Weekly Sermon Illustration: Parable

In our blog post every Monday, we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  Here is a reading from the gospel of Matthew: 

Matthew 20:1-16

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

The following excerpt called "Parable" was originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words:

A parable is a small story with a large point. Most of the ones Jesus told have a kind of sad fun about them. The parables of the Crooked Judge (Luke 18:1-8), the Sleepy Friend (Luke 11:5-8), and the Distraught Father (Luke 11:11-13) are really jokes in their way, at least part of whose point seems to be that a silly question deserves a silly answer. In the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), the elder brother's pious pique when the returning Prodigal gets the red-carpet treatment is worthy of Moliere’s Tartuffe, as is the outraged legalism of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) when Johnny-come-lately gets as big a slice of the worm as the early bird. The point of the Unjust Steward is that it’s better to be a resourceful rascal than a saintly schlemiel (Luke 16:1-8) and of the Talents that, spiritually speaking, playing the market will get you further than playing it safe (Matthew 25:14-30). Both the sadness and the fun are at their richest, however, in the parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14:16-24). The “beautiful people” all send in their excuses, of course—their real estate, their livestock, their sex lives—so the host sends his social secretary out into the streets to bring in the poor, the maimed, the blind, the lame. 

Weekly Sermon Illustration: A Path From God

In our blog post every Monday, we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  Here is a reading from the book of Exodus:

Exodus 14:19-30

The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night. Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh's horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, "Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting for them against Egypt." Then the LORD said to Moses, "Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers." So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the LORD tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.

In the following excerpt, Buechner's character Brownie uses the parting of the Red Sea metaphor.  This was originally published in the novel Lion Country and later also in The Book of Bebb:

Brownie said, "I can't talk over the phone, dear. They left just a day after you did, all three of them. I would have left too, but Mr. Bebb asked me to stay and straighten things up here. I've got all their belongings to pack and the house to close, and you wouldn't believe the heat we're having."

"Where did they go, Brownie?" I said. "Was there any trouble, or did everything just blow over?"

Brownie said, "Dear, you never know who's listening. I can tell you this, though. Before they left, they asked me to give you a message."

"Sharon did?" I said.

Brownie said, "No, it wasn't Sharon. It was Mr. Bebb. He said if you called, to tell you to remember how when Moses led his people out of bondage in Egypt, the Lord opened up a path for them right through the Red Sea."

"How could I forget?" I said.

Brownie said, "There are many treasures hidden III Scripture, dear, and many things written that he who runs may read."

"He who runs where?" I said.

Brownie said, "There's never any telling where a man may run to except that even if he takes the wings of the morning and flies to the outermost parts of the sea, he can never run away from the Lord."

"Not even in Texas, I suppose," I said.

Brownie said, "I certainly wouldn't think so, dear."

"Not even in Dallas," I said.

"Not in Dallas and not in Houston either," Brownie said.

I said, "Brownie, I miss you. I miss you all, and I even miss the Salamander Motel. By the way, by mistake I took The Apocryphal New Testament edited by M. R. James home with me in my suitcase. How can I get it back to you?"

Brownie said, "Don't you worry about that. Just keep it until we meet again someday, and that will be time enough."

I said, "I hope we do meet again someday, Brownie. All of us."

Brownie said, "If not in this world, dear, then in a better world to come," and when he hung up, I could see him there with the smile already fading and the sweat stains dark on his shirt as he turned back to the debris of Gospel Faith-the half-filled suitcases, the bulging cartons, and, for all I knew, even the rugs rolled up in the downstairs hall and Lucille's color TV in a crate. Had Brownie, that disentangler of meaning and lover of clarity, resorted to the veiled language of espionage as an act of midsummer madness, I wondered, or did the walls really have ears listening for just the faintest echo of Bebb's footsteps so that the pursuit could begin?.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: See Our Neighbors

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic. 

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  Here is this week's reading from the book of Romans:  

 

Romans 13:8-10 

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet"; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. 

 

The following excerpt was originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words: 

When Jesus comes along saying that the greatest command of all is to love God and to love our neighbor, he too is asking us to pay attention. If we are to love God, we must first stop, look, and listen for him in what is happening around us and inside us. If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces, but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Jesus Saves

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic. 

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  Here is this week's reading from the gospel of Matthew:  

 

Matthew 16:24-25 

Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." 

