Last week I posted a reflection on the passing of a member of my congregation. The post struck a chord with a number of people despite many not knowing the deceased. You can read it here.
In light of that resonance, I thought I’d post the homily I wrote for his funeral service.
Clay Jars – Jeremiah 18 & 2 Corinthians 4
Afflicted in every way, but not crushed. Perplexed, but not driven to despair. Persecuted, but not forsaken. Struck down, but not destroyed.
Les Norton, as he himself told me during his many “constructive criticism” visits to my office these past 8 years, read every word of his bible several times over and then some.
Les loved scripture.
In fact, in his later years, whenever Les would wake up confused or disoriented, he would recite the Psalms to himself. The scripture he’d read so many times during his long life came to calm and ground him as his life came to an end.
Les loved scripture, and I learned it straight from Les’ lips that he harbored a particular affinity for St Paul, the one formerly known as Saul, the one who formerly made it his business to stick his nose in the business of the Church.
Indeed, during one of his frequent visits to my office, I once suggested to Les- in love- that his affinity for the Apostle Paul must due to his sharing a similar personality to the former Pharisee.
And because Les loved scripture and had read every word of it, Les knew enough to not know whether I had just commended him or insulted him.
I remember he just squinted at me for a few moments and then changed the subject by calling me ‘young fella.’
Les loved scripture. While we never talked specifically about 2 Corinthians 4, I’d wager that Les would give his stubborn, grudging approval to today’s passage.
After all, Les loved St Paul and this text is one of Paul’s greatest hits. Paul’s rhetoric here in 2 Corinthians 4 nearly reaches off the page and stops you in your tracks, and burrows deep into your memory.
Paul’s rhetoric here in 2 Corinthians 4- it’s like a great line of a famous speech, like “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” I know from Les’ own lips that that line, like the Psalms, was a constant companion to Les when he served deep in the belly of the Massachusetts during World War II.
And so I think Les would approve of this scripture text in which St Paul uses high altitude rhetoric and soaring description to describe the life of faith as you and I carrying treasure.
Inside clay jars.
I think Les would give his stubborn, grudging approval to this scripture text. He might even smile and point his finger at me and say ‘you got me there, young fella.’
I think Les would approve because Les, who loved and read his bible, would notice St Paul uses high rhetoric and soaring description to distract you and me from the fact that he just called us ‘clay jars.’
Vessels made of clay.
Not exactly an unambiguous comment.
After all, things made of clay can be beautiful but they can be brittle too- all at the same time.
Things made of clay come with rough spots as well as smooth, polished spots. Things made of clay always contain imperfections, some visible and some unseen. Yet when it comes to things made of clay, it’s those very imperfections- the ratio of rough to smooth spots, beauty to brittle- that make each and every clay jar unique.
And it’s those imperfections, that uniqueness, which proves that each and every clay jar was made by hand.
By an Artist.
Who had exactly that clay jar in mind.
And intended to be a gift to someone in the world.
I can’t think of a better metaphor for who Les was than the metaphor Paul gives us in 2 Corinthians 4.
Les was a clay jar. Unique. A gift both to those who loved him, a devoted father and a doting grandfather. The kind of father who still said your boyhood bedtime prayers with you when you came home from college, and the kind of grandfather who asked me about his girls in one of the last sentences he shared with me.
Les was a clay jar. He was a gift to the many whom he served without ever seeking credit for himself, logging countless hours volunteering in all kinds of ways and places.
Les was a clay jar.
Capable of beauty. Capable of being a vessel of grace, and, at the same time, like any handmade art, Les had his stubborn, rough spots that could make you want to shake him or throw him against the wall.
Just ask Dean or Jay- the reason they have no hair is because Les made them pull it all out.
I mean Les was so stubborn that when given the chance to be one of the first Americans on Japanese soil at the end of the war, absolutely refused to go because his commanders couldn’t tell him exactly where he’d be spending the night. That’s stubborn.
Les was a clay jar with both rough spots and beautiful spots.
And though St Paul doesn’t say so, sometimes the beautiful parts take on a deeper beauty because of the rough parts.
And Les and I, as most of you know, had our rough parts.
I’ve been here at Aldersgate for eight years, and for the first five years I ended any mention of Les’ name with the passive-aggressive Southern epilogue ‘…bless his heart.’
For years, Les seemed to me a clay jar with no finish. Just all coarse, rough spots. He was a thorn in my side. He personified ‘church politics.’ He was convinced I didn’t know what I was doing, couldn’t preach my out of a paper-bag and would be the ruination of his church.
I remember my first Sunday at Aldersgate when I was introduced to the congregation. After worship, out in the Narthex, Les came up to me and, without introducing himself, gave me one of his death grip handshakes and then motioned over to Dennis and warned me not to let Dennis teach anything.
And so I replied: ‘Are you kidding? I taught him everything he knows.’
