Weekly Sermon Illustration: My Ways Are Not Thy Ways

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

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Third Sunday in Lent. Here is this week’s reading from the book of Isaiah:

Isaiah 55:6-9

Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Buechner’s character Leo Bebb, from the novel The Book of Bebb (a compilation of the series of four Bebb novels: Lion CountryOpen HeartLove Feast, and Treasure Hunt), often used the phrase “my ways are not thy ways”. Here is one example, originally published in Lion Country, then later in The Book of Bebb:

"Antonio, I'm not kidding myself. What I do next may be in my hands or then it may not be, and that's what I'm waiting here to find out. They're always locking people up for the wrong reasons—the right people maybe, but the wrong reasons and the wrong times. Think of it, Antonio—this thing I've been dreaming about come true at last. I threw out the life-line, and the one caught it was Herman Redpath in all his wealth and power. And now the lock-up. But my ways are not thy ways, saith the Lord. Antonio, you take a man's been in prison a couple years, and he's ready for Jesus like he's never been ready any place else. He's ready for anything has got some hope and life in it. Life, Antonio, is what a prisoner's ready for. Freedom. Lion Country. It's worth breaking the law just so you can get put in the lock-up, where the grapes are ripe for the harvest and the Lord needs all the hands he can get for the vineyard. You should hear the way they sing hymns behind bars, Antonio. Makes you go all over gooseflesh."

Weekly Sermon Illustration: The Power of God and the Power of Man

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

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Second Sunday in Lent.  Here is this week's reading from the gospel of Luke:

Luke 9:38-43a

Just then a man from the crowd shouted, "Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not." Jesus answered, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here." While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

In his sermon The Power of God and the Power of Man from The Magnificent Defeat, Buechner uses the story above as an illustration of the power of God.  Here are excerpts from the rest of the sermon.

This is text number one. The power of God. Text number two is about the power of man, and it can be stated very simply in the words that Jesus himself uses, speaking about himself: "The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him." This is the power of man.

Put them side by side, as close as we can, as close as we dare, and look sharp. The power of God. The power of man. The power of God in Jesus Christ—to heal, to give life; not to heal and give life only to the body, but to heal whatever is broken, to give life to whatever is dead, dying.

God's power. Man's power. Put them still closer together until they really start to crowd each other as in fact they really do; look at them even sharper if you can stand it. The power of God is powerless against the man who chooses to oppose it. In six hours or so the Son of God was just as dead as anybody else's son. The hands that healed the epileptic boy were just as ruined as any dead man's hands. And has God had any power in all the two thousand years that have gone by since? On the third day he rose again from the dead. This is the faith. But did he rise with power? Or did he rise the way the mist rises from the earth at daybreak—lovely, irrelevant, substanceless? Does God really have power?

If that is really the question, if we are really seeking this power, then I have one thing to say—perhaps it is not the only thing, but it is enormously important: ask for it. There is something in me that recoils a little at speaking so directly and childishly, but I speak this way anyway because it is the most important thing I have in me to say. Ask, and you will receive. And there is the other side to it too: if you have never known the power of God's love, then maybe it is because you have never asked to know it—I mean really asked, expecting an answer.

I am saying just this: go to him the way the father of the sick boy did and ask him. Pray to him, is what I am saying. In whatever words you have. And if the little voice that is inside all of us as the inheritance of generations of unfaith, if this little voice inside says, "But I don't believe. I don't believe," don't worry too much. Just keep on anyway. "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief" is the best any of us can do really, but thank God it is enough.

Seek and you will find—this power of God's love to heal, to give peace and, at last, something like real life, so that little by little, like the boy, you can get up. Yes, get up. But we must seek—like a child at first, like playing a kind of game at first because prayer is so foreign to most of us. It is so hard and it is so easy. And everything depends on it. Seek. Ask. And by God's grace we will find. In Christ's name and with his power I can promise you this.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Ash Wednesday

For special days in the Christian calendar, we post an additional reading from the Revised Common Lectionary and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.

Today we mark Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent with a reading from the gospel of Matthew:

Matthew 6:1-5

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.

The following excerpt comes from A Room Called Remember.

The church is intact in many ways, and at their best most of the things the church does serve their purpose—sometimes, we pray, serve even Christ's purpose—and at their worst are probably at least harmless. But is it possible that something crucial is missing the way something crucial was missing in the Temple at Jerusalem in 586 B.C., which is why it fell like a ton of bricks? "You are the body of Christ," Paul said, and if you stop to think of it at all, that is a most fateful and devastating word. Christ on this earth was the healer of the sick, the feeder of the hungry, the hope of the hopeless, the sinners' friend, and thank God for that because that means he is also our hope, our friend. Thank God for every time the church remembers that and acts out of that.

