Sunday, February 28, 2010

These Broken Clay Jars

Sermon, February 28, 2010
by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Readings:
Psalm 27 and 2 Corinthians 4:6-12

This has been a week of many contradictions, at least for me.  We have had snow and sunshine and slush. My children’s schools were closed again for a day and a half, and while I enjoy the time at home with them, unexpected snow days fill me with restlessness and impatience for all of the things I feel I should be doing (not to mention all of the things I would like to be doing).  For me, at least, this has been a week of tremendous ups and downs, good news mixed with bad, and I have felt out of sync with the rest of the world. Perhaps this happens to you sometimes?

This week brought me delightful news at precisely the moment that I was hearing about the earthquake in Chile and that it is raining in Haiti.  At the moment when I was dancing in the street, good friends of mine were grieving the serious illness of their beloved cat. It has been difficult this week, as I have felt out of sync, to know when to celebrate and when to mourn, how much of myself to expose to the world, and how much to keep still in the depths of my being.  Perhaps this happens to you sometimes?

Chinua Achebe wrote a magnificent novel, Things Fall Apart, the story of an African man named Okonkwo. As the story goes along, the modern world is encroaching upon Okonwo’s village, and the white man’s missionary ways are beginning to alter family relations and tribal customs. Okonkwo finds his world changing on him at a rapidly increasing pace, and the story follows the tragedy of this life he cannot control, cannot contain. Like the psalmist sings in our psalm today, Okonkwo began to breathe violence. Achebe opened this novel with a portion of a poem by W. B. Yeats, "The Second Coming":
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. (1)
I was reminded this week by a friend that when the voices of this world overwhelm us, when the voices of our hearts will not stop crying out, when the contradictions threaten to tear us apart, that it becomes necessary to return to spiritual practices as a way of grounding ourselves. And I was reminded by her words that it is the second week of Lent, and I have not yet chosen a spiritual practice to participate in for this season of 40 days before Easter.

I believe that if and when I get to heaven, it will be a place where everybody is always late. Or more precisely that it will be a place where time has little meaning, and one is able to simply exist and move with the Spirit as it blows. But this is not the world we live in, and so I am 2 weeks late now in committing to a spiritual practice for Lent. Perhaps this happens to you sometimes?

It came to me, after reading my friend’s e-mail, that in the past I have read through the psalter as a spiritual practice, and that this has brought me great peace. So I invite you to do the same. There is great comfort to be found in the psalms for they express the whole range of human emotion—both the good and the bad, the joy and the sorrow, the peace and the rage.  Today’s psalm is #27, and I was struck by this portion of the psalm:
One thing I asked of the Lord; that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.
A friend told me yesterday that he was very angry with God,. “How can I praise God and sing praises, when I see such pain. What would I be praising God for? For what??” And I have come know for myself that it is difficult in times of sorrow and pain and anger to honor God with sweet songs of praise.  I have come to believe that faithfulness in such times consists of living one more day.  Faithfulness in such times consists of drawing in breath and exhaling. Faithfulness, when things fall apart, means asking the questions of God—inquiring in the temple, seeking after God, even if you do not expect or find a satisfactory answer. And so I go back to the psalms in these times, matching my prayers with those who have sought after God before me, knowing that the answers do not always come, but also that I am not alone in my questions.

