Weekly Sermon Illustration: The Seeing Heart

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

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Second Sunday of Easter. Here is this week’s reading from the gospel of John:

John 20:19-29

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe. Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

Here is Frederick Buechner’s sermon called "The Seeing Heart" from Secrets in the Dark:

There was a great teacher of the Old Testament at the seminary where I studied for the ministry years ago, and one thing he told us that I have always remembered is that we really can't hear what the stories of the Bible are saying until we hear them as stories about ourselves. We have to imagine our way into them, he said. We have to imagine ourselves the prodigal son coming home terrified that the door will be slammed in his face when he gets there, only to have the breath all but knocked out of him by the great bear hug his father greets him with before he can choke out so much as the first word of the speech he has prepared about how sorry he is and how he will never do it again, not unlike the way Sunday after Sunday you and I say in our prayers how sorry we are and how we will never do it again. We have to put ourselves in the place of the good thief spread-eagled in the merciless sun saying to the one who is dying beside him, "Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power," the way at the heart of every prayer we have ever prayed or will ever pray, you and I are also saying it in one form or another: Remember me. Remember me. Jesus, remember.

Special Sermon Illustration: Good Friday

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.

On April 19, 2019 we will celebrate Good Friday. Here is this week's reading from the gospel of John:

John 19:28-30

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), "I am thirsty." A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, "It is finished." Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

The article below was originally published in Beyond Words:

According to John, the last words Jesus spoke from the cross were, "It is finished." Whether he meant "finished" as brought to an end, in the sense of finality, or "finished" as brought to completion, in the sense of fulfillment, nobody knows. Maybe he meant both.

What was brought to an end was of course nothing less than his life. The Gospels make no bones about that. He died as dead as any man. All the days of his life led him to this day, and beyond this day there would be no other days, and he knew it. It was finished now, he said. He was finished. He had come to the last of all his moments, and because he was conscious still—alive to his death—maybe, as they say the dying do, he caught one final glimpse of the life he had all but finished living.

Who knows what he glimpsed as that life passed before him. Maybe here and there a fragment preserved for no good reason like old snapshots in a desk drawer: the play of sunlight on a wall, a half-remembered face, something somebody said. A growing sense perhaps of destiny: the holy man in the river, a gift for prayer, a gift for moving simple hearts. One hopes he remembered good times, although the Gospels record few—how he once fell asleep in a boat as a storm was coming up, and how he went to a wedding where water was the least of what was turned into wine. Then the failures of the last days, when only a handful gathered to watch him enter the city on the foal of an ass—and those very likely for the wrong reasons. The terror that he himself had known for a few moments in the garden, and that finally drove even the handful away. Shalom then, the God in him moving his swollen lips to forgive them all, to forgive maybe even God. Finished.

What was brought to completion by such a life and such a death only he can know now, wherever he is, if he is anywhere. The Christ of it is beyond our imagining. All we can know is the flesh and blood of it, the Jesus of it. In that sense, what was completed was at the very least a hope to live by, a mystery to hide our faces before, a shame to haunt us, a dream of holiness to help make bearable our night.

Special Sermon Illustration: The Lord's Supper

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.

On April 18, 2019 we will celebrate Maundy Thursday. Here is this week's reading from the book of 1 Corinthians:

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

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

The Lord's Supper is make-believe. You make believe that the one who breaks the bread and blesses the wine is not the plump parson who smells of Williams' Aqua Velva but Jesus of Nazareth. You make believe that the tasteless wafer and cheap port are his flesh and blood. You make believe that by swallowing them you are swallowing his life into your life and that there is nothing in earth or heaven more important for you to do than this.

It is a game you play because he said to play it.  "Do this in remembrance of me." Do this.

Play that it makes a difference. Play that it makes sense. If it seems a childish thing to do, do it in remembrance that you are a child.

Remember Max Beerbohm's Happy Hypocrite, in which a wicked man wore the mask of a saint to woo and win the saintly girl he loved. Years later, when a castoff girlfriend discovered the ruse, she challenged him to take off the mask in front of his beloved and show his face for the sorry thing it was. He did what he was told, only to discover that underneath the saint's mask, his face had become the face of a saint.

This same reenactment of the Last Supper is sometimes called the Eucharist, from a Greek word meaning "thanksgiving," that is, at the Last Supper itself Christ gave thanks, and on their part Christians have nothing for which to be more thankful.

It is also called the Mass, from missa, the word of dismissal used at the end of the Latin service. It is the end. It is over. All those long prayers and aching knees. Now back into the fresh air. Back home. Sunday dinner. Now life can begin again. Exactly.

It is also called Holy Communion because, when feeding at this implausible table, Christians believe that they are communing with the Holy One himself, his spirit enlivening their spirits, heating the blood, and gladdening the heart just the way wine, as spirits, can.

They are also, of course, communing with each other. To eat any meal together is to meet at the level of our most basic need. It is hard to preserve your dignity with butter on your chin, or to keep your distance when asking for the tomato ketchup.

