Sunday, June 03, 2018
Sermon Audio
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I watched a trailer recently about an upcoming movie that is a must-see: Paddington Bear 2.  Now, any of you who watched Paddington Bear will be on the edge of your seat for Paddington Bear 2.  If you haven’t watched it, trust me, the sequel will be just as banal!  Nevertheless, it is well worth watching, and a lot of fun.  I thought with tonight’s Last Night of The Proms concert, I should start off with a British illustration.  I grew up with Paddington Bear.  He was an iconic figure, and many of the things that he said, according to the books by Michael Bond, have stayed in my head, particularly those that relate to marmalade!  Now, where am I going with this?  Well, here are three quotes from Paddington Bear demonstrating his wisdom on marmalade:  “Bears like Paddington, are very rare, and a good thing too if you ask me, or it would cost us a small fortune in marmalade”; “I think the merry-go-around is a very good way of travelling if you don’t want to go anywhere, especially if you have plenty of marmalade sandwiches to keep you going”; and finally, the wisdom that belongs with Aristotle and Plato in the pantheon of great quotes, “A wise bear always keeps a marmalade sandwich in his hat in case of an emergency.”  
I have always had a fascination with Paddington.  I suppose part of it was that was due to my grandmother. Because there weren’t many refrigerators in England when I was growing up as a boy, oftentimes things were left outside on a windowsill to keep them chilled.  Grandma had a great big jar, and in that jar was marmalade.  Whenever she presented this at breakfast time, my cousins and I would dive into the marmalade, scooping out as much as we could.  Marmalade, you see, was not just compote; but a valuable thing.  If you go to India or Africa, marmalade was something of great value because it had oranges in it.  Marmalade wasn’t just an ordinary jam like all other jams, it was special.  It was for that reason that Paddington loved his marmalade sandwiches so much.  
In many ways, today’s passage brought back to me the notion of a jar and the value of what is in it.  But for the Apostle Paul, the jar that he was speaking about and what was in it was not a pot with marmalade:  it was the Church; the Body of Christ.  Paul was writing his second letter to the Corinthians, after having had a very prickly relationship with the congregations in Corinth and surrounding areas.  The Corinthians had caused him all manner of trouble.  There were people who were claiming that they had very specific spiritual gifts, and they were abusing them for their own aggrandisement.  There were those w claiming to be the authentic followers of Christ, as opposed to Paul and his cadre of fellow disciples, who they felt were no longer the real arbiters of what constituted the Gospel.  There was unseemly behaviour, the worship of idols, all manner of health rules that were put in place for eating only certain things, and Paul was going out of his mind with this congregation.  
Yet, he loved them.  The passage is in the middle of what is known as an Apologia, a defence of ministry.  Paul is trying to say, “Look, we are not perfect,” and by “we” he meant himself and his followers, like Barnabas and Timothy etc., “We are not the perfect ones, but in fact we point to the One who is.  We point to the One who is the source of our power, our strength and our wisdom.”  In this passage, Paul uses an image that deep roots in The Old Testament.  He says, “We have this treasure in clay jars.”  What he means is that he and those who follow the Gospel and are part of the Church have this Good News, have this grace and power of God, but that it is manifested in clay jars.
What were these jars of which he spoke?  Well, these were the jars of the people of God.  The people of God are the means through which Christ continues to reach the world through the Body of Christ, the Church, and its believers.  He says, “We are jars, but we are weak, the strength doesn’t come from us.  We are weak, but even in that weakness, it is not weakness that is to be defeated.  Even though we are weak, it is the power of God that works through us.”  And then, in almost a poetic form, he outlines exactly how, and there is a beautiful symmetry to his wording, very much like the cadence in Corinthians 1:13.  Paul says, “We were afflicted, but not crushed.  We were perplexed, but not despaired.  We were persecuted, but we were not forsaken.  We were struck down, but we were not destroyed.”  For Paul, the weakness of the Christian life, the Church and in the Body of Christ is actually something that leads to an understanding of our dependence on God and on Jesus Christ.  That is why it is so to the way the world likes to see things.  It looks at people who are weak, and it sees in that weakness failure.  For those who are psychologically traumatized, physiologically challenged, emotionally unstable, sociologically adrift, economically poor, there is a sense that weakness is a sign of a greater failure.  But, Paul does not take that approach.  He understands that they are afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down, but nevertheless God’s goodness and grace can be seen even in these clay jars.  In fact, in the midst of failures, goodness can come.
On Facebook this week, a friend of mine sent out a copy of a letter.  How they got this, I don’t know, but it was from the University of Bern in Switzerland, and dated June 6th, 1907:  
Dear Mr. Einstein:
Your application for the doctorate has not been successful at this time, and as such, you are not eligible for the position of Associate Professor. While you posed an interesting theory in your article published in Annalen der Physik, we feel that your conclusions about the nature of light and the fundamental connections between space and time are somewhat radical.  Overall, we find your assumptions to be more artistic than actual physics.
