Weekly Sermon Illustration: Covenant

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 Twenty-Sixth Sunday After Pentecost. Here is this week’s reading from the book of Hebrews:

Hebrews 10:11-22

Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:

“This is the covenant I will make with them
after that time, says the Lord.
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds.”

Then he adds:

“Their sins and lawless acts
I will remember no more.”

And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary. Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.

 Here are Buechner’s thoughts about the Old and New Covenants, first published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words.

 OLD TESTAMENT means "Old Covenant,” which means the old agreement that was arrived at between God and Israel at Mt. Sinai with Moses presiding. "I shall be your God and you shall be my people" (Leviticus 26:12) sums it up—that is, if you obey God's commandments, God will love you.

New Testament means "New Covenant,” which means the new agreement that was arrived at by God alone in an upstairs room in Jerusalem with Jesus presiding. Jesus sums it up by raising his wine and saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood" (1 Corinthians 11:25).

Like Moses, Jesus believed that if you obey God, God will love you, but here he is saying something beyond that. He is saying if you don't obey God, that doesn't mean that God won't love you. It means simply that God's love becomes a suffering love: a love that suffers because it is not reciprocated, a love that suffers because we who are loved suffer and suffer precisely in our failure to reciprocate. By giving us the cup to drink, Jesus is saying that in loving us God "bleeds" for us—not "even though" we don't give a damn, but precisely because we don't. God keeps his part of the covenant whether we keep our part or not; it's just that one way costs him more.

This idea that God loves people whether or not they give a damn isn't new. In the Old Testament book of Hosea, for instance, the prophet portrays God as lashing out at the Israelites for their disobedience and saying that by all rights they should be wiped off the face of the earth, but then adding, "How can I hand you over, O Israel? ... My heart recoils within me.... I will not execute my fierce anger ... for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come to destroy" (Hosea 11:8-9).

What is new about the New Covenant, therefore, is not the idea that God loves the world enough to bleed for it, but the claim that here he is actually putting his money where his mouth is. Like a father saying about his sick child, ''I'd do anything to make you well,” God finally calls his own bluff and does it. Jesus Christ is what God does, and the cross where God did it is the central symbol of New Covenant faith.

So what? Does the suffering of the father for the sick child make the sick child well? In the last analysis, we each have to answer for ourselves.

Like the elderly Christ Church don who was heard muttering over his chop at high table, "This mutton is as hard to swallow as the Lamb of God;' there are some who find the whole idea simply unswallowable—just the idea of God, let alone the idea of God in Christ submitting to the cross for love's sake. Yet down through the centuries there have been others—good ones and bad ones, bright ones and stupid ones—who with varying degrees of difficulty have been able to swallow it and have claimed that what they swallowed made the difference between life and death.

Such people would also tend to claim that, whereas to respond to the Old Covenant is to become righteous, to respond to the New Covenant is to become new. The proof, they might add, is in the pudding.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Ruth

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 Twenty-Fifth Sunday After Pentecost.  Here is this week’s reading from the book of Ruth:

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17

Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, "My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do." She said to her, "All that you tell me I will do." So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the LORD made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, "Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him." Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, "A son has been born to Naomi." They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.

Here is Buechner’s synopsis of the story of Ruth, first published in Peculiar Treasures and again in Beyond Words.

RUTH WAS A MOABITE GIRL who married into a family of Israelite transplants living in Moab because there was a famine going on at home. When her young husband died, her mother-in-law, Naomi, decided to pull up stakes and head back for Israel where she belonged. The famine was over by then, and there was no longer anything to hold her where she was, her own husband having died about the same time that Ruth's had. She advised Ruth to stay put right there in Moab and to try to snag herself another man from among her own people.

She was a strong-willed old party, and when Ruth said she wanted to go to Israel with her, she tried to talk her out of it. Even if by some gynecological fluke she managed to produce another son for Ruth to marry, she said, by the time he was old enough, Ruth would be ready for the geriatric ward. But Ruth had a mind of her own too, besides which they'd been through a lot together, what with one thing and another, and home to her was wherever Naomi was. "Where you go, I go, and where you live, I live;” Ruth told her, "and if your God is Yahweh, then my God is Yahweh too" (Ruth 2:10-17). So Naomi gave in, and when the two of them pulled in to Bethlehem, Naomi's hometown, there was a brass band to meet them at the station.

