The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori: Building the New with Old Clay

The Presiding Bishop Preaches at Western New York Diocesan Convention

Lections for a Church Convention

by Katharine Jefferts Schori


Have you ever thought about clay, and what gets made from it? Cathedrals - of stone, stucco, or brick; floor tiles; jugs for wine; pickle crocks; those stunning clay soldiers in Xian, China; even burial urns.

There's a remarkable image in Paul's letter - "we have this treasure in clay jars." It's remembered in the Ash Wednesday litany, "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" and "remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." But it's also the earth from which Adham is created, the earth from which all humanity springs. It's the stardust from which this planet came, echoing the sense of divinity we share. A couple of years ago the Pension Fund's calendar had a cartoon by Jay Sidebotham that showed a priest putting ashes on her parishioners' foreheads, and saying, "remember that you are dust, but a very fine kind of dust."

This treasure we have in clay jars. This treasure, gathered here in mortal flesh, and touched with divinity. This clay is all we have to work with - it is a divine gift, and it becomes holy as we put it to God's purposes - loving God and neighbor, and healing a broken world. This clay is blessed in receiving divine breath, and sent to participate in God's work here in earthy frameworks.

Think about the big uses to which earthly clay gets put. The bricks that make up so many structures around here - churches, homes, factories, stores, cathedrals and courthouses - they are storehouses of community, of justice, and the divine. I'm reminded of an old brick building in the oldest part of the town in Oregon where I spent more than 25 years. A college student bought that tired building 35 years ago, when it was not too far from demolition, and slowly turned it into a business and a home for his family. It came to be called the Old World Deli - with an apartment upstairs, and a deli and a micro-brewery on the ground floor. Besides the vats of beer, there's a kitchen and a big open, brick-floored space, with a host of sturdy wooden tables and chairs, and a stage at one end. People gather there to play music a couple of times a week. Belly dancers practice and entertain on Wednesdays. Political conversations emerge. And on lots of Friday afternoons, at the end of a long week, friends gather to connect and give thanks for the work of the days just past. When I lived there, those friends crossed all sorts of boundaries - many came from the university, with a number of different departments represented: English, math, atmospheric sciences, oceanography, chemistry. One couple were surveyors, some worked in the woods, another made handcrafted wooden toys. One was a Muslim immigrant from north Africa, who taught literature and French at the community college. The community that grew out of that brick box welcomed strangers, who became friends. Holy work went on during those Friday evenings, even if not all were conscious of it.

Holy work like that goes on in brick boxes and clay jars all over this diocese, building communities where God's people come to recognize the divine in each other, blessing and being blessed. The resurrection that's gone on in old industrial cities like this one has a great deal to do with the ability to repurpose old buildings and enliven dying communities.

You do indeed have treasure in clay jars around here. You are about to say farewell to one clay jar, and let that jar migrate south to hotter realms. I don't know quite what happens to clay in all that heat and humidity, but the jar that is Mike and Carol will adapt. Maybe that's why the Lake Wobegon Lutherans were so reluctant to let Pastor Inqvist attend a meeting in Florida in the middle of the winter - they knew that clay jars take on something of their environment, and that they're never quite the same again. Some of the clay rubs off of all of us who've been in this kind of holy communion.

A lot of clay has been rubbed off in this part of New York. The old brick buildings, the empty storefronts and shuttered factories have cried out for renewed spirit for years. Health and life in this church continues to mean searching for new ways to be faithful in changing times. There's something hopeful in places like the Old World Deli, that can bless the beauty of the old and find new ways to bring life into existence. A few years after the renovations started, the owner of that building hired an artist to decorate the walls. He started to paint little scenes, almost cartoons, that showed some of the regulars. You can look up at the ceiling 20 feet over your head and see an image of the guy sitting at a table across the room. After a while, if you keep showing up, you just might see yourself up there.

How do the communities around here begin to reflect the holy clay they're made of? There's a church in San Francisco that on All Saints day has a parade of saints, with banners for all manner of holy folk, some of them sitting right there next to you in the congregation. How does this diocese bless your own clay jars? How do you help make new ones? What saintly jars will you remember tomorrow and Monday?

The new life in this Episcopal Church is coming in places that are something like the Old World Deli - particularly in gathering places that begin to move into intentional community as friends and followers of Jesus. There's one in New York City called St. Lydia's dinner church, where the members come together on Sunday evenings to cook a meal together. That meal becomes a holy container, filled with treasure, as fragile human beings begin to see the holy in each other, and begin to experience the strength of a community of blessing. I'll bet that something similar is happening at Good Shepherd's Elam Jewett Café, run by students of St. Mary's School for the Deaf. Its patrons may come and go, but that café sends blessing out into the world.

Maybe you've been in a Starbucks recently that has a sign painted on the door saying, "take comfort in rituals." Howard Schultz understands something about what makes sacred space - regular use, building community, and sharing food and drink. And the comfort is more than just a soft chair - it's the strength (which is what comfort means) that comes from shared sorrow and joy. Clay jars begin to hold the holy when they're filled with divine breath, and spirit, and then carry that holy breath out into a weary and waiting world.

You've got loads of clay jars - both human-sized and building-sized. The human clay jars around here are filled with blessing, with the light of God's love shining in our hearts. Some of the bigger clay jars are already designated as churches, but a lot more are supposedly "secular" spaces, that can become holy jars when they're populated by more human treasure, gathered to bless.

Our future as Christian community depends on our ability to build new communities from old clay, to find new treasure in unexpected places. It doesn't necessarily mean giving up these beautiful sacred spaces. But it undoubtedly means finding other constructed spaces that become holy when filled with people seeking blessing and becoming blessing. Where will you share the treasure you have within you?

Give thanks for all these clay jars, for those who are leaving, those who remain, and the newly arriving. Bless these human jars made of dust and filled with spirit. Send us out to bless others and find new treasure in our midst.

[Taken with permission from the website of The Episcopal Church.]