In her book, This Blessed Mess, Patricia Livingston writes deftly of how life turns from order to chaos as one travels through. In her opening chapter she says this:
Growing up, we lived adhering to schedules. Sheets were changed on every bed each Monday. Mattresses were turned once a month...Meals were eaten at about the same time every day, and dishes were always done right after the final plates were cleared. There were schedules for when the windows were washed, the shutters repainted, and the closets cleaned...
She wrote more about life lived in an orderly way as a child and then:
     College followed graduation, then I married very young, to a newly graduated West Point officer. Soon thereafter things stopped proceeding in an orderly fashion. Chaos began creeping in.
     As a new Army couple we endured the upheaval of moving about once a year...Babies were born one after the other, all of them born weeks overdue, none of them sleeping through the night until they were at least two years old.
     Laundry seemed to breed and multiply in the hamper until the only space not filled with clothes to be washed was filled with dishes to be done or toys to be put away...
Livingston paints a picture of how life slips beyond the careful bounds we try to set upon it, how children and loved ones act out in their own ways with their own lives, and:
     Little by little I was forced to let go of my notion of an orderly universe. At least any life I was able to manage was not tranquil and on schedule. What was expected often did not happen; what was dreaded often did. Most unimaginable of all, after thirteen years, there was a divorce.
     If anyone had told me, standing on the long green lawn of the academy, in my white organdy graduation dress with my blue ribbon and laurel wreath, that I would be divorced from the father of my children, I would have simply said: “You are totally mistaken.” (2)
Go read this book, for in the midst of the chaos that her life became, Livingston found glimpses of God.

I brought this morning this clay pot, and I think I’ve brought it before. As you can see, it is broken into pieces and glued back together. It was an art project for a class on art and spirituality. Our facilitator gave us unbroken clay pots and a hammer and told us to break the pot. She said to do it very gently, otherwise some of the pieces would disintegrate into dust. And indeed, some of the pieces did disintegrate, while others simply refused to be glued back together. On my pot, the entire bottom fell out, and no matter how carefully and tediously I glued those pieces back together, they refused to stay. So I threw them out. There are places on this pot that have since broken again, and I didn’t have the right kind of glue. It is covered with scriptures that have deep meaning for me. I burned a poem on the inside so there is ash. Next to the leftover unbroken pots, our broken clay pots were stunning in their flawed beauty. Cracked and broken, our clay pots are made to leak God’s light that is stored within us. Over time, there are pieces of our lives that will never go back together, that will need to be left out. Chipped and cracked, our bodies and souls show the wear and tear of life, and through those cracks shines God’s love and light.

I have been reaching back today, to things in my past. Hymns we sang in my long ago church, books I read some time ago. I’ll close with a little bit from Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow. He writes about the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky. It was a farming town, a small, rural town. He writes beautifully of the change that came over such towns in the last century or so, the change from small farming close to the land to commercial farming with machinery. This particular story is the tale of the town’s barber, Jayber Crow, a man who watched the comings and goings of that town for some 50 years or so. At the end of the novel, Jayber tells a story of an imagined friend: the Man in the Well. He tells the story better than I, so go here to find it.

The Man in the story falls into a deep well, and Jayber leaves us wondering if the man will ever get out of that well.  He says this: is not necessarily, or not soon, a resting place. Faith puts you out on a wide river in a  little boat, in the fog, in the dark. Even a man of faith knows that (as Burley Coulter used to say) we’ve all got to go through enough to kill us...
     Listen. There is a light that includes our darkness, a day that shines down even on the clouds. A man of faith believes that the Man in the Well is not lost. he does not believe this easily or without pain, but he believes it. (3)
And so it is that the apostle Paul says to us these words about that light:
It is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 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; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.
God’s light leaks through the cracks of these broken clay jars. Amen.

(1) W.B. Yeats "The Second Coming" as quoted by Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (NY: Anchor Books, 1959), preface.

(2) Patricia Livingston, This Blessed Mess: Finding Hope Amidst Life's Chaos (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2000), 14-16.

(3) Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow: A Novel (New York: Counterpoint, 2000), 356-357.


  1. Thanks Katie. I am "late for Lent" this week as well. Can't seem to get focused on much outside of my own inner restlessness.

    The Wendell Berry thoughts hit home.

    I think I'd like to make my own "cracked pot" and see what light leaks through.

    And I most definiteky agree. In the midst of chaos is where I seem to find God the most. Well, actually, I guess I should say God is there all along. The chaos illuminates my need for God's presence.

  2. And oh yeah, and awesome sermon!