You might have noticed that there is no sermon title in the bulletin this week. I had a title in mind. I included it in the information I gave to Sandy before I went to Annual Conference. I even did all my study and reading about the passage that Donna read for us. But as the week at Annual Conference progressed, I felt the nudge to go in a different direction. For a planner like me, these nudges which disrupt my plans are always a little disconcerting. But I’ve also learned not to ignore them. So, in the blank where there would normally be a sermon title, I’d like for you to write in “Jars of Clay.”
So, I’d like to back up a few verses from the ones we read. Hear these words of Paul tote Corinthians from verses 5-10: “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”
These verses kept coming to mind as I participated in the West Ohio Annual Conference this past week. Throughout the three and a half days of Conference, all that we did was a reminder of the extraordinary power of God, the light of Jesus Christ and our hope in him, and the fact that God has chosen some very earthly vessels to bear the good news of salvation for all people and to be the means by which the life of Jesus is made visible to the world. And by “life” I mean bot the life Jesus lived and the life he offers.
Annual Conference is an important and exciting part of life in the United Methodist Church. The tradition goes all the way back to John Wesley. Like Paul, Wesley and his preachers traveled throughout the country, preaching and organizing people into small groups. Wesley called his groups “Methodist Societies.” Each year, Wesley would gather his travelling preachers together to confer about the work they had done and their plans for the future as they worked “to spread scriptural holiness across the land.”
Today, all United Methodist churches are part of a geographically defined “Conference.” We are part of the West Ohio Conference. Like Wesley’s preacher, all ordained clergy are members of a conference rather than an individual church, which means that I’m a member of the conference rather than this church or any church I might serve. In addition, each church is represented by one lay member for each pastor who is appointed to their church. Ron Myers is Zion’s lay member. There are also additional lay members representing the districts and various boards and commissions.
Each year, the clergy and lay members of the West Ohio Conference meet at Lakeside for the “Annual Conference.” This year, nearly 2800 people attended, including 1100 clergy and 1300 lay members. The additional 400 or so were non-voting guests, who are welcome at all the worship services and business sessions. At Annual Conference, we do what Wesley’s preachers did (and what we do when we hold our yearly Charge Conference: we worship together, celebrate the year’s successes, take care of necessary administrative tasks, and make decisions about how we can provide the best possible witness to Jesus in the year to come.
As we do, our humanness is on full display—both our strengths and our weaknesses. This year’s conference theme focused on one of those very human weaknesses: fear. Fear that there isn’t enough—enough money, enough time, enough food, enough space, enough security, enough courage, enough grace—to go around. The theme, then, was “Be Not Afraid; There is Enough.” It connected our very human tendency to be fearful with the truth that because of God’s grace, we need not fear. In our world, politicians, media, and business all encourage fear. They promote a world view of scarcity—urging us to grab what we can and hold tight to what’s ours because there might not be enough for everyone, and we don’t want to be left holding an empty bag. But God’s economy is an economy of abundance, and through God’s grace, there is enough for all.
Throughout the conference, we were encouraged not to lose heart. We were reminded of the abundance of God’s grace and that we share the ministry of Paul—that we work in Jesus’ name “so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”
Paul sets up this wonderful duality of God using ordinary, not-terribly-attractive human clay jars to hold the divine treasure of the Gospel. At Annual Conference, each day begins and ends with worship, because worship reminds us of both our human need and love for God, and God’s divine desire to be close to us. Each service has a different focus and flavor that expresses the diversity of God’s people. Gospel and jazz, contemporary songs and traditional hymns, a guitar choir and a bluegrass Gospel Quartet all communicated the same message as the thousands of us sang together: that the God we proclaim is the God who has shone the light of Jesus in our hearts.
The preaching at Annual Conference spoke directly to our humanness—to our weaknesses and our fears. But the sermons also spoke of God’s ability to use even us as witnesses to God’s power in the world. They reminded us to continue to look beyond our day-to-day struggles, our arguments, our differences of opinion, our fears, to do what Paul spoke of: to “look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen.”
Often, we forget to look to the unseen eternal and are held back by the easy-to-see temporary. One sermon based on the feeding of the five thousand brought this point home. We were invited into the imagined thoughts of the disciples when Jesus told them to give the crowd something to eat. Surely they must have thought, “Why do we have to feed them? We don’t have enough for ourselves. If we feed them now, will they keep wanting us to feed them? Will more people come to us for help? Will they take over what little we have?” Those are the same questions we might ask in the face of the needs of our community, our nation, and our world.