Ruth had a spring in her step and a fascinating Moabite accent, and it wasn't long before she caught the eye of a prosperous farmer named Boaz. He was a little long in the tooth, but he still knew a pretty girl when he saw one, and before long, in a fatherly kind of way, he took her under his wing. He told the hired hands not to give her any trouble. He helped her in the fields. He had her over for a meal. And when she asked him one day in her disarming Moabite way why he was being so nice to her, he said he'd heard how good she'd been to Naomi, who happened to be a distant cousin of his, and as far as he was concerned, she deserved nothing but the best.

Naomi was nobody's fool and saw which way the wind was blowing long before Ruth did. She was dead set on Ruth's making a good catch for herself, and since it was obvious she'd already hooked old Boaz whether she realized it or not, all she had to do was find the right way to reel him in. Naomi gave her instructions. As soon as Boaz had a good supper under his belt and had polished off a nightcap or two, he'd go to the barn and hit the sack. Around midnight, she said, Ruth should slip out to the barn and hit the sack too. If Boaz's feet just happened to be uncovered somehow, and if she just happened to be close enough to keep them warm, that probably wouldn't be the worst thing in the world either (Ruth 3:1-5). But she wasn't to go too far. Back in Jericho, Boaz's mother, Rahab, had had a rather seamy reputation for going too far professionally, and anything that reminded him of that might scare him off permanently.

Ruth followed her mother-in-law's advice to the letter, and it worked like a charm. Boaz was so overwhelmed that she'd pay attention to an old crock like him when there were so many young bucks running around in tight-fitting jeans that he fell for her hook, line, and sinker and, after a few legal matters were taken care of, made her his lawful wedded wife.

They had a son named Obed after a while, and Naomi came to take care of him and stayed on for the rest of her life. Then in time Obed had a son of his own named Jesse, and Jesse in turn had seven sons, the seventh of whom was named David and ended up as the greatest king Israel ever had. With Ruth for his great-grandmother and Naomi for his grandfather's nurse, it was hardly a wonder.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: 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 Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost.  Here is this week’s reading from the book of Deuteronomy:

Deuteronomy 6:4-7

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.

Buechner uses this passage from Deuteronomy as the basis for his sermon entitled “Love” – first published in A Room Called Remember and again in Secrets in the Dark.  The following are excerpts from “Love”:

"Hear, O Israel!" says the great text in Deuteronomy where Moses calls out to his people in the wilderness. Hear, O Israel! Hear! Listen! And not just O Israel, hear, but O World, O Everybody, O Thou, O every last man and woman of us, because we are all of us called to become Israel by hearing lest instead we become Israel by not hearing and thus like her in her apostasy instead of in her faith. Nor is it just the text in Deuteronomy that is calling out to us to hear but the entire text of the Bible as a whole. We are to hear. All of us are. That is what the whole Bible is calling out. "Hear, O Israel!"

But hear what? Hear what? The Bible is hundreds upon hundreds of voices all calling at once out of the past and clamoring for our attention like barkers at a fair, like air-raid sirens, like a whole barnyard of cock crows as the first long shafts of dawn fan out across the sky. Some of the voices are shouting, like Moses's voice, so all Israel, all the world, can hear, and some are so soft and halting that you can hardly hear them at all, like Job with ashes on his head and his heart broken, like old Simeon whispering, "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace" (Luke 2:29). The prophets shrill out in their frustration, their rage, their holy hope and madness; and the priests drone on and on about the dimensions and furniture of the Temple; and the lawgivers spell out what to eat and what not to eat; and the historians list the kings, the battles, the tragic lessons of Israel's history. And somewhere in the midst of them all one particular voice speaks out that is unlike any other voice because it speaks so directly to the deepest privacy and longing and weariness of each of us that there are times when the centuries are blown away like mist and it is as if we stand with no shelter of time at all between ourselves and the one who speaks our secret name. Come, the voice says. Unto me. All ye. Every last one.

