Weekly Sermon Illustration: Tree

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

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

Jeremiah 17:5-8

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

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

The following was originally published in Beyond Words.

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

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

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

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

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Vocation

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

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

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

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

-Originally published in Wishful Thinking

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Agape

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

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

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

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

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

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

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

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

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Body of Christ

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

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

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weekly Sermon Illustration: The Wedding at Cana

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 after the Epiphany. Here is this week’s reading from the gospel of John:

John 2:1-11

On the third day there was a marriage at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; Jesus also was invited to the marriage, with his disciples. When the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you." Now six stone jars were standing there, for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the steward of the feast." So they took it. When the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, "Every man serves the good wine first; and when men have drunk freely, then the poor wine; but you have kept the good wine until now." This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Here is Buechner’s sermon entitled “The Wedding at Cana”, from The Hungering Dark.

Like so much of the Gospel of John, the story of the wedding at Cana has a curious luminousness about it, the quality almost of a dream where every gesture, every detail, suggests the presence of meaning beneath meaning, where people move with a kind of ritual stateliness, faces melting into other faces, voices speaking words of elusive but inexhaustible significance. It is on the third day that the wedding takes place; the third day that Jesus comes to change the water into wine, and in the way of dreams the number 3 calls up that other third day when just at daybreak, in another way and toward another end, Jesus came and changed despair into rejoicing. There are the six stone jars, and you wonder why six—some echo half-heard of the six days of creation perhaps, the six days that preceded the seventh and holiest day, God's day. And the cryptic words that Jesus speaks to his mother with their inexplicable sharpness, their foreshadowings of an hour beyond this hour in Cana of astonished gladness and feasting, of a final hour that was yet not final. But beyond the mystery of what it means, detail by detail, level beneath level, maybe the most important part of a dream is the part that stays with you when you wake up from it.

It can be a sense of revulsion at some hidden ugliness laid bare. It can be a kind of aching homesickness for some beauty that existed only in the dream. There are dreams which it is impossible to remember anything about at all except that they were good dreams and that we are somehow the better for having dreamed them. But taking this story in John as a dream, I think that what we carry from it most powerfully is simply a feeling for the joy of it—a wedding that almost flopped except that then this strange, stern guest came and worked a miracle and it turned out to be the best wedding of all. Certainly it is because of the joy of it that it is remembered in the marriage service.

But joy or no joy, people also cry at weddings. It is part of the tradition. Women are said to cry especially, all dressed up in their white gloves and their best hats with the tears running down, but I have known grown men to cry too and sometimes even the minister forgets to worry about whether his robe is straight and whether the best man has remembered the ring and has to hold tight to his prayer book to keep down the lump in his own throat. Sometimes the tears are good tears, tears as a response to the mystery not only of human love but of human finitude, the transience of things; but more often than not, I suspect, the tears that are shed at weddings are not to be taken too seriously because they are mainly sentimental tears, and although I suppose that they do little harm, I would be surprised to hear that they ever did much good. To be sentimental is to react not so much to something that is happening as to your own reaction to something that is happening, so that when a person cries sentimentally, what he is really crying at very often is the pathos of his own tears. When we shed tears at a wedding, our tears are likely to have a great deal less to do with the bride and groom than with all the old dreams or regrets that the bride and groom have occasioned in us. In our sentimentality, we think, "How wonderful that they are going to live happily ever after," or "How terrible that they are never going to be so happy again," and then we relate it all to our own happiness or our own lost happiness and weep eloquently at ourselves. It is all innocent enough, surely, except that it keeps us just one step further than we already are, and God knows that is far enough, from the reality of what is going on outside our own skins; and the reality of what is going on outside our own skins is the reality of other people with all their dreams and regrets, their happiness, the pathos not of ourselves for once but of them.

The reality of the bride and groom, which is also their joy, is of course that they love each other; but whereas sentimentality tends to stop right there and have a good cry, candor has to move on with eyes at least dry enough to see through. They love each other indeed, and in a grim world their love is a delight to behold, but love as a response of the heart to loveliness, love as primarily an emotion, is only part of what a Christian wedding celebrates, and beyond it are levels that sentimentality cannot see. Because the promises that are given are not just promises to love the other when the other is lovely and lovable, but to love the other for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, and that means to love the other even at half-past three in the morning when the baby is crying and to love each other with a terrible cold in the head and when the bills have to be paid. The love that is affirmed at a wedding is not just a condition of the heart but an act of the will, and the promise that love makes is to will the other's good even at the expense sometimes of its own good—and that is quite a promise.

