Saturday, September 5, 2015

Periods and Çommas--What Kind of a Sermon is This?

photo by  James Lee / flickr
Gracie Allen used to say: “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” Have you ever done that? Of course you have. We have all done that. All my life I have been bumping up against something unexpected, something difficult—and I would say: “I can’t do that. I can’t do that.” What I was doing was getting out my pencil and placing a large period after this hard thing. I said no when I should have said yes.

Corinth understood this. They were having a lot of trouble with the commas and periods. Sometimes they did not know which went where. They had a lot of problems. They were surrounded by a pagan culture and it was easy to believe about anything except what they heard on Sundays. They met in somebody’s living room—they were that small. And even though they were small they had a hard time getting along. Some were rich and some were poor and that complicated matters. Some wanted Paul to be their preacher while others wanted Apollos and others Peter. They couldn’t agree on what worship was to be about—the speaking in tongues was a real problem. And if that was not enough there were some sexual problems there that were downright embarrassing. It had taken its toll on that little church. Their numbers were dwindling. People were upset and worried. Some were taking it out on one another. And some were beginning to say: I have had about all of this I can take. I don’t know if there is anything to this faith or Jesus business. Seems like a mess to me. They were just overwhelmed. 

Paul had been their Pastor. He has stayed there longer than any other place he had ministered except Ephesus. He was there for eighteen months and in that time he had grown to love them and know what an important work they did. In a wild seaport town where you could find about anything you wanted—Paul helped them establish this little lighthouse of the gospel. Tiny, but very important. Shining as a beacon of hope in a dark world. 

photo by D Coetzee / flickr
But now they were in trouble. And Paul in Ephesus sat down and wrote First and Second Çorinthians. And running through all those chapters is, I think one shining words: never place a period where God has placed a comma.

So when we come to II Corinthians 4 he was talking about not losing heart. Different translations use different words. Corinth: faint not. Corinth: do not play the coward. Corinth: have no faint-hearted fears. Corinth: never give up. Corinth: do not be despondent. Corinth: do not let anything daunt you. Corinth: do not be discouraged. Do not lose heart is like a parenthesis. He used it at the beginning of this chapter and at the end of chapter four. (16) And in between he gave them a reason they could not stop—they could not put down some period and just walk away.

And this is what he said in verse 7. “We have the treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that his extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”

They were only clay pots. Not what does that mean? Clay pots were really candle holders. Every household had them. No electricity, of course. So the clay pots were small pottery lamps which were cheap and fragile. You could buy them at any shop in Corinth. 

photo by Chris Jones / flickr
And Paul knew that many of them in Corinth were giving up the fight because of the problems in the church. They were putting down a period because things were tough. We sat at a dinner table the other night and a young man said, “I just don’t think I can do this anymore. This church thing. So many Christians I know look down at you and are so mean. I work with some folks that have all these Scripture verses hanging in frames all over their walls and they are some of the most unforgiving people I ever met.” 

I tried to tell him this was not always the case. I tried to tell him he had lost his perspective. I tried to tell him what Paul tried to tell Corinth. We have the treasure in clay jars. That’s the only way it comes. 

Every denomination I know is having difficulties. Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists,
Catholics, even the Baptists. Did you know that—even the Baptists are having trouble? Who would have believed it? The Baptists? Every major faith group is divided and troubled today. And we need to listen closely to what Paul said to another church in a hard time. We have the treasure in a clay pot.

But let’s not just take it out on the church. Let’s look at our own lives. Yours and mine. Paul tried to tell them that humanity is often a burden. Even the saints among us have clay feet. To be human is to have a back that hurts. It is to risk losing a job because you did something wrong. It is to have a bad lab report. It is to have a child to break your heart—or not to be able to have children at all. It is to live in a world where sometimes you wonder if there is going to be any Social Security or anything in your retirement account when you get there. To be human is to suffer and wonder. 

This is the way Paul puts it in verse 8. The next verse. We are afflicted in every way. We are perplexed. We are persecuted. We are struck down. Our outer nature wastes away. And if that were not enough turn to the sixth chapter. And Paul says even the Reverend has experienced: "afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger…” (6.4b-5) To live a life is a hard thing, he says. And the only way it ever comes, this business of living is in a clay pot. A fragile vessel. And sometimes you wonder why the best Christian you knew has suffered so much---remember this. To be human is sometimes a burden.

