By The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal
Minister and President, Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ
Delivered June 13, 2015, to the 216th Annual Meeting
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; ....
— 2 Corinthians 4:7-8
God is trusting us to be the treasure. God is trusting you to be the treasure. God is trusting your church—your congregation—to be the treasure.
As preposterous as this may sound – as unjustifiable as this may be – this is where all discipleship begins.
- It begins with Jesus’ call to a rag-tag crew of ordinary people: “Follow me...” (Mark 2:14) Jesus trusts that with all their limitations, with all their foibles, amidst their disagreements and squabbles, Jesus trusts that their witness will not only be sufficient... it will initiate the greatest mass movement the world has ever known.
- It continues when Jesus tells Peter that he is the rock upon which Jesus will build his church. (Matt. 16:7) Yes—Peter—the one whose insecurity and confusion would lead to an outright betrayal – not once, but three times (Matt. 26:70ff) – Jesus trusts Peter to build his church.
- And it continues when Jesus appears to a bloodthirsty Saul as he approaches Damascus. (Acts 9) And defying all logic and expectation, Jesus trusts this infamous persecutor of Jesus’ followers.
Is there anyone here who thinks that the nincompoops we know as the original disciples, or for that matter Peter or Paul – is there anyone here who thinks that they merited Jesus’ trust?
Of course not. Like us, they are clay jars: fragile, easily broken, delicate, vulnerable.
And it is because of these qualities that God trusts them and invests in them God’s extraordinary power. And by receiving God’s power, these hapless disciples courageously initiated such transformation as the world had never seen.
So imagine that their story might become our story. Imagine that we too are invited to live-into the dynamics Paul describes:
- When you know in your bones that God is trusting you, you can be afflicted, but you will not be crushed.
- When you accept that God is counting on you, you can be perplexed, but you will not be driven to despair.
- When you experience the assurance that God has chosen you, you will be sustained through any and all persecution.
- When you are standing up for the justice God calls us to make real, though you may be struck down, you will not be destroyed.
Living, as we are, in a time of deep dislocation... we need to hear this assurance.
What do I mean by dislocation? Let’s begin with the resolutions we’ve considered today:
- mass incarceration;
- violence in the name of religion;
- and a just peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
And then there’s an issue on which our Conference has led the nation—climate change—the most fundamental dislocation humanity has ever faced.
But as church goers and church leaders, we are experiencing dislocation much closer to home:
- New England is perhaps the least religious region in America.
- The experience of church that has given meaning to so many of us seems to be of little interest to others.
- The buildings so many of us associate with our faith have become like millstones around the necks of shrinking congregations.
- And I could go on.
In all these ways and more, we are but clay jars: fragile, easily broken, delicate, vulnerable.
And yet.... And yet in us, God has invested extraordinary power.
- If you’ve been paying attention at this Annual Meeting;
- if you have attend a Super Saturday;
- if you read the weekly eMailing;
- if you click around on our Conference web site;
- if you page through the just-released Annual Report then you have a sense of what I’m talking about!
- Since our last Annual Meeting, almost 1,000 church leaders from 290 churches have attended Super Saturday and returned to their congregation with practical responses, innovative ideas and fresh new motivation to become the church God is calling us to be.
- Since our last Annual Meeting, the Andover and Essex Associations have joined together, and the new Northeast Association had its first Annual Meeting.
- Since our last Annual Meeting, your Mass Conference Board of Directors made history by meeting with the Boards of the Connecticut and Rhode Island Conferences as an affirmation of our inter-dependence.
- Since our last Annual meeting, dozens of our congregations have engaged either the Crossroads program or one of the other Church Enrichment programs which the Conference offers.
But let’s face it – if it’s true that God has invested in us extraordinary power, then we are called:
- to extend the horizon of our hope and
- to make real God’s transformative expectations of love and justice.
Let me give three examples of what this would look like.
Our former Conference Board Chair, Sally Norris, isn’t here today because she and her congregation are busy making God’s love and justice real out on the Cape. Sally is preparing to host a public forum featuring a panel that will include 4 local Police Chiefs and a retired NYPD Captain who has a Ph.D. from Union Theological Seminary. They will address the difficult and painful questions brought on by recent tragic national events and lifted up by the #BlackLivesMatter movement—and they will do this in a way that builds and strengthens positive police-community relations. Sally also leads the Martin Luther King Action Team on the Cape, and this month they are taking a course on “Unlearning Racism” and three police officers from her town are taking the course with them.
Now you can be involved in my second example: come to our National Church Leadership Institute on August 10-13. The Mass Conference UCC is cosponsoring this event with the Center for Progressive Renewal—and it will be held at Andover Newton Theological School. Your Conference staff and I have traveled to Atlanta to attend this event over the past few years, and I guarantee that you will discover ways to enhance the vitality of your congregation as you make real God’s transformative expectations of love and justice. And you’ll get a chance to hear some fabulous speakers!
Now— my third example of extending the horizon of our hope concerns the greatest moral challenge humanity has ever faced – climate change. Last month emergent church leader and author Brian McClaren called for “a national religious uprising on behalf of the planet.” So here is something concrete you can do. Make a commitment to stand up for creation by inviting your pastor to become part of the New Awakening. The “ask” is simple: ask your pastor to preach on climate change sometime in the fall. And if you’re clergy, just make a commitment to do so—even if you’ve already preached on the climate crisis. The New England Regional Environmental Ministries hopes to get at least 70% of all pastors in New England to preach on climate change immediately following the Pope’s address to Congress as the world awaits the Paris climate talks in early December. Our Climate Intern—Patrick Cage—has assembled resource material and additional information which you can find on the Mass Conference web site.
These are but three examples of how we are extending the horizon of our hope.... How we are making real God’s transformative expectations of love and justice. And we could add to them many of the stories we heard earlier in our gathering during the “Treasure in Clay Jars” break-out time.
Jesus calls us to step away from the unexamined conformity, low expectations, and limited hope that accompanies us every day and then he invests in us extraordinary power. Our calling is to receive that power so that the vision articulated in the Gospels will become our expectation.
This is how we write the future... this is how we shape history: by envisioning new possibilities and acting on them as if they were inevitable.1
And we’re able to do that because we know that God trusts us... that God trusts the church. And we are invited to respond to that trust with all our heart, our mind and our strength.
- What new personal story will you begin to live-out today in response to God’s call?
- What new story will your church begin to live-into in the coming year as you respond to God’s call?
- What new story will the Christian church begin to write in response to the imminent collapse of creation, and how will you and your congregation do your part?
- What new creation story will humans join God in authoring to restore the possibility for creation’s vital future?
I know this sounds like a tall order.... especially when we are all too aware that we are like clay jars. And yet – even as we are fragile, easily broken, delicate, and vulnerable – God trusts us to be the treasure. And because God invests in us extraordinary power we can live-into a new story that exceeds what we can imagine. May it be so for each of us and for the churches, hospitals, schools, and all the places where we witness and serve. Amen.
1. This insight comes from Walter Wink’s lectionary meditation “These bones shall live - Living the Word” in
Christian Century Magazine 1994. (Volume and date of issue unavailable).