Whether the bride and groom are to live happily ever after or never to be so happy again depends entirely on how faithfully, by God's grace, they are able to keep that promise, just as the happiness of us all depends on how faithfully we also are able to keep such promises, and not just to a husband or a wife, because even selfless love when it is limited to that can become finally just another kind of self-centeredness with two selves in the center instead of one and all the more impregnable for that reason.

Dostoevski describes Alexei Karamazov falling asleep and dreaming about the wedding at Cana, and for him too it is a dream of indescribable joy, but when he wakes from it he does a curious thing. He throws himself down on the earth and embraces it. He kisses the earth and among tears that are in no way sentimental because they are turned not inward but outward he forgives the earth and begs its forgiveness and vows to love it forever. And that is the heart of it, after all, and matrimony is called holy because this brave and fateful promise of a man and a woman to love and honor and serve each other through thick and thin looks beyond itself to more fateful promises still and speaks mightily of what human life at its most human and its most alive and most holy must always be.

A dream is a compression of time where the dreamer can live through a whole constellation of events in no more time than it takes a curtain to rustle in the room where he sleeps. In dreams time does not flow on so much as it flows up, like water from a deep spring. And in this way every wedding is a dream, and every word that is spoken there means more than it says, and every gesture—the clasping of hands, the giving of rings—is rich with mystery. Part of the mystery is that Christ is there as he was in Cana once, and the joy of a wedding, and maybe even sometimes the tears, are a miracle that he works. But when the wedding feast was over, he set his face toward Jerusalem and started out for the hour that had not yet come but was to come soon enough, the hour when he too was to embrace the whole earth and water it with more than his tears.

And so it was also, we hope, with the bride and groom at Cana and with every bride and groom—that the love they bear one another and the joy they take in one another may help them grow in love for this whole troubled world where their final joy lies, and that the children we pray for them may open them to the knowledge that all men are their children even as we are their children and as they also are ours.

Holy Lord God,

Thine is this fair world in all its splendor, but ours is the freedom to destroy thy world. Thine is the beginning and the end of all our lives, but ours are our lives themselves, to hoard in misery or to give away in joy. Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, but ours is the ear that is deaf, the tongue that is mute, the eye that is blind. Thine is the Christ, but ours is the cross he died upon.

Have mercy upon us. Have mercy upon all to whom we ourselves show little mercy—the unloving and the unbeautiful, the bitter and the lonely, the very slow, the very old.

Have mercy upon those who love and who in their love are beautiful, for they too are often forgotten by us, their joy itself a barrier between their lives and ours.

O Lord, in sorrow and in joy open thou our lives to one another that we may live. Open thou our lives to thee that even in dying we may never die.

Amen.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: The Wise Man

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 Epiphany of the Lord. Here is this week’s reading from the gospel of Matthew:

Matthew 2:1-2

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him."

Here is an excerpt from “The Birth”, which was first published in The Magnificent Defeat and later in Secrets in the Dark.

 "'Beware of beautiful strangers,'" said one of the magi-astrologers, the wise men, "'and on Friday avoid travel by water. The sun is moving into the house of Venus, so affairs of the heart will prosper.' We said this to Herod, or something along those lines, and of course it meant next to nothing. To have told him anything of real value, we would have had to spend weeks of study, months, calculating the conjunction of the planets at the precise moment of his birth and at the births of his parents and their parents back to the fourth generation. But Herod knew nothing of this, and he jumped at the nonsense we threw him like a hungry dog and thanked us for it. A lost man, you see, even though he was a king. Neither really a Jew nor really a Roman, he was at home nowhere. And he believed in nothing, neither Olympian Zeus nor the Holy One of Israel, who cannot be named. So he was ready to jump at anything, and he swallowed our little jingle whole. But it could hardly have been more obvious that jingles were the least of what he wanted from us.

'''Go and find me the child,' the king told us, and as he spoke, his fingers trembled so that the emeralds rattled together like teeth. 'Because I want to come and worship him,' he said, and when he said that, his hands were still as death. Death. I ask you, does a man need the stars to tell him that no king has ever yet bowed down to another king? He took us for children, that sly, lost old fox, and so it was like children that we answered him. 'Yes, of course,' we said, and went our way. His hands fluttered to his throat like moths.

"Why did we travel so far to be there when it happened? Why was it not enough just to know the secret without having to be there ourselves to behold it? To this, not even the stars had an answer. The stars said simply that he would be born. It was another voice altogether that said to go—a voice as deep within ourselves as the stars are deep within the sky.

