Tonight, another group of candidates will be set apart for service. Tonight, each person will take possession of a great treasure – the pure, unadulterated work of ministry on behalf of Jesus Christ. Those commissioned as provisional elders and ordained elders in full connection will have earned another treasure. We call it guaranteed appointments. Because a guaranteed appointment combines the work of ministry with a parsonage, health insurance, pension and salary, it is valued highly. So long as one itinerates, functions at acceptable levels; lifetime employment is guaranteed unless General Conference changes its mind. Surely, hard work, sacrifice and prayer and a distinct call to ministry have brought these candidates to this propitious moment. For that, we give God thanks and praise.
The apostle Paul resonates with the meaning and significance of this Commissioning and Ordination Service. You have this service and the laying on of hands. Paul has a Damascus Road Ordination. A light from heaven lays hands on him. He falls from his horse stone blind. “Why are you persecuting me”, a voice asks? When Saul demands the identity of the speaker, he learns it is Jesus. Friends lead Paul to Damascus. There he fasts and prays till Ananias restores his sight and informs Paul of his call to ministry, namely to be an apostle to the “gentiles, kings, and the people of Israel.” Then the Lord said, “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” How so? Ministry and suffering go together like love and marriage. For the rest of his life, Paul embraces the call “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” in a cross-cultural/cross racial appointment.
TREASURE IN EARTHEN VESSELS
Talking about his ministerial journey, Paul writes in II Corinthians 4:7ff. “We have this treasure in earthen vessels so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power comes from God and does not belong to us.” In other words, a job, minimum salary, service or guaranteed appointments do not fit with Paul’s concept of treasure in earthen vessels. Rather, Paul’s treasure is the ministry of Jesus Christ, nothing more, nothing less.
A story in the gospel of Luke provides an example of treasure in earthen vessels. A rich young ruler decides not to follow Christ. Storing up treasure in heaven is not enough; he wants rewards on earth. Is the young man bereft of gifts for ministry? Not really. The rich young ruler refuses to part with that which he trusts most, his money and possessions. In the process, the young man shows us gifts for ministry we tend to ignore. How so? When the young ruler asks Jesus how he could obtain or inherit eternal life, our Lord admonishes him to “Obey the Ten Commandments.” “Been there, done that, from childhood to adulthood,” he said in so many words.
Get the point. This young guy is a good man. Though filthy rich, he does not commit murder or adultery. He does not steal, lie, cheat or slander others. Honoring his parents and loving the neighbor are part of his daily life. So, the ruler who turns away from Jesus possesses an ethical lifestyle, a spiritual GPS designed to keep him on the straight and narrow. He is a fitting candidate for the ministry of Jesus Christ. Saying yes to Christ totally is the problem. Like some couples who refuse to get married, the rich young ruler cannot make a commitment. He fears the responsibility that it entails. How familiar. The call is there, recognizable, front and center. But Christ wants too much, all not part of him. It’s still true today. Christ wants all not part of you.
Who could say without question that Matthew the tax collector or fishermen like Peter, James and John had inner treasure that Christ could and would use for ministry. Fishing and collecting taxes, they knew. None of them seemed aware that following Christ, itinerating with a leader with no place to lay his head would yield a mother lode of inner treasure from gifts honed in their upbringing or current profession. James was the first disciple to be martyred for Jesus Christ. Who knew James had that kind of temerity. Apparently Matthew and John knew more than fishing and taxes. Church tradition has it that Matthew and John wrote two of the four gospels in the New Testament. Peter, loquacious, impatient, brash and intemperate, became the leader of the disciples and the rock upon which our Lord built the church. Every disciple had treasure in earthen vessels. Such unseen treasure lies buried in the heart of every candidate standing here. It will be resurrected one day. We cannot see your giftedness but God does. Because he was using the wrong set of criteria to decide who should become the second king of Israel, God made a similar point too in 1 Samuel 16:7. Samuel. “God does not look on the outward appearance but on the heart.” You’re treasure in earthen vessels.
TROUBLE IN EARTHEN VESSELS
If we look deeper into the notion of “treasure in earthen vessels,” all is not well. By image and implication, Paul claims we have “trouble in our earthen vessels.” How so? We are fragile like clay pots or clay jars. To use another image, we have feet of clay. According to the apostle Paul, the call to ministry or how we practice our religion does not protect us from sin or “falling short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) One flaw or misstep can thwart the forward progress of the church and/or impacts how people value religion. For that reason, Creflo Dollar backed off a $65 million dollar fundraiser to buy an airplane.
