Weekly Sermon Illustration: Bread

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

Next Sunday, we will celebrate The Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost. Here is this week’s reading from the gospel of John:

John 6:51-58

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" So Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever."

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

WE DON'T LIVE BY BREAD ALONE, but we also don't live long without it. To eat is to acknowledge our dependence—both on food and on each other. It also reminds us of other kinds of emptiness that not even the blue-plate special can touch.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Absalom

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

Next Sunday we will celebrate The Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost. Here is this week’s reading from the book of 2 Samuel:

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33

The king ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, "Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom." And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom. So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword. Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on. And ten young men, Joab's armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him. Then the Cushite came; and the Cushite said, "Good tidings for my lord the king! For the LORD has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you." The king said to the Cushite, "Is it well with the young man Absalom?" The Cushite answered, "May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man." The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!"

Here are Buechner’s thoughts on this incident, first published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words:

ALMOST FROM THE START, Absalom had a number of strikes against him. For one thing, he was much too handsome for his own good, and his special pride was such a magnificent head of hair that once a year when he had it trimmed, the trimmings alone tipped the scales at three and a half pounds. For another thing, his father, King David, was always either spoiling him rotten or reading him the riot act. This did not promote stability of character. He murdered his lecherous brother Amnon for fooling around with their sister, Tamar, and when the old war-horse Joab wouldn't help him patch things up with David afterward, he set fire to his hay field. All Israel found this kind of derring-do irresistible, of course, and when he eventually led a revolt against his father, a lot of them joined up.

On the eve of the crucial battle, David was a wreck. If he was afraid he might lose his throne, he was even more afraid he might lose Absalom. The boy was the thorn in his flesh, but he was also the apple of his eye, and before the fighting started, he told the chiefs of staff till they were sick of hearing it that, if Absalom fell into their clutches, they must promise to go easy on him for his father's sake. Remembering what had happened to his hay field, old Joab kept his fingers crossed, and when he found Absalom caught in the branches of an oak tree by his beautiful hair, he ran him through without blinking an eye. When they broke the news to David, it broke his heart, just as simple as that, and he cried out in words that have echoed down the centuries ever since. "0 my son Absalom, my son, my son;' he said. "Would I had died instead of you, 0 Absalom, my son, my son" (2 Samuel 18:33).

He meant it, of course. If he could have done the boy's dying for him, he would have done it. If he could have paid the price for the boy's betrayal of him, he would have paid it. If he could have given his own life to make the boy alive again, he would have given it. But even a king can't do things like that. As later history was to prove, it takes a God.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Nathan

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

Next Sunday, we will celebrate The Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost. Here is this week’s reading from the book of 2 Samuel:

2 Samuel 11:26 - 12:13a

When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD, and the LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, "There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man's lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him." Then David's anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, "As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity." Nathan said to David, "You are the man! Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master's house, and your master's wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the LORD: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun." David said to Nathan, "I have sinned against the LORD."

Here are Buechner’s thoughts on this incident, first published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words:

JUST ABOUT EVERY KING seems to have had a prophet to help keep him honest. Saul had Samuel, Ahab had Elijah, Hezekiah had Isaiah, Jehoiakim and Zedekiah seem to have shared Jeremiah, and so on. King David was the one who had Nathan. There is nothing of Nathan's in writing so it's impossible to grade him on literary skill, but when it comes to the ability to be a thorn in the king's flesh, he gets a straight A. The best example is, of course, the most famous.

David had successfully gotten rid of Uriah the Hittite by assigning him to frontline duty, where he was soon picked off by enemy snipers. After a suitable period of mourning, David then proceeded to marry Uriah's gorgeous young widow, Bathsheba. The honeymoon had hardly started rolling before Nathan came around to describe a hardship case he thought David might want to do something about.

There were these two men, Nathan said, one of them a big-time rancher with flocks and herds of just about everything that has four legs and a tail and the other the owner of just one lamb he was too soft-hearted even to think about in terms of chops and mint jelly. He had it living at home with himself and the family, and he got to the point where he even let it lap milk out of his own bowl and sleep at the foot of his bed. Then one day the rancher had a friend drop in unexpectedly for a meal and, instead of taking something out of his own overstuffed freezer, he got somebody to go over and commandeer the poor man's lamb, which he and his friend consumed with a garnish of roast potatoes and new peas.

When Nathan finished, David hit the roof. He said anybody who'd pull a stunt like that ought to be taken out and shot. At the very least he ought to be made to give back four times what the lamb was worth. And who was the greedy, thieving slob anyway, he wanted to know.