I like the way Leonard Cohen, the folk singer puts it: “There are cracks, cracks in everything that is how the light shines through.” For down beside the periods we have almost punched into the paper, God comes along and erases them and places a comma. The cracks are where the light shines through.

photo by  Travis / flickr
That’s what Paul was telling all-too-human Corinth and I think himself, too. Any good sermon is one in which you really do preach to yourself. But this is what he said: “We have the treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” 

For after the word clay jars—just cheap little candleholders, Paul had placed a comma. For to be a clay jar is not the end. We have the treasure in a clay jar to show that the extraordinary power belongs to God and not us. 

And what he says to them and to us and don’t get stuck with an-all-too-human denomination or church or just yourself. Life is messy and sometimes embarrassing. We disappoint ourselves and those around us. 

But, as this is the good news. It does not depend on us, thank God. The power belongs to God. Listen to how Paul puts it:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;
    Perplexed, but not driven to despair;
  Persecuted, but not forsaken;
  Struck down, but not destroyed…” 

And let your finger run on down the page and he writes, there toward the end of that chapter. “So we do not lose heart…” Why? “Because we look not at what can be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”(16, 18)
photo by sriram bala / flickr

Let me tell you a story. Several years ago I was Pastor of a church and things were just not working. I was working very hard and nothing seemed to help. I grew very discouraged and thought about just throwing in the towel. It was a hard time in my life.

One of the gifts that came out of that hard time was an invitation to go back to the first little church I had served in Western Kentucky. They had built a new building, changed locations and invited me back for their celebration. When I was there the little white-frame church sat on a county road 54. The new highway bypassed us. And we were in the bottom land and when it rained the water would come all the way up to the top step—flooded the parking lot and we couldn’t have church. Finally, being young and green I proposed to the Deacons one night that we form a Committee to think about relocating since we were in a bad location and water was such a problem. There was dead silence, you would have thought I had lost my mind. Well, I lost that battle. And one day I just moved on—saying this church will never do anything. And now—years later they had moved two miles up the road on a hill on the new highway in a beautiful new building. They were so proud. And as I stood up that morning and looking out at all those beaming faces I wanted to say, “Why didn’t you do this thirty years ago?” But I didn’t.

We had a great time that week-end.  And as I left they gave me a videotape of the last service they had held in that hundred-year old church. Weeks later, back to my hard reality—wondering what I was going to do and felt like I was just spinning my wheels, I put that videotape on.

The last service was a Sunday evening. They gathered that evening in June to tell stories about what
Dawson Baptist Church - Philpot, Ky.
their little church had meant to them. They filled the sanctuary that night. As the tape began little had changed. The video began by showing the tiny, clapboard church. There was the steeple with a bell and the cord they rang every Sunday. As the camera moved inside, you could see the pews the church had bought from another church that never did quite match the décor. At the front were two very large Warm Morning heaters that kept the place too warm or not warm at all. In the gothic shaped windows, bits and pieces of colored glass had been knocked out and replaced through the years by other glass pieces that did not quite match. In the center at the front stood the pulpit with the Bible a mother had given to honor her 21-year-old son had been killed in an automobile accident. On the right was the little Hammond organ Miss Jennie played as slow as you could play. On the left was the spinet piano. Behind the pulpit, centered, was the old, yellowing crocheted framed piece of the Lord’s Prayer that some member had lovingly made seventy-five years before. To the left of the pulpit was the choir on a landing back of the piano.

Different members stood that night and told what had happened to them in that holy space. They remembered their own baptisms in the pond and when their children had been dedicated at the altar. Someone told about their bout with cancer and how the church gathered around them and loved and prayed. They remembered revivals and Vacation Bible Schools and named a couple of Pastors. They spoke of losing jobs and coming together after a long hard week in the fields. They told about how the casseroles had just kept coming when they needed them. Mostly, it was personal stuff. In that little frame church on that side road, they had found something that kept them going through the years.

And as the tape ended, I sat there wiping away the tears. They had taught me a powerful lesson. All the periods I had tried to put down in church through the years hardly mattered. This was God’s thing. And what happened there and in the all-too-human church I had once served was something more than you could see and feel and touch.

This is why I have come all the way from Çlemson. To tell you that this is God’s thing—not just ours. And every time I had taken a pencil and tried to nail down a period—God came along and erased those periods and placed a comma instead.

 The only way I can explain it is this marvelous Scripture that Paul gave Corinth: “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…”(II Cor. 4: 7.-10)

But we can’t stop there. Run your finger down the page to that sixteenth verse. “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory behind all measure, because we look not at what can be seen; what can be seen in temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”(II Cor. 4. 16-18)

Gracie Allen was more right than she knew. “We should never, never place a period where God has placed a comma.” 
photo by Massimo Valiani / flickr

(This sermon will be preached at Tyger River Church, Moore, SC,  September 6, 2015)

--Roger Lovette /

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