Friday, June 24, 2011

Cracked Pots

Ordination and Installation of Margaret Jacobus
Oklee Lutheran Parish, Oklee, MN
June 25, 2011
II Corinthians 4:1-7

 In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Margaret, it’s customary in an ordination sermon for the preacher to offer some sage advice to the candidate for ordination.  

So, here goes:   don’t try to be too good a pastor.  

Let me say that again:   don’t try to be too good a pastor.

And above all, avoid saying, doing or being anything that might cause someone to say of you:  “Oh, Pastor Margaret—she’s such a perfect pastor!”  If anyone starts saying THAT you surely will have failed as a minister of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now, you’re probably thinking:  who let this guy into our pulpit?  This is about the last thing anyone gathered here this afternoon wants to hear—especially the parish call committee and parish council that met with Margaret, discerned her strengths for ministry and perceived a “match” between her gifts and the gifts of this parish.   Surely your call committee and your council did not go casting about for mediocrity….they weren’t just looking for “an OK pastor.”

No, far from it!  In fact this afternoon we are all here because we want you to succeed, Margaret.   This is your cheering section—in full force.    We want you to be a good, maybe even a great pastor.   We are pulling for you!

And yet, I caution you:  just don’t try to be too good a pastor.

And really, those aren’t just my words to you today, as much as they are the words of the apostle Paul in our second lesson. …where we read:  “But 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.”

You and I, Margaret, as pastors of the church, and indeed all of us who are baptized into Christ, called to bear God’s redeeming Word in the world…..all of us gathered here this afternoon are “clay jars,” earthen vessels--some have suggested “cracked pots.”   

And yet God chooses to do God’s work through us—the work of pastoral ministry in the church, the work of daily life ministry among our neighbors in the world.    God has a predilection for, a preference for, flawed vessels….and thankfully, there seem to be plenty of such flawed vessels at God’s disposal.

But that isn’t exactly what we want to hear….and it’s not what Paul’s first hearers of this word, the Christians in Corinth, wanted to hear either.  

You see, our second lesson is an excerpt of a much longer conversation between St Paul and one of the churches he helped start, the church in the Greek seaport city of Corinth.

It was a stormy, love/hate relationship that existed between Pastor Paul and the Corinthian church.  We know that Paul served among them and revisited them in person, but mainly we know that he wrote letters to them….probably at least four letters, though we have only two of them in our New Testament.

The Corinthian Christians were confused and conflicted over many things, not the least of which was the nature of pastoral leadership—the faithfulness and fruitfulness of those who had preached the gospel in Corinth.   Paul may have jump-started this congregation, but he was followed by a whole succession of other preachers….some of whom were apparently much more impressive, more charismatic, (we might say) more EFFECTIVE than the Apostle Paul.

It got to the point that there were even “favorite pastor fan clubs” within the Corinthian congregation, with members of the church haggling over which of their pastors had been the best (I Cor. 3)….so much so that Paul had to go right after the whole notion that faith and discipleship and mission are dependent upon the personal gifts or qualities of any pastors, including himself.

And how Paul did that was to use himself as an example of how God often does some of his best work through his least-impressive, least-gifted, least-powerful preachers (I Cor. 4).   Why, Paul even boasted of his weaknesses and drew attention to something about him—a physical disability, a speech defect, epilepsy, some “thorn in the flesh”—that made him, Paul anything BUT a “perfect pastor.” (II Cor 12:5-10)

Now, we could chalk all of this up to a flaw in Paul’s fragile psyche, I suppose—his frail ego, his desperate need to defend himself, raise his own stock and curry favor in the Corinthian congregation…were it not for the fact that Paul finally didn’t make this all about himself.  

Finally, Paul made it all about God, specifically the God who meets us in the foolishness of the Cross and the weakness of the incarnate, in-the-flesh Jesus Christ who demonstrated his power chiefly in showing mercy, submitting himself to sinners, being betrayed by his friends, dying on a cross, and being buried in a borrowed grave.

Paul argued with the Corinthians and right here in our text for today, that it’s not about the preacher, it’s not about who’s the most persuasive or witty or impressive speaker of the Good News.   It is rather about God who works through our weaknesses and deficits, who takes us and hides the treasure of the gospel in us, clay jars, “cracked pots,” so that no one will miss the point:  it’s not about us.  It’s about God, the God who meets us in the weak, vulnerable, crucified, dead-but-now-risen-again Jesus.

So I repeat, Margaret, don’t try to be too good a pastor.   If you do that, people might forget that they still need Jesus!

It’s easier said than done, though—this “don’t be too good a pastor” thing.   It sounds like it should be simple, but it’s not. 

It will go against your grain, Margaret, trying not to be too good a pastor.   Because that’s how it is for all of us called to the office of Word and Sacrament.   There is so much to do—and we want to do all of it as well as we can. 

Take preaching, for example.   Preachers, good hardworking preachers, want to “say it all” in every sermon.  That is a temptation, especially when a pastor is starting out—“give them the whole load of hay” every Sunday.

But here’s the kicker:  you will find that the sermons that “hit home” are the ones you feel least good about.   Every preacher I’ve talked with about this can tell stories to that effect.   You think you have a pretty good sermon—but it falls flat, goes nowhere!   Then the next week, you’ve been distracted by other things and you didn’t prepare as well as you’d like—so you go into the pulpit on a wing and a prayer—and afterwards some of your hearers request a manuscript, so they can ponder this magnificent sermon again.

Here’s what I think is going on in all that:   when we step down or step back or step aside, as preachers, Jesus steps up.   Where we are lacking or incomplete or just plain weak—Jesus has a chance to shine all the brighter.  

More than once in my many years of being a traveling preacher, I’ve stepped into a pulpit on which is carved this verse from John 12:21:   “Sir, we would see Jesus.”

That’s what it’s all about, my friends.   Ministry is about stepping back so that Jesus can shine all the brighter.

So Margaret, I say to you again:   although we all know you bring wonderful gifts and ardent passion to this work, and although we know you are eager and ready to “dig in” in here in the Oklee parish, with heart and soul and mind…..please don’t be too good  a pastor.  Please don’t think you need to say it all, do it all, be it all.   

And you, people of God, you can do your part by not trying to be” too good” Christians, as well.  Because Christians who are hung up on being “too good” usually become hung up on themselves, often in ways that divide them from one another…no longer focused on or trusting in Jesus, no longer united in Christ.

Give Jesus time and space and ample opportunity to do what Jesus does best:   save us from our self-centeredness, our mortality, our captivity to forces that mean us harm.

Give Jesus a chance to save us and to send us, not as perfect specimens, but as “clay jars,” flawed vessels, cracked pots through whom God nevertheless does God’s amazing work in this world.  

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

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