"But why did we go? I could not tell you now, and I could not have told you then, not even as we were in the very process of going. Not that we had no motive, but that we had so many. Curiosity, I suppose: to be wise is to be eternally curious, and we were very wise. We wanted to see for ourselves this One before whom even the stars are said to bow down—to see perhaps if it was really true because even the wise have their doubts. And longing. Longing. Why will a man who is dying of thirst crawl miles across sands as hot as fire at simply the possibility of water? But if we longed to receive, we longed also to give. Why will a man labor and struggle all the days of his life so that in the end he has something to give the one he loves?

 "So finally we got to the place where the star pointed us. It was at night. Very cold. The Innkeeper showed us the way that we did not need to be shown. A harebrained, busy man. The odor of the hay was sweet, and the cattle's breath came out in little puffs of mist. The man and the woman. Between them the king. We did not stay long. Only a few minutes as the dock goes, ten thousand, thousand years. We set our foolish gifts down on the straw and left.

"I will tell you two terrible things. What we saw on the face of the newborn child was his death. A fool could have seen it as well. It sat on his head like a crown or a bat, this death that he would die. And we saw, as sure as the earth beneath our feet, that to stay with him would be to share that death, and that is why we left—giving only our gifts, withholding the rest.

''And now, brothers, I will ask you a terrible question, and God knows I ask it also of myself. Is the truth beyond all truths, beyond the stars, just this: that to live without him is the real death, that to die with him is the only life?"

Weekly Sermon Illustration: The Fullness of Time

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 after Christmas Day. Here is today's reading from the book of Ephesians:

Ephesians 1:7-10

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

The following excerpt was originally published in Love Feast and later in The Book of Bebb.

The week after I got back from Princeton was the last one before vacation, and I spent the afternoon of the final day of classes helping straighten up the gym after the Christmas book fair. In the overheated world of Sutton High it is always mid-August and under the bright overhead lights of the gym in their wire cages it is always high noon so that during the hours I spent packing the unsold books back into cartons and lending a hand with the tables, I lost all track of what the weather was up to outside. It was only when I stepped out into the parking lot around five that I discovered that about four inches of snow had fallen, and it was still coming down hard.

The damp linen smell and coarse-woven silence of the snow. The fan-shapes of light from the gym windows and the sight of my car almost unrecognizable as it crouched there lonely and white. To teach school is to catch from the children you teach not only their colds but a little of their childhood too, and I stood there at the gym door with a panic in my stomach no less sweet and wild than Stephen Kulak's, say, at the thought that school was out and vacation had begun, at the unexpected sight of the snow. In the fullness of time, the Scriptural phrase goes, and for a moment or two it was as if, filled to bursting, time had split apart at last, and there at the heart of it was the mystery laid bare. It was time to go home, or the heart of time was home, and I had been there all along without knowing it just the way all that hot, bright afternoon of dismantling the book fair I had been part of a snowfall without knowing it.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Compassion

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 First Sunday after Christmas. Here is this week's reading from the book of Colossians:

Colossians 3:12-15

As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.

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

Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it's like to live inside somebody else's skin.

It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: The Innkeeper

The following Christmas monologue comes from “The Birth”, one of Frederick Buechner’s sermons at the Philip Exeter School and published in Secrets in the Dark.

 THE INNKEEPER

And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Luke 2:7

"That was a long, long time ago," said the Innkeeper, "and a long, long way away. But the memories of men are also long, and nobody has forgotten anything about my own sad, queer part in it all unless maybe they have forgotten the truth about it. But you can never blame people for forgetting the truth because it is, after all, such a subtle and evasive commodity. In fact, all that distinguishes a truth from a lie may finally be no more than just the flutter of an eyelid or the tone of a voice. If I were to say, 'I BELIEVE!' that would be a lie, but if I were to say, 'I believe...,' that might be the truth. So I do not blame posterity for forgetting the subtleties and making me out to be the black villain of the piece—the heartless one who said, 'No room! No room!' I'll even grant you that a kind of villainy may be part of the truth. But if you want to speak the whole truth, then you will have to call me a villain with a catch in your voice, at least a tremor, a hesitation maybe, with even the glitter of almost a tear in your eye. Because nothing is entirely black, you know. Not even the human heart.