"Take a look in the mirror the next time you're near one,” Nathan said. It was only the opening thrust. By the time Nathan was through, it was all David could do just to pick up the receiver and tell room service to get a stiff drink up to the bridal suite.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Uriah the Hittite

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

Next Sunday we will celebrate The Tenth Sunday After Pentecost.  Here is this week’s reading from the book of 2 Samuel: 

2 Samuel 11:1-15

In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem. It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king's house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, "This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite." So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, "I am pregnant." So David sent word to Joab, "Send me Uriah the Hittite." And Joab sent Uriah to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going. Then David said to Uriah, "Go down to your house, and wash your feet." Uriah went out of the king's house, and there followed him a present from the king. But Uriah slept at the entrance of the king's house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. When they told David, "Uriah did not go down to his house," David said to Uriah, "You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?" Uriah said to David, "The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing." Then David said to Uriah, "Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back." So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day. On the next day, David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house. In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, "Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.” 

Here are Buechner’s thoughts on this incident, first published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words

URIAH THE HITTITE, Bathsheba's husband, was a straight arrow and a patriot, and in his eyes the king could do no wrong. There's no reason to think he had any idea David was carrying on with Bathsheba while he was off in the army, but you suspect that even if somebody had tipped him off about it, he wouldn't have made all that much of a fuss.   

When Bathsheba told David she was pregnant by him, he decided to move fast and had her husband sent back from the front on the double. His hope was that Uriah would lose no time bedding down his beautiful bride, and that way, when the time came, he'd have no reason for thinking the baby was anyone's but his. But he didn't count on Uriah's strong moral character and high sense of duty. Uriah said that as long as his troops were back there slogging it out in the trenches, he refused to live it up at home or have sex with anybody. Even after David got him all liquored up one night in an effort to lower his resistance, he still insisted on sleeping curled up on the palace floor, and Bathsheba bedded down alone. 

His first trick having failed, David had Uriah bundled off to the front again with a note to General Joab saying to assign him where the fighting was fiercest. Uriah was soon shot down by the enemy, and after a long enough mourning period to make it look respectable, David married Bathsheba himself. 

If Uriah could have known about the long and illustrious line that was to issue from that unseemly match, the chances are he would have considered his death none too high a price to pay. With Solomon in mind and all the mighty kings who followed him, he would probably have rejoiced in the thought that by bowing out at the right moment he had been able to give so many lives besides his own to the service of his country. 

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Healing

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

Next Sunday we will celebrate The Ninth Sunday After Pentecost.  Here is this week’s reading from the gospel of Mark: 

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.  Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed. 

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: Herod the Antipas

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

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Eighth Sunday After Pentecost.  Here is this week’s reading from the gospel of Mark: 

Mark 6:14-29

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him." But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old." But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised." For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it." And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom." She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer." Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb. 

Here is Buechner’s description of Herod Antipas, first published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words

HEROD ANTIPAS, the tetrarch of Galilee and the son of Herod the Great, seems to have spent much of his life running scared. 

When John the Baptist started criticizing his private life in public, Herod had him locked up for fear that otherwise he might become a fad, but he didn't dare have him executed for fear that John's fans might get themselves a new tetrarch if he did. 

On his birthday he told Salome that he'd give her anything she asked for if she'd do her act with the seven veils for him, and when what she asked for was John the Baptist's head on a platter, he shook in his boots but gave it to her because he was afraid of what might happen if word got around that he was turning chicken. 

He turned pale when he heard that a new prophet named Jesus was stirring up trouble because he was sure that it must be John come back from the grave to get even, and he decided to have him taken care of a second time. This threat doesn't seem to have especially bothered Jesus, because when news of it reached him, he referred to Herod as a fox and sent word back that he had bigger things on his mind to worry about. (His use of the word fox is interesting because, although then as now it could be used to suggest slyness, its more common use apparently was a term of contempt. Pussycat might be a better rendering. The fact that the Greek word is in the feminine gender mayor may not be an allusion to some of Herod's more exotic proclivities.)  

They finally came face-to-face, of course, Jesus of Nazareth and the tetrarch of Galilee. It was the night of Jesus' arrest, and when Pilate found out he was a Galilean and thus under that jurisdiction, he had him bundled off to Herod's headquarters immediately. He'd never been able to stand Herod's guts, Luke tells us, and was probably tickled pink to find this way of needling him. 

