For more than a decade, the “treasure in clay jars” passage has been one of my favorites. (See the quote in the sidebar on the righthand side of your screen.) But I haven’t made a clear connection between this passage and the theme of my blog (“blessed by the kindness of my fellow travelers.”)
As I was reading through some earlier articles of mine, I came across this Bible study that I wrote for the Virginia Advocate on the passage assigned by the International Lesson Series for March 29, 2009: Ezekiel 36:22-32. Since I know not all of you are going to click through on the scripture link 😉 here are verses 22-24 to give you an idea of how this passage relates to the passage from 2 Corinthians:
Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. I will sanctify my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, says the Lord God, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes.
The paragraphs below appear by permission, printed just as they were published in the March 2009 issue of the Virginia Advocate. They recount an experience from when I served as one of several teaching assistants to Dr. J. Kameron Carter. Among other duties, we each led at least one section of students in an hour long seminar to complement Dr. Carter’s lectures in Christian Theology at Duke Divinity School.
In class one day, one of the students was unable to contain himself. “I don’t think that we take suffering seriously at all. We are too busy. We always want to move on too quickly, and get on with the ‘more important’ things.”
“You’re right,” I agreed. “Other people’s suffering makes us uncomfortable, and often seems like an interruption. As Christians we are called to be present with others in their suffering. Unfortunately we have a lot of ground to cover today,” and then, with an ironic smile, I added, “So – moving on…”
The class burst into laughter and we did indeed move on. But the student’s anguished plea stayed with me in the days that followed. If I wasn’t willing to dwell with the pain of the students in the learning process, then I was failing to adequately proclaim the gospel in my teaching. Then it came to me – I had often asserted that every theological question we ask is at bottom a pastoral question – here was an opportunity to demonstrate that as a way of attending to my students’ needs.
When the day came for us to meet together as a class again, I was so excited! I was looking forward to what our time together might hold. And then the thought came to me: “Now everyone will see what a wonderful teacher I am.”
Right away I had to laugh at myself. What a sad little clay jar I was, wanting to make it all about me. But, as Paul reminds us, “we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord… this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” (2 Cor, 4:4, NRSV)
The lesson in the end was not a demonstration of my (imagined) extraordinary power, but of God’s: God who inspired the student to care enough to interrupt the lesson, God who kept the student’s complaint ever before me in the days that followed, and God who opened the hearts of all the students to participate in the exercises I prepared with trust and hopefulness. Above all, the lesson focused on the extraordinary power of God’s love for us.
Sometimes the exhilaration of bringing the good news to others can tempt us to forget that the good news is not about us and how wonderful we are – it is about God’s wonderful love for all people.
I am grateful to have been a witness to God at work in and through ordinary events and broken individuals of mixed motives – demonstrations of a tireless love that are not for any one person’s sake, nor even for the sake of any one faith or nation, but for every living creature. How wonderful! How extraordinary!