Weekly Sermon Illustration: Prophet

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 Day of Pentecost. Here is this week’s reading from the book of Numbers:

 

Numbers 11:24-29

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again. Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, "Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp." And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, "My lord Moses, stop them!" But Moses said to him, "Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!"

 

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

Prophet means "spokesman," not "fortune-teller." The one whom in their unfathomable audacity the prophets claimed to speak for was the Lord and Creator of the universe. There is no evidence to suggest that anyone ever asked a prophet home for supper more than once.

One day some city boys followed along behind the prophet Elisha calling him "Bald-head!" Elisha summoned two she-bears, who tore forty-two of the city boys limb from limb. He then continued on his way to keep an appointment at Mt. Carmel (2 Kings 2:23-25).

The prophet Jeremiah showed a clay pot to a crowd of Judeans and told them it represented Judah. Then he smashed it to smithereens and told them that this was a mild version of what God had in mind to do to them (Jeremiah 19). He was right.

In a dream, the prophet Ezekiel ate a copy of the Bible, thumb index and all, to show how sweet as honey was the word of God (Ezekiel 3:1-3).

In the time of the prophet Amos, the Israelites looked forward eagerly to the day when the Lord would finally come and deliver them from all their afflictions. Amos told them they had better start looking forward to something else, because when the day came, the Lord was going to settle a lot of people's hash all right, but the hash that would be settled first was Israel's. Quoting God, Amos went on to say, "Your great cathedrals bore me just as stiff as your TV evangelists, and your prayer breakfasts at the White House cause me no less abdominal discomfort than your dashboard Virgins. Justice is what I want, not photo opportunities, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:21-24). Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern, and the rumor is that Isaiah was sawed in half. It is not recorded how Amos got his.

When the unknown prophet who wrote the last chapters of Isaiah pondered the question of what the chosen people were chosen<em> for</em>, his answer was that they were chosen not to overwhelm the world in triumph, but to suffer and die for the world in love. One thinks of the gas ovens of Auschwitz and of Anne Frank. One thinks of the anti-Semitic joke and the restricted neighborhood. One also thinks of Jesus of Nazareth, who, when he went back to his hometown, chose this prophet to read from in the local synagogue (Luke 4:16-19). It is the words of this prophet that perhaps describe Jesus best—"a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief" (Isaiah 53:3). Acquainted with grief. The way Jesus described his mission in the world was "to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45).

The prophets were drunk on God, and in the presence of their terrible tipsiness, no one was ever comfortable. With a total lack of tact, they roared out against phoniness and corruption wherever they found them. They were the terror of kings and priests. The prophet Nathan tells King David to his face that he is a crook and an adulterer (2 Samuel 12:1-15). The prophet Jeremiah goes straight to the Temple itself and says, "Do not trust in these deceptive words, 'This is the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord'" (Jeremiah 7:4). It was like a prophet to say it three times, just to make sure.

No prophet is on record as having asked for the job. When God put the finger on Isaiah, Isaiah said, "How long, O Lord?" (Isaiah 6:11), and couldn't have been exactly reassured by the answer he was given. Jeremiah pled that he was much too young for that type of work (Jeremiah 1:6). Moses sounded like a prophet when he pointed out to God that he'd never been much good at public speaking and the chances were that Pharaoh wasn't going to give him so much as the time of day (Exodus 4:1-13). Like Abraham Lincoln's story about the man being ridden out of town on a rail, if it hadn't been for the honor of the thing, the prophets would all have rather walked.

Most of the prophets went a little mad before they were through, if they weren't a little mad to begin with. Ezekiel kept seeing wheels with eyes around the rims. John the Baptist ate bugs. You can hardly blame them.

Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jonathan Swift, and Malcolm X were all prophets in their own way. So was Ayn Rand. So are Gloria Steinem and Rosa Parks.

Like Robert Frost's, a prophet's quarrel with the world is deep down a lover's quarrel. If they didn't love the world, they probably wouldn't bother to tell it that it's going to hell. They'd just let it go. Their quarrel is God's quarrel.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Anxiety

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 of Easter. Here is this week’s reading from the book of 1 Peter:

 

1 Peter 5:7

Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.