Ironically enough, it appears that Herod was tickled pink too, because he'd apparently given up the idea that the man was John the Baptist's ghost and, again according to Luke, had been looking forward for a long time to seeing him perform some of his more spectacular tricks. He thought that if he was who they claimed he was, it should be quite a show. Unfortunately, Jesus refused to accommodate him or even to answer his questions, and, taking this to be a sign of weakness, Herod decided to have a little fun with him.

He had his soldiers rough him up for a while and then let them do some other things to him that struck them as appropriate to do to a man who'd been the cause of their having been woken up in the middle of the night. When all of this was finished, Herod had them doll him up in one of his fanciest tetrarch uniforms with a few hilarious additions and deletions and in that state sent him back to Pilate. 

As luck would have it, Pilate turned out to have the same sense of humor, and Luke tells us that he and Herod became great friends from then on. It is nice to think that at least one good thing thus came out of that dark and harrowing night, and it is interesting also to note that on this one occasion when Herod might justifiably have been scared out of his wits, you would have thought he was watching a Punch and Judy show the way he threw back his head and howled. 

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Paul

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

Next Sunday we will celebrate The Seventh Sunday After Pentecost. Here is this week’s reading from the second book of Corinthians:

2 Corinthians 12:2-10

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven--whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person--whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows-- was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

Here is Buechner’s description of Paul, first published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words:

HE WASN'T MUCH TO LOOK AT. "Bald-headed, bowlegged, strongly built, a man small in size, with meeting eyebrows, with a rather large nose." Years after his death that's the way the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla describes him, and Paul himself quotes somebody who had actually seen him: "His letters are strong, but his bodily presence is weak" (2 Corinthians 10:10). It was no wonder.

"Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one” he wrote. "Three times I have been beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked. A night and a day I have been adrift at sea. In danger from rivers ... robbers ... my own people ... Gentiles. In toil and hardship, in hunger and thirst ... in cold and exposure" (2 Corinthians 11:24-27). He also was sick off and on all his life and speaks of a "thorn in the flesh" that God gave him "to keep me from being too elated" (2 Corinthians l2:7). Epilepsy? Hysteria? Who knows? The wonder of it is that he was able to get around at all.

But get around he did. Corinth, Ephesus, Thessalonica, Galatia, Colossae, not to mention side trips to Jerusalem, Cyprus, Crete, Malta, Athens, Syracuse, Rome—there was hardly a whistle-stop in the Mediterranean world that he didn't make it to eventually, and sightseeing was the least of it. He planted churches the way Johnny Appleseed planted trees. And whenever he had ten minutes to spare he wrote letters. He bullied. He coaxed. He comforted. He cursed. He bared his soul. He reminisced. He complained. He theologized. He inspired. He exulted. Punch-drunk and Christ-drunk, he kept in touch with everybody. The postage alone must have cost him a fortune, not counting the energy and time. And where did it all start? On the road, as you might expect. He was still in charge of a Pharisee goon squad in those days and was hell-bent for Damascus to round up some troublemaking Christians and bring them to justice. And then it happened.

It was about noon when he was knocked flat by a blaze of light that made the sun look like a forty-watt bulb, and out of the light came a voice that called him by his Hebrew name twice. "Saul” it said, and then again "Saul. Why are you out to get me?" and when he pulled himself together enough to ask who it was he had the honor of addressing, what he heard to his horror was, "I'm Jesus of Nazareth, the one you're out to get." We're not told how long he lay there in the dust then, but it must have seemed at least six months. If Jesus of Nazareth had what it took to burst out of the grave like a guided missile, he thought, then he could polish off one bowlegged Christian-baiter without even noticing it, and Paul waited for the ax to fall. Only it wasn't an ax that fell. "Those boys in Damascus” Jesus said. "Don't fight them. Join them. I want you on my side” and Paul never in his life forgot the sheer lunatic joy and astonishment of that moment. He was blind as a bat for three days afterward, but he made it to Damascus anyway and was baptized on the spot. He was never the same again, and neither, in a way, was the world (Acts 9:1-6; 22:4-16; 26:9-18).

Everything he ever said or wrote or did from that day forward was an attempt to bowl over the human race as he'd been bowled over himself while he lay there with dust in his mouth and road apples down the front of his shirt: "Don't fight them, join them. He wants you on his side." You, of all people. Me. Who in the world, who in the solar system, the galaxy, could ever have expected it? He knew it was a wild and crazy business—"the folly of what we preach” he said—but he preached it anyway. "A fool for Christ's sake" he called himself as well as weak in his bodily presence, but he knew that "God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength" (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). There were times he got so carried away that his language went all out of whack. Infinitives split like atoms, syntax exploded, participles were left dangling.

