Vincent Van Gough’s small dark painting The Potato Peelers revolutionized the art world. The painting depicts a peasant family peeling potatoes; they are grimy and dirty. Their hands are worn and mangled. But if you look closely, you can see the faint trace of halos around them. It was revolutionary because all of the holy people in art were being depicted almost like Greek gods with brightness and brilliant blues and golds all around them. They have huge halos and are either already in heaven or some beautiful garden. But for Van Gough, the holy shined through the dingy and ordinary. He taught us to look in the ordinary and hardships of life for traces of God’s presence.
He created a visual representation that lies at the heart of our scripture lesson. We have a treasure in earthen vessels. God’s grace is here and now. It’s in places that you wouldn’t expect and it’s in people who may not look all that holy—their faults as obvious as a dinged up, chipped earthen vessel. Interestingly, some of the people in my life who have shown me the most about God and grace are also people who have serious flaws.
Take my father for example. On the treasure side of the equation, he was arrested in the early ‘60’s in Mississippi because he refused to stop walking down the street with an African-American friend. He taught me about doing the right thing no matter what it costs. He taught me how to ask questions about faith and to think for myself. I remember him saying, “Come on, you don’t think God is going to send everyone who doesn’t believe like you to hell, do you? What kind of God is that?”
But he’s clearly an earthen vessel side. People ask me if I’m a pastor because my dad is one too. I always smile. No, dad is not a pastor. Not long after the release of the movie American Gigolo, he moved to Las Vegas in hopes of becoming a professional escort. But he was unsuccessful because he looks more like me than like Richard Gere.
The only times he’s been in church the last thirty years is when I was ordained or he came to visit me. He grew up getting abused by nuns in Catholic school and grew to believe that the church was just about hypocrites, rules, judgment and guilt. To him religion is a joke. Over the years he’s been mixed up in his share of seedy businesses to make a buck. Yet somehow, despite his flaws he has taught me more about God than any of my seminary professors taught me.
One day he phoned me out of the blue, “Dave, can you come out next month and bring your preacher crap to do my wedding.”
“Wedding? I didn’t even know you had a date. Last I saw you; you were lonely and thought your life had passed you by.” I resisted the urge to say, “Preacher crap? You mean my robe and stole and Bible? You know I take this seriously, right?”
Dad said, “I met her a month ago, and it just clicked. The wedding is Oct. 23. Please, can you come? It would mean the world to me.”
What could I say? “Uh, dad, I require three premarital counseling sessions.” Of course not. I said, “I’ll be there. Tell me about her.”
“Her name is Loi. She is just three years older than you, Dave. She is Filipino. She has a son, Ivan, who is 13.”
“I’m getting a 13 year old step brother? My kids are older than yours? What are you thinking? You just started getting your social security checks. You didn’t have very much energy for me when I was 13. How are you going to do that?” He said once I meet Loi I’d understand.
“Okay, but why the big rush to get married?”
“There are some immigration issues; no one is fooling anyone here.”
I was really worried about how all this would turn out. Was it just two people using each other? I visited with my friend, Denny, who said, “I’m sure there will be something redemptive in this.” His words helped settle me down. I’ve thought about it a lot. When you go into something you are not sure of, remind yourself that God can redeem any situation. Look for it, expect it. It’s a great way to go through life, expecting redemption.
Everyone needs a little reminder of that now and again. When you are anxious, instead of running all the negative scenarios through your head, believe that God can redeem it. Redemption is deeper than some old cliché about silver linings. It’s about faith that God is still active and working in this world to bring something good out of anything. Maybe you need the reminder, and maybe there is someone that you know right now that needs to hear it from you.
When I met his bride, I told Dad that although he isn’t a church-goer, he should reconsider and thank God every week because there was no way he could have gotten someone like Loi without serious divine intervention.
