The fright is from the fact that I'm following the stringband and Zenos Hawkinson, and then Hazel. But the delight is in just being here with you.
Don Norris asked me when I came in: "Do you ever feel that life is sort of parading by you?" and I said, "You know, when I came in here, I had the strangest feeling that I was moving back in time." I saw all your faces and wondered: "Where have I been?" You are here, so you must be in the right place. It's a delight to be here. And then, the whole idea of Pietisten has given me a recovery of meanings and values that are very dear to me it's like pietism in a new key. It's a wonderful experience.
Let me start by reading from the 4th chapter of the 2nd letter of Paul to the Corinthians. I'm going to begin with the very first verse, but I'm not going through the entity chapter. (Pastor Anderson read IICor. 4:1-6, then he paused to comment.) Then we come to the crucial passage. (He then proceeded to read verses 7 and 8).
The other night I was watching TV. I turned on what is, at least for the moment, one of the less boring television experiences, which is to watch Jerry Falwell. I was hoping for some curious new revelations, but instead he was talking to his local church, the St. Thomas Road Baptist Church. He acknowledged the fact that Christianity had been very much abused in the last few weeks, and understandably so (although I don't think the local church has really been abused at all). He did something that was very interesting. He said "Now I'm going to take the offensive because I feel very strongly that the gospel of Jesus Christ has to be spoken, has to be preached, and the only way to do that is not to run scared but to move on the offensive." Well, that stirred the Swedish blood in me. Having been struck by a hurricane of the Spirit in our local church in Mattowa, Minnesota, I've never been quite the same. Jesus has meant the world to me and even at this age, when I'm coming closer to the end of my ministry, I've never felt more passionate to try to get the word of the glory of joy in Christ out. I want to do that. So, I felt very inspired by those words
But at the same time, I thought, we are having a very hard time trying to determine what this gospel is. Is it big show business? Is it the corporate structure? Is it a detached kind of evangelism? What is it? And I thought to myself - what are we going to do? What are we going to say? How are we going to get the story of God's great, wonderful news through? Is it going to be by better communication skills? Better preaching? I'm sure that's a part of it, but then, that's what we're doing. (Paul, I understand was a very poor speaker, and I take comfort in that.) Is it in the way we're going to impress people? How we behave and how we dress?
The other day I was at a ministers' conference in Ohio and I heard a brief lecture on how ministers ought to dress — with dark suits, white shirts and dark ties, or what have you - and how we are to behave at social functions and all that because we do not want to be offensive to anybody. And I said, yeh, that's true, but then I thought in the other way. How many people have been turned off to the gospel because we've created just that kind of an image? How many won't come near to us and to the great freedom there is in Christ just because of that?
So, that isn't saying it, is it? Maybe the good impression we make is the very thing that obstructs the contact. Maybe we need a crack and a break in it. I feel Paul must have been discouraged at times, Just as he began his preaching and started churches here and there, he would run into a strange teaching like gnosticism with its that he had spoken the truth, not cunningly or manipulating anybody into salvation. He had not dealt carelessly with the Bible, the Word of God, as he knew it, but he was open-no cosmetics. It was just the bare, living Word that made the difference.
Sometimes we feel we have to defend the Bible up and down and do not dare ask any questions because we're afraid of what will happen. The Bible can stand on its own feet. All it needs is truth, the declaration of it as truth. On the other side, Paul said that there are a lot of people who are not going to be won anyway because the god of this world has blinded them so that they can't understand and believe.
So, where do we go? I remember an experience which Lloyd Oglevie told when he was giving some announcements in his church, the Hollywood Presbyterian Church, in California. He apparently muffed them very badly and it came out in a most embarrassing way. That week he got a note saying, "Lloyd, this was the first time I really heard the Gospel from you."