"By grace you have been saved” he wrote to the Ephesians, and grace was his key word. Grace. Salvation was free, gratis. There was nothing you had to do to earn it and nothing you could do to earn it. "This is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast” and God knows he'd worked, himself, and boasted too—worked as a Pharisee, boasting about the high marks he'd racked up in heaven till the sweat ran down and Christian heretics dropped like flies—only to find en route to Damascus that he'd been barking up the wrong tree from the start, trying to beat and kick his way through a door that had stood wide open the whole time. "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” he wrote; in other words, good works were part of it, all right, but after the fact, not before (Ephesians 2:8-10).

Little by little the forgiven person became a forgiving person, the person who found he or she was loved became capable of love, the slob that God had had faith in anyway became de-slobbed, faithful, and good works blossomed from his branches, from her branches, like fruit from a well-watered tree. What fruit? Love, Paul wrote the boys and girls in Galatia. Love was the sweetest and tenderest. And then "joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" till his typewriter ribbon was in tatters and he had to take to a pencil instead (Galatians 5:22-23).

And Christ was his other key word, of course. Christ—the key to the key. He never forgot how he'd called him by name—twice, to make sure it got through—and "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” he wrote out for the Romans (Romans 5:6) and for the Galatians again, "I have been crucified with Christ"—all that was dried up in him, full of hate and self-hating, self-serving and sick, all of it behind him now, dead as a doornail—so that "it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2:20). And then, to the Philippians by registered mail, return receipt requested: "For me to live is Christ" (Philippians 1:21), and to the Ephesians, for fear they'd feel neglected if the mail carrier came empty handed, "You he made alive when you were dead" (Ephesians 2:1). Alive like him.

But there were other times too. Sometimes the depression was so great he could hardly move the pencil across the page. "I don't understand my own actions” he said. "For I don't do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.... I can will what is right, but I can't do it. For I don't do the good I want, but the evil I don't want is what I do.... For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin .... Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" He sat there by himself, aiming his awful question at the plaster peeling off his walls, and maybe it was only ten minutes or maybe it was ten years before he had the heart to scratch out the answer: "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” he said (Romans 7:15-25).

It got him going again, and on the next page he was back in his old stride with a new question. "If God is for us, who is against us?" He worked on that one for a minute or two and then gave it another try. "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?" It was the story of his life, needless to say, and at last he'd laid the groundwork for an answer he could get his back into. "No!" he wrote, the tip of his pencil point breaking off, he bore down so hard. "In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:31-39). He sat there, with his cauliflower ear and a lump on his forehead the size of an egg from the last time the boys had worked him over, and when he reached for the drawer to get out an envelope, he found that his hand was shaking so badly he could hardly open it.

The ups and the downs. The fights with his enemies and the fights with his friends. The endless trips with a fever and diarrhea. Keeping one jump ahead of the sheriff. Giving his spiel on windy street corners with nobody much to hear him most of the time except some underfed kids and a few old women and some yokels who didn't even know the language. Where was it all going to get him in the end? Where was it all going to get all of them, any of them, in the end? 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 anymore, so God was making him one out of anybody he could find who looked as if he or she 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 someplace where Christ was needed in a hurry and needed bad, he put the finger on some maybe not all that innocent bystander and got that person to go and be Christ in that place 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 "come to maturity," 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:n-13). Christs to each other, Christs to God. All of us. Finally. It was just as easy, and just as hard, as that.

Nobody's sure whether he ever got to Spain the way he'd planned or not, but either before he went or soon after he got back, he had his final run-in with the authorities, and the story is that they took him to a spot about three miles out of Rome and right there on the road, where he'd spent most of his life including what was in a way the beginning of his life, they lopped off his head.

At the end of its less than flattering description of his personal appearance, the Acts of Paul and Thecla says that "at times he looked like a man, and at times he had the face of an angel." If there is a God in heaven, as even in his blackest moments Paul never doubted there was, then bald-headed and bowlegged as he was, with those eyebrows that met and that oversized nose, it was with angel eyes that he exchanged a last long glance with his executioners.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Jairus' Daughter

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

Mark 5:21-43

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, "My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live." So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well." Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, "Who touched my clothes?" And his disciples said to him, "You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, 'Who touched me?'" He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease." While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader's house to say, "Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?" But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, "Do not fear, only believe." He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, "Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping." And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child's father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, "Talitha cum," which means, "Little girl, get up!" And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