 

The following excerpt was originally published in The Hungering Dark and later in Secrets in the Dark: 

Maybe Jesus Saves written up there on the cliff or the abutment of the bridge is embarrassing because in one way or another religion in general has become embarrassing: embarrassing to the unreligious man because, although he does not have it anymore, he has never really rooted it out of his soul either, and it still festers there as a kind of reproach; embarrassing to the religious man because, although in one form or another he still does have it, it seldom looks more threadbare or beside the point than when you set it against very much the same kind of seventy-five-mile-per-hour, neon-lit, cluttered, and clamorous world that is represented by the highway that the sign itself looks down upon there. 

And maybe, at a deeper level still, Jesus Saves is embarrassing because if you can hear it at all through your wincing, if any part at all of what it is trying to mean gets through, what it says to everybody who passes by, and most importantly and unforgivably of all of course what it says to you, is that you need to be saved. Rich man, poor man; young man, old man; educated and uneducated; religious and unreligious—the word is in its way an offense to all of them, all of us, because what it says in effect to all of us is, "You have no peace inside your skin. You are not happy, not whole." That is an unpardonable thing to say to a man whether it is true or false, but especially if it is true, because there he is, trying so hard to be happy, all of us are, to find some kind of inner peace and all in all maybe not making too bad a job of it considering the odds, so that what could be worse psychologically, humanly, than to say to him what amounts to "You will never make it. You have not and you will not, at least not without help"? 

And what could be more presumptuous, more absurd, more pathetic, than for some poor fool with a cut-rate brush and a bucket of white paint to claim that the one to give that help is Jesus? If he said God, at least that would be an idea, and if you reject it, it is only an idea that you are rejecting on some kind of intellectual grounds. But by saying "Jesus" he puts it on a level where what you accept or reject is not an idea at all but a person; where what you accept or reject, however dim and far away and disfigured by time is still just barely recognizable as a human face. Because behind the poor fool with his bucket there always stands of course the Prince of Fools himself, blessed be he, in his own way more presumptuous, more absurd and pathetic than anyone has ever managed to be since. 

Jesus Saves.... And the bad thief, the one who according to tradition was strung up on his left, managed to choke out the words that in one form or another men have been choking out ever since whenever they have found themselves crossed up by the world: "Are you the Christ? Then save yourself and us." With the accent on the "us." If you are the savior, whatever that means, then why don't you save us, whatever that involves, save us from whatever it is that crosses us all up before we're done, from the world without and the world within that crosses us all out. Save us from and for and in the midst of the seventy-five-mile-per-hour, neon-lit crisscross of roads that we all travel in this world. And then the good thief, the one on his right, rebuked the bad one for what he had said angrily, and then in effect said it again himself, only not angrily, God knows not angrily—said, "Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power." And finally the words of Jesus's answer, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise," which are words no less crude than the ones trickling down the cliff side, in their way no less presumptuous, absurd, pathetic; words that express no theological idea as an idea, but words that it took a mouth of flesh to say and an ear of flesh to hear. I can imagine that the guards who had been posted there to see that the execution was carried out properly might themselves have felt something like embarrassment and turned away from the sheer lunacy of the scene. 

Such a one as that save me? That one—the spindle-shanked crackpot who thinks he is God's son, bloodshot and drunk with his own torture, no less crossed up, crossed out than any other mother's son. Such a one as that—Jesus, scrawled up there on the concrete among the four-letter words and the names of lovers? Only somehow then, little by little, a deeper secret of the embarrassment begins to show through: not can such a one as that save me, but can such a one as that save me? Because I suspect that at its heart the painful wincing is directed less to the preposterousness of the claim that Jesus saves than it is directed to the preposterousness of the claim that people like ourselves are savable—not that we are such sinners that we do not deserve saving, but that we are so much ourselves, so hopelessly who we are—no better, no worse—that we wonder if it is possible for us to be saved. I suspect the reason why the name "Jesus" embarrasses us when it stands naked is that it inevitably, if only half consciously, recalls to us our own names, our own nakedness. Jesus saves ... whom? Saves Joe, saves Charlie, Ellen, saves me, saves you—just the names without any Mr. or Mrs., without any degrees or titles or Social Security numbers; just who we are, no more, no less. I suspect that it is at our own nakedness that we finally wince.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: The Way He Carries Me

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic. 