As I’ve shared with some of you, Les has the distinction of being the only parishioner in my twelve years of ministry ever to challenge me to an actual, honest-to-God fist fight.
Showing my own rough, clayjarness, I leaned in close and told Les that if he was going to critique my preaching he first needed to be able to hear my preaching.
And Les responded with another death grip handshake and then challenged me to a fist fight. And it says something about our relationship that my first impulse to this provocation from an 88 year old was ‘let’s go.’
Despite our self-images, despite the pretenses we try to project, despite our best efforts- each of us, we’re little more than clay jars.
Creations with unique flaws and imperfections and rough spots right there along with the beauty the Maker gave to each of them.
And yet when it comes to 2 Corinthians 4, Paul’s poetry about clay jars can overshadow his point.
Paul’s poetry can tempt us into placing too much emphasis on our clay jar-ness.
Because what is very clear when you take an honest look at any Christian, is our brokenness and imperfection. You don’t really have to say much more.
Our clayjarness is obvious to any who takes a good look.
But what is far too easy to miss or gloss over or forget all together in these verses is “the treasure” Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians 4.
This treasure. We have this treasure in clay jars, Paul says.
Instead of ‘Clay Jars’ the sermon title should be ‘This Treasure.’
This treasure that despite all our imperfections and flaws, despite our clayjarness, we contain and can pass on to others.
Les is no exception, the clayjarness of any of us is a given. This treasure, not the clayjarness, is Paul’s main point.
And the treasure is what Paul describes in the very next chapter of 2 Corinthians: that in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself and that Christ has given us this same ministry of reconciliation.
You and I, despite being clay jars, we’re vessels of Christ’s continuing reconciling ministry to the world.
That’s the treasure inside each of us, says Paul.
Maybe you don’t believe that, but more than anything I want you to know that Les believed it.
Most of you know about Les’ clayjarness.
But many of you don’t know about the treasure, what he did with this treasure inside his imperfect self.
For example, almost none of you know that a couple of years ago I was doing a burial for someone in the community. Not many were gathered in attendance, but Les was there. I had my head bowed and was praying for the departed, but Les must not have realized I was praying. After all, he wouldn’t have heard a plane landing right behind him.
So thinking we were all standing there in silence, Les interrupted my prayer and began an impromptu, heartfelt, gospel-based reflection on death and resurrection and the life of the deceased. Where so many come to church every Sunday but are embarrassed to talk about their faith, Les’ words were worthy of any minister.
Like treasure from a clay jar.
I’ll give you another example.
Many of you know that we raised about $40,000.00 for the sanitation project in Guatemala this Lent. Almost none of you know that 1/4 of that total was given by Les, more than any other donor before he had any reason to believe he didn’t have much time left.
When I told him he should be proud of the good his gift will make happen, he responded that he felt it was his obligation.
And then Les, ever the clay jar, requested that I carry his gift down to Guatemala myself in cash.
When I asked if this was to insure 100% of his gift went where it was needed or if he was merely trying to get me cavity-searched at the airport, Les responded with trademark chuckle and a ‘we’ll just see.’
Treasure in a clay jar.
But here’s the real ‘treasure’ I want you to know.
A week before he died I went to visit Les in the hospital. He was weak, emaciated and slightly disoriented. He smiled when he saw me. Even though he was dying, he still had his death grip handshake. He grabbed my hand and tried to hug me.
The first thing he mentioned was how he’d woken up the previous day to discover Dennis sitting by his bedside.
‘I guess he did teach you a thing or two’ Les spoke no louder than whisper.
I leaned in close to his ear and I said: ‘I told you…I’m the one who taught him everything he knows.’
But Les didn’t laugh. No trademark chuckle. He was very serious with something to say.
He pulled me towards him and with dehydrated lips he said:
‘Can you forgive me for the ugliness I showed you in the past? I reckon I was in the wrong…’
I smiled and said: ‘Ditto.’
‘I still could’ve taken you in a fight,’ he said mouthed hoarsely.
‘Try it old man’ I replied loudly into his ear. His smile quickly became another cough.
And then I prayed for him.
And even though I was the one who traced the sign of the cross on his forehead, he was the minister in that moment.
He was the clay jar, rough in places and beautiful in places, unique with flaws that bore the fingerprints of his maker.
He was the clay jar who knew what treasure he’d been made to be a vessel of.
He was the clay jar taking up the ministry of reconciliation, Christ’s ministry, for himself.
He was the one that knew what truly matters when all is said and done isn’t our flaws and imperfections because we’re all just clay jars.
What matters is what we finally do with this treasure with which we’ve been entrusted.
And that’s the thing about working with clay…clay can be willful to work with, clay can act stubborn in the Maker’s hands.
Sometimes with clay it’s not until the very end of its making that you can finally see the shape its been taking this whole time.