Well Potted

  • 2 Corinthians 4:5-15
  • Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church, Oak Park, IL
  • Gifts of Women Sunday
  • On the surface, Ashley Smith is not a likely candidate to illustrate and celebrate the gifts of women serving Jesus Christ. She’s no Mother Theresa, Susanna Wesley, Margaret Towner, or Rosa Parks. Ashley’s life story is filled with sketchy details: violence; low education; addiction; a daughter in custody of her aunt. On the chance that we are not quick to judge her, we might take a more compassionate, pity-filled view—she’s an American every-woman, representing everything that can go wrong for women in our country’s lower socio-economic classes. And then, for many of us, we can breath that fabulously condescending sigh of relief—“There but for the grace of God go I…” On the surface, she’s like thousands of other women who we are glad we are not.

    But, a year ago, Ashley made the news, and not because of any of the sketchy details. It was Ashley who single-handedly stopped the 26-hour rampage of Brian Nichols through Atlanta. Nichols, after 17 hours running from the police, murdering 4 people along the way, forced himself into Ashley’s apartment and tied her up. Within 6 hours, Ashley was making him pancakes, telling him about her life and her daughter, reading to him from a Christian best-seller, and something in Nichols must have softened. He let Ashley leave to visit her daughter, she called the police, and Nichols surrendered peacefully.

    Then, a few days later, news outlets found out about the sketchier details of Ashley’s life, and even learned that Ashley had given Nichols some crystal meth that she had in the apartment. It was a great finish to the story—what’s better than revealing that a saint is really sinner? Someone just like us…or even worse. We eat that stuff up.

    And yet, maybe it is those unsavory details that truly make Ashley a candidate for this sort of illustration. Not everyone can be Mother Teresa. But we are all, more or less, like Ashley: a good story on the surface, but real people underneath.

    And in fact, that’s exactly what Christian ministry, the service all Christians are called to, looks like. In 2 Corinthians 4, in a chapter that is bursting with terms like “glory” and “light,” right square in the middle, we are hit with this unremarkable, earthy image: pots of clay. Plain, unglazed, terra cotta gathering dust in a back corner of the garden plot. Plain old pots…filled with treasure.

    God uses people in all of their humanity, in all of their suffering. God uses people who are just plain old pots in the back corner. My friend Joan has had cancer on and off for 15 years, and she did all she could when her pastor introduced her to Carrie who had terminal bone cancer—took her by the hand, took her to a better oncologist, helped her win 2 more years. My colleague Heidi does all she can when she meets another young widow—sometimes just sits and cries. Ashley, in all of her humanity, does all she can for Brian Nichols, makes him pancakes, tells him about her daughter, reads him a little Rick Warren, and offers him some crystal meth.

    In even less remarkable ways, God uses us in all our humanity. When we meet someone, we try to find common ground—a hometown, a common experience, favorite music or sports—and try to forge a relationship through those little, inconsequential details. If the wait in the line at the grocery store gets too long, we might joke a bit and bond with complete strangers, frustrated and bored together in all our humanity. We smile at a stranger on the street, and chat up (sometimes reluctantly) the other passengers on an airplane, share a grin with an irresistible toddler. And none if it, really, is inconsequential. We are who we are for a reason—God made us that way, and God made us to live into our personalities, our history, to live into the cracks and nicks in our pots. And so Ashley eats pancakes with Brian Nichols, and tells him about herself, and he must have heard a little piece there that was about him, something just a little bit redemptive, because a few hours later, he’s waving a white shirt and surrendering to police. Ashley’s life, cracked as it may have been, was a good pot for the word God needed Brian Nichols to hear.

    This should be no surprise. The model for Christian ministry starts with an unremarkable pot—Jesus Christ. I taught high religion school for two years in Garfield Park, and learned many valuable lessons about being a teacher. One of the most important—there is a time and a place for movies in the classroom, and that time and that place are when you are sick of talking to the kids and they are sick of hearing you talk. This often happens right about now, in March. I was, at least, responsible enough to use movies that were related to the course material.

    So my 9th graders in the “Life of Jesus” course were stuck watching excerpts of movies about Jesus, which led to discussions about whether or not the director was accurate in portraying Jesus. Our favorite contrasts were between “Jesus of Nazareth” and “The Gospel According to Matthew.”

    Jesus of Nazareth was too white (in my classroom, the way this was usually expressed was, “Jesus didn’t look like Ms. Schemper!”), he clearly spent way too much time grooming his luxurious hair and beard, and according to a few students each year, he seemed a bit drugged, like he was walking an extra inch off the ground. (We liked Peter in this movie—he was one angry guy, with impressive mood swings.)

    “The Gospel According to Matthew” was another story all together. Black and white, by an Italian director who went out into the countryside and hired peasants for all the parts. After we got through the complaining about the subtitles—I usually got some anger about forcing the students to “read” during a movie—we would get to completely different evaluations of Jesus. He was scruffy, needed to comb his hair and bathe. You could almost smell him from on screen. It was hard to tell which one was Jesus for awhile—he looked like all the other people. He was compassionate to the suffering around him, but that suffering also made him mad. Sometimes he even scared the disciples a little. We all agreed—we’d be a little nervous about following this Jesus. He was too—human.