 

The following excerpt is from Secrets in the Dark:

"Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons," Jesus tells the disciples. That is the work he sets us. In other words, we are to be above all else healers, and that means of course that we are also to be healed because God knows you and I are in as much need of healing as anybody else, and being healed and healing go hand in hand. God knows we have our own demons to be cast out, our own uncleanness to be cleansed. Neurotic anxiety happens to be my own particular demon, a floating sense of doom that has ruined many of what could have been, should have been, the happiest days of my life, and more than a few times in my life I have been raised from such ruins, which is another way of saying that more than a few times in my life I have been raised from death—death of the spirit anyway, death of the heart—by the healing power that Jesus calls us both to heal with and to be healed by.

 

And this excerpt was originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words:

"Have no anxiety about anything," Paul writes to the Philippians. In one sense it is like telling a woman with a bad head cold not to sniffle and sneeze so much or a lame man to stop dragging his feet. Or maybe it is more like telling a wino to lay off the booze or a compulsive gambler to stay away from the track.

Is anxiety a disease or an addiction? Perhaps it is something of both. Partly, perhaps, because you can't help it, and partly because for some dark reason you choose not to help it, you torment yourself with detailed visions of the worst that can possibly happen. The nagging headache turns out to be a malignant brain tumor. When your teenage son fails to get off the plane you've gone to meet, you see his picture being tacked up in the post office among the missing and his disappearance never accounted for. As the latest mid-East crisis boils, you wait for the TV game show to be interrupted by a special bulletin to the effect that major cities all over the country are being evacuated in anticipation of nuclear attack. If Woody Allen were to play your part on the screen, you would roll in the aisles with the rest of them, but you're not so much as cracking a smile at the screen inside your own head.

Does the terrible fear of disaster conceal an even more terrible hankering for it? Do the accelerated pulse and the knot in the stomach mean that, beneath whatever their immediate cause, you are acting out some ancient and unresolved drama of childhood? Since the worst things that happen are apt to be the things you don't see coming, do you think there is a kind of magic whereby, if you only can see them coming, you will be able somehow to prevent them from happening? Who knows the answer? In addition to Novocain and indoor plumbing, one of the few advantages of living in the twentieth century is the existence of psychotherapists, and if you can locate a good one, maybe one day you will manage to dig up an answer that helps.

But answer or no answer, the worst things will happen at last even so. "All life is suffering" says the first and truest of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths, by which he means that sorrow, loss, death await us all and everybody we love. Yet "the Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything," Paul writes, who was evidently in prison at the time and with good reason to be anxious about everything, "but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God."

He does not deny that the worst things will happen finally to all of us, as indeed he must have had a strong suspicion they were soon to happen to him. He does not try to minimize them. He does not try to explain them away as God's will or God's judgment or God's method of testing our spiritual fiber. He simply tells the Philippians that in spite of them—even in the thick of them—they are to keep in constant touch with the One who unimaginably transcends the worst things as he also unimaginably transcends the best.

"In everything," Paul says, they are to keep on praying. Come Hell or high water, they are to keep on asking, keep on thanking, above all keep on making themselves known. He does not promise them that as a result they will be delivered from the worst things any more than Jesus himself was delivered from them. What he promises them instead is that "the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

The worst things will surely happen no matter what—that is to be understood—but beyond all our power to understand, he writes, we will have peace both in heart and in mind. We are as sure to be in trouble as the sparks fly upward, but we will also be "in Christ," as he puts it. Ultimately not even sorrow, loss, death can get at us there.

That is the sense in which he dares say without risk of occasioning ironic laughter, "Have no anxiety about anything." Or, as he puts it a few lines earlier, "Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, Rejoice!" (Philippians 4:4-7)

Weekly Sermon Illustration: To Suffer in 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 Sixth Sunday of Easter. Here is this week’s reading from the book of 1 Peter:

 

1 Peter 3:13-17

Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God's will, than to suffer for doing evil.

