Weekly Sermon Illustration: Do Not Be Weary

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 Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost.  Here is this week’s reading from 2 Thessalonians:

2 Thessalonians 3:13

Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

Here is an excerpt from the sermon “The Message in the Stars” first published in The Magnificent Defeat and later in Secrets in the Dark:

But he also speaks to us about ourselves, about what he wants us to do and what he wants us to become; and this is the area where I believe we know so much more about him than we admit even to ourselves, where people hear God speak even if they do not believe in him. A face comes toward us down the street. Do we raise our eyes or do we keep them lowered, passing by in silence? Somebody says something about somebody else, and what he says happens to be not only cruel but also funny, and everybody laughs. Do we laugh too, or do we speak the truth? When a friend has hurt us, do we take pleasure in hating him, because hate has its pleasures as well as love, or do we try to build back some flimsy little bridge? Sometimes when we are alone, thoughts come swarming into our heads like bees—some of them destructive, ugly, self-defeating thoughts, some of them creative and glad. Which thoughts do we choose to think then, as much as we have the choice? Will we be brave today or a coward today? Not in some big way probably but in some little foolish way, yet brave still. Will we be honest today or a liar? Just some little pint-sized honesty, but honest still. Will we be a friend or cold as ice today?

All the absurd little meetings, decisions, inner skirmishes that go to make up our days. It all adds up to very little, and yet it all adds up to very much. Our days are full of nonsense, and yet not, because it is precisely into the nonsense of our days that God speaks to us words of great significance—not words that are written in the stars but words that are written into the raw stuff and nonsense of our days, which are not nonsense just because God speaks into the midst of them. And the words that he says, to each of us differently, are "Be brave ... be merciful ... feed my lambs ... press on toward the goal."

Weekly Sermon Illustration: God of the Living

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 Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost.  Here is this week’s reading from the gospel of Luke:

Luke 20:37-38

“And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive."

Here is an excerpt from The Son of Laughter:

"Your god will doubtless care for you in death as generously,” the king said to Joseph as they stood in the darkness lit only by the guttering torches of the servants, "because you are the friend of the king and have been given the king's ring with his seal upon it and great power over all of the Black Land".  Joseph thought of his mother's spent body buried, unbandaged, on the road they had been traveling with only a pillar no taller than a tall man to mark it and of the body of his grandfather Isaac lying under stones near the bodies of Abraham, Isaac's father, and Sarah, his mother, where Joseph's father and Esau had placed it with no treasure of any kind to bring him comfort and only the two ash cakes for food which Esau had placed under his two arms. His father had told him that he heard it said that the dead move like shadows. They dwell, thirsting for light, deeper than the feet of mountains in a land where no light falls. Did the Fear remember them there, Joseph wondered. Did the Fear have a silver boat for sailing them to blessedness, a golden boat like Ra?

"My god is a god of those who are alive," Joseph said to the king.

The chamber where they stood smelled of the cool stone and the burning pitch of the servants' torches.

"He makes us no promises about death," Joseph said. "He makes us promises about life. I do not know what he promises to the dead if he promises them anything.”

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Zaccheus

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 Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost.  Here is this week’s reading from the Gospel of Luke:

Luke 19:1-10

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost."

Here is Buechner’s description of Zaccheus, originally published in Peculiar Treasures and again later in Beyond Words:

Zaccheus stood barely five feet tall with his shoes off and was the least popular man in Jericho. He was head tax-collector for Rome in the district and had made such a killing out of it that he was the richest man in town as well as the shortest. When word got around that Jesus would soon be passing through, he shinnied up into a sycamore tree so he could see something more than just the backs of other people's heads, and that's where he was when Jesus spotted him.

"Zaccheus," Jesus said, "get down out of there in a hurry. I'm spending tonight with YOU" (Luke 19:5), whereupon all Jericho snickered up their sleeves to think he didn't have better sense than to invite himself to the house of a man that nobody else would touch with a ten-foot pole.