Hear, O Israel! Only more often than not we hear nothing because we live in a wilderness where more often than not there is nothing of God to hear. And of course it was in just such a wilderness that the great words of Moses were trumpeted forth in the first place, and the people who first heard them were in the wilderness with him, as wandering and lost as we are, with nothing to keep them going but the hope of a Promised Land, which much of the time seemed a promise so remote and improbable that even the bondage they had left behind them in Egypt looked hopeful by comparison. To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness, is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken. But this is the great and first commandment nonetheless. Even in the wilderness—especially in the wilderness—you shall love him.

The final secret, I think, is this: that the words "You shall love the Lord your God" become in the end less a command than a promise. And the promise is that, yes, on the weary feet of faith and the fragile wings of hope, we will come to love him at last as from the first he has loved us—loved us even in the wilderness, especially in the wilderness, because he has been in the wilderness with us. He has been in the wilderness for us. He has been acquainted with our grief.  And, loving him, we will come at last to love each other too so that, in the end, the name taped on every door will be the name of the one we love.

"And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise."

And rise we shall, out of the wilderness, every last one of us, even as out of the wilderness Christ rose before us. That is the promise, and the greatest of all promises.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Bartimaeus

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.

This Sunday we will celebrate The Twenty-Third Sunday After Pentecost.  Here is this week’s reading from the gospel of Mark:

Mark 10:46-52

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here." And they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you." So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man said to him, "My teacher, let me see again." Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Here are Buechner’s thoughts on healing, first published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words:

THE GOSPELS DEPICT JESUS as having spent a surprising amount of time healing people. Although, like the author of Job before him, he specifically rejected the theory that sickness was God's way of getting even with sinners (John 9:1-3), he nonetheless seems to have suggested a connection between sickness and sin, almost to have seen sin as a kind of sickness. "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick;” he said. "I came not to call the righteous but sinners." (Mark 2:17).

This is entirely compatible, of course, with the Hebrew view of the human being as a psychosomatic unity, an indivisible amalgam of body and soul in which if either goes wrong, the other is affected. It is significant also that the Greek verb sо̄zо̄ was used in Jesus' day to mean both "to save" and "to heal” and sо̄tēr could signify either "savior" or "physician.” 

Ever since the time of Jesus, healing has been part of the Christian tradition. Nowadays, it has usually been associated with religious quackery or the lunatic fringe; but as the psychosomatic dimension of disease has come to be taken more and more seriously by medical science, it has regained some of its former respectability. How nice for God to have this support at last. 

Jesus is reported to have made the blind see and the lame walk, and over the centuries countless miraculous healings have been claimed in his name. For those who prefer not to believe in them, a number of approaches are possible, among them: 

  1. The idea of miracles is an offense both to our reason and to our dignity. Thus, a priori, miracles don't happen. 

  2. Unless there is objective medical evidence to substantiate the claim that a miraculous healing has happened, you can assume it hasn't. 

  3. If the medical authorities agree that a healing is inexplicable in terms of present scientific knowledge, you can simply ascribe this to the deficiencies of present scientific knowledge. 

  4. If otherwise intelligent and honest human beings are convinced, despite all arguments to the contrary, that it is God who has healed them, you can assume that their sickness, like its cure, was purely psychological. Whatever that means. 

  5. The crutches piled high at Lourdes and elsewhere are a monument to human humbug and credulity.  

If your approach to this kind of healing is less ideological and more empirical, you can always give it a try. Pray for it. If it's somebody else's healing you're praying for, you can try at the same time laying your hands on her as Jesus sometimes did. If her sickness involves her body as well as her soul, then God may be able to use your inept hands as well as your inept faith to heal her. 

If you feel like a fool as you are doing this, don't let it throw you. You are a fool, of course, only not a damned fool for a change. 

If your prayer isn't answered, this may tell you more about you and your prayer than it does about God. Don't try too hard to feel religious, to generate some healing power of your own. Think of yourself instead (if you have to think of yourself at all) as a rather small-gauge clogged-up pipe that a little of God's power may be able to filter through if you can just stay loose enough. Tell the one you're praying for to stay loose too. 

If God doesn't seem to be giving you what you ask, maybe he's giving you something else. 

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Job

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.

This Sunday we will celebrate The Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost.  Here is this week’s reading from the book of Job:

Job 38:1-7, (34-41)

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements--surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? "Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you? Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, 'Here we are'? Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind? Who has the wisdom to number the clouds? Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cling together? "Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert? Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?

