“The Week of Two
February 7, 2016
II Corinthians 4:1-11
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
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
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
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
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
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]
persecuted, struck down.
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
So Paul says “We do not lose
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
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
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
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.
Stendahl, Energy for Life, pg. 10.