But Jesus knew what he was doing. Zaccheus was taken so completely aback by the honor of the thing that before he had a chance to change his mind, he promised not only to turn over fifty percent of his holdings to the poor but to pay back, four to one, all the cash he'd extorted from everybody else. Jesus was absolutely delighted. "Today salvation has come to this house," he said (Luke 19:9), and since that was his specialty after all, you assume he was right.

Zaccheus makes a good one to end with because in a way he can stand for all the rest. He's a sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job, but Jesus welcomes him aboard anyway, and that's why he reminds you of all the others too.

There's Aaron whooping it up with the Golden Calf the moment his brother's back is turned, and there's Jacob conning everybody including his own father. There's Jael driving a tent-peg through the head of an overnight guest, and Rahab, the first of the red-hot mamas. There's Nebuchadnezzar with his taste for roasting the opposition and Paul holding the lynch mob's coats as they go to work on Stephen. There's Saul the paranoid, and David the stud, and those mealy-mouthed friends of Job's who would probably have succeeded in boring him to death if Yahweh hadn't stepped in just in the nick of time. And then there are the ones who betrayed the people who loved them best such as Absalom and poor old Peter, such as Judas even.

Like Zaccheus, they're all of them peculiar as Hell, to put it quite literally, and yet you can't help feeling that, like Zaccheus, they're all of them somehow treasured too. Why are they treasured? Who knows? But maybe you can say at least this about it-that they're treasured less for who they are and for what the world has made them than for what they have it in them at their best to be because ultimately, of course; it's not the world that made them at all. "All the earth is mine!" says Yahweh, "and all that dwell therein," adds the Twenty-fourth Psalm, and in the long run, presumably, that goes for you and me too.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Jeremiah

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 Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost.  Here is this week’s reading from Jeremiah:

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22

Although our iniquities testify against us, act, O LORD, for your name's sake; our apostasies indeed are many, and we have sinned against you. O hope of Israel, its savior in time of trouble, why should you be like a stranger in the land, like a traveler turning aside for the night? Why should you be like someone confused, like a mighty warrior who cannot give help? Yet you, O LORD, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name; do not forsake us! Thus says the LORD concerning this people: Truly they have loved to wander, they have not restrained their feet; therefore the LORD does not accept them, now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins. Have you completely rejected Judah? Does your heart loathe Zion? Why have you struck us down so that there is no healing for us? We look for peace, but find no good; for a time of healing, but there is terror instead. We acknowledge our wickedness, O LORD, the iniquity of our ancestors, for we have sinned against you. Do not spurn us, for your name's sake; do not dishonor your glorious throne; remember and do not break your covenant with us. Can any idols of the nations bring rain? Or can the heavens give showers? Is it not you, O LORD our God? We set our hope on you, for it is you who do all this.

Here is Buechner’s description of Jeremiah, originally published in Peculiar Treasures and again later in Beyond Words:

The word jeremiad means a doleful and thunderous denunciation, and its derivation is no mystery. There was nothing in need of denunciation that Jeremiah didn't denounce. He denounced the king and the clergy. He denounced recreational sex and extramarital jamborees. He denounced the rich for exploiting the poor, and he denounced the poor for deserving no better. He denounced the way every new god that came sniffing around had them all after him like so many bitches in heat; and right at the very gates of the Temple he told them that if they thought God was impressed by all the mumbo-jumbo that went on in there, they ought to have their heads examined.

When some of them took to indulging in a little human sacrifice on the side, he appeared with a clay pot which he smashed into smithereens to show them what God planned to do to them as soon as he got around to it. He even denounced God himself for saddling him with the job of trying to reform such a pack of hyenas, degenerates, ninnies. "You have deceived me," he said, shaking his fist. You are "like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail" (Jeremiah 15:18), and God took it.

But the people didn't. When he told them that the Babylonians were going to come in and rip them to shreds as they richly deserved, they worked him over and threw him in jail. When the Babylonians did come in and not only ripped them to shreds but tore down their precious Temple and ran off with all the expensive hardware, he told them that since it was God's judgment upon them, they better submit to it or else; whereupon they threw him into an open cistern that happened to be handy. Luckily the cistern had no water in it, but Jeremiah sank into the muck up to his armpits and stayed there till an Ethiopian eunuch pulled him out with a rope.