That brings me to the core of what this message is all about: "For we have this treasure in earthen vessels (in clay pots, in cracked pots, or what-have you) so that people may see that the power belongs not of us but of God." Now, I don't want to get too pietistic about that, but I want to open up an area that is very real to me, This treasure, for example, what is it? Of course, we' re talking about this great story of God's love that is revealed in historic events of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
We can say those words over and over again in a variety of ways and it doesn't make a difference, but when Paul speaks about it here earlier in this chapter, what does he say? He talks about having a vision of a shining light. When I think of the Gospel, I think of it as a light - a revealing light. And when the sunlight breaks out on the day, it shows the whole terrain and brings everything which has been, up to that time, in mystic darkness, clear. It makes things whole. Phillips Brooks has a treatment of light which I think is interesting. He said, "When you see religion which has a fragment or a part and it leaves you in the dark, you can be sure that it is not of Christ. Because when Christ moves into the light he makes us whole, he heals." Then he went on to say that this light brings all of the broken lines together. Salvation, he said, is not snatching people or rescuing people from a ruined and a sinking world. Salvation is restoration, it's reconciliation, it's enabling them to enter into the world and see the greatness of the whole kit and caboodle of life itself. It releases the very energy of the universe itself, it seems.
I remember some years ago, in the early part of my ministry, I was going through about six weeks of what I suppose could be known as depression. I was very, very uneasy. It seemed the world around me was unreal. I could go to meetings and the meetings were inspired and I would come out and feel that I had the answer, and then coming out, find that I really didn't. It would go away. And that went on and on and on and I'd think, "My soul, is this the way life was meant to be? Is that churning always to go on? Is that darkness always to be devil? Is there no freedom? Is there no wholeness? Is there always fragmentation on the inside?"
Then one day in Minneapolis, downtown, I went into a bookstore and I opened up a book. There was a line in it. I don't remember what the line was, but it flashed like a light and it healed and went through my whole being and touched the very roots of my life. I wasn't escaping. I was brought back into the world again, as a real human being, alive in Christ. This treasure is in clay.
Many years I've wrestled with the question: "Where does the Gospel come through most? Is it in meetings? Is it in spiritual places? Is it in the great confabs which talk about revival and movements? Or, is it just in the ordinary life?" For some reason or other, maybe it's because of my pastoral experience in recent years, I'm coming to feel that the Good News breaks through again and again incognito in the very heart of everyday struggle and life.
Let me tell you something funny that happened. One of my friends took a young people's group to visit one of the charismatic churches in our community — a very fine church in many respects, so I'm not casting aspersions, understand. One of the things they do in that service is to have people turn around and greet one another and say, "God bless you" or "Lord bless you" or what have you. My friend said that turning around in front of him was the most beautiful blond he had ever seen and she threw her arms around him and said, "I love you." He thought to himself, "That's the best offer I've had in a couple of weeks." But then when he got out to the parking lot after the service was over, he saw her and she saw him but she didn't know him. It's different when you get in the parking lot, isn't it? And that's what bothers me sometimes, because I think it's in the parking lot that the glory of Christ breaks through, too. It's not only in a fantastic service with fantastic preaching and string band music and all, but it's there in the parking lot, too.
The other, more serious story comes from my experience at Minnehaha Academy. (I can come back to those days, can't I?) We had a couple of evangelists in chapel one day and they raised the roof and did a tremendous job inspiring our kids, but I was interested in a couple of the comments from the kids afterwards. One of them said to the other: "You know, you can tell-you know these evangelists are Christians because they tell you that, but take Mrs. Larson in the bookstore - you just know that she's a Christian."
I heard Bishop Warda, who came out of pain and struggling and suffering in Hungary, say one time in a Lutheran church in Minneapolis: "Our God is a God in everyday clothes-in working clothes." And Father Powell said: "Never try to be a better preacher than you are a person."
It comes in clay just as it comes in the great spiritual movements. Furthermore, it comes in cracked clay. It comes when we accomplish exactly the opposite of what has happened. It comes when we're weak, when we've failed, when we've blown it. It comes when we become angry or we become a little bit crazy, Ray Bradbury, the science fiction writer, was in our town a few weeks ago and he said: "Every person has a genius and that genius is the little bit of craziness inside of us." I think Christ comes through that little bit of craziness inside of us. Paul says: "I was perplexed, I was persecuted, I was pressed down...," and in those moments the Gospel broke through.
A minister by the name of Barry Bailey, from Texas, told how he was called into the ministry and I thought it was very interesting. He was a boy in his teens and his pastor asked him to go into town with him and his wife one day, and so he did. His wife went on an errand and the two of them sat alone in the car. The errand got longer and longer and longer, so it must have been about two hours past the time she was expected to be back, and this young fellow thought: "Now I wonder what's going to happen. When she did come back, her husband leveled the gun at her. He was angry. He was upset. They made up after a while, but he was upset. And Barry Bailey said: "If a minister can be as human as that and God use him, then I think I can understand what the Grace of God is all about. I want to be a minister."