Dad’s wedding was on the Vegas Strip on a Saturday night in an outdoor Polynesian market area. Because there were thousands of people walking through the area, a velvet rope marked off the area designated for the wedding. As we were waiting for the wedding to begin, I noticed a guy who was hanging around and wearing a bright red jump suit. I knew in an instant that it was Elvis. He just kept hanging around. A bad feeling developed in the pit of my stomach. “Dad, he’s not part of this is he?”
“No. That would be tacky.”
“You had better check.” He asked the wedding coordinator and returned with his chin buried in his chest and I knew I’d be upstaged at this wedding.
“Since he’s in, I’m going to get a picture with him because my red clergy stole matches his jumpsuit exactly.” You would have thought they came for the same dye lot! I made some jokes with Elvis, warming him up. “I go to a church were we worship the King. But I’m not a Preslyterian.” We started talking and soon the impersonator started sharing that things weren’t going well for him. His girlfriend dumped him, he lost some gigs and he was feeling like the world was against him. So, there I was, offering pastoral care to Elvis, right before my dad’s wedding. Was this the redeeming moment?
The wedding coordinator grabbed a microphone and announced that Elvis would now sing. People applauded. Elvis curled his lip, pointed and winked at me. I nearly swooned. He sang the Hawaiian Wedding Song and a hula girl came out with a tiny coconut shell bikini and danced during the processional. Somehow she had just blended into the crowd because many people were wearing grass skirts because Jimmy Buffet was in town for a concert two hotels away. There were lots of grass skirts and fake parrots on people’s shoulders on the other side of the velvet rope.
Then it got weird. Dad snapped pictures of the girl as he walked down the aisle. I thought about how hard I’d always worked to make weddings worshipful and I imagined how my clergy friends would roll their eyes if they saw me presiding over this circus.
The wedding was in this place where anyone on the strip could walk into it. Folks heard Elvis, so they gathered around the velvet ropes and listened. When Elvis finished his song, people applauded which drew an even larger crowd.
I said that we were gathered to witness and bless the joining together Loi and my dad. You would have thought I brought out a box of puppies the way the crowd said, “Aww.” They stuck around for the whole service and the crowd continued to grow. I thought, “I’m preaching to more people on the strip in Sin City than I preached to all year in Iowa.” I started to feel like one of the frontier preachers—taking the Word to the street. I looked up and saw a guy entranced sucking a long straw in drinking a Margarita in a 3 foot glass like a baby sucking on a pacifier.
During the lighting of the unity candle, Elvis sang and I stepped back, looked at the crowd, and noticed that the velvet rope had fallen. I thought of all of those parables about the kingdom being like a wedding feast and the outsiders becoming invited to the inside. I saw my dad lighting a candle, praying for God’s blessing in his marriage. The outsider had become the insider. An image of the kingdom of God broke through. The treasure in the vessel was made plain.
Before the declaration of marriage I said that she was an answer to my prayers for my father and somehow Dad was the answer to prayers of her family and what we were doing was not jumping through a legal hoop to sign a marriage license. We were gathering to thank God for answered prayers and giving the gift of love. Somehow they have made a life together in their own way—they’ve now been married 15 years.
We are all earthen vessels, saint and sinner, simultaneously: thousands of people in Sin City, my dad, you, me, every person who comes through the doors of our church. And how we treat them might make all the difference in the world.
Will we break them? Will they feel judged like the church is against them? Or will they feel the sense of grace that believes, really believes that God is working in their lives, that they are the answers to prayers.
I don’t know about the redeeming moment for my father. But I know this. There is a redeeming moment in this for me. I think I understand in a fuller way now that we are answers to prayers. You are answers to the prayers of the faithful, of the saints that there would be leaders who show grace and love in this world of darkness. We are called to be people who know how to look behind the dirt and the grime to find the halo in dirty people and the treasure in the earthen vessel.
We are called to punch some holes in that darkness of cynicism and despair that has built up around the church by being people of radical grace expanding the wedding party.
Maybe when we do, we are able to look through and see the halos. And how people are called to participate in God’s purposes in the world. There is this treasure in earthen vessels. Look deeper, find it and praise God. Amen.