Here is Buechner’s sermon called “Jairus’ Daughter” which is based on this passage, from Secrets in the Dark:

The story Mark tells takes place on the western shores of the Sea of Galilee, which isn't a sea at all, of course, but a large freshwater lake some thirteen miles long and eight miles across surrounded by high mountains and apparently roughly in the shape of a heart, which is rather wonderful if you stop to think about it—a heart-shaped lake at the heart of where it all happened. After leaving Nazareth Jesus seems to have spent most of what was left: of his short life in the city of Capernaum, which was on the northern shore of the lake and the center of its fishing industry. A number of his best friends lived there including Zebedee's two sons, James and John, together with Peter and his brother Andrew, who were all of them partners in some sort of fishing enterprise that employed other people whose names we don't know and that seems to have owned at least two boats.

When Mark gives his account of what happened by the lake on this particular day, he puts in so many details that Matthew's parallel account leaves out that it seems possible he was actually there at the time or at least had talked to somebody who was. It has the ring of an eyewitness account, in other words, and that makes it a little easier for us all these centuries later to see it with our eyes too, which is what I think we should always try to do with all these stories about Jesus. Hearing them preached on in church year after year and reading them in the dreary double columns of some Bible, we tend to think of them as dreary themselves-as little stained-glass stories suitable for theologizing about and moralizing about but without much life in them or much relevance to the reality of our own lives and to us.

But that is not at all the kind of story that Mark is telling us here if you think about it, or maybe if you don't so much think about it as just listen to it, let it take you wherever it is going. It is a quiet, low-key little story and in some ways so unclear and ambiguous that it's hard to know just why Mark is telling it or just what he expects us to make out of it or made out of it himself. It's a story not about stained-glass people at all but about people who lived and breathed and sweated and made love and used bad language when they tripped over furniture in the dark and sometimes had more troubles than they knew what to do with and sometimes laughed themselves silly over nothing in particular and were thus in many ways very much like the rest of us.

Jesus had just crossed over in a boat from the other side of the lake, Mark writes, when he found himself surrounded by some of them right there at the water's edge where there were nets hanging up to dry and fish being gutted and scaled and stray cats looking around for anything they could get their paws on. He doesn't say there was any particular reason for the crowd, so it's probably just that they had heard about Jesus—probably even knew him, some of them—and were there to gawk at him because there were a lot of wild stories about who some people said he was and what he was going around the countryside doing and saying, and they were there to see what wild things he might take it into his head to say or do next.

There are so many people around him it's hard to pick out which one Jesus is, but it's worth giving it a try. Is he the one with his hand in the air signaling to somebody he can't get to on the far edge of the crowd? Is he the thin, sad-eyed one who looks a little like Osama bin Laden, of all people? Is he the one leaning down and reaching out to take something a child is trying to hand him? What did it feel like to be near enough to touch him if you dared? If his eyes happened to meet yours for a moment, what would you say if you could find the right words for saying it, and how would he answer you if he could so much as hear you in the midst of all the babbling and jostling? What if just for a moment as he tried to shoulder his way out of the crowd he brushed against you so that for a second or two you actually felt the solid flesh and bone of him, smelled the smell of him?

I think that is part of what all these stories about Jesus in the Gospels are trying to tell us if we keep our ears open. They're trying to tell us who he was and what it was it like to be with him. They're trying to tell us what there was about him that made at least some of the people there by the lake that day decide to give up everything they had or ever hoped to have, in some cases even their own lives, maybe just for the sake of being near him.

Matthew's account doesn't give us the name Jairus, but Mark's does. There was a man named Jairus there, he says, who somehow made his way to Jesus and threw himself at his feet, as Mark describes it, fell to his knees perhaps, or touched his forehead to the ground in front of him. He was a synagogue official of some kind, Mark says, whatever exactly that means, but an important man anyway, which is possibly why the crowd gave way enough to let him through. But he doesn't behave like an important man, though. He behaves like a desperate man, a man close to hysteria with fear, grief, horror, God knows what.

The reason is that his daughter is on the point of death, Jairus says, only he doesn't say "my daughter," he says "my little daughter." She is twelve years old, going on thirteen, we're told, so she wasn't all that little really, but to Jairus she would presumably always be his little daughter the way even when they've grown up and moved away long since, we keep on speaking of our sons and daughters as children because that is what they were when we knew them first and loved them first.