Sincerely yours,
Professor Wilhelm Heindrich, Ph. D, 
Dean of Sciences
University of Bern
When you really think about what happened to Albert Einstein you realize that a moment of rejection like this, as all historians agree, spurred him even further and caused him to search even deeper into the truth of matters.  Sometimes when we face affliction and challenges, God is using us.  At times, it is not just the world that looks at weakness and says, “Weakness is a sign of failure”.  Sometimes Christians look at each other and feel precisely the same way.  They think that somehow following Jesus Christ is an automatic “Open Sesame” to goodness and glory, fun and life, success and joy.  This isn’t always the case.  There are Christians who suffer from cancer, emotional and psychological trauma, who face unemployment, poverty, ill health, who deal with divorce, the hatred of others, and who feel that they are a failure.  Paul would say, “We are clay jars, but just because we are clay jars does not mean that God cannot use us.  Just because we are imperfect does not mean that the Spirit of God cannot continue to blow through the Church and to renew it with the power of his Spirit.  After all,” says Paul, “we share in this body the death of Jesus of Nazareth, we share his crucifixion.”  Our pots are his Cross, and his Cross is our pots, and there is no distinction.  But, because of that, there is the marmalade, the marmalade in the jar!
I don’t want to sound Gnostic here:  I don’t want to suggest that our bodily life is evil and our spiritual life is good.  What I am saying is that our life as a whole, in every way, is a clay pot – with its imperfections and flaws.  But, the marmalade is the power of the Good News of God’s saving grace.  It is the power of God’s redemptive love.  And it is that redemptive love that is our strength.  Again, this is counter-cultural.  We live in a culture that says that basically you need to go into yourself to find out your authentic being.  While there is an element of truth in that, and it is not completely devoid of reason, it is not the whole story. In fact what we find when we are authentic people is simply what kind of pot we are.  It is like this with my father, who when he was at school was taught how to make things out of clay.  It was part of an art class that he took in the late 1920s and early 1930s.  The school even had a kiln.  My father started out by wanting to make a vase for his mother to put flowers in, as he was making this vase, it lost its shape, and he lost control of it.  It got flatter and flatter as he tried it to make it taller, until he was exasperated.  He said to his teacher, “I simply cannot form this into what I want it to become.  What am I to do?”
She said, “Oh, just let it go flat and tell your parents it is an ash tray.”
That was the 1930s, and smoking was in vogue, so I suppose it was well received, but my grandmother confirmed indeed that the ash tray did make its way to her home.  It was, to put it simply, awful.  He put it in the heat of the fire in the kiln and he baked it, and he was proud of it as a boy, thinking “At least, I made something!” But it was imperfect.
No matter how much we try and no matter how authentic we want to be, we are like that.  The one who really shapes us, the one who really makes us, is the very power and grace of Almighty God.  It is God’s power and the Resurrection of Christ that shows His triumph over our weaknesses, over our challenges and our disabilities and our grief.  It is God’s power that is working in us.  He is the marmalade!  Paul says then that we should show this to be true.  If this is the case, we should not be downhearted about being the clay and the pot.  Oftentimes as Christians, we do not convey to the world the marmalade that is within us.  We do not share the joy, the ecstasy, and the wonder of Christ.  
I once heard a preaching teacher say to his class, “It is very important when you are preaching to have good body language.  When you are talking about heaven and the Resurrection, your face should shine, your voice should rise up, your eyes should be bright, you should be expressive, and when you are talking about hell, well, just have your normal look.”  The “normal look” is when we don’t understand the marmalade that is within us, right?  We are so caught up with the clay that we do not see the power of God working in our lives.
It is that power and that grace that is rich and sweet thing in our lives.  We can’t help but be clay jars.  This is what we are with our imperfections and mortality, and Christ knew that and bore it on a Cross.  We also are receptive to the power of God’s Spirit.  When God’s Spirit is in our lives, and when we are open to it, we can identify with the broken jar.  You see, what Paul was concerned about is Christians becoming elitist and haughty in their convictions, which the Corinthians were, and losing sight of the challenges of a broken world, and because of that not sharing the Good News of Christ.  If you just raise your arms up and say, “I give up!” where is God’s transformative message? 
When airline pilots prepare for their first inaugural flight, they have to go through months in a simulator.  The simulation begins with very easy manoeuvres and it increasingly adds challenges that might arise, right through to engine failures and wheels not landing and fires on board.  How do you handle that?  By the time they get to the end of their training, they are ready for any circumstance that comes along.  They are ready to transport others safely to their destinations.  As Christians, we are like that.  We have these challenges that we face.  We have these hurdles that we have to overcome.  We have these disappointments that break our lives.  But as we are prepared by these, and as we reach out more and more to the power and grace of God, we are all the more ready to share it with others; to help them see the wonderful, glorious, tangy marmalade that is the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Wow!  Someone needs to make a movie about that! Amen.