But Christ was also a tiger, the denouncer of a narrow and loveless piety, the scourge of the merely moral, the enemy of every religious tradition of his day, no matter how sacred, that did not serve the Kingdom as he saw it and embodied it in all its wildness and beauty. Where he was, passion was, life was. To be near him was to catch life from him the way sails catch the wind. He was the Prince of Peace, and when he said, "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword," what he presumably meant was that it was not peacefulness and passivity that he came to bring but that high and life-breathing peace that burns at the hearts only of those who are willing to do battle, as he did battle, to bring to pass God's loving, healing, forgiving will for the world and all its people.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Lent

In our blog post each Monday a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.

Next Sunday we will celebrate the First Sunday in Lent.  Here is this week’s reading from the gospel of Luke:

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'" Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'" Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Here is an article on Lent from Buechner’s Whistling in the Dark, later published in Beyond Words.

In many cultures there is an ancient custom of giving a tenth of each year's income to some holy use. For Christians, to observe the forty days of Lent is to do the same thing with roughly a tenth of each year's days. After being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.

If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn't, which side would get your money and why?

When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?

If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be in twenty-five words or less?

Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo? Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?

Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?

If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it?

To hear yourself try to answer questions like these is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be a pretty depressing business all in all, but if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Freedom

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 Transfiguration Sunday. Here is a reading from the book of 2 Corinthians:

2 Corinthians 3:17

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

The article below was originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words.

We have freedom to the degree that the master whom we obey grants it to us in return for our obedience. We do well to choose a master in terms of how much freedom we get for how much obedience.

To obey the law of the land leaves us our constitutional freedom, but not the freedom to follow our own consciences wherever they lead.

To obey the dictates of our own consciences leaves us freedom from the sense of moral guilt, but not the freedom to gratify our own strongest appetites.

To obey our strongest appetites for drink, sex, power, revenge, or whatever leaves us the freedom of an animal to take what we want when we want it, but not the freedom of a human being to be human.

The old prayer speaks of God "in whose service is perfect freedom." The paradox is not as opaque as it sounds. It means that to obey Love itself, which above all else wishes us well, leaves us the freedom to be the best and gladdest that we have it in us to become. The only freedom Love denies us is the freedom to destroy ourselves ultimately.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Turn the Other Cheek

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 the Epiphany.  Here is this week's reading from the gospel of Luke:

Luke 6:27-29

"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.

The following excerpt is from the novel The Seasons' Difference.

In her absence, Sam, Lundrigan and Dr. Lavender had arisen and, unwilling to disturb Cowley, who remained kneeling on the hillside, by either calling out to her or going to get her, simply awaited her together in silence. As soon as she had turned around, Sam beckoned her to come, but, although her impulse was also to avoid at any cost an encounter now with Peter, she forced herself to stop by him on her way down to join the others. The vividness of the sunset, which had by now enflamed all of the sky before him, reflected as ruddy a cast upon his face and forehead as though he had been fiercely struck. Although she stood directly beside him, he gave no sign of having noticed her approach; and so, timorously and with an uneasy smile, she laid her hand upon his shoulder and softly called his name. As a child she had once followed out of a crowded room a man whom she thought, from the familiar coat he wore, to be her father, only to discover when she had, after walking some little distance with him, pulled at the familiar sleeve to attract his attention, that it was, instead, a stranger she accosted. All the shock of that discovery returned to her now as Peter glanced up towards her, and she withdrew her hand from his shoulder. Would they, he asked her in tones that acknowledged no background of sympathy between the two of them, return home without him. He would come later. And that was all. She was unable to muster enough presence even to answer him and continued down the hill without once looking back. They left him behind as he had asked and started, the four of them, to walk back the way they had come.

"Oh Cowley," Lundrigan said, the grass going flick, flick against his faintly pointed shoes, "Cowley the love-lost and Christ-bescrewed," and he glanced around him, smiling with only half of his dry mouth and hoping to have sprung the anger of at least one of his listeners, it did not matter which one, because anger was something he could deal with; but he saw that he had sprung nothing and so repeated what he had said, scuffing an emphasis out of the ground he walked. "Cowley the Christ-bescrewed, the love-lost." And damnation, he thought, upon whoever remained unmoved by epithets prepared, as prophecies, in advance.