Monday, April 6th, the USA Today printed a picture of a Kenyan student on its front page. He was dressed nice. A votive candle burned in front of him. Its light showed a face and countenance drenched with sadness too deep for words. Over the picture, the caption read “IN KENYA, A SOMBER EASTER SUNDAY.” Christ had risen but 147 people died during Holy Week, most of them students. What was their sin? Witnesses said four gunmen executed these college students based on their religious affiliation. If students were Muslim, they lived; if Christian, they died. Cracks in the religious and /or mental foundation of their executors provided rationale for such a heinous crime.
During the first Easter, religious folk took part in a similar activity. Holy Men, namely the chief priests and scribes; Holy Men steeped in scripture, tradition, reason and experience instigated the trial, persecution and death of the Son of Man and Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus had won the allegiance of the common man. Jesus had become the high priest and the Lamb of God taking away the sins of the world, overcoming evil through sacrificial love and non-violence. Though the chief priests and scribes prided themselves on living the Law to the nth degree, they conspired to kill Jesus with any means necessary. Religion, Commissioning nor Ordination won’t protect us from falling. Both treasure and trouble exist in earthen vessels even the caprice of religion.
Charles Wesley accuses his brother John, the esteemed founder of Methodism, of caprice in Methodism. Needing Bishops to lead the charge of evangelizing America for Christ, John Wesley takes it upon himself to consecrate Thomas Coke a bishop. No church body grants John Wesley that authority. Shocked, Charles Wesley reproves his brother and founder of Methodism with a poem.
“So easily are Bishops made, By man’s or woman’s whims Wesley his hands on Coke has laid But who laid hands on him.”
Be careful how you use your power. In the sixties, social scientists and demonstrators quoted this proverb a lot. “Power corrupts. Absolute power, absolutely. Bishops have the power to make appointments. But if Bishops cannot or will not listen to advice of their Cabinet “Lord help them!” King Uzziah lost his throne over the caprice of religion and power. Uzziah entered the temple with a censer to light candles on the altar. Because he was not empowered to play that role, sixty priests rebuked him. When he ignored their warning, Uzziah was struck down with leprosy. That day, he was removed from office and placed in isolation till his dying day.
April Fool’s Day 2015, Heather Hahn wrote an article on the United Methodist News website. She titled it “What can Christians learn from Judas?” While the lessons we learn about Judas aren’t very flattering, remember Judas was called into ministry by Christ himself.
For example, Rev. Ben Witherington III, New Testament Professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, wondered if Judas’ motive for betrayal was disappointment with Jesus. Instead of overthrowing the Roman government, Jesus intended to die. Our Lord wasn’t the type of Messiah he expected. Beware of disappointment. It can get you off track. Disappointment with salary, a bishop’s appointment, type of church, lack of upward mobility often leads to the desire “to be served not to serve.”
Rev. Sarah Conrad, United Methodist elder and religion instructor at United Methodist-related Huntington College, opined that Judas had a need to instigate the salvific mission of Christ. In short, Judas may have believed that Christ needed his help to get the job done. Not really, Christ just needed disciples who would transform the world in the same way that he exemplified namely self-denial and carrying his cross. To catch a vision of ministry, think of St. Francis of Assisi. His desire is very simple. He prays “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope.” Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy.”
In my mind, Jennifer W. Knust, associate professor at Boston University School of Theology, said it best. Knust urged her readers to revisit the Judas story with this telling insight. “In Judas,” Dr. Knust said, “we recognize our own frailty and our profound faults.” Like Judas, we’ve been called into ministry by Jesus the Christ. Like Judas, we’ve fallen short of the glory of God. Unlike Judas, we know of God’s amazing grace. There is always hope and redemption!! The one whom Christ called Satan ended up as the rock upon which Christ built his church.
TRIUMPH IN EARTHEN VESSELS
Never would Paul use himself as the premier example of treasure, trouble or triumph in earthen vessels. In Philippians, he is all three. Brother Paul stays in ministry despite numerous hardships. For example, the Philippians resent his preaching and leadership. Whenever and wherever possible, they make him suffer. Paul may be their pastor but he is not welcome. Moreover, fights are over Jewish Law abound, who runs the church, the needs of the other congregations, Paul’s frequent absences and sporadic office hours, Disagreements about Jesus Christ and female leadership divide the congregation. Worst of all; lies told by some of the Philippians result in Paul’s arrest and imprisonment. Neither bitter nor discouraged, Paul offers this testimony from prison regarding his suffering and leadership challenges, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)
With the Philippian and the Corinthian church, Paul makes two general confessions. First, whatever the church achieves under his leadership; the power belongs of God. Because of a Christ who strengthens him, Brother Paul can do all things. Second, ministry is full of hardships and heartaches. It can break you. That is why the prophet Isiah cries out from places of deep pain. “Even youths shall faint and grow weary and young men shall fall exhausted but they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.”
