Sermon Illustration

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.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Samuel

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

Next Sunday we will celebrate The Third Sunday After Pentecost. Here is this week’s reading from the book of 1 Samuel:

1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, "You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations." But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, "Give us a king to govern us." Samuel prayed to the LORD, and the LORD said to Samuel, "Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only--you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them." So Samuel reported all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, "These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day." But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said "No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles." Samuel said to the people, "Come, let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingship." So all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the LORD in Gilgal. There they sacrificed offerings of well-being before the LORD, and there Saul and all the Israelites rejoiced greatly.

Here is Buechner's relating of this story, first published in Peculiar Treasures and again in Beyond Words:

SAMUEL WAS A COMBINATION PROPHET, judge, and one-man band. When the old curmudgeon wasn't out in the field trying to fight off the Philistine guerrillas, he was riding his circuit trying to keep the tribes of Israel honest, and when he wasn't doing that, he was giving them hell for cheating on Yahweh every time a new fertility god showed up with a come-hither look in his eye. When he reached retirement age, he might have turned things over to his sons, but they were a bunch of crooks who sold justice to the highest bidder, and the Israelites said maybe he'd better get them a king instead. They'd never had one before, but they felt the time had come. Samuel threw a fit.

He said there was only one king worth the time of day, and Yahweh was his name. He also told them kings were a bad lot from the word go and didn't spare them a single sordid detail. They were always either drafting you into their armies or strong-arming you into taking care of their farms. They took your daughters and put them to work in their kitchens and perfume factories. They filled their barns with your livestock and got you to slave for them till you dropped in your tracks. What was more, if the Israelites chose a king, Yahweh would wash his hands of them and good riddance. Samuel had it on the highest authority. But the Israelites insisted, and since Samuel didn't have the pep he'd once had, he finally gave in.

The king he dug up for them was a tall drink of water named Saul. He was too handsome for his own good, had a rich father, and when it came to religion tended to go off the deep end. Samuel had him in for a meal and, after explaining the job to him, anointed him with holy oil against his better judgment and made him the first king Israel ever had. He regretted this action till the day he died, and even in his grave the memory of it never gave him a moment's peace. (1 Samuel 8-11)

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Nicodemus

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

This Sunday we will celebrate Trinity Sunday. Here is this week’s reading from the gospel of John:

John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Here is Buechner relating Nicodemus’ experiences, first published in Peculiar Treasures and again in Beyond Words:

NICODEMUS HAD HEARD ENOUGH about what Jesus was up to in Jerusalem to make him think he ought to pay him a visit and find out more. On the other hand, as a VIP with a big theological reputation to uphold, he decided it might be just as well to pay it at night. Better to be at least fairly safe than to be sorry, he thought, so he waited till he thought his neighbors were all asleep.

So Nicodemus was fairly safe, and, at least at the start of their nocturnal interview, Jesus was fairly patient. What the whole thing boiled down to, Jesus told him, was that unless you got born again, you might as well give up.

That was all very well, Nicodemus said, but just how were you supposed to pull a thing like that off? How especially were you supposed to pull it off if you were pushing sixty-five? How did you get born again when it was a challenge just to get out of bed in the morning? He even got a little sarcastic. Could one "enter a second time into the mother's womb?" he asked (John 3:4), when it was all one could do to enter a taxi without the driver's coming around to give him a shove from behind?

A gust of wind happened to whistle down the chimney at that point, making the dying embers burst into flame, and Jesus said being born again was like that. It wasn't something you did. The wind did it. The Spirit did it. It was something that happened, for God's sake.

"How can this be?" Nicodemus asked (John 3:9), and that's when Jesus really got going.

Maybe Nicodemus had six honorary doctorates and half a column in Who's Who, Jesus said, but if he couldn't see something as plain as the nose on his face, he'd better go back to kindergarten.

