Today's uplifting inspirational message “Bent Nails and Clay Pots” by Pastor Scott Carmer.
Bent Nails and Clay Pots
II Corinthians 4:1-12 (The Message)
First United Methodist Church, February 11, 2018
Pastor Scott Carmer
In September of 1994, not too long after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, I led a work team of United Methodists from Indiana and Michigan to Mozhaysk, a city of about 40,000 people one hundred miles or so west of Moscow. We were one team in a whole series of teams which were working to restore a thirteenth century Russian Orthodox monastery so that it could be used again.
On the way home, we had two free days in Moscow. Father Sergei, our host, dropped us off at the only privately owned hotel in the city. He threw a going away banquet for us, said good bye to us, and left. By the way, the Russian words for water and vodka are almost the same. We Midwestern United Methodists were caught between the desire not to insult our host and our inability to keep up with the alcoholic consumption of Russians. We all slept really well that night.
None of us spoke Russian and it caused us a little bit of apprehension. The next day, we wanted to go down to Red Square so we found a map of the subway and somehow made it down there. We just walked into the Kremlin and spent some time in the museums and churches there. We walked across Red Square to this huge mall called the GUM that rivaled any mall in the US. It was in some old historic buildings and was like the Mall of America without the amusement park. Sitting directly across from Lenin’s tomb, I am sure that the old communist is turning in his grave.
I was the holder of the map of the city and so when it was time to get back to our hotel, I led our team off to find the subway. We got hopelessly lost. So I walked up to a police officer with his AK 47 strapped across his chest and asked him if he spoke English. He said, “no.” But with hand gestures and pointing to points on the map, he was able to guide us to the subway stop and get us back to our destination. If it was up to me, we would still be wandering around Moscow.
Over the centuries, the monastery at Mozhaysk had been overrun and occupied by the Poles, by the French under Napoleon, and by the Nazis under Hitler. It had been seized by the Soviets in the early days of their revolution. One night the monks had simply disappeared. Their living quarters were turned into apartments for rural peasants.
There were three churches within the walls of the monastery. As I understand it, during the Soviet period they served as warehouses, small manufacturing facilities, and even a dance hall. It had fallen into incredible disrepair. On the collapse of the Soviet government, they had given the monastery back to the church.
When we arrived, a pastor had been appointed and a small congregation had gathered, but Father Sergei had great plans for future ministry. A number of teams from the US were scheduled to rebuild the facility. We each had our own special task.
Our task was to build a scaffold around the bell tower so that future teams could do the actual repair. This bell tower had stood since the thirteenth century, was over a hundred feet tall, forty feet long on each side, and had walls three feet thick. Our building materials consisted of rough cut timbers, small tree trunks, and used nails.
Any US builder would have been appalled at our project, but we used what we had. Building supplies were in such short supply and so incredibly expensive, that we reused everything. We spent the first hour of each day straightening nails. We would start with a pile of these old bent, nasty nails and attack them with hammers until they were straight enough to use one more time. Amazingly, they worked. I’ve kept some of these nails for a couple of decades now because of what they remind me of the lessons we learned.
The pastor lived with his family outside the walls of the monastery. I remember him saying to me one day when the scaffold could finally be seen from his house, “When I saw the scaffold my heart leaped with joy. God has smiled on Russia because you are here.” Those old bent nails that no builder with any sense would use, became a symbol of God’s grace and love.
Toni has told you that our oldest son Matt is an artist. His college focus was photography, but we have some of his ceramic pieces and even a coat rack that he made in his metal working and welding class.
He has always been an artist, even from his early elementary years. I have a goblet he made for me in the third or fourth grade. It’s pretty crude, but it says “DAD” on the side and is very special to me. I keep it on my bookshelf. It reminds me of what he has become. I look at it and am also reminded of the Apostle Paul.
I always chuckle a bit when I hear folks say that we need to get back to being the church of the New Testament. I always wonder if they have read the New Testament. To say that there were tensions in the church in Corinth is to vastly under report the situation. The Christian church was in its infancy when Paul wrote, and that meant that there were different leaders with different styles and priorities. There were different theologies and expectations. Quarreling and fussing and fighting were common. Trust was sometimes hard to come by.
In the verses we read this morning from chapter 4, Paul is answering some questions about his own authority and practice. He is clear that he didn’t receive his ministry because he went to seminary to get his M.Div. He knew that it was God who had given him the ministry and entrusted him with the churches.
