“Gold in the Cracks” Sermon on 2 Corinthians 4:7-18 by Michelle Ellis - July 11, 2021
This summer we’ve been exploring together what it means to be a community in Christ. We’ve touched together on how communities in Christ are peculiar, how we are called to be a hopeful community, and last week Joe reflected on how we’re called to be a a community that works towards reconciliation. Today I’d like to look together at what it means to be an encouraging community.
Sometimes we can think of encouragement as saying things to each other like, “Awesome job!” “Way to go!” “You’re a rock star!” or other similar phrases you might remember from stickers your teacher put on your spelling tests. While I like people saying those things to me, I often long for a deeper kind of encouragement. I’d like to put this definition of encouragement before you so you can try it on for size. I’d like to explore encouragement as naming to each other what is real and what is true. I’d like to explore encouragement as reorienting each other again and again to the reality that God is good and he is at work, especially when it looks like he’s not either of those things. Part of our role as followers of Jesus in community is to be able to call out and name to each other and to our world what is true, what is real, and what is good.
Joe and I have a stroller that has an issue with the front wheel. It’s not “true.” Every time we go for a walk with it (which we don’t often do anymore), you have to constantly reorient the wheel because after just a few steps the whole thing is veering off to the left. You constantly have to pick up the wheel and bring it back to centre so you can stay on the path. I’d like to explore encouragement today as that constant bringing the wheel back to centre. The work of reorienting the wheel to what is true and good so it can move forward in the direction it’s called to go.
For me, encouragement in this way is a big part of why I come to our Sunday gatherings. A big gift of gathering together is being reoriented again to the reality that God is good, that he is at work, and that I am part of his family. I find this regular reorientation really helps me to remain rooted in that reality and frees me up to live into this in a way that would be more difficult for me otherwise.
Reorientation and encouragement are a big part of what Paul is doing in the passage we read today. Things are tough for Paul. His work and role are being questioned. People say he’s ‘unimpressive’. Groups want to kill him and arrest him and he spends time in prison. He gets into arguments with guys he’s working with and parts ways with them. He finds himself in the middle of controversies and very heated criticism. I imagine in a similar situation I might be very inclined to wonder whether I was on the wrong path. Arguments, controversy, people being critical of my role might all be things I would receive as signs that I should change direction and do something else.
But Paul is able to name to himself and to others what is true and what is real. He is able to encourage others to reorient their path to what is true. Paul is able to see that though he may be unimpressive, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have worth, or that he is not called to his role. He is able to see that he is like a fragile clay jar which may not be an impressive thing, but it is something that is able to hold the light and power of Christ, nonetheless. He is able to name the reality that suffering is not a sign of failure or that he is on the wrong path. Instead, he knows that suffering can be a sign that he is being invited to share in the suffering and death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be grown in him too. Paul is able to name that the hard things he is going through now don’t compare with the good and the beautiful things that will come. Paul knows that if he wants to see resurrection at work here and now, he must also be prepared to see crucifixion at work as well. He knows that unless a kernel of wheat falls the the ground and dies it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds and much life.
Paul can see the bigger picture. He doesn’t receive criticism or his own pain as a message that he is doing things wrong or that he is a failure. Paul keeps reorienting his front wheel by framing events in the light of Jesus.
Paul says “we are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed."
What Paul says here, he can say with the benefit of hindsight, and of vision. But at the time it likely felt to Paul that he really was being crushed, that he was at the point of despair, that he was abandoned by God. Part of what Paul is saying to encourage his friends is that it may feel like you are being crushed—but you are actually living out the gospel. This is what being a servant of Jesus Christ is often like.
Are there places for you that you feel as though you are being crushed? Or given to despair? Places you feel abandoned by God? There is so much in life that beats us down and discourages us. We have been living through tough circumstances as a community. Some of us are very sick, or someone we love is very sick. Some of us long so dearly for what is not being given to us. Some of us are tired by the mundane tasks that take up so much of our time and have lost our vision. Some of us are doing the hard work of navigating the chaos and confusion of mental illness. Some of us feel trapped or stuck. Some of us are deep in grief or deep in loneliness. Some our relationships are breaking, some of us are wondering whether we have lost our faith. Some of us feel the weight of the broken world we are inheriting. Some of us look around, notice our small numbers and wonder whether the church is dying. Some of us wonder whether the legacy of Christianity in the residential schools is too painful. Some of us wonder if Christianity is too broken to hold onto. Paul invites us to see these places where we feel as though we are being crushed, driven to despair and abandoned by God as the very places that we are being invited into living out the gospel, where Jesus is inviting us into dying and rising with him. He invites us to see these things, not as good in and of themselves, but as locations in which God to do his work of bringing new life out of what looks like death.
I want to show you a picture. This is a picture of a Japanese tea cup. You can see that the cup has many cracks, that it has been broken. You can also see that this cup has been repaired. It was repaired using a special type of repair that originated in Japan around 500 years ago. Instead of simply throwing the cup away or trying to mend the broken pottery in a way that tries to hide the cracks, this type of repair highlights the broken pieces by mending the cracks with gold. You can see how the cracks repaired like this make the cup more interesting and more beautiful than it might have been otherwise.
I see this as a picture of what it looks like to be fragile clay jars containing great treasure. I see this as a picture of what it looks like to carry around in our bodies the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus might also be revealed in our body. I see this as a picture of how Jesus works. Taking us as broken people and using the very stuff of our brokenness as a place for his life and his glory to shine. The cup is more beautiful after it has been broken and mended than it was before the break. The glory of the gold shines through the cracks. There are breaks in your own life that Jesus has mended in this way, taking the broken pieces and mending them together so that his glory makes it into something beautiful. Can you think of any of them? Are there any places that you are now broken and you are longing to be mended with gold?
Part of what we are called to with each other and in our world is to point each other to the gold in the cracks, to the presence of God in places of brokenness in our lives and in our world. That is what it means to encourage one another, to reorient one another to God’s work and the possibility of his work. We are called to say to each other, I can see God in you. I can see how God has taken your loneliness and transformed it into giving you a heart for the outsider. I can see how God has taken your grief and given you gentleness and compassion. I can see how God has taken something that someone intended for evil and transformed it into something good in you. I can see how the work you are doing is God’s work, whether it be showing kindness and generosity to those who come through the doors of the post office, or bearing pain for another person, or inviting into friendship those who are different from you. Being an encouraging community means telling each other where we see Jesus shining through the cracks. It means telling each other that we are both broken and holy. Because it’s easier to often just feel broken. We need to be told about the gold binding us together.