Clay jars that they were, the disciples were overwhelmed by the needs of the people on the mountain. The could only see the earthly, temporary need and what they perceived as their own insufficiency. But Jesus was not overwhelmed by the temporary, visible needs of the people around him. Jesus was overwhelmed by God’s love for them. “Through Jesus’ hands,” the preacher said, “the food was blessed. By the disciples’ hands, the crowds were fed.” The extraordinary power of God, poured into the oh-so-earthly disciples then, and into us, the oh-so-earthly disciples now, empowers us to use what we have to meet the needs of a broken and hungry world. We need not be afraid as we offer what we have to Jesus, so that through his blessing we may feed and house, teach and comfort, heal and protect, for there is enough of God’s power and grace and love to go around.
The Church is created by God through the power of the Holy Spirit to be an outpost of the kingdom of God in this world. But it, too, is made of clay, prone to cracks, scratches, and brokenness. This is very apparent as we undertake the business of the Conference. Some of our business is just that: the business of pension and health plans, clergy salary and vacation policies, the budget and apportionments. These matters can and did spark lively and sometimes contentious debate.
But we also make decisions on how we can faithfully witness to the world through our positions on issues of social justice. We discuss and vote on how we can best live as individuals and the church so that the life of Jesus Christ is made visible in and through us. This year we considered how we witness through the investment of our Conference funds. In 2011, after in-depth study by people of diverse viewpoints, the Conference voted to prohibit investment in the stock of Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and General Electric because of how their products were being used militarily against the people of Palestine. This year, the Conference voted overwhelmingly to release our investment bodies from that resolution, reasoning that the those bodies have taken significant steps toward achieving the desired goals of the original resolution.
The Conference also considered a recommendation called “There Is Enough for the Stranger.” This resolution encourages West Ohio churches to support United Methodists who organize to provide assistance to refugees and immigrants. We are also called on to support congregations who exercise their legal right to provide temporary sanctuary to individuals and families who are working to secure their legal status, who are threatened with the separation of children from their parents, or who face life-threatening situations if they are returned to their countries of origin. After some debate and counter-proposals, the resolution passed overwhelmingly.
In his letter, Paul spoke of feeling afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down in body and spirit. Perhaps nowhere are our members currently feeling like Paul than in matters related to human sexuality. People on all sides of the debate might describe themselves as feeling the way Paul did. Although we had no official business related to how the UMC will respond to questions about homosexuality, Bishop Palmer did have us break into small groups for discussion. We were encouraged simply to share our own stories and hopes with people we did not know and might have different opinions and hopes for our church.
In these heartfelt discussions, Paul’s words to the Corinthians were good to remember: he and the other apostles were afflicted in every way, but they were not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” This is the hope that we have, even as we struggle through issues with the potential to divide us.
This is also the hope that shone through a series of presentations called “Fear Less” talks.” Each talk featured personal testimony and witness, both clergy and lay, about topics that cause fear among us and how the love of Christ entered into those situations. One woman spoke of her battle with addiction. Two women, one white and one African American, spoke of their differing experiences of racism. Another pair of speakers spoke about gun violence. And last was the mayor of a small, poor, Appalachian town, ravaged by flood waters, who spoke of how her calls for disaster assistance went unheeded until UMCOR stepped in. All were stories of how God uses clay vessels to bear the good news of healing and reconciliation to the world.
Throughout Annual Conference, I kept thinking of Paul’s words to the Corinthians. We, like all disciples, are pretty imperfect vessels to hold the gift of God’s grace. We aren’t beautiful or elegant, but we are God’s choice to hold the beauty of Jesus’ love. We argue, we disagree, we get angry with each other, but still we are chosen to take the message of salvation and forgiveness to the world. And in spite of our very earthly natures, we can experience the presence of the divine as together we sing, pray, and hear the word of God proclaimed.
In that auditorium of nearly three thousand Christians, we could see both our feet of clay and the glory of God as it poured through our broken places. We can see it here in our own sanctuary. After all, as our guest preacher Rev. Dr. Zan Holmes, whom some of you might remember as the host and narrator of Disciple Bible Study, told us: “Jesus meets us where we are but treats us as if we are where we ought to be, and gives us a crown of future glory which we spend the rest of our lives trying to grow into.” We may be jars of clay, but God has shone in our hearts, so that we might have the light of the knowledge of God’s glory, as we see it in the face of Jesus Christ. Through us, through God’s jars of clay, others will see the power and love of God for what it is—the life of Jesus made visible in our mortal flesh. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young