I didn’t want to preach this sermon this morning. The truth is I’ve preached this sermon too many times before. After Columbine. After Aurora. After Newtown. After Charleston. After Orlando. And now after Las Vegas. Where fifty-nine people lost their lives and four hundred and eighty-nine people were injured at the hand of a sniper high overhead. Another day in this country that will go down in historical infamy…a sixty-four year old white man who had way too much money to buy way too many guns fired way too many bullets into a crowd with way too much callous indifference to the value of human life.
Just in these recent weeks we have seen wildfires blaze out of control in the far West. We have seen back to back earthquakes devastate the people of Mexico. We have seen massive hurricanes cause loss of property and electricity and life in Texas and Florida and the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. And those are just the large scale disasters in our corner of the world. On top of all that now we grieve another mass shooting where a gunman not only terrorized concertgoers in Las Vegas but also terrorized and traumatized people like you and me all over our country.
I don’t know about all of you, but it’s been hard for me to bear all the pain and suffering and destruction I’ve seen in recent weeks. Even from what seems like a safe distance, far away here in South Windsor, Connecticut. I am a firm believer in hope and a firm believer in the power of prayer and yet when tragedy and devastation come in waves, I question whether I’m doing enough. I feel like I could be doing more. I wonder where to start…and how…
In his opening monologue in the wake of the Las Vegas shootings, late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel talked passionately and emotionally about those wounded and killed in the Las Vegas city he loves and calls home. Near the end of that monologue, Kimmel offered the following chilling image. “It feels like someone has opened a window into hell.”
Catastrophes everywhere you turn and human beings dying on a large scale in a short period of time. It sounds apocalyptic…like the world is coming to an end. So much so that it’s hard to dismiss out of hand what Jimmy Kimmel was saying. But in this pulpit, in my own version of a Sunday morning monologue, it feels like one of those Sundays where I can’t preach on anything but what happened in Las Vegas one Sunday ago…
This morning’s Scripture lesson tells us about the Apostle Paul who decided centuries ago to write a letter to the church in Corinth. He wanted to tell them all about how they were messing things up. How they were perpetually confusing what was important and what was not really important. How they were preoccupied with class distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, arguing about circumcision and right and wrong foods. How they were squabbling about who was an insider and who was an outsider and how it got so bad they were even bringing lawsuits against each other. So Paul wrote them a letter in order to call them out.
Like any good preacher, Paul took inspiration from Biblical texts in the prophet Jeremiah and the prophet Isaiah, he added some of his own imagination, and he came up with a provocative image to get his point across. “We have this treasure in clay jars.”
According to Paul, we have clay pots as vessels or containers and we also have the stuff in the containers. The problem is we have confused them. The clay jar, which Paul envisions as the church and all that is a part of the church? We think that the clay jar is the real treasure. People in the church dare to think that the extraordinary power belongs to us. We actually think that the little stuff that takes up so much of our time and energy is more crucial than the stuff actually inside the jar. We are a lot like the Corinthian church generations ago.
For Paul, the issue is that we are neglecting the real treasure. The treasure, the stuff inside the clay jars, is the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The reconciling, liberating, saving love of Jesus Christ.
The treasure is forgiveness in a society that rarely expresses remorse and likes to keep a running scorecard of people’s faults and missteps. The treasure is a sense of generosity in a society which thrives on the message that there is always a shortage and we’ll never have enough. The treasure is a commitment to hospitality in a society where too many are inhospitable to all but their own kind. The treasure is justice that protects the fragile and vulnerable in a society where countless people are tangled in a web of injustice. The treasure is the old, old story of the love of God shared with us and to all of God’s creatures.
Meanwhile everything else in the church is merely a clay pot designed to hold and transmit and enact the treasure. The hymnals and the programs. The budgets and the boards. The associations and conferences. The bells and the candles and the curriculum. The ministers and the staff and the church leaders and the youth groups and the church school teachers. All of those things, all the parts of the church we agree and disagree about, all the things we get hung up on in the church. They are all clay pots. And none of them are able to fully contain the truth and the richness of the real treasure.
The Apostle Paul wrote to a church in Corinth that was afflicted and perplexed, persecuted and struck down. A church that was on the edge of being crushed, driven to despair, forsaken and destroyed. A church that, in some ways, resembles the Christian church of today. A church that runs the risk of toppling over when we confuse the clay pot with the treasure.
