Sunday, July 26, 2015

Clay Jar Hearts

Some of you may be familiar with the The Ark community founded in France in 1964 by Jean Vanier and Father Thomas Philippe.  The well-known spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, spent the last 10 years of his life at The Ark community in Toronto.  Today, there are 140 independent Ark Communities in 36 countries.  Their mission is to create communities of people with and without mental disabilities sharing their life together, recognizing the mutual need and dignity of every human being created in God’s image.[1]  

One of the founding members of The Ark in Syracuse is a man named Eugene.   Eugene had been institutionalized long enough to loose touch with his family and long enough to feel the sting of dehumanization before coming to The Ark. When he was welcomed there, his paperwork indicated he had an IQ of around 20. He was almost non-verbal and sometimes exhibited extreme mood swings.

It didn’t take long, however, to discover his love for cooking. He liked to bake cookies and was good at watching over the grill when the community cooked out in the yard. He also discovered his affinity for animals and his love of prayer. Eugene was never really comfortable with the large numbers of people at prayer services, but he loved God.

One night at the weekly Tuesday prayer service the theme was “The Ark is impossible.”  The discussion was around the impossibility of living in community, given the challenges that come with relating to one another in all our differences. Near the end of the prayer time the question was asked: “What can we do?” Eugene, who had not said a word during the evening, looked up and said simply, “We need the Holy Spirit.”[2]

The Ark is what the church looks like:  a collection of clay jars, to use St. Paul’s metaphor:  fragile, cracked, not always especially pretty or decorative, but containing inside them a priceless treasure.[3]  This is what St. James has been for 125 years.  A place where people are invited to embrace their mutual vulnerability in Christian community, so that together they can discover and share the power to serve and heal and bless.  It isn’t easy to do this.  In fact, it is impossible.  We’re just clay jars – cracked clay pots – some of us I daresay are even crackpots!  We need the Holy Spirit to slip through the cracks in our clay jar hearts.

Leonard Cohen says it beautifully in his powerful “Anthem”:

The birds they sang
at the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don't dwell on what has passed away
or what is yet to be

Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in. 

We asked for signs
the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed
the marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
of every government --
signs for all to see. 

I can't run no more
with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.

But they've summoned, they've summoned up
a thundercloud
and they're going to hear from me.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

You can add up the parts
but you won't have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee. 

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.[4]

We live in a world consumed with perfection – the perfect body, the perfect lover, the perfect career, the perfect children, the perfect artisanal cocktail – consumed with all that is invulnerable, and superior, and that sets us apart from everybody else.  We settle for being admired or envied if we measure up or pitied if we don’t, when what we really desire is just to love and to be loved as we are, cracks and all.  Accepting the cracks in our clay jar hearts is the doorway that leads us back into the human family.

When we accept our mutual vulnerability, when we realize how desperately we need the Holy Spirit, we can then let go of the project of securing our perfect lives and make our imperfect offering instead.  It is then that we become usable for God, with the courage to read the signs of the times and confront the killers in high places, creating an alternative to a world whose deadly pursuit of perfection makes no room for what is weak, or poor, or simply human.  

We have a practice at St. James of honoring life changes during the Sunday morning liturgy.  When I first came here, I dreaded it!  The idea of people standing up and just sharing whatever was going on in their lives seemed crazy.  "What would they say?  What if it isn’t appropriate or it is embarrassing?"  Then I realized, “Now I know how people must feel when I stand up to preach.” I had to forget my perfect offering.

So, during “life changes” folks share births and anniversaries and new jobs, not to brag but to recognize with gratitude the gifts they have received.  And they share their divorces, and chemotherapy appointments, and their struggles against everyday injustice.  Some days, it can break your clay jar heart right open, but what a treasure you will find inside:  the joy we discover when we place the weakest among us at the center of our community (and on any given day that could be anyone of us); the joy of experiencing how much God delights in our imperfect offering. 

We honor our patron, St. James, today, because he fostered a Christian community that placed its most vulnerable members at the center of its common life.  When Herod Agrippa had James beheaded, it was at the very time that Jesus’ disciples were planning the first international Christian relief effort aimed at providing aid for the victims of a terrible famine in Judea.[5]  James had the courage to respond to the need of others, even if it placed him in conflict with the killers in high places. 

James was willing to make his imperfect offering, because he remembered the words of Jesus, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”[6]

As we learn together to serve one another in our weakness, Christ becomes really present among us.  God became human for our sake in Christ Jesus so that through Christ being formed in us, we could become truly human.  In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “the church is not a religious community of those who revere Christ, but Christ who has taken form among human beings . . . The church’s concern is not religion, but the form of Christ and its taking form among a band of people.”[7] 

The form of Christ is shaped like a servant: a servant-community that gives itself away for others in love, and receives our imperfect offerings with grace. The power of God flows through the cracks in our clay jar hearts.  It is that power that has brought us thus far, and will carry us through the next 125 years and beyond.  We need the Holy Spirit.  So come, come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful people, and enkindle in us the fire of your love.  Amen. 

[3] II Corinthians 4:7.
[5] Acts 11:12-12:3.
[6] Matthew 20:25-28.
[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 205), pp. 96-97.