In Buechner’s book Peculiar Treasures, he talks about the story of Job.

Job was the richest man around, but in a single day he was wiped out. The Sabeans ran off with his asses and oxen and slaughtered the hired hands. Lightning struck his sheep barn and burned up the whole flock, not to mention the shepherds. The Chaldeans rustled his camels and made short work of the camel drivers. And a hurricane hit with such devastating effect the house where his seven sons and three daughters were having a party that there wasn't enough of them left in the wreckage to identify.

What happened next was that Job came down with leprosy. And what happened after that was that he cursed the day that he was born. He said that if he had his way, it would be stricken off the calendar entirely and never so much as mentioned again. He prayed to die but his heart went on beating. He prayed for the sun to go out like a match, but it kept on shining. His wife advised him to curse God and then go hang himself, but he stopped just short of that because he was a very good man and a very religious man and there were some lengths to which, even though he was almost out of his head with the horror of it all, he couldn't quite bring himself to go. And that was the crux of his problem - the fact that he was a very good and a very religious man and knew it. Why had God let such things happen to him?

He had four well-meaning but insufferable friends who came over to cheer him up and try to explain it. They said that anybody with enough sense to come in out of the rain knew that God was just. They said that anybody old enough to spell his own name knew that since God was just, he made bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people. They said that such being the case, you didn't need a Harvard diploma to figure out that since bad things had happened to Job, then ipso facto he must have done something bad himself. But Job hadn't, and he said so, and that's not all he said either. "Worthless physicians are you all," he said. "Oh that you would keep silent, and it would be your wisdom" (Job 13:4-5). They were a bunch of theological quacks, in other words, and the smartest thing they could do was shut up. But they were too busy explaining things to listen.

Eliphaz the Temanite proceeded to make a few helpful suggestions about some of the bad things that Job must have done and then let slip his mind. He must have robbed a few beggars of the rags on their backs, he said. He must have refused food to some poor soul who was starving to death. There must have been several widows and orphans he'd ground his heel in the faces of without stopping to think what he was doing. But Job didn't even dignify these charges by refuting them. He talked about God instead.

There had been a time when God and he had been like that, he said, holding up side by side what the leprosy had left of two fingers. There was a time "when his lamp shone upon my head," he said, "and by his light I walked through darkness. When the Almighty was with me, and when my children were about me" (Job 29:3,5), and then he had to stop for a few minutes and blow what was left of his nose before going on.

The question, he said once he'd had time to pull himself back together, was where was God now? He had looked for him in front, and he had looked for him in back; he had looked for him to the right, and he had looked for him to the left; but he wasn't anywhere to be found. If he only knew where God might be keeping himself, he'd go tell him his troubles and get an explanation at least, but God had made himself scarce as hen's teeth, and looking for him was like looking for a needle in a haystack.

"God has cast me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes," he said, too miserable to worry about mixing his metaphors. "I cry to thee, and thou dost not answer me," he said, "and with the might of thy hand thou dost persecute me" (Job 30: 19-21). It was the closest he had come yet to taking his wife's advice and calling him a sonofabitch. "My skin turns black and falls from me," he said (Job 30:30) and then took advantage of a long speech by a friend named Elihu to change a few of his dressings.

Elihu went over many of the same points his colleagues had already ticked off and then added the idea that the destruction of all Job's property and the death of all his children and his leprosy were probably just God's way of helping him to improve his character and sharpen his sensitivities. "He delivers the afflicted by their afflictions," he explained, "and opens their ears by adversity" (Job 36: 15), but Job had no chance to respond to this new and comforting insight because at that point another speaker made himself heard, and this time the speaker was God.

Just the way God cleared his throat almost blasted Job off his feet, and that was only for starters. It is the most gorgeous speech that God makes in the whole Old Testament, and it is composed almost entirely of the most gorgeous and preposterous questions that have ever been asked by God or anybody else.

"Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?" he asked. "Where is the dwelling of light? Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or has the rain a father? Can you bind the chain of the Pleiades? Who has put wisdom in the clouds or given understanding to the mists?" (Job 38 passim). And by this time he was just starting to get wound up.