"He'll only turn the other cheek you know, Richard," Sam said with maddening mildness, "because that's what the book says, the book he takes along to eat when he comes out here reading his apple."

"What can you know when you slept through the whole thing!" He had spoken sharply and continued quickly upon it, correcting his tone lest the sharpness be taken for a defense of Cowley, a protest against sleeping through what Cowley had bid them never forget. "Of course he'll turn the other cheek, book or no book, because it's one devil of a lot pleasanter than having the same one slapped twice." That was good, and he let a little silence frame it.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Tree

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 the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany.  Here is this week's reading from the book of Jeremiah:

Jeremiah 17:5-8

Thus says the LORD: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD. They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.

Thus says the LORD: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD. They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.

The following was originally published in Beyond Words.

My brother liked digging holes, and the summer before he died he dug one for an apple tree that I see every day through a window in my office. Thanks to the tree, it is the one hole he dug that has not been filled in and forgotten.

By the side of an old dirt road in the woods is a big maple tree that is so nearly hollow that three children can get into it together and still have wiggle room. Year after year it puts out a canopy of leaves even so, and a friend of mine once said, "If that tree can keep on doing that in the shape it's in, then there's hope for all of us." So we named it the Hope Tree.

Sycamore, willow, catalpa, ash—who knows what their true names are? We know only that they are most beautiful in the fall when they are dying. They are craziest when the wind is blowing. In the snow they are holiest.

Maybe what is most precious about them is their silence. Maybe what is most touching about them is the way they reach out to us as we pass.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Vocation

IT COMES FROM the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a person is called to by God.

There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Super-ego, or Self-interest.

By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you've presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you've missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you're bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren't helping your patients much either.

Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.

-Originally published in Wishful Thinking

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Agape

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

Next Sunday, we will celebrate the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany. Here is this week’s reading from the book of 1 Corinthians:

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Here is a passage from Buechner’s sermon called “Paul Sends His Love”, first published in The Clown in the Belfry and later in Secrets in the Dark.

Not even in the Gospels is there a more familiar passage than the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians. "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels ... when I was a child, I spake as a child ... through a glass darkly ... " (KJV). Words as familiar as these are like coins worn smooth with long handling. After a while it is hard to tell where they came from or what they are worth. Paul has been speaking about spiritual gifts—prophecy, tongues, healing, miracles, and so on—and making the point that they should not be the cause of still further divisiveness, people gifted one way disparaging people gifted another. He sees all Christians as parts of Christ's body and each part in its own way as necessary as every other. "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you.'" Each gift is to be cherished. "But," he says then, "earnestly desire the higher gifts" (12:21, 31) and at that point sets off into what turned out to be perhaps the most memorable words he ever wrote.

The highest gift of all is agape, he says. Without it even faith, almsgiving, martyrdom are mere busyness and even great wisdom doesn't amount to a hill of beans. The translators of the King James Version render the Greek word as "charity," which in seventeenth-century usage was a happy choice—charity as the beneficence of the rich to the poor, the lucky to the unlucky, the powerful to the weak, the lovely to the unlovely. But since to our age the word all too often suggests a cheerless and demeaning handout, modern translators have usually rendered it as "love." But agape love is not to be confused with eros love. That is what Paul is at such pains to make clear here.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Body of Christ

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

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Third Sunday after the Epiphany. Here is this week’s reading from the book of 1 Corinthians:

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts.

Here is a passage from Buechner’s article about Paul, first published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words.

When you came right down to it, what was God up to, for God's sweet sake, sending them all out—prophets, apostles, evangelists, teachers, the whole tattered bunch—to beat their gums and work themselves into an early grave?

God was making a body for Christ, Paul said. Christ didn't have a regular body any more so God was making him one out of anybody he could find who looked as if he might just possibly do. He was using other people's hands to be Christ's hands and other people's feet to be Christ's feet, and when there was some place where Christ was needed in a hurry and needed bad, he put the finger on some maybe-not-all-that-innocent bystander and got him to go and be Christ in that place himself for lack of anybody better.

And how long was the whole great circus to last? Paul said, why, until we all become human beings at last, until we all "attain to mature manhood," as he put it; and then, since there had been only one really human being since the world began, until we all make it to where we're like him, he said—"to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:11-13). Christs to each other, Christs to
God. All of us. Finally. It was just as easy, and just as hard, as that.