We might be scared or put off with ministry if we thought what happened to Paul could happen to us. In II Corinthians 11: 16ff, Paul looked back on some of the hardships in his ministry. Besides multiple shipwrecks on high seas, beatings, and multiple imprisonments, Paul faced dangers from bandits, Gentiles, his own people, in the city, in the wilderness and the constant slander. Many nights and days, he went without sleep, food, water and appropriate clothing for cold and hot weather plus the high stress of serving churches. Even when the apostle begged God three times to remove the thorns in his flesh, God refused. Are we willing to go through such trials? Is that good enough for us?
When we observe the state and temper of ministry today, we might be afraid. Things have changed. Hardships have increased. People in the church question more, complain more, fight more, drop out and church shop more. Churches may pay less, believe less, love less, hope less, and serve less. How does a newbie lead a church fitting this description? For that matter, how can a 20 year Bishop lead a changing, tumultuous church like ours? Ongoing chaos makes retirement look pretty good. But what good is it to be known as a disciple who forsook Christ and his church when the going got tough?
Forty-five years ago, I was introduced to a PPR committee at St. Luke UMC on the Southside of Chicago. They wanted to know my call to ministry, where I had gone to college and seminary and would my wife be involved in the church. Could I help the church be more effective in stewardship and evangelism? Had I grown up in the church? Would I do pastoral visits? Could I preach effectively? Somehow, I managed to answer their questions satisfactorily.
Today, PPR Committees raise numerous concerns about their appointed pastors. To be sure, the question “have you faith in Jesus Christ has not lost its relevancy?” However, PPR committees have been asking hard questions on controversial issues troubling the church. For instance, do you prefer contemporary worship over traditional worship? Will you be participating in demonstrations on public policy, e.g. immigration? What is your position on conceal and carry, global warming, abortion and human sexuality? Will you wear a robe? Depending on a pastor’s response to such questions; the road ahead may be bumpy, rocky, slick and/or smooth. More folk want pastor and pew to be on the same page.
How can one lead at such a time like this? By remembering that the power to do these things belongs to God? Too many sent out leaders lack what they need because they won’t ask for the best help. They’re too busy, too tired, too distracted, too consultant driven, too self-reliant to ask for God’s help. The book of James is right. “We have not because we ask not?” For the sake of ministry, “ask the Savior to help you.” A praying pastor epitomizes treasure in earthen vessels.
Most of this sermon can be summarized in the appointment story of Solomon, the third king of Israel. What happened? His famous father died. And the country was left in Solomon’s hands when he was between the ages of 12-20. His father was a sinner who took another man’s wife and arranged the death of her husband. His father was a saint who wrote and sang “Create in me a clean heart and put a new and right spirit within me.” “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord…” “God is our refuge and strength an ever present help in the time of trouble.”
Convinced that he had neither the gifts nor graces to lead a nation, Solomon assembled all the leaders of Israel and charged them to join him at the temple in Gibeon for worship. Solomon sacrificed a thousand burnt offerings to God on the altar. Then, he prayed like the king and people of Nineveh pleading to be spared from destruction. He prayed like frustrated, barren Hannah begging for a son she’d give back to God. He prayed like Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane pleading for the removal of the bitter cup.
That night, God appeared to Solomon and said, “Ask what I should give you.” So, Solomon asked God for wisdom and knowledge and the will to do the right thing. Impressed, that Solomon did not ask for power, prestige and money or for the death of one of his enemies, God granted Solomon what he asked for and more namely riches, honor and power with one great caveat. Solomon’s life, leadership and kingship had to be committed to doing God’s will. The boy Solomon is proof positive that we have this treasure in earthen vessels so that it made be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
Go forth to serve God. Ask God to help you. And when you begin to perform ministry beyond what you can imagine or think, remember the power belongs to God and none other. As I go to my seat, the words of an old evangelistic hymn come to mind “
All to Jesus, I surrender. All to him I freely give.
I will ever love and trust him, in his presence daily live.
I surrender all, I surrender all. All to thee my blessed Savior.
I surrender all. Amen.