He was being criticized for all sorts of things. They said that he wasn’t a strong enough preacher. They said that he didn’t have a strong presence. They wanted someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger and they got Woody Allen.
But then he hit a high note. Judging by outward appearances, he wasn’t a great prize. He might come off looking like an old clay pot. But he said that what is important is not the pot, but the treasure that is in the pot. The purpose of the pot is not to draw attention to itself but to draw attention to the treasure within. The power is not in the pot. The power is in God and the Spirit through Jesus Christ.
While I was in seminary in Denver, I convinced Toni that we needed a jeep. So we bought one and had a lot of fun in it. (Ask Toni sometime about four wheeling on the Continental Divide while she was eight and a half months pregnant.)
Back in Indiana, we kept it until it we needed to put three car seats in the back seat. The third seat just wouldn’t fit. One of the saddest days of my life was trading in my jeep CJ for a station wagon.
One day, I was in my jeep in downtown Fort Wayne and needed to parallel park in front of the library. It was a really tiny space and I remember that this guy on the sidewalk stopped to watch. He obviously thought there was no way I was going to get into that space. But on my first try, I backed in perfectly. The guy on the sidewalk applauded!
As you get to know me, you will learn that there are a whole lot of times when I am not worthy of applause. There are a whole lot of times when I am not worthy to be entrusted with the incredible message of Christ. There are times when I wonder (and you will wonder too) what Bishop Armstrong was thinking when he ordained me back in 1982.
Too often I will remind you of those old bent nails or the crude chalice my son made me when he was 8 years old. The good news is that despite my weakness, God is strong.
Some years ago on a blistering cold Sunday afternoon in January, Toni and I were coming out of the Hacienda restaurant in Elkhart, our usual after- church restaurant of choice. An older woman was coming across the parking lot loaded down with plastic grocery sacks from the nearby Martins Supermarket. She asked us if we would be able to give her a ride. I asked her which way she was going. She pointed across the river, and I said that we were going in the opposite direction. So she walked off.
Toni and I started home and after a couple of blocks I stopped the car. I asked her how in the world I could call myself a Christian after what I had just done. Sometimes my wife knows that she doesn’t have to beat me up but just stay out of the way because I do a pretty good job of it myself. In her wisdom, she said, “We’re all Christians-in-training.”
So I turned the car around, found the old woman, and we took her home. I finally did the right thing, but it sure took me a long time to do it. This message from Paul is not meant only for preachers. We are all sinners in the process of being saved. We are all Christians-in-training. But the amazing thing is that, despite how bent or misshapen or cracked we might be, the power of God is not dependent on us.
Six weeks ago, we celebrated the most amazing act of God. God chose, out of his own will and love, to pitch his tent in our midst. God chose to leave the glory of heaven and set up a life right here on earth with all of us. This God: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace, the Alpha and the Omega, Yahweh, the Great I AM, Wisdom, suffering servant, the Lion of Judah, the Great High Priest, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. This God made the decision to come down and live with us – we of bent nails and old clay pots.
So I am retired now and I find myself spending a lot of time thinking back on my ministry and contemplating my years in the pastorate. I think about all of the times I messed up. I think of all the times that I just wasn’t very good. I missed stuff. I said the wrong things at the wrong times or the right things at the wrong times. I am embarrassed about some of the really idiotic things I did or said…or didn’t do or say. I preached way too many sermons without putting in the necessary prep time. I sometimes misrepresented the power of God present in the Holy Scriptures. I sometimes failed people who came to me for help. I sometimes took the easy way instead of the right way. I wasn’t always obedient to my supervisors in the faith. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. My messes are almost as plentiful as can be imagined.
But now, I’m sitting in the pews every Sunday and the view has changed. I listen to another preacher every week and am reminded of things that I had forgotten. On September 10, Toni said something that was so very important. It touched me in such a special way that I wrote it down on the front of the bulletin and now I keep it on my desk at home so I can see it. She said, “Our mess is no match for God’s mercy.” Our mess is no match for God’s mercy.
Every one of us sits here bent and misshapen. One of my favorite psalms is the eighth. The psalmist looks around him and asks why God would even pay attention to frail, imperfect human beings. In spite of our messes and mistakes, God has chosen to come to us, to live with us, and to never leave us. I can’t always explain that, but that is where I place my faith. My messes…and yours…are no match for this child born to be our Savior. Thanks be to God.