All-Surpassing Power

Preacher - Meg Jenista Kuykendall

This sermon was preached at the Calvin Symposium on Worship, January 30 & 31, 2014

Theme:    God’s all-surpassing power is our hope in every weakness.

Doctrine:    Hope

Image:    Jars of Clay

Need:      To own that we are fragile & ordinary.

Mission:    To celebrate that God’s all-surpassing power is enough.

Introduction to Scripture

Brothers and sisters in Christ,

Fellow “Worship Professionals”,

Partners in the Gospel,

Colleagues,

Friends.

The LORD be with you

And also with you.

Let us hear God’s Words of Life.

Introduction 

My colleague, the Minister of Worship at our church, refers to the work we do as batting practice.  Standing in a batting cage, the relentless calendar fires Sundays at us, one after another after another.  You barely get a piece of one before you have to square up for the next pitch.

Every Sunday we get up there and we leave it all in the pulpit.

We leave it all at the piano bench.

Only to have someone in the receiving line, shake our hand and tell us that our sermon, what we’d thought was a rousing and prophetic call to repentance was, in fact, “just so nice, pastor.”

Only to have someone hunt us down during coffee hour to report the tally of praise songs versus hymns in the service and to let us know that “some people” don’t approve of the balance.

Escaping to our office we discover someone has left a bulletin on our desk, with all the typos helpfully – and somewhat gleefully – circled.

So we go home and sleep through a couple football games. Eat ice cream out of the carton and catch up on Netflix.

All the while we know, it may be Sunday night but Tuesday morning’s coming.

Stuck in a steady rhythm.

A liturgical batting cage.

Sundays shooting at us.

One after another after another.

Which may be exactly why you have traveled to Michigan in January.  Attending a conference like this one because, here, people plan worship for you.  And you hope they will speak a word of God’s grace for you.

Now you’re here.  But you aren’t here alone. Like your congregations from week to week, you show up carrying real burdens. Emotional, mental, spiritual needs.

Your worries for the future of the church, for the health of your people, for the vitality of the ministries in your congregations.

Carrying the sacred secrets shared, the strange stories of God’s people, the tears shed with them and for them…because of them(?)

So maybe you brought that with you this morning.  That’s okay.  Look around and you’ll see that, from the front row to the balcony, this is a room full of people who get it. People like you. People who love the church so much that it hurts.

Trouble in the Text

The testimony of the Apostle Paul’s life, written just barely beneath the surface of these letters, is that he too loved the church.  So much that it hurt.

Along with Priscilla and Aquila, Paul births this church in Corinth. For almost two years he nurtures it, raises up leaders, makes plans for ministry, visits the sick, catechizes the converts, marries, buries, presides at Table and at font.  He blesses and laughs and weeps.  He is – in a word – pastor.

And then his sense of call moves on him to Ephesus. But you don’t stop loving a church just like that.  In many ways – ways we no longer recommend as best practice  – he remains the church in Corinth’s pastor in absentia.

Over the years, the ministry honeymoon has faded.  Paul has seen the church’s crazy.  And they’ve seen Paul’s crazy.  They have taken turns disappointing and being disappointed in their ministry together.

After Paul leaves the church, he receives word that the people he loves have been acting all kinds of inappropriate – taking each other to court, adding a little dollop of idolatry to the side of their Christian plate and engaging in sexual shenanigans worthy of the Bravo channel.  “Real Housewives of Corinth.”

And how does Pastor Paul respond to the news? He tries to acquit himself.  He tries to scold.  But, in the end, he preaches the only word that can heal congregation and pastor alike: the Gospel of Jesus Christ as LORD.  By the fourth chapter of II Corinthians, we can be pretty certain that the Apostle Paul’s letter – for all that it is for everyone else – is, like all good sermons — profoundly for himself:

“Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.”  Paul hastens to add, “when this ministry situation gets rough – I don’t eat my feelings.  I don’t punish my family.  I don’t secretly and ridiculously enjoy my misery. I don’t download the porn.”  “Rather,” says Paul, “we have renounced secret and shameful ways.”

And when it comes to the work of ministry itself, we aren’t selling out.  We aren’t selling our souls to the latest, greatest method.  We aren’t selling our souls to the vagaries of popular opinion.  “We do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God.”

Until, ultimately, it comes down to this “We do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as LORD.”  Which is especially good news because Paul goes on to admit that people – including pastors and worship leaders and ministry leaders – people are ordinary and fragile.  We are jars of clay, he says.  Common vessels used by women to fetch their water, by priests to offer their sacrifices, by laborers to transport their goods.  Jars of clay — fragile enough to break and ordinary enough to be replaced.

Trouble in the World

That’s what the Apostle Paul calls us. And, frankly, it’s insulting. Fragile enough to break and ordinary enough to be replaced? Who’s got time for that?  There is ministry to get done, Gospel to preach, comfort to extend.  Ain’t nobody here got time to be fragile and ordinary!