 

The following excerpt was originally published in Now and Then and later in Listening to Your Life:

What man and woman, if they gave serious thought to what having children inevitably involves, would ever have them? Yet what man and woman, once having had them and loved them, would ever want it otherwise? Because side by side with the Buddha's truth is the Gospel truth that “he who does not love remains in death.” If by some magic you could eliminate the pain you are caused by the pain of someone you love, I for one cannot imagine working such magic because the pain is so much a part of the love that the love would be vastly diminished, unrecognizable, without it. To suffer in love for another's suffering is to live life not only at its fullest but at its holiest. “One mustn’t have human affections—or rather one must love every soul as if it were one’s own child,” the whiskey priest thinks to himself as he says good-bye for the last time to his own daughter in Greene's novel, The Power and the Glory.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: What it Means to be a Christian

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 Fifth Sunday of Easter.  Here is this week’s reading from the gospel of John:

 

John 14:6

Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

 

The following excerpt was originally published in Wishful Thinking then later in Listening to Your Life and also in Beyond Words:

Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily believes certain things. That Jesus was the son of God, say. Or that Mary was a virgin. Or that the Pope is infallible. Or that all other religions are all wrong.

Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily does certain things. Such as going to church. Getting baptized. Giving up liquor and tobacco. Reading the Bible. Doing a good deed a day.

Some think of a Christian as just a Nice Guy.

Jesus said "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me" (John 14:6).  He didn’t say that any particular ethic, doctrine, or religion was the way, the truth, and the life. He said that he was. He didn’t say that it was by believing or doing anything in particular that you could "come to the Father." He said that it was only by him—by living, participating in, being caught up by, the way of life that he embodied, that was his way.

Thus it is possible to be on Christ’s way and with his mark upon you without ever having heard of Christ, and for that reason to be on your way to God though maybe you don’t even believe in God.

A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank.

A Christian isn’t necessarily any nicer than anybody else. Just better informed.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: The Clown in the Belfry

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 Fourth Sunday of Easter.  Here is this week’s reading from the book of Psalms:

 

Psalm 23

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.

 

The following sermon, entitled "The Clown in the Belfry" was originally published in The Clown in the Belfry and later in Secrets in the Dark:

Happy Birthday! Happy Birthday to this old church, which was first organized two hundred years ago day before yesterday with seven members and a pastor who bore the somewhat less than promising name of Increase Graves. Happy Birthday to this old building, which has seen many a howling blizzard in its time and many a scorching summer day before the road it stands on ever dreamed of being paved and the air was thick with the dust of horses' hooves and wagon wheels. Happy Birthday to all of you because more than an organization, more than a building, a church is the people who come to it to pray and sing and fidget and dream, to shed a tear or two if some word strikes home, and to try to keep a straight face if the soloist strikes a sour note or somebody's hearing aid starts to buzz. Happy Birthday to all of you, who listen to some sermons and doze through other sermons and do all the other things people do that make them a church and make them human.

And Happy Birthday to Jesus too, I guess it's proper to say, because before this is a Congregational church, or Rupert's church, or your church, it is after all his church. If it hadn't been for Jesus, who knows what other kind of building might have stood on this spot, or what other line of work Increase Graves might have gone into, or where you and I might be today—not just where we might be geographically, but where we might be humanly, inside ourselves, if it hadn't been for Jesus and all the things he said and did and all the things people have kept on saying and doing because of him ever since.

What do you do on a birthday? You get together with your friends, of course. You put on your best clothes. You sing songs. You bring offerings. You whoop it up. You do a lot of the same things, in other words, that we're doing here today, and it seems to me that that's just as it should be. But there's one thing I propose to do that is usually not done on birthdays. Just for a moment or two I suggest we set aside our snappers and party hats and give at least one quick look at what it is that we're whooping it up about, what it is that really makes people into a church in the first place.

Since 1786 people have been coming here the way you and I came here today. Men who fought in the American Revolution and the widows of men who never got back from it. Civil War veterans. Two centuries' worth of farmers, dairymen, mill workers, an occasional traveler. Old men and old women with most of their lives behind them, and young men and young women with most of their lives ahead of them. People who made a go of it and are remembered still, and people who somehow never left their mark in any way the world noticed and aren't remembered anymore by anybody. Despite the enormous differences between them, all these men and women entered this building just the way you and I entered it a few minutes ago because of one thing they had in common.

