What's Tony Thinking

My Sermon of May 14th


This is the sermon I preached yesterday at Church of the Crossroads 100th Anniversary service. I mention names of some the saints departed who will not be known to most of you my readers, but you can insert, I’m sure, the names of the saints in the churches you have known. Tony

Treasure in Earthen Vessels

II Corinthians 4: 7

It’s great to be here with you for this celebration. Thank you so much for inviting us! It’s a wonderful moment in the life of Church of the Crossroads.

Looking back to the years we were privileged to be here, I think that too was a wonderful time in the life of this church.

Of course, I was/ we were, young then! Young, and at least in my case, foolish. Youth is overrated. 

When I do think back, the names and faces that come to mind are the elders, or at least people who seemed to me to be “elders” then. Probably many were younger than I am now.

I will take the risk of mentioning some names, inevitably only a small sample of all those who I remember with such affection and who I might mention. There was Elsie Ho with her chuckle. Esther Ho with a raised eyebrow. Richard and Flora Lee, sweethearts, who lived in a little home on a street actually named, “Easy Street” . . . Flora’s mega-watt smile. Masawo and Ayoko Tanaka, Masawo often muttering like the Tom Hanks character in the movie, “A Man Called Otto.” Ayoko steady on. 

Toshie and Toshio Takao — took me a while to remember who was who — but I’ll never forget Toshie’s Emmy-worthy performance at a Church Council retreat, in a parody of the “Joys and Concerns” time during worship. Mits shouting “Bonzai” — three times — over a Sukiyaki dinner in the courtyard. Irwin and Ah Yin Thom . . . after I’d been here a while Irwin approached David Takagi to ask if he might buy me a pair of shoes, as I then — attempting cool — wore only Birkenstocks. 

The soul depth of Betty Suenaga, her grandson, Mark, in tow. And Daisy Akahoshi, fretting about the kitchen in Weaver Hall. Daisy, who would join me early on many a Sunday morning in the sanctuary. As I practiced my sermon, she made sure the chairs in the sanctuary were properly aligned. Katherine and Andy Lind, Andy’s spine so painfully bent . . . his spirit so fierce . . . and Katherine’s wonderful homemade fruit juices. Eleanor and Mr. Horiuchi working away. And watchful over it all, Kikue Takagi. 

The names of the saints of Crossroads go on and on, like the litany of names in the New Testament’s “Letter to the Hebrews,” where an overwhelmed author finally throws up his figurative hands and says . . . “What more should I say? Time fails me to tell of . . .” 

As we remember these saints departed and times past, times wonderful and times challenging, St. Paul reminds us of something crucial for such an occasion in the life of a church. Paul wrote to the  Church in Corinth, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that the transcendent power belongs, not to us, but to God.”

What does Paul mean by “earthen vessels”? Most everything, it turns out. Paul was much aware that he was an earthen vessel, a sinful man redeemed by a not especially gentle incursion of grace, a mortal whom life beat up but never broke. You and I too are earthen vessels, mortals. So too our church buildings, by-laws and budgets. And, yes, our own beloved traditions, ways of doing things, and even your sense of the special identity as Church of the Crossroads. 

The church is an earthen vessel, often beautiful and precious, but not without its chips and cracks. Our cracks remind us of God’s transcendant power. As Leonard Cohen put us, “It’s the cracks that let the light shine through.”

I have a young friend who shared a story from the 100th anniversary of the congregation he serves. For the occasion his church had a very large banner made which hung on the front of their building. It read, “Celebrating 100 Years of Service to Our Community.” Surely reason for celebration. And yet, banks and car dealerships say the same, don’t they?

Several blocks away another church also celebrated it’s 100th. They too hung a banner. That one said, “Celebrating 100 Years of God’s Faithfulness.” 

“They,” said my young friend, “maybe had put the emphasis in the right place.” Not so much on themselves, but on the transcendent power of a holy God, to whom we bear witness, but a power we do not possess or control.

“We have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that the transcendent power belongs not to us, but to God.” Perhaps another way to put Paul’s point: the church is not the star of its own story.

When we step back and look at the bigger picture today, it’s no secret that churches in the U.S. and Western Europe are experiencing a crisis of decline. According to a recent New York Times article between 6,000 and 10,000 churches will close in the U.S. this year. 

Many churches are anxious about their future, their survival. Almost all understand their problem to be one of resources and relevance. Resources — we need more members, more young people, more money, more programs. Or relevance, we have to adapt to today’s culture, or to one of its many tribal sub-cultures. 

I’m not sure that either — more resources, more political relevance — is the answer.  In my experience, those churches that are vital — which is not the same as being big — are those churches where people encounter God, where, with Paul, we experience that transcendent power which belongs not to us but to God.

A year after we came to Crossroads, the congregation undertook it’s first Capital Fund Drive in a long time, to do much needed repairs and maintenance to this Sanctuary. But that campaign was more . . .  it was a sign of hope, of renewal and rebuilding, after some especially hard years. We had, what seemed to us then, an ambitious financial goal, though by today’s standards it wasn’t so much. Still, it was a daunting goal to us.

I remember the night before our big day of sending out people to call on all the members and friends of the congregation and ask for their support. 

That night, panic set in. What in the world were we thinking? There was no way we were going to raise the needed funds from our poor widows, grad students, teachers, social workers and retirees. We felt very earthen, maybe a little cracked. Judy Rantala, who was chairing the campaign, gathered our team together, and did something that wasn’t at that time, all that common at Crossroads. She prayed. Note, she didn’t ask me, the designated pray-er, to pray. Judy herself prayed.

With her characteristic eloquence, and fierce faith, Judy turned us and our anxious hearts to a power not our own, to God. It wasn’t in the end all about us, though we had our part to play. Still, it wasn’t all on us. It was about a power, a grace and a mercy not our own. In those moments, our panic vanished. We were lifted up by a power not our own and we went forth in the strength of that unseen power and in the promise of God with us. 

The future of the church, imperiled as it seems, does not depend on us alone or our own resources. The church is not the star of its own story. We are witnesses to the God of grace, to God’s one way-love in Jesus Christ, for the undeserving, the unloveable, for the lost and for the all those who stand in need of mercy, which is each and every one of us. At it’s best Crossroads has pointed to, and borne witness to God’s grace, God’s mercy and a love, which redeems the lost, heals the broken and restores the fearful to their right minds. 

As you look to the future remember those moments, as when Judy turned us to the power and grace of God. Draw strength and direction from those memories.  As we remember and give thanks for all the beautiful earthen vessels that are part of our experience here, we also know that they each point beyond themselves, to the transcendent power of God’s grace at work in you even now. Amen.

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