Fragile?  Not us.  We are put-together. Pillars of strength. Wer’re decisive leaders. We don’t care what people say. We are masterful musicians. Prophetic preachers. A non-anxious presence in your every crisis – real or imagined.

Ordinary? Nooooo. We are special.  We went to seminary and studied Hebrew!  We can lead worship from an organ AND a guitar.  We’ve got mad ministerial skills. We pronounce people married – and they are!

I don’t mean to startle you by saying this: the church has a lot of expectations for their pastors, their ministry staff and – perhaps especially – for their worship leaders.  And somewhere along the way, their expectations feed our own ridiculous expectations of ourselves.  And here we go … out of the batting cage and into the hamster wheel.  Approval to earn.  Worth to prove.  We can increase attendance.  We can use better music.  We can preach better sermons, visit more people, run more efficient meetings.  So you see, ain’t nobody got time for ordinary or fragile!

But listen, friends, if we can’t own our ordinary and fragile, it will end up owning us. Churches fall apart.  Great empires of Christendom implode. Christians grow jaded, cynical and distance themselves from their faith communities.  And it isn’t because pastors are ordinary and fragile.  It is because pastors have become celebrities and worship leaders have become rock stars and ministry leaders have become infallible. The danger isn’t in being ordinary and fragile.  God knows we’re ordinary and fragile.  God intends us to be that way so the danger isn’t in being ordinary and fragile.  The danger is in pretending we aren’t.

Grace in the Text

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

The treasure of Gospel ministry is placed in jars of clay. Fragile enough to break and ordinary enough to be replaced. It is, admittedly, a strange strategy to entrust truth and beauty and wonder and proclamation to fragile and ordinary jars of clay.

But for as fragile and ordinary as we may be, do you know what Paul doesn’t call us? Clods of dirt. So that’s something. We may be fragile and ordinary jars of clay but we aren’t useless, formless clods of dirt.

There *is* a difference between clay and dirt.  They both come from the surface of the earth but clay contains distinct minerals and particles.  Clay reacts differently to water.  Wet dirt is mud.  Wet clay is the starting point for art. Clay absorbs water, making the substance pliable, plastic, able to take on shape.  Clay can be formed by an artist’s hands.  And then, under high heat, clay releases water but retains its form and shape.  A chemical and physical conversion takes place in the furnace.  The transformed clay can never again be less than what it is now, how it has been shaped, the image it bears.

    “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”  

What all-surpassing power is this?

The all-surpassing power of God hovering over the waters, creating a whole world.

The all-surpassing power of God brought down to the level of particles infusing our very beings, our very nature, making us more than nothing from the very creation of the world. Prepared for lives of meaning and purpose and intentionality.

The all-surpassing power of God born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, died and was buried.  The all-surpassing power of God submitted himself to the flames and the heat and the judgment and rising again in new life.

The all-surpassing power of God recreating us as we absorb the waters of baptism.

The all-surpassing power of God working in our lives, shaping us and crafting us according to God’s will and purpose.

The all-surpassing power of God in the Spirit’s anointing of ordinary, fragile people, glazing us to reflect Christ’s light shining in our hearts, “the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” so that all who do not believe may yet glimpse not us but the reflection of Jesus Christ, who is the LORD.

The all-surpassing power of God holding us together under high heat, converting us to hold the shape of “Christ, who is the image of God”.

Grace in the World

Though perhaps, these days, you wonder whether your ministry does hold the shape of Christ.  Whether your life does bear the image of God that you have wearied yourself in serving.

You may well wonder why God gives the treasure of Gospel ministry to weary souls.  How does that serve the honor and glory of God’s all-surpassing power in the end?

John Chrysostom, an ancient who also loved and served the church, gives us this confidence: “For both the greatness of the things given and the weakness of them that receive show (God’s) power; in that (God) not only gave great things, but also to those who are little.”

    The greatness of the thing given and the weakness of them who receive.  Both! Coming together!  Demonstrate the all-surpassing power of God.

The all-surpassing power of the salvation given and our weakness in needing such a salvation that shine forth the love of God.

The all-surpassing power of the Gospel and our inability to live it perfectly that shines forth the mercy of God.

The all-surpassing power of the mission of God and the fragility and ordinary-ness of its ministers that shines forth the glory of God.

Whoever you are  — broken, proud, idealistic, weary, fragile or ordinary – if you are here because you love the church so much that it has begun to hurt, hear these words of truth:

“We are hard-pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair, persecuted but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

For every fragility, there is God’s strength.

For every ordinary-ness, there is God’s purpose.

For every death, there is God’s offer of new life.

For every failure, there is God’s grace.

For every hurt, there is God’s healing.

For every broken place, there is God’s glory yet to be revealed.

Thanks be to God!