What they had in common was that, like us, they believed (or sometimes believed and sometimes didn't believe; or wanted to believe; or liked to think they believed) that the universe, that everything there is, didn't come about by chance, but was created by God. Like us, they believed, on their best days anyway, that, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, this God was a God like Jesus, which is to say a God of love. That, I think, is the crux of the matter. In 1786 and 1886 and 1986 and all the years between, that is at the heart of what has made this place a church. That is what all the whooping has been about. In the beginning it was not some vast cosmic explosion that made the heavens and the earth. It was a loving God who did. That is our faith and the faith of all the ones who came before us.

The question is, is it true? If the answer is no, then what we're celebrating today is at best a happy and comforting illusion. If the answer is yes, then we have something to celebrate that makes even a two-hundredth birthday look pale by comparison.

I don't suppose there is any passage in either the Old Testament or the New that sums up the faith this church was founded on more eloquently and movingly than the Twenty-third Psalm. "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want." How many times would you guess those words have been spoken here over the years, especially at dark moments when people needed all the faith they could muster? How many times have we spoken them ourselves at our own dark moments? But for all their power to bring comfort, do the words hold water? This faith in God that they affirm, is it borne out by our own experience of life on this planet? That is a hard and painful question to raise, but let us honor the occasion by raising it anyway. Does this ancient and beautiful psalm set forth a faith that in the secrecy of our hearts we can still honestly subscribe to? And what exactly is that faith it sets forth? The music of the psalm is so lovely that it's hard sometimes to hear through it to what the psalm is saying.

"God's in his heaven, all's right with the world," Robert Browning wrote, and the psalm is certainly not saying that any more than you or I can say it either. Whoever wrote it had walked through the valley of the shadow the way one way or another you and I have walked there too. He says so himself. He believed that God was in his heaven despite the fact that he knew as well as we do that all was far from right with the world. And he believed that God was like a shepherd.

When I think of shepherds, I think of my friend Vernon Beebe, who used to keep sheep here in Rupert a few years back. Some of them he gave names to, and some of them he didn't, but he knew them equally well either way. If one of them got lost, he didn't have a moment's peace till he found it again. If one of them got sick or hurt, he would move heaven and earth to get it well again. He would feed them out of a bottle when they were newborn lambs if for some reason the mother wasn't around or wouldn't "own" them, as he put it. He always called them in at the end of the day so the wild dogs wouldn't get them. I've seen him wade through snow up to his knees with a bale of hay in each hand to feed them on bitter cold winter evenings, shaking it out and putting it in the manger. I've stood with him in their shed with a forty-watt bulb hanging down from the low ceiling to light up their timid, greedy, foolish, half holy faces as they pushed and butted each other to get at it, because if God is like a shepherd, there are more than just a few ways, needless to say, that people like you and me are like sheep. Being timid, greedy, foolish, and half holy is only part of it.

Like sheep we get hungry, and hungry for more than just food. We get thirsty for more than just drink. Our souls get hungry and thirsty; in fact it is often that sense of inner emptiness that makes us know we have souls in the first place. There is nothing that the world has to give us, there is nothing that we have to give to each other even that ever quite fills them. But once in a while that inner emptiness is filled even so. That is part of what the psalm means by saying that God is like a shepherd, I think. It means that, like a shepherd, he feeds us. He feeds that part of us which is hungriest and most in need of feeding.

There is richer, more profitable land in the world certainly than what we have in this small corner of the state of Vermont, but it's hard to believe there is any lovelier land. There are the sloping hillside pastures and meadows we live among—green pastures, then golden pastures, then pastures whiter than white, blue-shadowed. There are still waters—the looking-glass waters of pasture ponds filled with sky and clouds—and there are waters that aren't still at all, but overflow their banks when the melting snow swells them and they go rattling and roaring and chuckling through the woods in a way that makes you understand how human beings must have first learned what music is. Most of the time we forget to notice this place where we live—because we're so used to it, because we get so caught up in whatever our work is, whatever our lives are—but every once and so often maybe we notice and are filled. "He restoreth my soul," is the way the psalm says it. For a little while the scales fall from our eyes and we actually see the beauty and holiness and mystery of the world around us, and then from deeper down even than our hunger, restoring comes, nourishment comes. You can't make it happen. You can't make it last. But it is a glimpse, a whisper. Maybe it is all we can handle.

