Most Sundays at church, when I look around, I notice who is missing, the now empty spaces. When there are far more death notices than birth notices, I would have to be clueless not to wonder if something is dying, that I am losing something that I value, that this place I call “church” might soon collapse. I know this feeling of loss from elsewhere. I knew it in the nearly two decades I spent inside Kodak, the camera company, before it disintegrated. I knew it around a board table where we propped up quarterly earnings with the illusion of performance. I knew it in the deluded bravado of a CEO whose personal narrative simply could not contain the truth of the very real failure. Imminent failure smells like fear. It is oozes fear. It is a raw, contagious, heart-gripping emotion borne of lost employment, lost community, lost familiarity, lost stability, lost sense of place… just loss!
Most of us would not place our experience of ‘business’ and our experience of ‘church’ in the same category, yet each live daily with the potential for both life and decay. Each structure, my church and the businesses that I encounter each week, are but vessels, containers, that hold something that I might treasure. The potential loss of the vessel fuels my fear of that loss, fear of the loss of what it contains. That fear drives me to want to preserve the vessel. The Apostle Paul reminds us “we have this treasure in jars of clay.” Great treasure in cracked pots—do I treasure the vessel or the life it contains? Which is the prize, the form of worship or the Spirit of God?
In 2001, I was in California, working with a team to commercialize the OLED lighting technology that allows us to see pictures on nearly every phone in the world. The technology was invented, and, at that time, owned by Kodak whose images filled generations of photo albums. We wanted to preserve that legacy. In time, the technology was sold to others who brought it to life. As one colleague said recently “no American company would ever invest what was required to bring that technology to fruition.” The treasure was there but the jar was cracked. There are reasons that the jar was cracked but they don’t really matter. What does matter is that the vessel and the life it contains are not the same, and sometimes we need to be reminded they are separate. Remember that as you share precious pictures, it’s the treasure that counts, not the jar of clay! The treasure is the child in the image, not who made the phone!
When Jesus answered the rich young ruler in Mark 10, he told him to go and distribute his wealth. The text recounts that “he went away sorrowful for he was one who owned much property.” Jesus did not instruct him to destroy what he had, merely to re-distribute it, to empty his vessel into many others that were emptier than his. The path to life in our churches is not through treasured endowment funds that will see us through the hard times ahead—a more robust fiscal vessel—the path to life is through the emptying of our treasure into emptier vessels. So, what do we do with our very real fear of loss in our churches? We let it point us to the real treasure, to look past the vessel, to see that we are rich beyond measure with the Good News of Christ that has been entrusted to us to share. It took a bankruptcy to scatter the Kodak technology treasures. Our opportunity is to start giving it away now, before we have none.