WE DO NOT LOSE HEART
A sermon by Rev. Richard Miller, Minister of Trinity United Church, Montreal, QC. February 22, 2004. 2 Corinthians 3:12 4:2.
Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart.
2 Corinthians 4.1
I remember that it was about 25 years ago when I heard this scripture passage for the first time. Now I may have read it before then I probably did. And I may have even listened to someone else read it I can't say for sure. But I recall very well the occasion when I first really "heard" this scripture; and if I were to root around in my old files, I might even discover the exact date.
I can tell you that the place was Huntington, West Virginia, where I was Minister at Ebenezer United Methodist Church, so that puts it between 1969 and 1974. The guest preacher at the church anniversary that year was the Rev. Cain Felder who today is Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Howard University in Washington, D.C. My heart thrilled as I listened to him read and preach this scripture, and I have regretted many times that I did not tape-record that service.
In verse 1 of chapter 4, St. Paul says, "Having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart," or as some translations put it, "we do not become discouraged." But, you know, I find that from time to time in the church we do become discouraged and lose heart about our various ministries. I can tell you that there are times when I personally become discouraged. In fact, there have been times when I have just about given up and quit. Times when I have felt that surely there was some other way some better way for me to live as a Christian and to serve God than in the ministry of the church. And I have wondered how St. Paul of all people with all the problems and difficulties that he faced how he could be so confident and say, "...we do not lose heart".
And then I have known people in congregations who have lost heart. Christian people have sometimes said to me, "You know, I have tried and tried to be a good neighbour to the person next door, and I never seem to get anywhere." And they have told me that they have put their life into the work of the church, but they are not sure that they would do it again. They have said that this business of Christian discipleship is often a lonely thing and a discouraging thing. They have lost heart.
But then, are we really alone in our ministry? Aren't we part of a fellowship called the church? Are we not members of the body of Christ? Aren't we united with fellow Christians in prayer and praise, in mutual support and upbuilding as we bear one another's burdens? Is not the church that place where we engage together in ministry, so that we are not just isolated and scattered individuals?
Yes, that is what the church is all about, isn't it? But you know and I know that churches can also become discouraged that there are times when even the church of Jesus Christ seems to lose heart. In fact, I have known a number of congregations who at some time have become discouraged. And they have done so for a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes the reason was the Sunday school: the children didn't come. Or they did come and were a problem because the rest of us no longer remembered what it is like to be a child. Sometimes the reason for discouragement was the choir, or the women's group, or the youth organization, or the lack of response to the church's programs by the community or even by the membership. Sometimes a church becomes discouraged because it can't find a minister, or someone to play music, or volunteer leaders. Sometimes dwindling numbers and finances are the causes. Sometimes the loss of heart is caused by dissension among Christian sisters and brothers in the congregation, and still other times it may result from decisions taken by the Presbytery or the General Council.
So then, even as the church, we may become discouraged in this business of Christian discipleship. We may lose heart. We may lose heart to the place that we don't care much any more, and so we sit back and let someone else do it. Then if it doesn't get done or if it doesn't get done right, it is someone else's fault. And so again I ask: With all the discouragement that can be experienced in the church, how on earth can St. Paul say, "We do not lose heart"?
Now there is a clue for us in the text. St. Paul says to the Corinthians that the reason he does not lose heart and the reason they should not lose heart is because they have their ministry by the mercy of God. I believe that what St. Paul is saying to them and to me and to us is this: that unless we understand and believe that the ministry we have is by the mercy of God unless we understand that, we will surely lose heart; we will surely become discouraged; we will surely give up, for the load is heavy and we do not have enough strength to carry it alone.
One reason that some people lose heart is that we are so aware of our own imperfections; and sometimes we are also quite aware of the flaws in other people too. But if we read a few lines later in chapter 4, we find that St. Paul tells us that we have this treasure in earthen vessels or in common clay pots. When you go home, read verses 5 11 of chapter 4, but for now I would like to share with you a story that a colleague told recently at a meeting. It is a story about a Vashti in India, which is the name for a water bearer someone who carries water from the spring or the stream to the house. I think this story has something to say to us when we become discouraged.
"THE CRACKED POT"
A Vashti or water bearer in India had two large pots, each hung on each end of a pole which he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master's house, but the cracked pot arrived only half full. For a full two years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots full of water in his master's house. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfections, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do.
After two years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, it spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream. "I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you." "Why?" asked the bearer. "What are you ashamed of?" I have been able, for these past two years, to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master's house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work and you don't get full value for your efforts," the pot said.
The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot and in his compassion he said, "As we return to the master's house I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path." Indeed, as they went up the hill, the old cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the beautiful wild flowers on the side of the path, and this cheered it some. But at the end of the trail, it still felt bad because it had leaked out half its load, and so again it apologized to the bearer for its failure.
The bearer said to the pot, "Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of the path but not on the other pot's side? That's because I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you've watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master's table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house."
When he finished telling the story, Jim Knapp said that
each of us has our own unique flaws. We're all cracked pots (maybe even crackpots). But if we will allow it, the Lord will use our flaws to grace His Father's table. In God's great economy, nothing goes to waste.
So as we seek ways to minister together and as God calls you to the tasks He has appointed for you, don't be afraid of your flaws. Acknowledge them and allow Him to take advantage of them, and you, too, can be the cause of beauty in His house.
Whenever you and I become discouraged in our Christian walk whenever we lose heart in our ministries of love and service to others, let us remember the story of the cracked pot. It may well be that the things that we find discouraging are creating beautiful flowers in the lives of others, and so we are making wonderful contributions to the Masters house.