"I speak to you as men of the world," said the Innkeeper. "Not as idealists, but as realists. Do you know what it is like to run an inn—to run a business, a family, to run anything in this world for that matter, even your own life? It is like being lost in a forest of a million trees," said the Innkeeper, "and each tree is a thing to be done. Is there fresh linen on all the beds? Did the children put on their coats before they went out? Has the letter been written, the book read? Is there money enough left in the bank? Today we have food in our bellies and clothes on our backs, but what can we do to make sure that we will have them still tomorrow? A million trees. A million things.

"Until finally we have eyes for nothing else, and whatever we see turns into a thing. The sparrow lying in the dust at your feet—just a thing to be kicked out of the way, not the mystery of death. The calling of children outside your window—just a distraction, an irrelevance, not life, not the wildest miracle of them all. That whispering in the air that comes sudden and soft from nowhere—only the wind, the wind...

"Of course I remember very well the evening they arrived. I was working on my accounts and looked up just in time to see the woman coming through the door. She walked in that slow, heavy-footed way that women have in the last months, as though they are walking in a dream or at the bottom of the sea. Her husband stood a little behind her - a tongue-tied, helpless kind of man, I thought. I cannot remember either of them saying anything, although I suppose some words must have passed. But at least it was mostly silence. The clumsy silence of the poor. You know what I mean. It was clear enough what they wanted.

”The stars had come out. I remember the stars perfectly though I don't know why I should, sitting inside as I was. And my wife's cat jumped up onto the table where I was sitting. I had not stood up, of course. There was mainly just silence. Then it happened much in the way that you have heard. I did not lie about there being no room left - there really was none - though perhaps if there had been a room, I might have lied. As much for their sakes as for the sake of the inn. Their kind would have felt more at home in a stable, that's all, and I do not mean that unkindly either. God knows.

"Later that night, when the baby came, I was not there," the Innkeeper said. "I was lost in the forest somewhere, the unenchanted forest of a million trees. Fifteen steps to the cellar, and watch out for your head going down. Firewood to the left. If the fire goes out, the heart freezes. Only the wind, the wind. I speak to you as men of the world. So when the baby came, I was not around, and I saw none of it. As for what I heard—just at that moment itself of birth when nobody turns into somebody—I do not rightly know what I heard.

"But this I do know. My own true love. All your life long, you wait for your own true love to come—we all of us do—our destiny, our joy, our heart's desire. So how am I to say it, gentlemen? When he came, I missed him.

"Pray for me, brothers and sisters. Pray for the Innkeeper. Pray for me, and for us all, my own true love."

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Sacrifice

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 Advent. Here is this week's reading from the book of Hebrews:

Hebrews 10:1-10 (from The Message)

The old plan was only a hint of the good things in the new plan. Since that old "law plan" wasn't complete in itself, it couldn't complete those who followed it. No matter how many sacrifices were offered year after year, they never added up to a complete solution. If they had, the worshipers would have gone merrily on their way, no longer dragged down by their sins. But instead of removing awareness of sin, when those animal sacrifices were repeated over and over they actually heightened awareness and guilt. The plain fact is that bull and goat blood can't get rid of sin. That is what is meant by this prophecy, put in the mouth of Christ.

You don't want sacrifices and offerings year after year; you've prepared a body for me for a sacrifice.

It's not fragrance and smoke from the altar that whet your appetite.

So I said, "I'm here to do it your way, O God, the way it's described in your Book."
When he said, "You don't want sacrifices and offerings," he was referring to practices according to the old plan. When he added, "I'm here to do it your way," he set aside the first in order to enact the new plan—God's way—by which we are made fit for God by the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus.

The following excerpt was originally published in The Faces of Jesus and later in Listening to Your Life.

Throughout all these centuries there were always the prophets thundering out at king and people to remember their ancient mission to be the kingdom of priests that God had called them to be, but each time the prophetic cry went largely unheeded, and each time Israel went down to another defeat with only a remnant of the pious left to be, as Isaiah put it, a green branch growing out of a hewn stump. Remnant led to remnant until finally, in terms of New Testament faith, the remnant became just Jesus and his twelve disciples. When the last of the disciples abandoned him, the remnant became just Jesus himself.

The kingdom of priests was reduced at last to this One, who was both priest and sacrifice, and so it is Israel itself that hangs there on the cross, the suffering one who was "bruised for our iniquities and upon whom was the chastisement that made us whole." Jesus is all Jews and in a sense also the only Jew as he hovers there in the purple sky. It is out of his passion that the Church will be born as the new Israel, a kingdom of priests at last. It is through his intercession that at the end of history the holy city, New Jerusalem, will come down out of heaven like a bride adorned for her husband.