“We have this treasure in clay jars.”

I placed under the nave altar for today an ordinary clay pot.  It is to help me with the sermon.  I got this pot from my oldest grandchild’s collection.  He is graduating from Oak Bay High this month.  He has already received an award for his pottery so could spare one of his earliest creations for me.  The image of the clay pot or vessel comes, of course, from our  Epistle reading for today.  (The fact that there are now lots of images of round containers in the Chapel Gallery is coincidence, or Act of God.)

In this reading from Second Corinthians, Paul writes about having treasure in clay jars.  I deliberately asked my grandson for a plain, ordinary clay pot.  One of his later, really  beautiful, finely crafted pieces with gorgeous glaze would not illustrate the point that Paul is making in our epistle reading for today.  Paul is talking about clay vessels, earthen wares that have worth in their use, not particularly in their looks.  “We have this treasure in clay jars.”

In Paul’s day there were no plastics, of course, and metal containers and utensils, and glass, were expensive.  Most cooking and serving, especially by the poor, was done with pottery.  Paul and others of his time would have been accustomed to pottery bowls, pottery flasks, jars, pitchers, oil lamps and jugs.  All this pottery was relatively inexpensive.  It was broken easily so had to be replaced frequently.  

You have probably noticed in artist’s sketches and paintings of Biblical times, the common narrow necked jugs for carrying and storing liquids.  They were wisely designed for their function.  The small opening reduced evaporation and spilling.  The small opening  would  also aerate water or wine when it was being poured out.   But in our reading for today, Paul is specifying a wide mouthed earthen ware container.  “We have this treasure in clay jars.”  Is this a deliberate choice of Paul’s?  I think so.   We will come back to that later.

Not only was the clay container a common object in Paul’s time, but also the image of human beings as clay would have been very familiar to anyone knowing even a little about the Hebrew or Old Testament.  You remember how in the creation story from Genesis 2, our Creator God forms a human being from the dust of the earth.  God then breathes into the human creature the breath of life itself.  This story emphasizes the intimate connections between the earth and God and humankind, connections we have been made even more aware of with global heating.  The ancient Hebrew word for human being is adam.    The ancient Hebrew word for ground or earth is adamah.

Many of you will recall the prophet Jeremiah speaking the word of the Lord that he hears in the potter’s house: “Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O House of Israel.”  Also, the prophet Isaiah prays to God with the words: “we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”   Even The Book of Lamentations speaks of the children of Zion as earthen pots, the work of a potter’s hands.  

How does it feel to be compared to a clay pot?  The comparison does put us humans in our place.  .   .   .   But we hold treasure, treasure as beloved children of God, treasure as followers of Christ, as brothers and sisters of Christ, treasure as recipients of the power of the Holy Spirit.  In spite of our flaws, no matter our weaknesses, we hold treasure not only for our own benefit but also to share for the good of all of God’s creation, treasure for helping make happen God’s purposes in this world, in short, treasure for  participating in the very Kingdom of God .       

We are invited to do so for the rest of our lives.  Just playing it safe, holding our treasure close .   .   .  that’s not where it’s at, regardless of our age, regardless of our circumstances or resources.  I heard a joke last week that comments on the chaos in our world, all the confusion that might encourage us just to give up.  A customer approaches an airline representative and says, “I would like to book a ticket to Paris and send my suitcase to Chicago."  "I am sorry, sir, we can't do that."  "Why not?  You did it last time."                                                                                                       

Most of us are old enough to know that we grow and change, know more fully who we are and how much God loves us and values us by actively cooperating with God’s will.  Our other two readings for today have lots to say about participating in the Kingdom of God. 

The story of young Samuel first realizing that God is speaking to him, that God is to use him in the great scheme of things, is dear.  We are all moved by Samuel’s eagerness to do what is right, his loyalty to the elder Eli, and his faithfulness in doing a very difficult thing.   We witness God’s power working through him as he tells Eli that he and his sons are to be punished.  Samuel is speaking truth to power.  This is the beginning of many political acts on Samuel’s part.  He is to be a king maker.  Religion and politics were not separate then, nor can they ever be.  You and I have the gift of the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to guide us as we live out our obligations as citizens in our democratic state.  We need that guidance as we discern how best to contribute to a better world.

Our gospel reading for today consists of the final two of five what are called conflict stories recorded in the Gospel of Mark,  Jesus in conflict with primarily religious authorities.  Think how disruptive, even threatening, Jesus’ teachings and actions were for the status quo.    Both of the stories we hear today concern Sabbath regulations.  It might seem strange to us that ancient Jews put so much stress on Sabbath regulations, but they provided identity, regularity and security for the Jews living in the Roman Empire.  We don’t have to look too far to find practices giving us nothing more than identity, regularity and security. 

Remember when women were to wear hats in church and men were not to wear hats in church?  In the late nineties, not really that long ago, in a church where I was serving, a boy about twelve years old came alone to a service one Sunday.  I don’t remember anyone knowing him.  What I do remember is one member of the church, during the service, told him to take off his baseball cap.  That boy never came back, and I shall never forget him. 

We are much more open and flexible today when it comes to Sabbath time.  We understand that rest and re-creation can happen any day or hour of the week.  What our challenge is more apt to be is remembering Jesus as Lord of at least a good portion of our sabbath time.  Otherwise we can forget how to use our treasure.  “We have this treasure in clay jars.”

The second of the two conflict stories we hear in our Gospel reading for today takes place right in a synagogue.  Did you notice that Jesus gets angry?  I didn’t think about that at first.

Jesus has entered a synagogue where there is a man with a withered hand.  Everyone is watching to see what Jesus will do after he calls the man forward -- out where everyone can see him.  By now Jesus has acquired a reputation for being a healer.  Will he break from a customary norm and perform the work of healing on the sabbath?  Jesus could have played it safe.  He could have said something like, “I see you can use some help.  Let’s meet Monday morning.”

Instead, Jesus seizes the teaching moment and says to those gathered, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?”    Notice how doing nothing is not given as an option.   Yet everyone remains silent.  Jesus looks around in anger.  He then says to the man, “Stretch out your hand.”  It is restored.  

We learn how central it is always to do good, to save life, to make life whole, our life and our neighbour’s life, in the Kingdom of God.  What Jesus says for the Sabbath is of course true for every day of the week.  “We have this treasure in clay jars.”  

Maybe for you this means simply and quietly praying for others.  Maybe it means writing a check to help someone you know or a worthy charity in need.  Maybe it means giving the gift of your time with a listening ear.  Maybe it means breaking out of a secure pattern or mindset to discover and live the Holy in a new way. That is certainly what was encouraged by the speakers at the recent “We Together” diocesan conference.  But that’s another sermon.

Paul’s image of the clay jar is an open vessel, easily emptied and refilled time after time after time.  The contents are not to be hidden away for long time storage.  The contents are meant to be put to good use always.  “We have this treasure in clay jars.”  Amen.