Jesus said, "I'm telling you God's so in love with this world that he's sent me down, so if you don't believe your own eyes, then maybe you'll believe mine, maybe you'll believe me, maybe you won't come sneaking around scared half to death in the dark anymore, but will come to, come clean, come to life."

What impressed Nicodemus even more than the speech was the quickening of his own breathing and the pounding of his own heart. He hadn't felt like that since his first kiss, since the time his first child was born.

Later on, when Jesus was dead, he went along with Joseph of Arimathea to pay his last respects at the tomb in broad daylight. It was a crazy thing to do, what with the witch-hunt that was going on, but he decided it was more than worth it.

When he heard the next day that some of the disciples had seen Jesus alive again, he wept like a newborn child. (John 3:1-21; 19:38-42)

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Fire

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

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Day of Pentecost. Here is this week's reading from the book of Acts:

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs--in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine." But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 'In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'

In the following passage, Buechner describes Fire from Beyond Words:

Fire has no shape or substance. You can't taste it or smell it or hear it. You can't touch it except at great risk. You can't weigh it or measure it or examine it with instruments. You can never grasp it in its fullness because it never stands still. Yet there is no mistaking its extraordinary power.

The fire that sweeps through miles of forest like a terrible wind and the flickering candle that lights the old woman's way to bed. The burning logs on the subzero night that save the pipes from freezing and give summer dreams to the tabby dozing on the hearth. Even from millions of miles away, the conflagration of the sun that can turn green earth into desert and strike blind any who fail to lower their gaze before it. The power of fire to devastate and consume utterly. The power of fire to purify by leaving nothing in its wake but a scattering of ash that the wind blows away like mist.

A pillar of fire was what led the children of Israel through the wilderness, and it was from a burning bush that God first spoke to Moses. There were tongues of fire leaping up from the disciples on the day of Pentecost. In John's apocalypse it is a lake of fire that the damned are cast into, and Faithful and True himself, he says, has eyes of fire as he sits astride his white horse.

In the pages of Scripture, fire is holiness, and perhaps never more hauntingly than in the little charcoal fire that Jesus of Nazareth, newly risen from the dead, kindles for cooking his friends' breakfast on the beach at daybreak.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Law

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

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Seventh Sunday of Easter.  Here is this week’s reading from the book of Psalms: 

Psalm 1

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. 

In the following passage, Buechner describes God’s Law.  It was first published in Wishful Thinking and again in Beyond Words

THERE ARE BASICALLY TWO KINDS OF LAW: (1) law as the way things ought to be, and (2) law as the way things are. An example of the first is "No Trespassing." An example of the second is the law of gravity. 

God's law has traditionally been spelled out in terms of category no. 1, a compendium of dos and don'ts. These dos and don'ts are the work of moralists and, when obeyed, serve the useful purpose of keeping us from each other's throats. They can't make us human, but they can help keep us honest. 

God's law in itself, however, comes under category no. 2 and is the work of God. It has been stated in seven words: "Whoever does not love abides in death" (1 John 3:14). Like it or not, that's how it is. If you don't believe it, you can always put it to the test just the way if you don't believe the law of gravity, you can always step out a tenth-story window. 

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Music

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

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Sixth Sunday of Easter.  Here is this week’s reading from the book of Psalms: 

Psalm 98:4-6

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD. 

In the following passage, Buechner describes the relationship between music and time.  It was first published in Wishful Thinking and again in Beyond Words:

WHEREAS PAINTERS WORK WITH SPACE—the croquet players on the lawn, behind them the dark foliage of the hedge, above them the sky—musicians work with time, as one note follows another note the way tock follows tick. 

Music both asks us and also enables us to listen to certain qualities of time—to the grandeur of time, says Bach, to the poignance of time, says Mozart, to the swing and shimmer of time, says Debussy, or however else you choose to put into words the richness and complexity of what each of them is wordlessly "saying.” 