"Is the wild ox willing to serve you?" he asked. "Will he spend the night at your crib? The wings of the ostrich wave proudly, but are they the pinions and plumage of love? Have you given the horse strength? Have you clothed his neck with thunder, who says among the trumpets Ha, ha! and smells the battle afar off? Does the hawk fly by your wisdom and stretch her wings toward the south?" (Job 39 passim).

There was obviously only one thing for Job to say, and he said it. "Behold, I am of small account. What shall I answer thee?" he said, coming out with that one frail question of his own. "I will proceed no further" (Job 40:3-5). But God wasn't through yet.

You can think of God as a great cosmic bully here if you want, but you can think of him also as a great cosmic artist, a singer, say, of such power and magnificence and so caught up in the incandescence of his own art that he never notices that he has long since ruptured the eardrums of his listeners and reduced them to quivering pulp. "Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his?" he asked (Job 40:9), and then he launched off into a devastating aria about Behemoth, the hippopotamus he had made, and Leviathan, the crocodile he had made, challenging Job, or anybody else if they thought they could, to take them for walks on leashes or pierce their armored hides with cold steel.

You feel that God had only paused to catch his breath when Job saw his chance to break in again at last. "I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know," he said (Job 42:3). And then he said something else.

All his life he had heard about God, about his glory and his holiness, about his terrible wrath and his great mercy, about the way he had created the earth and all its creatures and set the sun, moon and stars in the sky so there would always be light to see by and beauty to gladden the heart. He had sometimes thrilled and sometimes trembled at the sound of these descriptions, and they had made such an impression on him over the years that not even the terrible things that had happened to him or the terrible question as to why they had happened or the miserable answers to that question which his friends had proposed could quite make him curse God as had been suggested although there were a few times when he came uncomfortably close to it. But now it was no longer a matter of hearing descriptions of God because finally he had heard and seen him for himself.

He had seen the great glory so shot through with sheer, fierce light and life and gladness, had heard the great voice raised in song so full of terror and wildness and beauty, that from that moment on, nothing else mattered. All possible questions melted like mist, and all possible explanations withered like grass, and all the bad times of his life together with all the good times were so caught up into the fathomless life of this God, who had bent down to speak with him though by comparison he was no more than a fleck of dust on the head of a pin in the lapel of a dancing flea, that all he could say was, "I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:5 - 6).

But God didn't let him despise himself for long. He turned to the garrulous friends and said, "You have not spoken of me what is right as my servant Job has" (Job 42:7), with the clear implication that Job had been right in standing up to him if only because it showed he was worth listening to as his friends preeminently were not. And then he gave back to Job more riches than he had ever had before together with his health, and Job lived to have a whole new set of children and to see them through four generations before he died old and full of days.

As for the children he had lost when the house blew down, not to mention all his employees, he never got an explanation about them because he never asked for one, and the reason he never asked for one was that he knew that even if God gave him one that made splendid sense out of all the pain and suffering that had ever been since the world began, it was no longer splendid sense that he needed because with his own eyes he had beheld, and not as a stranger, the one who in the end clothed all things, no matter how small or confused or in pain, with his own splendor.

And that was more than sufficient.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Money

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 Twenty-first Sunday After Pentecost. Here is this week’s reading from the gospel of Mark:

Mark 10:17-25

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'” He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."

In Buechner’s book Whistling in the Dark, he discusses the issue of money.

MONEY - The more you think about it, the less you understand it.

The paper it's printed on isn't worth a red cent. There was a time you could take it to the bank and get gold or silver for it, but all you'd get now would be a blank stare.

If the government declared that the leaves of the trees were money so there would be enough for everybody, money would be worthless. It has worth only if there is not enough for everybody. It has worth only because the government declares that it has worth and because people trust the government in that one particular although in every other particular they wouldn't trust it around the corner.

The value of money, like stocks and bonds, goes up and down for reasons not even the experts can explain and at moments nobody can predict, so you can be a millionaire one moment and a pauper the next without lifting a finger. Great fortunes can be made and lost completely on paper. There is more concrete reality in a baby's throwing its rattle out of the crib.

There are people who use up their entire lives making money so they can enjoy the lives they have entirely used up.