His child is dying is what Jairus is there to get through somehow to this man some say is like no other man. She is dying—he says it repeatedly, Mark tells us, dying, dying—and then he says, "Come and lay your hands on her," because he's seen it done that way before and has possibly even tried doing it that way himself, except that it did absolutely no good at all when he tried it, as for all he knows it will do absolutely no good now either. But this is the only card he has left to play, and he plays it. "Lay your hands on her, so she may be made well, and live," he says—live, he says, live, not die, before she's hardly had more than a glimpse of what living is. It's a wonder Jesus even hears him what with all the other things people are clamoring to him for, but somehow he does, and so does a lot of the crowd that follows along as Jairus leads the way to where his house stands.

They follow presumably because for the moment Jesus is the hottest ticket in town and because they don't have anything better to do and because they're eager to see if the man is all he's been cracked up to be. But before they get very far, they run into some people coming the other way who with the devastating tactlessness of the simple souls they are come right out and say it. "Your daughter is dead," they tell Jairus. They have just come from his house, where she died. They saw it with their own eyes. There is nothing anybody can do about it now. They have come too late. "Why trouble the teacher any further?" they ask her father, and it is Jesus who finally breaks the silence by speaking, only it's just Jairus he speaks to.

"Do not fear, "he says. Don't be afraid. Don't be afraid. And then, "Only believe."

The question is what is a man to believe when his whole life has blown up in his face? Believe that somehow life makes sense even in the face of a twelve-year-old's death? Believe that in some unimaginable way all will be well no matter what? Believe in God? Believe in Jesus? Jairus doesn't ask what he is to believe or how he is to believe and Jesus doesn't tell him as they stand there in the road. "Only believe" is all he says, meaning maybe only "Believe there's nothing you have to be afraid of," and then he tells everybody to go home except for his three particular friends, who Mark tells us were Peter and James and John. And everybody goes home.

When the five of them finally get to Jairus's house, they find it full of people "weeping and wailing loudly," as Mark describes it because this is not the twenty-first century but the first century and people apparently hadn't started yet saying things like "It's really a blessing" or "She is in a better world now" because for the most part they didn't believe in any better world but just some sort of limbo world under the earth where the ghosts of the dead drift like dead leaves. Instead, they wept and wailed because they didn't have it in them to pretend that the death of a child is anything but the tragic and unspeakable thing that it is, and Jesus didn't say anything to make them change their minds, didn't tell them that it was God's will or anything like that. What he did instead was to say something that it's hard to know how to understand.

"The child is not dead," he said, "but sleeping."

Was he speaking literally? Did he mean she had lapsed into some kind of coma? Or was he only trying to comfort her father with the thought that death is only a kind of eternal sleep? Who knows what he meant, but the people in the house seemed to think he was either a fool or a madman. They had been there when it happened. They knew death when they saw it, and because the line between weeping and laughing is sometimes a very tenuous one, they stopped their weeping and wailing and of all things laughed at him, Mark said, laughed because they didn't know what else to do, until Jesus finally "put them all outside," the way Mark tells it, so that only the three fisherman friends along with Jairus and the child's mother were left there with him, and together they went on to the room where the child lay.

It is the deafening stillness of it, I think, that you can imagine best-the mother with her face in her hands, Jairus on his knees at the bedside, the child like the waxwork of a child, hair brushed, face washed, hands folded one on top of the other on her chest.

Then the moment of magic, if magic is what it was. It's the child herself that Jesus speaks to. He reaches down and picks up one of her hands in his hand, and Mark reports the words he used not in Greek, which is what the rest of his Gospel is written in, but in Aramaic, which was the language Jesus actually spoke, so somebody who was there at the time must have heard them and remembered them-the actual words he used as he reached out and lifted up the child's hand in his.

"Talitha cum, "Jesus says. "Talitha cum," and you hardly need the translation to understand him. "Little girl"—Talitha—"get up," is what he said, and then according to Mark "immediately the girl got up and started to walk about .... At this they were overcome with amazement."

It was not just the child's life that had been given back, of course, but the lives of the mother and father, who stood there with no words they knew how to say. The worst thing that had ever happened to them had suddenly become the best thing that had ever happened to them, and you can imagine their hardly daring so much as to breathe for fear of breaking the spell. You can imagine her walking around the room touching familiar things—a chair, a comb, a flower somebody had left, a chipped plate—trying to get the world back, trying to get her self back.

For whatever the reason, Jesus asked them never to tell a soul what had happened—maybe because he wasn't ready for the secret of who he was to be known yet, maybe because he wasn't sure he knew the secret of who he was yet himself Who can say? Then he told them to go get the child something to eat, something for the child to eat, and that is where Mark's story ends.