"I shall not want," the psalm says. Is that true? There are lots of things we go on wanting, go on lacking, whether we believe in God or not. They are not just material things like a new roof or a better-paying job, but things like good health, things like happiness for our children, things like being understood and appreciated, like relief from pain, like some measure of inner peace not just for ourselves but for the people we love and for whom we pray. Believers and unbelievers alike, we go on wanting plenty our whole lives through. We long for what never seems to come. We pray for what never seems to be clearly given. But when the psalm says "I shall not want," maybe it is speaking the utter truth anyhow. Maybe it means that if we keep our eyes open, if we keep our hearts and lives open, we will at least never be in want of the one thing we want more than anything else. Maybe it means that, whatever else is withheld, the shepherd never withholds himself, and he is what we want more than anything else.

Not at every moment of our lives, heaven knows, but at certain rare moments of greenness and stillness, we are shepherded by the knowledge that, though all is far from right with any world you and I know anything about, all is right deep down. All will be right at last. I suspect that is at least part of what "He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness" is all about. It means righteousness not just in the sense of doing right, but in the sense of being right—being right with God, trusting the deep-down rightness of the life God has created for us and in us, and riding that trust the way a red-tailed hawk rides the currents of the air in this valley where we live. I suspect that the paths of righteousness he leads us in are more than anything else the paths of trust like that and the kind of life that grows out of that trust. I think that is the shelter he calls us to with a bale in either hand when the wind blows bitter and the shadows are dark.

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." The psalm does not pretend that evil and death do not exist. Terrible things happen, and they happen to good people as well as to bad people. Even the paths of righteousness lead through the valley of the shadow. Death lies ahead for all of us, saints and sinners alike, and for all the ones we love. The psalmist doesn't try to explain evil. He doesn't try to minimize evil. He simply says he will not fear evil. For all the power that evil has, it doesn't have the power to make him afraid.

And why? Here at the very center of the psalm comes the very center of the psalmist's faith. Suddenly he stops speaking about God as "he," because you don't speak that way when the person is right there with you. Suddenly he speaks to God instead of about him, and he speaks to him as "thou." "I will fear no evil," he says, "for thou art with me." That is the center of faith. Thou. That is where faith comes from.

When somebody takes your hand in the dark, you're not afraid of the dark anymore. The power of dark is a great power, but the power of light is greater still. It is the shepherd of light himself who reaches out a hand, who is "Thou" to us. Death and dark are not the end. Life and light are the end. It is what the cross means, of course. The cross means that out of death came, of all things, birth. Happy Birthday indeed! The birth we are here to celebrate is not just the birth of this old church in this old town, but the birth of new life, including our own new life—hope coming out of hopelessness, joy coming out of sorrow, comfort and strength coming out of fear. Thanks be to all that the cross means and is, we need never be afraid again. That is the faith that has kept bringing people to this place from Increase Graves's time to our time. That is what has brought me here. Unless I miss my guess, that is what has brought you here.

The psalmist stops speaking of God as a shepherd then. God becomes instead the host at a great feast. He prepares a table for us the way the table of Holy Communion is prepared for us, and "in the presence of our enemies" he prepares it because there is no other place. Our enemies are always present. All the old enemies are always gathered around us everywhere. I mean the enemies that come at us from within—doubt and self-doubt, anxiety, boredom, loneliness, failure, temptation. Let each of us name our special enemies for ourselves. How well we know them. How long we have done battle with them, and how long we will doubtless have to go on battling. But no matter. The table is prepared. Our cups are filled to running over. We are anointed with this occasion itself—with the sense it gives us of how much we need each other, you and I, and how the party wouldn't be complete without every last one of us; the sense we have of being not just strangers, acquaintances, friends, momentarily gathered under the same roof but fellow pilgrims traveling the same long and bewildering road in search of the same far city. It is a rare glimpse that we catch at this enchanted table. The feast that is laid for us here is only a foretaste of the feast to come. The old enemies will be vanquished at last. "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives," as goodness and mercy have followed us our whole lives through even when we thought they were farthest from us. ''And we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever," a house that is older than Eden and dearer than home.