    In appearance, Jesus was no Brad Pitt (pick your favorite Hollywood-handsome-man here), and he was not really a luminary of any sort. He was just another one of the poor, dirty, undernourished, suffering masses of the time. The kind of guy who we probably would see, and then sigh our relief, “There but for the grace of God go I…” Jesus was an unremarkable pot, gathering dust at the back of the garden. He was the light of the world, but his face did not emit some sort of glowing aura to clue in everyone around him about what that meant.

    In fact, the glory of Jesus Christ did not crack out of that pot in some sort of splendid explosion. Jesus’ glory was in his humanity. His glory was in the day to day suffering he shared with the people around him. His glory was in the anxiety and fear that grew as he walked toward the cross. His glory was in the fact that this Jesus, God incarnate, fully human and fully God, could die. The glory that blossoms forth in the resurrection could not have happened without the death of Jesus.

    This is the glory that is well-potted in our lives as Christians. We are being remade into the image of the Christ, and that glory is the treasure we carry around in clay pots. That glory is based on humanity, lived to its best and fullest in Jesus Christ. Our ministry is not to glaze over the humanity of our lives, not to erase our history, not to ignore our quirks, not to be anything but the best and the fullest that God made us to be, transformed by the work of Holy Spirit. Our ministry is to use that full humanity just as Jesus used his full humanity. Our ministry is to be incarnational—in the flesh, in our own flesh, in the flesh that God made. Christ’s glory is well-potted in the humans God made and loves.

    Everything about who we are becomes important in this work. And here is where the church has often confused things in the past. We can’t stop and think about the gifts of women without recalling this.

    I’ve been fascinated this year as the PC(USA) has spent the year reflecting on several big anniversaries for women in ordained ministry. I did not start the journey to ministry in the Presbyterian Church, but in a small cousin denomination of yours, the Christian Reformed Church. The CRC only started ordaining women as deacons in the 1980s, and as elders and ministers of the word in 1995. They’ve been arguing about it since the mid 1970s—the arguing has not been pretty. Even now, it’s tense—many congregations still refuse to ordain women. Very few are willing to even contemplate calling a woman pastor.

    I am blessed with an extended family that was wholeheartedly supportive of my call. I went to the denomination’s seminary at the tail end of the years when there was blatant resistance to female students by other students. Men occasionally walked out of preaching-lab classes when female students were preaching. There were no female professors when I started there. In 2003 I was the 23rd woman to be ordained in the denomination. There are about 40 female ministers in the denomination now.

    However, it’s hard to find positions in churches. Most of us have been chaplains, teachers, or denominational administrators. Many in these positions are waiting to follow a strong pull toward congregational ministry. I am not famous for the Christian virtue of patience, and about this time last year, I started talking to the presbytery here about becoming a Presbyterian minister. (As of December, I’m one of you!)

    As one of very few women in seminary, I had to learn that my gender was part of the ordinary pot that holds Christ’s glory. That it was OK that I was (stereotypically) more teary than my male classmates. That I had access to women who were hurting and couldn’t talk to male pastors. That I didn’t have to prove my worth by being the best Hebrew scholar in my class or taking more credit hours that anyone else. That God was fully thrilled with me as a woman.

    I have spent the year grateful that Presbyterian women are somewhat beyond this—grateful that female Presbyterian clergy my age are aghast when I tell them some of my seminary horror-stories; grateful that the denomination celebrates women’s gifts without fighting; grateful that women’s gifts for ministry, ordained or not, are celebrated and honored in healthy ways. At the service celebrating women at Fourth last October, I stood in the narthex with my nose pressed against the glass during the sermon, grinning from ear to ear because I was having a vision of the Christian Reformed Church fast-forwarded 40 years or so, and it was a good vision.

    From my perspective, coming in, this ability to celebrate the gifts and ministry of women is a privilege. It is a privilege to be a church that does not still fight and feel pain from a debate over this. But it is also a reminder that we must never forget that God uses our full humanity to bring the glory of Jesus to a world that needs it. God uses our full humanity, and the full humanity of everyone around us, even when that makes us uncomfortable, even when we aren’t sure their clay pot is a good enough vessel for Jesus Christ. We cannot forget that this Jesus who we serve is well-potted in unremarkable human lives, sometimes in ways that surprise us.

    For all the times it has forgotten this, the Church has long said that this idea of incarnation, of God in the flesh, and ministry after that pattern, is what makes us who we are. In the 400s, you could start a riot in a market in Asia Minor by yelling “Mary is the Mother of God.” Debate over who exactly Jesus was had become so fierce in the church that people were fighting it out in the streets. And the one point they could hinge the debate on had to do with Mary. If Jesus was fully human, then he had to have a human mother: Mary. But, if you believed that Jesus at the same time was fully God, then Mary must be the mother of God. By the end of the 400s, church folks from all over had gathered and concluded that it was important for Jesus to be both and so yes, Mary was the mother of God, the God-bearer. Protestants today are often uncomfortable with the phrase, but there it is. Mary, an unremarkable woman, carrying God in her womb, bringing God into the world. Mary as our first model of how to bear the glory of Christ into the world.