The question is what kind of a story is it? If the little girl had actually died the way the people who were there in the house believed she had, then it is the story of a miracle as dazzling as the raising of Lazarus and bears witness to the power Jesus had over even the last and darkest power of all. If she was only sleeping as Jesus said—in a coma or whatever he may have meant - then it is a story about a healing, about the power of Jesus's touch to make the blind see and the deaf hear and the lame walk. Either way it is a story about a miracle, but about a miracle that doesn't end with an exclamation point the way you would expect, but with a question mark or at most with the little row of dots that means unresolved, to be continued, to figure out somehow for ourselves.

Who can say for sure exactly what it is that Jesus did in that house where Jairus lived or how far down into the darkness he had to reach to do it, but in a way who cares any more than her mother and father can have cared. They had their child back. She was alive again. She was well again. That was all that mattered. I picture her looking something like the photographs we have of Anne Frank - a wry, narrow little Jewish face full of irony and wit and a kind of bright-eyed exhilaration; I picture how it would be to have the child that was Anne Frank back again somehow, the way she was before the gates of the concentration camp closed behind her. I picture how one way or another, if such a thing were to happen, we would all of us fall to our knees. The whole world would fall to its knees.

Who knows what kind of story Mark is telling here, but the enormously moving part of it, I think, is the part where Jesus takes the little girl's hand and says, "Talitha cum'—"Little girl, get up"—and suddenly we ourselves are the little girl.

Little girl. Old girl. Old boy. Old boys and girls with high blood pressure and arthritis, and young boys and girls with tattoos and body piercing. You who believe, and you who sometimes believe and sometimes don't believe much of anything, and you who would give almost anything to believe if only you could. You happy ones and you who can hardly remember what it was like once to be happy. You who know where you're going and how to get there and you who much of the time aren't sure you're getting anywhere. "Get up," he says, all of you—all of you!—and the power that is in him is the power to give life not just to the dead like the child, but to those who are only partly alive, which is to say to people like you and me who much of the time live with our lives closed to the wild beauty and miracle of things, including the wild beauty and miracle of every day we live and even of ourselves.

It is that life-giving power that is at the heart of this shadowy story about Jairus and the daughter he loved, and that I believe is at the heart of all our stories-the power of new life, new hope, new being, that whether we know it or not, I think, keeps us coming to places like this year after year in search of it. It is the power to get up even when getting up isn't all that easy for us anymore and to keep getting up and going on and on toward whatever it is, whoever he is, that all our lives long reaches out to take us by the hand.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: David and Goliath

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 After Pentecost.  Here is this week’s reading from the book of 1 Samuel: 

1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49

Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle; they were gathered at Socoh, which belongs to Judah, and encamped between Socoh and Azekah, in Ephes-dammim. And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver's beam, and his spear's head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; and his shield-bearer went before him. He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, "Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us." And the Philistine said, "Today I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we may fight together." When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid. Now Saul, and they, and all the men of Israel, were in the valley of Elah, fighting with the Philistines. David rose early in the morning, left the sheep with a keeper, took the provisions, and went as Jesse had commanded him. He came to the encampment as the army was going forth to the battle line, shouting the war cry. Israel and the Philistines drew up for battle, army against army. David left the things in charge of the keeper of the baggage, ran to the ranks, and went and greeted his brothers. As he talked with them, the champion, the Philistine of Gath, Goliath by name, came up out of the ranks of the Philistines, and spoke the same words as before. And David heard him. David said to Saul, "Let no one's heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine." Saul said to David, "You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth." But David said to Saul, "Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God." David said, "The LORD, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine." So Saul said to David, "Go, and may the LORD be with you!" Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul's sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, "I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them." So David removed them. Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd's bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine. The Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. The Philistine said to David, "Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?" And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, "Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field." But David said to the Philistine, "You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the LORD will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the LORD does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord's and he will give you into our hand." When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground. 

Here is Buechner’s description of this encounter, first published in Peculiar Treasures and again in Beyond Words: 

GOLIATH STOOD 10 FEET TALL in his stocking feet, wore a size 20 collar, a 9'12-inch hat, and a 52-inch belt. When he put his full armor on, he looked like a Sherman tank. Even stripped to the bare essentials, he had plenty to carry around, and flesh and bones were the least of it. There was the burdensome business of having to defend his title against all comers. There were the mangled remains of the runners-up. When he tried to think something out, it was like struggling through a hip-deep bog. When he tried to explain something, it was like pushing a truck uphill. His dark moods were leaden and his light moods elephantine. He considered underarm deodorants a sign of effeminacy. 

