Summary: Perhaps our greatest ministry is to unlock the treasure in others. Preached before a seminary audience.
If an intruder broke into my house, there are actually a few furniture items that I might help him carry out to his truck, like the bed and dresser in the guest room. I might suggest that he take not one, but two of the hand-me-down chairs I have accumulated. But if he glanced across the room and noticed the old ugly trunk in the corner, I would ask that he not take it, especially as worn out and homely as it is. What the intruder doesn’t know is what I know about the trunk: it holds some of my “treasures” in life. Folded up in that trunk is a picasso-like chalk drawing that I entered into the county fair one year ( I think I got honorable mention). There is a copy of the Snoopy Herald, a paper I helped edit in middle school. And there are some old letters and other personal belongings. He can have the lamps and tables, and even my TV and the clothes in my closet, but I would rather not he take the trunk because I know that inside that bulky box is a treasure.
I confess up front that I will not be altogether faithful to the precise context of our Scripture reading today. A more fundamentalist Christian might even say that I have committed exegetical terrorism by hijacking the passage to places it never wanted to go. And actually I usually do stay close to the text. But I found a couple phrases in these few verses that captured my attention, and I feel that what I will say is backed up by other parts of the Bible anyhow. So, let’s just relax about the text and let it speak to us where we are at. The word of God is powerful enough to do more for us than we even ask or think.
We know enough about the passage to realize that it concerns the topic of weakness and how we find God’s power in times of affliction. What I couldn’t get out of my mind, though, is the phrase, “We have this treasure in clay jars.” Nothing seems more important in our life of faith than discovering treasure--our own and that of others.
For nearly five years I led a little ministry in a section of Buffalo that is similar, on a much smaller scale, to New York’s Greenwich Village. I was just a teenager when we began that coffeehouse with the name of Jesus For You. A variety of people came into that ministry as we were located right on a major
street of this particular section of the city. Kids came by to make mischief and drunks were always welcome, as long as they were not belligerent. Older folks attended and we all shared holiday meals together and spent our evenings listening to music and having Bible studies.
It was our practice to sometimes pray for people during the worship services we conducted. One day Jimmy came up for prayer. Jimmy was a youth
who seemed to me to be rather lost in life. He skirted about the neighborhood and showed signs of ambition, but I had the sense that he had become
entangled in a lifestyle in which he was being physically used by others. To add to his uniqueness, one of his fingers had some condition to it that made it look like it had not healed properly after being severed at about the half way point.
So Jimmy came forward at Jesus For You during a service and I started to pray for him. And then something strange happened. If you are familiar with
laying hands on others when praying, you know that the standard method demands that the one doing the praying is the one with authority and the one being prayed for humbly awaits a blessing, a revelation, healing, or at least a little hope to make it through another day. Well, what happened was that, when I
was praying for Jimmy, I started to cry. Not loud crying, but embarrassingly noticeable to the group. Somehow I got through it and then fled to the restroom. “Dear Jesus, what was that all about?” I later tried to understand what was going on, but the one thought that makes the most sense to me in retrospect is that, as we prayed, God entered into that holy moment and was saying to Jimmy, “You
are a treasure to me.” At least for that day, Jimmy knew that someone cared about him and was not going to use him, or want anything from him. I was merely a conduit for the grace of God.
Tracing the steps of Jesus in the Gospels, I have the feeling that what was foremost in the mind of Christ was helping people discover the treasure that was within them. Now, I know that there are those who will claim just the opposite and proclaim that the work of Jesus was really about zooming in on sin in people’s lives so that they could be set free. Do you really think the Jimmy’s of this world need lessons about their unworthiness? Some sinners are so hard on themselves that if you called them a sinner they might think it was a compliment!