“The Week of Two Pockets”

February 7, 2016


II Corinthians 4:1-11

Luke 9:28-36


At last week’s Democratic Town Hall Meeting in New Hampshire, Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett, of Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire, told the two candidates about Rabbi Simcha Bunim, the eighteenth century Polish rabbi, who taught that every person has to have two pockets, and in each pocket they have to carry a different note. The note in one pocket says the universe was created for me. And in the other pocket the note says I am just dust and ashes.

Rabbi Spira-Savett used this as a preface to a question about ego and humility.

But when I heard this, I thought, “That’s what this week is about.”

Today we start the week of two pockets. We need both pockets. We dare not go into the world with only one. If we do we will wreak havoc on either the world or ourselves—or maybe both.

Ash Wednesday reminds us, as does the note in one pocket, that I am just dust and ashes. We will have a chance to reflect on this much more deeply in a few days. Join us here on Wednesday evening.

And the scripture lessons this morning invite us to first affirm: “The world was created for me.”

Writing to the Corinthians, Paul takes us from the beginning of creation to our lives today, reminding us that the God who said let light shine out of darkness is the Creator who has for all time been intimately involved with the Creation.

Krister Stendahl, the late and beloved dean of Harvard Divinity School, once said: “We cannot know why God created the world. But,” he added, “we can and may speculate, provided we don’t claim certainty for our speculation….One could say that God could have avoided many worries and much pain by remaining in splendid isolation. But there seems to be something at the very heart of God, in God’s very essence, that desires community, desires giving and receiving, desires communication….Perhaps there is more to be learned about God as love already in God’s act of creation.” [i]

Or as someone else put it, the question is not “Who turned on the lights?” but “Whatever for?”

And the answer may very well be, “For love.”

We, the creatures of this earth, find ourselves embraced by the love of the Creator—who brought all things into existence that we—each one of us—might live in love. And this same God calls us to love one another and to love this creation. This vast creation was made for us; that in it we might know and share love.

To all appearances, Paul was nothing more than an earthen vessel, a cheap clay pot—by extension, so, too, are we. And yet, in Paul’s time precious objects were regularly kept in such pots. So he tells us that here in our flesh is something of great value.[ii]

Paul even went so far as to write elsewhere that the human body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Think about that: our bodies are the place where God dwells. In faith we proclaim the Christmas message that the God took on human flesh in Jesus. Paul pushes that image and discovers God’s Spirit in each one of us—earthen vessels holding a treasure. Something like glory—something like the light of God, something like the image of God—fills our lives. That is to say that the Christian life is very much about love.

The treasure that we hold, Paul claims, is “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Each one of us carries this treasure beyond price.

What we see in Jesus is the very light of God. And when we see Jesus transfigured on a mountain top, shining with glory, we catch a glimpse of our own present and future as well. Yes, you and I, we’re just clay pots—but what a shining treasure is found inside!

And we are called to let that light shine through our actions in the world.

Which, of course, is where the problems arise.

We are clay pots—human beings, made of the earth. We are fragile, easily broken, easily damaged.

The catalogue of human woes that Paul lists continues to be our own, doesn’t it: afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down. We might use other terms to describe the anxieties and problems that come to us, both simply from the general human condition and because we try to live as Christians.

We are profoundly perplexed when we try to apply our values to the problems of the modern world: Does feeding the hungry lead to empowerment of further helplessness? Will “boots on the ground” defeat ISIS or only make it more resilient?

We are not persecuted, but many know the looks, the questions that come when someone discovers that you harbor faith commitments, that you are member of a church.

And we know the quick ways our own thoughts can “strike down” the impulse to be kind, to show compassion.

Still, we have the hope that while we are clay pots, God’s power is made perfect in our weakness and fragility. That power is there with us to balance every outside circumstance and every interior thought that would hold us back. The promise is not that our troubles will pass away with time or that they only appear to be troubles, or that a way out of them will eventually be found. The troubles we face are real and some may never disappear—yet the power of God is there to bring us through them.

Walter Levine is Connecticut businessman. He was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and given a prognosis of having only three days to live. And yet, through medical care, self-determination, the support and love of his family and friends, and prayer he did live.

I don’t tell this to suggest those who don’t survive did not do all they could. It’s Levine’s assessment of his situation that struck me: “God” he says, “is a merciful God, but life isn’t merciful. In life, you’re put through tests. To live, to succeed, and to do God’s will involves both persistency and surrender. Only to know God’s power is not enough. In order to do the will of God, we must be in motion if God is to guide us. Whatever God wants to accomplish for us, God does through us, not for us.”[iii]

Afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down.

Clay pots.

Like Paul, we carry the death of Jesus in our bodies so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. Physical problems often serve as everyday reminders of Christ’s death and our association with it. Joy and delight, forgiveness and reconciliation are windows onto the resurrection making its way into our bodily existence.

So Paul says “We do not lose heart.” 

Because we look in faith toward that time when God’s will is done on this earth as it is in heaven, our lives and what we do with them, how we live in the years we have—are of great and lasting significance. As the Anglican bishop and biblical scholar, N.T. Wright, famously put it: “What is done to the glory of God in the present is genuinely building for God’s future. Acts of justice and mercy, the creation of beauty and the celebration of truth, deeds of love and the creation of communities of kindness and forgiveness—these all matter, and they matter forever.”

And somewhere you knew this before you came here today.  You did not come here this morning to be told to be an idle spectator. You came because you sense your ability and want to use it. You came here because you sensed that your life does hold a treasure, even if it is encased in a very shabby clay pot. You came here because you wanted to hear again the good news that there is a powerful and forgiving love that will sustain you through all the discouragement and opposition and failure as you act in the world.

And that is just what I am telling you.

This is the encouragement of the good news: Do not lose heart. Do not quit the good and valuable work that you are doing. While it may feel like it at times, especially at times like these, what you are doing here matters.

What we are doing is of value in God’s now and in God’s eternity.

What God is doing in our world and in our lives is neither easily apprehended nor easily described.

In faith we believe certain things about our lives and this universe: that God is present in the depths of human suffering; that God is made known to us in weakness, anguish, and despair as much as—if not more than—in victory and strength. We have a confident faith—or a doubting, struggling faith—that God is making something new even in the midst of everything that would tempt us to give up.

So we begin this week hearing the note kept in one pocket—the world was created for me. That, of course, is not the whole story. There is, as the rabbi told us, another pocket. But reading that note is for later in the week.

And really, we need both notes every week, every day, every hour.

But for right now, remember: the world was created for you. Remember that and give thanks to God for the great treasure that you have, the great treasure that you are.

[i] Krister Stendahl, Energy for Life, pg. 10.

[ii] Page: 1
See discussion in Interpretation commentary on II Corinthians.

[iii] Inspired.