We learn from music how to listen to the music of our own time—one moment of our lives following another moment the way the violin passage follows the flute, the way the sound of footsteps on the gravel follows the rustle of leaves in the wind, which follows the barking of a dog almost too far away to hear.

Music helps us to "keep time" in the sense of keeping us in touch with time, not just time as an ever-flowing stream that bears all of us away at last, but time also as a stream that every once in a while slows down and becomes transparent enough for us to see down to the streambed the way, at a wedding, say, or watching the sun rise, past, present, and future are so caught up in a single moment that we catch a glimpse of the mystery that, at its deepest place, time is timeless. 

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Ethiopian Eunuch

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

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Fifth Sunday of Easter. Here are this week’s readings from the book of Acts:

Acts 8:26-40

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go over to this chariot and join it." So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" He replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: "Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth." The eunuch asked Philip, "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?" He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Here is Buechner’s take on this encounter from “Ethiopian Eunuch” first published in Peculiar Treasures and reprinted in Beyond Words:

THE NAME OF THE ETHIOPIAN EUNUCH isn't given, but he was Secretary of the Treasury under Queen Candace of Ethiopia, and he had been to Jerusalem on a religious pilgrimage. It was on his way home that the high point of the trip occurred.

He was cruising along in his chariot reading out loud to himself from the book of Isaiah when the apostle Philip happened to overhear him and asked if he understood what the words were all about. The eunuch said he could use some help on one passage in particular, and this was the passage:

As a sheep led to the slaughter
or a lamb before its shearers is dumb
so he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken up from the earth.

(Acts 8:32-33; compare Isaiah 53:7-8)

Who in the world was Isaiah talking about? the eunuch wanted to know, and Philip said it was Jesus. Jesus was the one who was gentle as a sheep and innocent as a lamb. He was the one who had been unjustly humiliated and slaughtered and hadn't let out so much as a peep to save himself. As for describing his generation, his time, all you could say was that he belonged to all time and every generation because his life wasn't bound to the earth anymore. His life was everywhere, and any of us could live it for ourselves or let it live itself in us as easily as a fish circulates around in the water and the water circulates around in a fish.

The way things happened, a pond turned up by the side of the road as they traveled along, and the eunuch asked why he shouldn't give the thing a try right then and there and let Philip baptize him in it. So Philip baptized him, and when that black and mutilated potentate bobbed back to the surface, he was so carried away he couldn't even speak. The sounds of his joy were like the sounds of a brook rattling over pebbles, and Philip never saw him again and never had to.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Feed My Sheep

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

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Fourth Sunday of Easter. Here are this week’s readings from the book of Psalms and the gospel of John:

Psalm 23: 1-4

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me.

John 10:11-15

Jesus said: "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Here is an excerpt from Frederick Buechner’s “Peter,” first published in Peculiar Treasures and reprinted in Beyond Words:

According to Paul, the first person Jesus came back to see after Easter morning was Peter. What he said and what Peter said nobody will ever know, and maybe that's just as well. Their last conversation on this earth, however, is reported in the Gospel of John.

It was on the beach, at daybreak. Some of the other disciples were there, and Jesus cooked them breakfast. When it was over, he said to Peter (only again he called him Simon, son of John, because if ever he meant business, this was it), "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" and Peter said he did. Then Jesus asked the same question a second time and then once again, and each time Peter said he loved him—three times in all, to make up for the other three times.

Then Jesus said, "Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep," and you get the feeling that this time Peter didn't miss the point (John 21:9-19). From fisher of fish to fisher of people to keeper of the keys to shepherd. It was the Rock's final promotion, and from that day forward he never let the head office down again.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Messiah

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

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Third Sunday of Easter.  Here is this week’s reading from the book of Acts: 

Acts 3:12-19 


When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, "You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you. "And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out’ 

Here is Frederick Buechner’s excerpt called “Messiah” found in Wishful Thinking and reprinted in Beyond Words

"WIE MAN'S MACHT, IST'S FALSCH" is a crude German saying that means, freely translated, "Whatever people do, it turns out lousy." The Russians throw out the czars and end up with Stalin. The Americans free their slaves so they can move out into the world as paupers. 