Something like that is the faith this psalm sings. In the secrecy of our hearts can we say Yes to it? We must each of us answer for ourselves, of course. Some days it's easier to say Yes than other days. And even when we say Yes, there's always a No lurking somewhere in the shadows, just as when we say No there's always a Yes. That's the way faith breathes in and breathes out, I think, the way it stays alive and grows. But a birthday is a Yes day if ever there was one. So pick up the snappers and party hats again. Let the feast continue. And just one final, festal image to grace it with.

In the year 1831, it seems, this church was repaired and several new additions were made. One of them was a new steeple with a bell in it, and once it was set in place and painted, apparently, an extraordinary event took place. "When the steeple was added," Howard Mudgett writes in his history, "one agile Lyman Woodard stood on his head in the belfry with his feet toward heaven."

That's the one and only thing I've been able to find out about Lyman Woodard, whoever he was, but it is enough. I love him for doing what he did. It was a crazy thing to do. It was a risky thing to do. It ran counter to all standards of New England practicality and prudence. It stood the whole idea that you're supposed to be nothing but solemn in church on its head just like Lyman himself standing upside down on his. And it was also a magical and magnificent and Mozartian thing to do.

If the Lord is indeed our shepherd, then everything goes topsy-turvy. Losing becomes finding and crying becomes laughing. The last become first and the weak become strong. Instead of life being done in by death in the end as we always supposed, death is done in finally by life in the end. If the Lord is our host at the great feast, then the sky is the limit.

There is plenty of work to be done down here, God knows. To struggle each day to walk the paths of righteousness is no pushover, and struggle we must, because just as we are fed like sheep in green pastures, we must also feed his sheep, which are each other. Jesus, our shepherd, tells us that. We must help bear each other's burdens. We must pray for each other. We must nourish each other, weep with each other, rejoice with each other. Sometimes we must just learn to let each other alone. In short, we must love each other. We must never forget that. But let us never forget Lyman Woodard either, silhouetted up there against the blue Rupert sky. Let us join him in the belfry with our feet toward heaven like his, because heaven is where we are heading. That is our faith and what better image of faith could there be? It is a little crazy. It is a little risky. It sets many a level head wagging. And it is also our richest treasure and the source of our deepest joy and highest hope.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Giving Thanks

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 Third Sunday of Easter.  Here is this week’s reading from the Psalms:

 

Psalm 116:12

What shall I return to the LORD for all his bounty to me?

 

Here is an excerpt from the sermon "A Room Called Remember," first published in A Room Called Remember and later in Secrets in the Dark:

We must, each one of us, remember our own lives. Someone died whom we loved and needed, and from somewhere something came to fill our emptiness and mend us where we were broken. Was it only time that mended, only the resurging busyness of life that filled our emptiness? In anger we said something once that we could have bitten our tongues out for afterwards, or in anger somebody said something to us. But out of somewhere forgiveness came, a bridge was rebuilt; or maybe forgiveness never came, and to this day we have found no bridge back. Is the human heart the only source of its own healing? Is it the human conscience only that whispers to us that in bitterness and estrangement is death? We listen to the evening news with its usual recital of shabbiness and horror, and God, if we believe in him at all, seems remote and powerless, a child's dream. But there are other times—often the most unexpected, unlikely times—when strong as life itself comes the sense that there is a holiness deeper than shabbiness and horror and at the very heart of darkness a light unutterable. Is it only the unpredictable fluctuations of the human spirit that we have to thank? We must each of us answer for ourselves, remember for ourselves, preach to ourselves our own sermons. But "Remember the wonderful works," sings King David, because if we remember deeply and truly, he says, we will know whom to thank, and in that room of thanksgiving and remembering there is peace.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: The Resurrection

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 Second Sunday of Easter.  Here is this week’s reading from the book of Acts:

 

Acts 2:14a, 22-32

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. "You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know—this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. For David says concerning him, 'I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.' "Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, 'He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.' This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.