The stone from David's slingshot caught him between the eyes, and when he hit the dirt, windows rattled in their frames as far away as Ashkelon. The ringing in his ears drowned out the catcalls of the onlooking armies, and his vision was all but shot, but he could still see enough to make out the naked figure of a boy running toward him through the scrub. His hair streamed out behind him like copper, and he was as swift and light-footed as a deer. 

As he straddled Goliath with Goliath's sword in his hand, the giant believed that what he was seeing was his own soul stripped of the unwieldy flesh at last for its journey to paradise, and when David presented the severed head to Saul later, there was an unmistakable smile on its great lips. 

1 Samuel 17:4-55 

Weekly Sermon Illustration: The Longing for Home

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 After Pentecost. Here is this week’s reading from the book of 2 Corinthians:

2 Corinthians 5:6-8

So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord -- for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

Here are three excerpts from Buechner’s sermon “The Longing for Home”, first published in The Longing for Home and again in Secrets in the Dark:

Home sweet home. There's no place like home. Home is where you hang your hat, or, as a waggish friend of mine once said, Home is where you hang yourself. "Home is the sailor, home from sea, / And the hunter home from the hill." What the word home brings to mind before anything else, I believe, is a place, and in its fullest sense not just the place where you happen to be living at the time, but a very special place with very special attributes that make it clearly distinguishable from all other places. The word home summons up a place—more specifically a house within that place—which you have rich and complex feelings about, a place where you feel, or did feel once, uniquely at home, which is to say a place where you feel you belong and that in some sense belongs to you, a place where you feel that all is somehow ultimately well even if things aren't going all that well at any given moment. To think about home eventually leads you to think back to your childhood home, the place where your life started, the place that off and on throughout your life you keep going back to, if only in dreams and memories, and that is apt to determine the kind of place, perhaps a place inside yourself, that you spend the rest of your life searching for even if you are not aware that you are searching. I suspect that those who as children never had such a place in actuality had instead some kind of dream of such a home, which for them played an equally crucial part.

It was toward the middle of December, I think, that [George Buttrick] said something in a sermon that has always stayed with me. He said that on the previous Sunday, as he was leaving the church to go back to the apartment where he lived, he happened to overhear somebody out on the steps asking somebody else, "Are you going home for Christmas?" and I can almost see Buttrick with his glasses glittering in the lectern light as he peered out at all those people listening to him in that large, dim sanctuary and asked it again—"Are you going home for Christmas?"—and asked it in some sort of way that brought tears to my eyes and made it almost unnecessary for him to move on to his answer to the question, which was that home, finally, is the manger in Bethlehem, the place where at midnight even the oxen kneel.

Home is where Christ is was what Buttrick said that winter morning, and when the next autumn I found myself to my great surprise putting aside whatever career I thought I might have as a writer and going to Union Seminary instead at least partly because of the tears that kept coming to my eyes, I don't believe that I consciously thought that home was what I was going there in search of, but I believe that was the truth of it.

Those are some of the places the search has taken me, and what can I honestly say I have found along the way? I think the most I can claim is something like this. I receive maybe three or four hundred letters a year from strangers who tell me that the books I have spent the better part of my life writing have one way or another saved their lives, in some cases literally. I am deeply embarrassed by such letters. I think, if they only knew that I am a person more often than not just as lost in the woods as they are, just as full of darkness, in just as desperate need. I think, if I only knew how to save my own life. They write to me as if I am a saint, and I wonder how I can make clear to them how wrong they are.

But what I am beginning to discover is that, in spite of all that, there is a sense in which they are also right. In my books, and sometimes even in real life, I have it in me at my best to be a saint to other people, and by saint I mean life-giver, someone who is able to bear to others something of the Holy Spirit, whom the creeds describe as the Lord and Giver of Life. Sometimes, by the grace of God, I have it in me to be Christ to other people. And so, of course, have we all-the life-giving, life-saving, and healing power to be saints, to be Christs, maybe at rare moments even to ourselves.

I believe that it is when that power is alive in me and through me that I come closest to being truly home, come closest to finding or being found by that holiness that I may have glimpsed in the charity and justice and order and peace of other homes I have known, but that in its fullness was always missing. I cannot claim that I have found the home I long for every day of my life, not by a long shot, but I believe that in my heart I have found, and have maybe always known, the way that leads to it. I believe that Buttrick was right and that the home we long for and belong to is finally where Christ is. I believe that home is Christ's kingdom, which exists both within us and among us as we wend our prodigal ways through the world in search of it.