To eat this particular meal together is to meet at the level of our most basic humanness, which involves our need not just for food but for each other. I need you to help fill my emptiness just as you need me to help fill yours. As for the emptiness that's still left over, well, we're in it together, or it in us. Maybe it's most of what makes us human and makes us brothers and sisters.

The next time you walk down the street, take a good look at every face you pass and in your mind say, "Christ died for thee." That girl. That slob. That phony. That crook. That saint. That damned fool. Christ died for thee. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Recognizing

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

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

Luke 24:13-31

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?" He asked them, "What things?" They replied, "The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him." Then he said to them, "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, "Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over." So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

Here is an excerpt from Buechner’s Easter Sunday sermon entitled “The Secret in the Dark” first published in The Longing for Home and again in Secrets in the Dark:

I believe that although the two disciples did not recognize Jesus on the road to Emmaus, Jesus recognized them, that he saw them as if they were the only two people in the world. And I believe that the reason why the resurrection is more than just an extraordinary event that took place some two thousand years ago and then was over and done with is that, even as I speak these words and you listen to them, he also sees each of us like that. In this dark world where you and I see so little because of our unrecognizing eyes, he, whose eye is on the sparrow, sees each one of us as the child in red. And I believe that because he sees us, not even in the darkness of death are we lost to him or lost to each other. I believe that whether we recognize him or not, or believe in him or not, or even know his name, again and again he comes and walks a little way with us along whatever road we're following. And I believe that through something that happens to us, or something we see, or somebody we know—who can ever guess how or when or where?—he offers us, the way he did at Emmaus, the bread of life, offers us a new hope, a new vision of light that not even the dark world can overcome.

That is the word that on Easter Sunday is sounded forth on silver trumpets. And when Easter is past and the silver trumpets have faded away to hardly more than a distant echo, that is the word that is whispered to us like a secret in the dark, the saving and holy word that flickers among us like a red dress in a gray world.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: The Things That Make For Peace

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

Next Sunday we will celebrate Palm Sunday. Here this week’s reading from the gospel of Luke:

Luke 19:35-44

... And throwing their garments on the colt they set Jesus upon it. And as he rode along, they spread their garments on the road. As he was now drawing near, at the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, "Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!" And some of the Pharisees in the multitude said to him, "Teacher, rebuke your disciples." He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out." And when he drew near and saw the city he wept over it, saying, "Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hid from your eyes. For the days shall come upon you, when your enemies will cast up a bank about you and surround you, and hem you in on every side, and dash you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another in you; because you did not know the time of your visitation."

Here are excerpts from Buechner’s Palm Sunday sermon entitled “The Things That Make For Peace” from A Room Called Remember:

We call it Palm Sunday because maybe they were palm branches that were thrown into the road in front of him as he approached the city—a kind of poor man's red—carpet treatment, a kind of homemade ticker-tape parade. Just branches is all the record states, but maybe palms is what they actually were, and in any case it's as palms that we remember them; and all over Christendom people leave church with palm leaves of their own to remember him by on the anniversary of his last journey, to pin up on the kitchen bulletin board or stick into the frame of the dresser mirror until finally they turn yellow and brittle with age and we throw them out. Some of the people who were there were so carried away by what was happening that they took the clothes off their backs and spread them out on the road in front of him along with the branches, so that the clip-clop, clip-clop of the hooves of the colt he was riding was muffled by shirts, shawls, cloaks spread out there in the dust as maybe even you and I would have spread ours out too if we'd been there because it was a moment with such hope and passion in it. That's what the palms are all about.

----

"Blessed be the King who comes in the name of the Lord," the cry goes up. There is dust in the air with the sun turning it gold. Around a bend in the road, there suddenly is Jerusalem. He draws back on the reins. Crying disfigures his face. "Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace." Even today, he says, because there are so few days left. Then the terror of his vision as he looks at the city that is all cities and sees not one stone left standing on another—you and your children within you—your children. "Because you did not know the time of your visitation," he says. Because we don't know who it is who comes to visit us. Because we do not know what he comes to give. The things that make for peace, that is what he comes to give. We do not know these things, he says, and God knows he's right. The absence of peace within our own skins no less than within our nations testifies to that. But we know their names at least. We all of us know in our hearts the holy names of the things that make for peace—real peace—only for once let us honor them by not naming them. Let us name instead only him who is himself the Prince of Peace.

"He shall judge between the nations and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." That is our Palm Sunday hope, and it is our only hope. That is what the palms and the shouting are all about. That is what all our singing and worshiping and preaching and praying are all about if they are about anything that matters. The hope that finally by the grace of God the impossible will happen. The hope that Pilate will take him by one hand and Caiaphas by the other, and the Roman soldiers will throw down their spears and the Sanhedrin will bow their heads. The hope that by the power of the Holy Spirit, by the love of Christ, who is Lord of the impossible, the leaders of the enemy nations will draw back, while there is still time for drawing back, from a vision too terrible to name. The hope that you and I also, each in our own puny but crucial way, will work and witness and pray for the things that make for peace, true peace, both in our own lives and in the life of this land.