 

The following is an excerpt from The Alphabet of Grace:

We can say that the story of the Resurrection means simply that the teachings of Jesus are immortal like the plays of Shakespeare or the music of Beethoven and that their wisdom and truth will live on forever. Or we can say that the Resurrection means that the spirit of Jesus is undying, that he himself lives on among us, the way that Socrates does, for instance, in the good that he left behind him, in the lives of all who follow his great example. Or we can say that the language in which the Gospels describe the Resurrection of Jesus is the language of poetry and that, as such, it is not to be taken literally but as pointing to a truth more profound than the literal. Very often, I think, this is the way that the Bible is written, and I would point to some of the stories about the birth of Jesus, for instance, as examples; but in the case of the Resurrection, this simply does not apply because there really is no story about the Resurrection in the New Testament. Except in the most fragmentary way, it is not described at all. There is no poetry about it. Instead, it is simply proclaimed as a fact. Christ is risen! In fact, the very existence of the New Testament itself proclaims it. Unless something very real indeed took place on that strange, confused morning, there would be no New Testament, no Church, no Christianity.

Yet we try to reduce it to poetry anyway: the coming of spring with the return of life to the dead earth, the rebirth of hope in the despairing soul. We try to suggest that these are the miracles that the Resurrection is all about, but they are not. In their way they are all miracles, but they are not this miracle, this central one to which the whole Christian faith points.

Unlike the chief priests and the Pharisees, who tried with soldiers and a great stone to make themselves as secure as they could against the terrible possibility of Christ's really rising again from the dead, we are considerably more subtle. We tend in our age to say, "Of course, it was bound to happen. Nothing could stop it." But when we are pressed to say what it was that actually did happen, what we are apt to come out with is something pretty meager: this "miracle" of truth that never dies, the "miracle" of a life so beautiful that two thousand years have left the memory of it undimmed, the "miracle" of doubt turning into faith, fear into hope. If I believed that this or something like this was all that the Resurrection meant, then I would turn in my certificate of ordination and take up some other profession. Or at least I hope that I would have the courage to.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Easter

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 Easter Sunday.  Here is this week’s reading from the gospel of Matthew:

 

Matthew 28:1-10

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' This is my message for you." So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."

 

Here is Buechner's article "Easter" which was originally published in Whistling in the Dark:

Christmas has a large and colorful cast of characters including not only the three principals themselves, but the Angel Gabriel, the Innkeeper, the Shepherds, the Heavenly Host, the Three Wise Men, Herod, the Star of Bethlehem, and even the animals kneeling in the straw. In one form or another we have seen them represented so often that we would recognize them anywhere. We know about the birth in all its detail as well as we know about the births of ourselves or our children, maybe more so. The manger is as familiar as home. We have made a major production of it, and as minor attractions we have added the carols, the tree, the presents, the cards, Santa Claus, Ebenezer Scrooge, and so on. With Easter it is entirely different.

The Gospels are far from clear as to just what happened. It began in the dark. The stone had been rolled aside. Matthew alone speaks of an earthquake. In the tomb there were two white-clad figures or possibly just one. Mary Magdalen seems to have gotten there before anybody else. There was a man she thought at first was the gardener. Perhaps Mary the mother of James was with her and another woman named Joanna. One account says Peter came too with one of the other disciples. Elsewhere the suggestion is that there were only the women and that the disciples, who were somewhere else, didn't believe the women's story when they heard it. There was the sound of people running, of voices. Matthew speaks of "fear and great joy." Confusion was everywhere. There is no agreement even as to the role of Jesus himself. Did he appear at the tomb or only later? Where? To whom did he appear? What did he say? What did he do?