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost.  Here is this week's reading from the book of Psalms:  

 

Psalm 138:3 

On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul. 

 

The following excerpt was originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words: 

There must be a God because (a) since the beginning of history the most variegated majority of people have intermittently believed there was; (b) it is hard to consider the vast and complex structure of the universe in general and of the human mind in particular without considering the possibility that they issued from some ultimate source, itself vast, complex, and somehow mindful; (c) built into the very being of even the most primitive man there seems to be a profound psychophysical need or hunger for something like truth, goodness, love, and—under one alias or another—for God himself; and (d) every age and culture has produced mystics who have experienced a Reality beyond reality and have come back using different words and images but obviously and without collusion describing with awed adoration the same Indescribability.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Beautiful and Terrible Things

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic. 

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost.  Here is this week's reading from the book of Romans (from The Message):  

 

Romans 11:32 

In one way or another, God makes sure that we all experience what it means to be outside so that he can personally open the door and welcome us back in. 

 

The following excerpt was originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words: 

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It's for you I created the universe. I love you.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Joseph and His Brothers

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost. Here is this week's reading from the book of Genesis: 

 

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father's wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him. Now his brothers went to pasture their father's flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, "Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them." He answered, "Here I am." So he said to him, "Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me." So he sent him from the valley of Hebron. He came to Shechem,  and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, "What are you seeking?" "I am seeking my brothers," he said; "tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock." The man said, "They have gone away, for I heard them say, 'Let us go to Dothan.'" So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, "Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams." But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, "Let us not take his life." Reuben said to them, "Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him"—­that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, "What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh." And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

 

The following excerpt was originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words:

Joseph's brothers tried to murder him by throwing him into a pit, but if they had ever been brought to trial, they wouldn't have needed Clarence Darrow to get them an acquittal in any court in the land. Not only did Joseph have offensive dreams in which he was Mr. Big and they were all groveling at his feet, but he recounted them in sickening detail at the breakfast table the next morning. He was also his father's pet, and they seethed at the sight of the many-colored coat he flaunted while they were running around in T-shirts and dirty jeans.

After tossing him into the pit, the brothers decided to tell Jacob, their father, that his fair-haired boy had had a fatal tangle with bobcats, and in order to convince him they produced a shirt that they'd dipped in goat's blood. Jacob was convinced, and they didn't even have to worry too much about the lie they'd told him because by the time they got around to telling it, they figured that one way or another it, or something like it, must have come true.

Unknown to them, however, Joseph was rescued from the pit by some traveling salesmen who happened to be passing by and eventually wound up as a slave in Egypt, where he was bought by an army man named Potiphar. He got into trouble over an embarrassing misunderstanding with Potiphar's prehensile wife and did some time in jail for it as a result, but Pharaoh got wind of the fact that he was big on dream interpretations and had him sprung to see what he could do with a couple of wild ones he'd had himself. When Joseph passed with flying colors, Pharaoh promoted him to be head of the Department of Agriculture and eventually his right-hand man.

Years later, Joseph's brothers, who had long since succeeded in putting him out of their minds, turned up in Egypt too, looking for something to eat because they were having a famine back home. Joseph knew who they were right off the bat, but because he was wearing his fancy uniform and speaking Egyptian, they didn't recognize him.

Joseph couldn't resist getting a little of his own back for a while. He pretended he thought they were spies. He gave them some grain to take home, but made one of them stay behind as a hostage. He planted some silverware in their luggage and accused them of copping it. But though with part of himself he was presumably getting a kick out of all this, with another part he was so moved and pleased to be back in touch with his own flesh and blood after so long that every once in a while he had to get out of the room in a hurry so they wouldn't see how choked up he was and discover his true identity.

Finally he'd had enough. He told them who he was, and they all fell into each other's arms and wept. He then invited them to come live with him in Egypt and to bring old Jacob along with them too, who was so delighted to find Joseph alive after all these years that he didn't even seem too upset about the trick that had been played on him with the bloody shirt.

The real moment of truth came, however, when Jacob finally died. Generous and forgiving as Joseph had been, his brothers couldn't avoid the nasty suspicion that once the old man wasn't around anymore to put in a good word for them, Joseph might start thinking again about what it had felt like when they tossed him into that pit and decide to pay them back as they deserved. So they went to see him, fell down on their knees, and begged his pardon.