The church and all the things and all the people in the church are nothing more than a vessel for the good news of the Gospel itself. I wonder, though, whether the Apostle Paul was speaking only to the church. Or was his message more universal, more far-reaching than the confines of the church?
When I look at all that is going on in the world these recent days, Paul’s image of the clay jar resonates. In spite of all the good things going on around us, much of which is understated and underreported, what you and I hold near and dear feels fragile, vulnerable, on the edge ready to teeter over.
Could it be that our society has the clay jar and what’s in the clay jar mixed up? In the wake of Las Vegas, it’s tempting to think that politicians and rules and laws are the treasure. But they are not. It’s enticing to think that social media and the way we communicate with each other is the treasure. But it’s not. We hold up guns and background checks and constitutional amendments and we proclaim that they are the treasure. But they are not. Better treatment for those who have mental illness, as important as it is, is not the treasure.
Churches and governments and laws and leaders and policies and people who try to keep us safe and people who try to piece us back together when we are broken. No matter how much we try to make them the be all and the end all. When everything is said and done, they, we are all fragile, vulnerable clay jars. Especially in the wake of Las Vegas where we have been afflicted, perplexed, persecuted and struck down. Particularly in the wake of Las Vegas where too many of our sisters and brothers have been crushed, driven to despair, forsaken and destroyed.
Like Columbine and Aurora and Newtown and Charleston and Orlando and every other mass shooting we have endured as a society in recent years, Las Vegas reminds us once again what the treasure actually is. And how desperately we need to find the treasure.
Our society needs to refocus on forgiveness that gives human beings second chances and new starts. Reclaim generosity that is based on reaching out beyond ourselves to those in need rather than accumulating more and more for ourselves. Renew hospitality that welcomes with open arms those that look and act and think like we do and those who do not. Restore the kind of justice that protects the least of our sisters and brothers.
And we need to listen again closely to the Good News that Paul offered in this morning’s lesson. Paul states we may be afflicted but we are not crushed. Perplexed but not driven to despair. Persecuted but not forsaken. Struck down but not destroyed. And most of all, Paul tells us “not to lose heart.” You and I and this church and country…we are clay jars, but we know where the treasure lies. It lies in the God who has extraordinary power. And we know how to find the treasure. By remaining steadfast in our resolve to do God’s work here on earth with all the strength we can muster.
I want to close this sermon with a prayer first written by Rev. Matthew Crebbin, the pastor of the Newtown Congregational Church, in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, and updated days ago in the wake of Las Vegas. Please join me in prayer…
Holy God, we pray our sorrow, our anger, our hopelessness. We pray our faith and our doubt.
We pray for the murdered, the injured, the traumatized—each one a unique and precious treasure.
We pray for families and communities forever altered.
We pray for individuals and families in other places who in this moment are being re-traumatized.
We pray for all those around our world who are targets of violence because their beauty as a child of God does not fit somebody else’s definition of what is righteous or pure or worthy of sacred care.
We pray for all who by intent or apathy continue to allow our nation to worship at the altar of the gun—and for those who believe that innocence must forever be offered on that altar for the sake of freedom.
We pray for those who will only offer prayers and nothing else. We pray for those who say it’s too soon to talk about solutions but will always find reasons to avoid the conversation.
We pray for all of us that we might refuse to become further isolated from those with whom we disagree—and choose to live only in theological and political camps that feel safe and reassuring.
We pray for those who think they know all the reasons that things like this happen—and who will soon return to a cocoon of self-righteous certainty.
We pray for those who will become even more captive to the way of fear—and only end up further down the path of death and brokenness.
We pray for shalom…for peace and well-being for everyone—including even those who commit unspeakable acts of violence.
We pray for ourselves that we might not be overwhelmed by “disaster fatigue” even while we remember that we are not called to offer ourselves on the altar of the good by trying to do so much that we destroy the sacredness of our own lives and relationships.
We pray to commit ourselves to be part of the transformation. And then, prayerfully we choose one specific thing that we will do today to reduce violence and create a little more peace on this planet.
And we pray that in our praying we may become a living and breathing prayer that this broken and grieving world so desperately needs. Amen.