Jesus says that it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. Maybe the reason is not that the rich are so wicked they're kept out of the place but that they're so out of touch with reality they can't see it's a place worth getting into.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Like a Child

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 Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost. Here is this week’s reading from the gospel of Mark:

Mark 10:13-16

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

In this short interview clip, Buechner discusses what it means to become like a child in relationship with God. This video interview is courtesy of New Life Films. See additional Buechner interviews at www.frederickbuechner.com and http://buechnerfilm.com/.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Xerxes, Esther, Haman, and Mordecai

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 Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost. Here is this week’s reading from the book of James:  

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10

So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, "What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled. Then Queen Esther answered, "If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king." Then King Xerxes said to Queen Esther, "Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?" Esther said, "A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!" Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen. Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, "Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman's house, fifty cubits high." And the king said, "Hang him on that." So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.

In Buechner’s book Peculiar Treasures, he describes this episode.

King Xerxes of Persia, otherwise known as Ahasuerus, has the distinction of being the only person in the Bible whose name begins with an X. There's not much else you can say for him. He was a blow-hard and a show-off, and anybody with an eighth-grade education could wrap him around his little finger without half trying. Or her little finger.

There was Haman, for example. Haman was Xerxes' right-hand man and a raging anti-Semite. There was also a Jew named Mordecai, who lived in the capital, and one day when Haman came prancing by, Mordecai refused to flatten himself out and grovel in the dust like everybody else. It was the break Haman had been waiting for. He told Xerxes about Mordecai's insubordination and rudeness and said it was a vivid illustration of how the Jews as a whole were a miserable lot. He said if you let one of them in, they brought their friends, and Persia was crawling with them. He said the only laws they respected were their own, and it was obvious they didn't give a hoot in Hell about the king or anybody else. He then said that as far as he was concerned, the only thing to do was exterminate the whole pack of them like rats and offered the king ten thousand of the best for the privilege of organizing the operation. Xerxes pocketed the cash and told him to go ahead.

But then there was also Queen Esther, a good-looking Jewish girl who was both a cousin of Mordecai's and Xerxes' second wife. As soon as she got wind of what Haman was up to, she decided to do what she could to save her people from the gas-chamber. Xerxes had a rather short fuse, and you had to know how to handle him, but she planned her strategy carefully, and by the time she was through, she'd not only talked him out of letting the Jews get exterminated but had gotten him to hang Haman from the same gallows that had been set up for Mordecai. She even managed to persuade Xerxes to give Mordecai Haman's old job.

Unfortunately, the end of the story is less edifying. Not content with having saved their people and taken care of Haman, Esther and Mordecai used their new power to orchestrate the slaughter of seventy five thousand of their old enemies. The whole unpleasant account is contained in The Book of Esther, which has the distinction of being the only book in the Bible where the name of God isn't even mentioned. There seems every reason to believe that he considered himself well out of it.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Envy

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 Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost. Here is this week’s reading from the book of James:

James 3:13 - 16

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.

In Buechner’s book Wishful Thinking, he discusses envy.

Envy is the consuming desire to have everybody else be as unsuccessful as you are.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Wisdom

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 Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost. Here is this week’s reading from the book of Proverbs:

Proverbs 1:20-33

Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: "How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you. Because I have called and you refused, have stretched out my hand and no one heeded, and because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you, when panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you. Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently, but will not find me. Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the LORD, would have none of my counsel, and despised all my reproof, therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices. For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them; but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster."

In Buechner’s book Whistling in the Dark, he discusses wisdom.

In the Book of Proverbs, Wisdom is a woman. "The Lord created me at the beginning of his work," she says (Proverbs 8:22). She was there when he made the heaven, the sea, the earth. It was as if he needed a woman's imagination to help him make them, a woman's eye to tell him if he'd made them right, a woman's spirit to measure their beauty by. "I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always," she says (Proverbs 8:30), as if it was her joy in what he was creating that made creation bearable, and that's why he created her first.

Wisdom is a matter not only of the mind but of the intuition and heart, like a woman's wisdom. It is born out of suffering as a woman bears a child. It shows a way through the darkness the way a woman stands at the window holding a lamp. "Her ways are ways of pleasantness," says Solomon, then adding, just in case there should be any lingering question as to her gender, "and all her paths are peace" (Proverbs 3: 17).