I think, too, of one of our friends, one of my older friends who used to be at Mattowa years and years ago. His name was Gus Olson. Maybe some of you know him. He was rather feeble-minded in a lot of ways. He wore the crumpiest suits, his language was garbled and I don't think he had anything straight, but every once in awhile he'd talk about God and how the Lord was real to him. And when he said it, it sounded so authentic. To this day I am moved by the weakness, the discontinuities of old Gus Olson. I think the Gospel comes through our weakness, through the cracks.
But if I were to end my message there tonight, I think I would have failed you, because Paul adds another word. He says: "We are pressed down, but we are not destroyed. We are perplexed, but we are not left in the dark. We are persecuted, but we are not abandoned. We are struck down, we are put down, but we are not left to die. That's a kind of fighting, plucky spirit that I identify with the Christian faith as well, because it is founded in the hope, the confidence, the strength and power of the Resurrection, which is life indeed. And that gives me confidence.
Now, I've got two stories and I'm going to close A couple of years ago, we had a young fellow come to our church from some place in Pennsylvania. How he ever came to Youngstown, I don't know, because he didn't have a job, - he had no place to stay and he had no way of supporting himself. But he found a spot. The organization that had given him some kind of encouragement failed him and he wound up at our church. Now, I have to tell you that he was very obnoxious and he was very temperamental. He had no abilities. He was as incompetent as any human being could be. There was no possibility that he had any skills that would be saleable in the market, and in Youngstown you have to have something going for you to have a chance at a job. Furthermore, he had been involved in drugs and still was, and I found out a lot more about his past. But there he came and wanted to join the choir-and he did. He slept through the choir or otherwise he would come down right in the middle of a song and march right in front of the chancel. He did everything to annoy people. And I thought: "How in the world — some people just don't get any kind of a break to begin life."
Well, I gave him some rides home. One time a choir director went to pick him up at his home and was met by a man with a shotgun. We got through that. A short time later, I got a call to come bail him out because he'd been in jail. So, I got as much of my money together as I could muster and we got him out. Then he was in jail again, so I took one of my deacons down with me and we tried to do something to help him. I remember when I walked into the cell there and saw him such a pathetic person — I thought: "How in the world can the Gospel of Christ ever change a person like that?" But this man had already-a year ago or so — made a commitment to Christ but he was struggling to realize and fashion that new life in his own being. Time and again he failed. Time and again he slipped. Time and again it seemed that he was hopeless. Yet, in it all, I could see that though he was struck down, he was not being left to die. There was surging within him a strength that was helping him to get on his feet again. And when I drove him to his home on the last Sunday that he was with us, he said: "You know, Pastor, I have really found a group of people who care about me and this is giving me a lot of courage to go ahead." That's the pluckiness of Grace that Christ brings to us.
One more. Many of us here may remember the sermon by Wesley Nelson at the communion service two years ago at the annual conference. It was a wonderful sermon, as only Wesley can do it. But one of the things that struck me so forcefully was his saying that one day he went into the pulpit on a Sunday morning and he was as angry as he was inspired. So much was churning around in his being that he thought to himself:" Never, never will I ever get the Gospel through. Never will I be able to share the good news of God's love and joy." But then, he said: "Right in the middle of that sermon, in the middle of my anger, it seemed as though God took that very power, that very dynamite, and converted it or transformed it into Grace." He found himself being lifted and renewed, and in his own consciousness he felt that he had communicated the Gospel of Christ as he had never done it before.
That's where it is. For we have this treasure in cracked pots, to show that the power belongs to God and not to us. Let the sermon fall flat, but God can work through us in spite of it.
Shall we pray: Oh, God, our Father, there is enough ego in us to make us want to be impressive. And then we wonder why, in our being impressive, nothing is really shared of the glory and the grace and the strength and the hopefulness of Christ. Our Father, use us not only as preachers in the pulpit or as people in worship, but also in the everyday encounter where miracle after miracle is occurring in the hard struggle of daily life which often makes no sense at all. To this vision, light and hope, we commit ourselves, in the name of Christ. Amen.