Despair and hope. They travel the road to Jerusalem together, as together they travel every road we take—despair at what in our madness we are bringing down on our own heads and hope in him who travels the road with us and for us and who is the only one of us all who is not mad. Hope in the King who approaches every human he art like a city. And it is a very great hope as hopes go and well worth all our singing and dancing and sad little palms because not even death can prevail against this King and not even the end of the world, when end it does, will be the end of him and of the mystery and majesty of his love. Blessed be he.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Tears

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 Fifth Sunday in Lent.  Here is this week’s reading from Psalm 126:

Psalm 126:5-6

May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves. 

Here is Buechner’s well-known note on Tears, first published in Whistling in the Dark, then later in Beyond Words and Listening to Your Life:

You never know what may cause them. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you've never seen before. A pair of somebody's old shoes can do it. Almost any movie made before the great sadness that came over the world after the Second World War, a horse cantering across a meadow, the high school basketball team running out onto the gym floor at the start of a game. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.

They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Parables as Comedy

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 in Lent.  Here is this week’s reading from the gospel of Luke:

Luke 15:11b-32

"There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate. "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"

In Buechner’s classic Telling The Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale, he describes how parables such as that of The Prodigal Son can be viewed as comedy:

I think that these parables can be read as jokes about God in the sense that what they are essentially about is the outlandishness of God who does impossible things with impossible people, and I believe that the comedy of them is not just a device for making the truth that they contain go down easy but that the truth that they contain can itself be thought of as comic. It is hard to think of any place where this is more apparent than in the greatest parable of them all, the one that is in its own way both the most comic and the most sad. The Prodigal Son goes off with his inheritance and blows the whole pile on liquor and sex and fancy clothes until finally he doesn't have two cents left to rub together and has to go to work or starve to death. He gets a job on a pig farm and keeps at it long enough to observe that the pigs are getting a better deal than he is and then decides to go home. There is nothing edifying about his decision. There is no indication that he realizes he's made an ass of himself and broken his old man's heart, no indication that he thinks of his old man as anything more than a meal ticket. There is no sign that he is sorry for what he's done or that he's resolved to make amends somehow and do better next time. He decides to go home for the simple reason that he knows he always got three squares a day at home, and for a man who is in danger of starving to death, that is reason enough. So he sets out on the return trip and on the way rehearses the speech he hopes will soften the old man's heart enough so that at least he won't slam the door in his face. "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son." That will hit him where he lives if anything will, the boy thinks, and he goes over it again. "Father I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son" (Luke 15:18-19), trying to get the inflection right and the gestures right; and just about the time he thinks he has it down, the old man spots him coming around the corner below the tennis court and starts sprinting down the drive like a maniac. Before the boy has time to get so much as the first word out, the old man throws his arms around him and all but knocks him off his feet with the tears and whiskers and incredulous laughter of his welcome.

The boy is back, that's all that matters. Who cares why he's back? And the old man doesn't do what any other father under heaven would have been inclined to do. He doesn't say he hopes he has learned his lesson or I told you so. He doesn't say he hopes he is finally ready to settle down for a while and will find some way to make it up to his mother. He just says, "Bring him something to eat, for God's sake. Bring him some warm clothes to put on," and when the boy finally manages to slip his prepared remarks in edgewise, the old man doesn't even hear them he's in such a state. All he can say is the boy was dead and is alive again. The boy was lost and is found again, and then at the end of the scene what Jesus as teller of the parable says is "They began to make merry" (Luke 15:23). Merry, of all things. They turn on the stereo. They break out the best Scotch. They roll back the living room carpet and ring up the neighbors.

Is it possible, I wonder, to say that it is only when you hear the Gospel as a wild and marvelous joke that you really hear it at all? Heard as anything else, the Gospel is the church's thing, the preacher's thing, the lecturer's thing. Heard as a joke—high and unbidden and ringing with laughter—it can only be God's thing.

And if it is a joke about the preposterousness of God, it is also a joke about the preposterousness of man as the sequel to the parable exemplifies. The word sin is somehow too grand a word to apply to the reaction of the prodigal's elder brother when the sound of the hoedown reaches him out in the pasture among the cow flops, and yet in another way it is just the right word because nowhere is the deadliness of all seven of the deadly sins deadlier or more ludicrous than it is in him. Envy and pride and anger and covetousness, they are all there. Even sloth is there as he sits on his patrimony and lets it gain interest for him without lifting a hand, even lust as he slavers over the harlots whom he points out the prodigal has squandered his cash on. The elder brother is Pecksniff. He is Tartuffe. He is what Mark Twain called a good man in the worst sense of the word. He is a caricature of all that is joyless and petty and self-serving about all of us. The joke of it is that of course his father loves him even so, and has always loved him and will always love him, only the elder brother never noticed it because it was never love he was bucking for but only his due. The fatted calf, the best Scotch, the hoedown could all have been his, too, any time he asked for them except that he never thought to ask for them because he was too busy trying cheerlessly and religiously to earn them. "The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up" even as the prodigal himself was raised up, Jesus says, "and blessed is he who takes no offense at me" (Matt. 11:5-6). Blessed is he who is not offended that no man receives what he deserves but vastly more. Blessed is he who gets that joke, who sees that miracle.

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.