Or take the Jews. The nation that God chooses to be the hope of the world becomes the stooge of the world. The nation of priests becomes a nation of international politicians so inept at playing one major power off against another that by the time they're through, Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Rome, all have a chance at wiping their feet on them—the cream of the population deported, the Temple destroyed, Jerusalem razed. The law of Moses becomes the legalism of the Pharisees, and "Can mortals be righteous before God?" becomes "Is it kosher to wear my dentures on the Sabbath?" The high priests sell out to the army of occupation. The Holy City turns into Miami Beach. Even God is fed up. Nobody knows all this better than the Jews know it. Who else has a Wailing Wall? Read the prophets. 

Wie man's macht, ist's falsch. But the Jews went on hoping anyway, and beginning several centuries before the birth of Jesus, much of their hope took the form of an implausible dream that someday God would send them Somebody to make everything right. He was referred to as the Messiah, which means in Hebrew "the Anointed One," that is, the One anointed by God, as a king at his coronation is anointed, only for a bigger job. The Greek word for Messiah is "Christ." 

How and when the Messiah would come was debatable. Theories as to what he would be like multiplied and overlapped: a great warrior king like David, a great priest like Melchizedek, a great prophet like Elijah. Who could possibly say? But whatever he was, his name would be called "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace," and "of the increase of his government and of peace there would be no end" (Isaiah 9:6-7). Handel set him to music. On Passover eve to this day an extra cup is placed on the table for Elijah in case he stops in to say the Messiah is here at last. The door is left open. 

When Jesus of Nazareth came riding into Jerusalem on his mule, a small group of radicals, illiterates, and ne'er-do-wells hailed him as the Messiah, the Christ. Everybody else suggested that you had to draw the line somewhere and advised as public and unpleasant an execution as possible, so nobody would fail to get the point. No one can deny that reason and prudence were on the side of the latter.  

Reasons for Drawing the Line Somewhere

1. He wasn't a king, a priest, or a prophet. He was nobody from nowhere. He spoke with an accent. 

2. On the one hand, his attitude toward the law was cavalier, to say the least. He said that it wasn't what went into your mouth that mattered, but what came out of it, thus setting back both the kosher industry and the WCTU about a thousand years apiece (Matthew 15:11). Also, some of his best friends were whores and crooks. 

3. On the other hand, he not only went further than Moses, but claimed his own to be the higher authority. Moses was against murder. Jesus was against vindictive anger. Moses was against adultery. Jesus was against recreational sex. Moses said love your neighbor. Jesus said love your enemy too. Moses said be good. Jesus said be perfect (Matthew 5:21-48). 

4. Who did he think he was anyway? 

5. Who can be perfect? 

6. Who wants to be? 

7. He was not only a threat to the established church but to the establishment itself. Jewish orthodoxy and the Pax Romana were both in danger. He could easily have become a Fidel Castro. 

8. His fans attributed a great many miracles to him up to and including bringing a corpse back to life, but there was one miracle he couldn't pull off, and that was saving his own skin. He died just as dead on the cross as all the others who had died on it, and some of them held out a lot longer.  

9. His fans continue to ascribe a great many miracles to him, including his own resurrection, but the world is in just about as bad shape since his time as before, maybe worse. 

As far as I know, there is only one good reason for believing that he was who he said he was. One of the crooks he was strung up with put it this way: "If you are the Christ, save yourself and us" (Luke 23:39). Save us from whatever we need most to be saved from. Save us from each other. Save us from ourselves. Save us from death both beyond the grave and before. 

If he is, he can. If he isn't, he can't. It may be that the only way in the world to find out is to give him the chance, whatever that involves. It may be just as simple and just as complicated as that.