Joseph's answer rings out like a bell. "Don't be scared. Of course you're pardoned," he said. "Do you think I'm God to grovel before me like that?" In the old days, of course, God was just who he'd rather suspected he was and the dreams in which they groveled were his all-time favorites.

Almost as much as it is the story of how Israel was saved from famine and extinction, it is the story of how Joseph was saved as a human being. It would be interesting to know which of the two achievements cost God the greater effort and which was the one he was prouder of.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: The Gospel as Comedy

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost. Here is this week's reading from the gospel of Matthew: 

 

Matthew 14:13-21

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves." Jesus said to them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish." And he said, "Bring them here to me." Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

 

The following excerpt is from Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale:

Paul was the first one who dared come out with it when he wrote the church at Corinth about the folly of the Gospel and said, "We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and a folly" (1 Cor. 1:23) to everybody else, the comedy of what we preach, in other words: Christ's whole life a kind of comedy. When Christ was born in the darkness of the night, the sky was lit by a multitude of the heavenly host singing him into life with their great hymn. But even the ones who knew about it, even his own mother and brother, seem to have forgotten it soon enough so that when he came to Nazareth sounding like a Messiah, they thought he'd gone off the deep end and started to throw him off the edge of a cliff to demonstrate their point graphically. He galvanized thousands with his miracles—healing and casting out demons and feeding a whole ballpark with his five loaves and two fish—but, like Chinese food, the miracles didn't stick to their ribs so that he might as well have saved his strength for all the lasting good they did. He spoke in words that nobody much seems to have understood, least of all the disciples, and when he spoke of the necessity of his death, even Peter told him he was going too far. At the last meal he ever ate with his friends when the goon squad was already laying for him in the shadows and all Hell was about to break loose, the great confidence with which he says, "Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33) becomes the great confidence of Charlie Chaplin as the little tramp standing there so jaunty and hopeful in his baggy pants and derby hat while the whole world he has overcome threatens to crash down on him like a pail of water balanced on the top of a door. When finally they string him up, they do it for the wrong reasons and string him up as a nationalist revolutionary when the only revolution he is after is a revolution of the human heart and his concern is ultimately for all nations. Even the resurrection has a kind of comedy to it. His closest followers dismiss it out of hand at first as an old wives' tale, and when Mary Magdalen comes upon him in the dim half-light of dawn, she mistakes him for the gardener of all people. The red marks on his hands are where he is holding roses. The trouble he is having with his feet comes from miles of patrolling the gravel walks to pick up gum wrappers with a pointed stick.

"A stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles" (l Cor. 1:23), Paul writes, because it is truth. The folly of preaching Christ crucified, preaching the king who looks like a tramp, the prince of peace who looks like the prince of fools, the lamb of God who ends like something hung up at the butcher's. Dostoevski echoes this when he writes a novel about Christ as a Russian prince and calls it The Idiot. The painter Rouault echoes it when he paints Christ as a clown. The musical Godspell echoes it by rigging him out as if for a three-ring circus in white-face and acrobat's tights. The theologian Kierkegaard echoes it by ringing endless changes on the words "Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest" as the words of the lowly and helpless one who would seem to have least to offer being at the same time the high and mighty one who crazily claims to have most to offer. 

Weekly Sermon Illustration: God's Love

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost.  Here is this week's reading from the book of Romans: 

 

Romans 8:26-39

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered." No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

The following are excerpts from various Buechner books where he describes God's love for us:

We are above all things loved—that is the good news of the gospel—and loved not just the way we turn up on Sundays in our best clothes and on our best behavior and with our best feet forward, but loved as we alone know ourselves to be, the weakest and shabbiest of what we are along with the strongest and gladdest. To come together as people who believe that just maybe this gospel is actually true should be to come together like people who have just won the Irish Sweepstakes. It should have us throwing our arms around each other like people who have just discovered that every single man and woman in those pews is not just another familiar or unfamiliar face but is our long-lost brother and our long-lost sister because despite the fact that we have all walked in different gardens and knelt at different graves, we have all, humanly speaking, come from the same place and are heading out into the same blessed mystery that awaits us all. This is the joy that is so apt to be missing, and missing not just from church but from our own lives—the joy of not just managing to believe at least part of the time that it is true that life is holy, but of actually running into that holiness head-on. [Secrets in the Dark]