It is not a major production at all, and the minor attractions we have created around it—the bunnies and baskets and bonnets, the dyed eggs—have so little to do with what it's all about that they neither add much nor subtract much. It's not really even much of a story when you come right down to it, and that is of course the power of it. It doesn't have the ring of great drama. It has the ring of truth. If the Gospel writers had wanted to tell it in a way to convince the world that Jesus indeed rose from the dead, they would presumably have done it with all the skill and fanfare they could muster. Here there is no skill, no fanfare. They seem to be telling it simply the way it was. The narrative is as fragmented, shadowy, incomplete as life itself. When it comes to just what happened, there can be no certainty. That something unimaginable happened, there can be no doubt.

The symbol of Easter is the empty tomb. You can't depict or domesticate emptiness. You can't make it into pageants and string it with lights. It doesn't move people to give presents to each other or sing old songs. It ebbs and flows all around us, the Eastertide. Even the great choruses of Handel's Messiah sound a little like a handful of crickets chirping under the moon.

He rose. A few saw him briefly and talked to him. If it is true, there is nothing left to say. If it is not true, there is nothing left to say. For believers and unbelievers both, life has never been the same again. For some, neither has death. What is left now is the emptiness. There are those who, like Magdalen, will never stop searching it till they find his face.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Judas

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 Palm Sunday.  Here is this week’s reading from the gospel of Matthew:

 

Matthew 26:14-16

Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, "What will you give me if I betray him to you?" They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

 

Here is Buechner’s article on Judas, first published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words.

NOBODY CAN BE SURE, of course, why Judas sold Jesus out, although according to John's Gospel, he already had a reputation for dipping into the poor box from time to time, so the cash may have been part of it. If, like the other disciples, he was perennially worried about where he stood in the pecking order, he may also have been reacting to some imagined slight. Maybe he thought his job as treasurer to the outfit was beneath him. Another possibility is that he had gotten fed up with waiting for Jesus to take the world by storm and hoped that betraying him might force him to show his hand at last. Or maybe, because nothing human is ever uncomplicated, something of all of these was involved. Anyway, whatever his reasons were, the whole thing went sour for him soon enough.

Slipping out of the Last Supper before the party was over, he led the Romans to the garden that he knew his friends were planning to adjourn to afterward and said to lay low till he gave the signal. It was dark by the time the others showed up, and maybe for fear that he might scare them off if he used any other method, the way he showed the soldiers which was the one to jump was by kissing him. That was all he'd been paid to do, and as soon as he'd done it, there was no earthly reason why he couldn't have taken off with his laundered cash and found a place to spend it.

But when the time came, he wasn't in the mood.

There are several versions of what he did instead, of which the most psychologically plausible seems to be that he tried to give the money back to the ones who'd given it to him and went out and hanged himself. This time there doesn't seem to be any ambiguity about the motive.

There is a tradition in the early church, however, that his suicide was based not on despair but on hope. If God was just, then he knew there was no question where he would be heading as soon as he'd breathed his last. Furthermore, if God was also merciful, he knew there was no question either that in a last-ditch effort to save the souls of the damned as God's son, Jesus would be down there too. Thus the way Judas figured it, hell might be the last chance he'd have of making it to heaven, so to get there as soon as possible, he tied the rope around his neck and kicked away the stool. Who knows?

In any case, it's a scene to conjure with. Once again they met in the shadows, the two old friends, both of them a little worse for wear after all that had happened, only this time it was Jesus who was the one to give the kiss, and this time it wasn't the kiss of death that was given.

Where Your Feet Take You

"THE WAY I UNDERSTOOD it," she says, "you were supposed to devote these talks to religious matters. Incarnation and Grace and Salvation were some of the noble words you used."

I say that feet are very religious too. She says that's what you think. I say that if you want to know who you are, if you are more than academically interested in that particular mystery, you could do a lot worse than look to your feet for an answer. Introspection in the long run doesn't get you very far because every time you draw back to look at yourself, you are seeing everything except for the part that drew back, and when you draw back to look at the part that drew back to look at yourself, you see again everything except for what you are really looking for. And so on. Since the possibilities for drawing back seem to be infinite, you are, in your quest to see yourself whole, doomed always to see infinitely less than what there will always remain to see. Thus, when you wake up in the morning, called by God to be a self again, if you want to know who you are, watch your feet. Because where your feet take you, that is who you are.

- Originally published in The Alphabet of Grace