But the God who is in Jesus loves no matter what the cost because that is the innermost secret of his nature, and he enjoins all men to do likewise because it is also the innermost secret of theirs. [The Faces of Jesus]

In the long run, whether you call on him or don't call on him, God will be present with you. [originally from Now and Then and later in Listening to Your Life]

I was walking along Central Park South near Columbus Circle at the foot of the park when a middle-aged black woman came toward me going the other way. Just as she passed me, she spoke. What she said was, "Jesus loves you." That is what she said: "Jesus loves you," just like that. She said it in as everyday a voice as if she had been saying good morning, and I was so caught off guard that it wasn't till she was lost in the crowd that I realized what she had said and wondered if I could possibly ever find her again and thank her, if I could ever catch up with her and say, "Yes. If I believe anything worth believing in this whole world, I believe that. He loves me. He loves you. He loves the whole doomed, damned pack of us." [originally from The Clown in the Belfry and later in Secrets in the Dark]

What is both Good and New about the Good News is the wild claim that Jesus did not simply tell us that God loves us even in our wickedness and folly and wants us to love each other the same way and to love him too, but that if we will let him, God will actually bring about this unprecedented transformation of our hearts himself. [originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words]

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Jacob

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost.  Here is this week's reading from the book of Genesis:

 

Genesis 28:10-17

 

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the LORD stood beside him and said, "I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, "Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!" And he was afraid, and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

The following excerpt was originally published Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words:

The book of Genesis makes no attempt to conceal the fact that Jacob was, among other things, a crook. What's more, you get the feeling that whoever wrote up his seamy adventures got a real kick out of them.

Twice he cheated his lame-brained brother, Esau, out of what was coming to him. At least once he took advantage of the blindness of his old father, Isaac, and played him for a sucker. He outdid his double-crossing father-in-law, Laban, by conning him out of most of his livestock and, later on, when Laban was looking the other way, by sneaking off with not only both the man's daughters, but just about everything else that wasn't nailed down including his household gods. Jacob was never satisfied. He wanted the moon, and if he'd ever managed to bilk heaven out of that, he would have been back the next morning for the stars to go with it. But then one day he learned a marvelous lesson in a marvelous and unexpected way.

It happened just after he'd ripped Esau off for the second time and was making his getaway into the hill country to the north. When sunset came and nobody seemed to be after him, he decided that it was safe to camp out for the night and, having left in too much of a hurry to take his bedroll with him, tucked a stone under his head for a pillow and prepared to go to sleep. You might think that what happened next was that he lay there all night bug-eyed as a result of his guilty conscience or, if he did finally manage to drop off, that he was tormented by conscience-stricken dreams, but neither of these was the case. Instead, he dropped off like a baby in a cradle and dreamed the kind of dreams you would have thought were reserved for the high saints.

He dreamed that there was a ladder reaching up to heaven and that there were angels moving up and down it with golden sandals and rainbow-colored wings and that standing somewhere above it was God himself. And the words God spoke in the dream were not the chewing-out you might have expected, but something altogether different. God told Jacob that the land he was lying on was to belong to him and his descendants and that someday his descendants would become a great nation and a great blessing to all the other nations on earth. And as if that wasn't enough, God then added a personal P.S. by saying, "Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go."

It wasn't holy hell that God gave him, in other words, but holy heaven, not to mention the marvelous lesson thrown in for good measure. The lesson was, needless to say, that even for a dyed-in-the-wool, double-barreled con artist like Jacob there are a few things in this world you can't get but can only be given, and one of these things is love in general, and another is the love of God in particular.

Jacob didn't have to climb his ladder to bilk heaven of the moon and the stars, even if that had been possible, because the moon and the stars looked like peanuts compared to what God and the angels were using the ladder to hand down to him for free.

Another part of the lesson was that, luckily for Jacob, God doesn't love people because of who they are, but because of who God is. "It's on the house" is one way of saying it and "It's by grace" is another, just as it was by grace that it was Jacob of all people who became not only the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, but the many-times great-grandfather of Jesus of Nazareth, and just as it was by grace that Jesus of Nazareth was born into this world at all.

Genesis 25:24-28:17