He told them that if they were so crazy about circumcision, then they ought to get their minds above their navels for once and try circumcising "the foreskins of their hearts" (Jeremiah 4:4); and the only hope he saw for them was that someday God would put the law in their hearts too instead of in the books, but that was a long way off.
At his lowest ebb he cursed the day he was born like Job, and you can hardly blame him. He had spent his life telling them to shape up with the result that they were in just about as miserable shape as they'd have been if he'd never bothered, and urging them to submit to Babylon as the judgment of God when all their patriotic instincts made that sound like the worst kind of defeatism and treachery.

He also told them that, Babylonian occupation or no Babylonian occupation, they should stick around so that someday they could rise up and be a new nation again; and then the first chance they got, a bunch of them beat it over the border into Egypt. What's even worse, they dragged old Jeremiah, kicking and screaming, along with them, which seems the final irony: that he, who had fought so long and hard against all forms of idolatry—the Nation as idol, the Temple as idol, the King as idol—should at last have been tucked into their baggage like a kind of rabbit's foot or charm against the evil eye or idol himself.

What became of him in Egypt afterwards is not known, but the tradition is that his own people finally got so exasperated with him there that they stoned him to death. If that is true, nothing could be less surprising.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Jacob's Wrestle

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 Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  Here is this week’s reading from Genesis:

Genesis 32:24-30

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed." Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved."

Here is Buechner’s account of Jacob’s wrestle, from The Son of Laughter:

Out of the dark someone leaped at me with such force that it knocked me onto my back. It was a man. I could not see his face. His naked shoulder was pressed so hard against my jaw I thought he would break it. His flesh was chill and wet as the river. He was the god of the river. My bulls had raped him. My flocks had fouled him and my children pissed on him. He would not let me cross without a battle. I got my elbow into the pit of his throat and forced him off. I threw him over onto his back. His breath was hot in my face as I straddled him. My breath came in gasps. Quick as a serpent he twisted loose, and I was caught between his thighs. The grip was so tight I could not move. He had both hands pressed to my cheek. He was pushing my face into the mud, grunting with the effort. Then he got me on my belly with his knee in the small of my back. He was tugging my head up toward him. He was breaking my neck.

He was not the god of the river. He was Esau. He had slain all my sons. He had forded the river to slay me. Just as my neck was about to snap, I butted my head upward with the last of my strength and caught him square. For an instant his grip loosened and I was free. Over and over we rolled together into the reeds at the water's edge. We struggled in each other's arms. He was on top. Then I was on top. I knew that they were not Esau's arms. It was not Esau. I did not know who it was. I did not know who I was. I knew only my terror and that it was dark as death. I knew only that what the stranger wanted was my life.

For the rest of the night we battled in the reeds with the Jabbok roaring down through the gorge above usEach time I thought I was lost, I escaped somehow. There were moments when we lay exhausted in each other's arms the way a man and a woman lie exhausted from passion. There were moments when I seemed to be prevailing. It was as if he was letting me prevail. Then he was at me with new fury. But he did not prevail. For hours it went on that way. Our bodies were slippery with mud. We were panting like beasts. We could not see each other. We spoke no words. I did not know why we were fighting. It was like fighting in a dream.

He outweighed me, he out-wrestled me, but he did not overpower me. He did not overpower me until the moment came to overpower me. When the moment came, I knew that he could have made it come whenever he wanted. I knew that all through the night he had been waiting for that moment. He had his knee under my hip. The rest of his weight was on top of my hip. Then the moment came, and he gave a fierce downward thrust. I felt a fierce pain.

It was less a pain I felt than a pain I saw. I saw it as light. I saw the pain as a dazzling bird-shape of light. The pain's beak impaled me with light. It blinded me with the light of its wings. I knew I was crippled and done for. I could do nothing but cling now. I clung for dear life. I clung for dear death. My arms trussed him. My legs locked him. For the first time he spoke.

He said, "Let me go:'

The words were more breath than sound. They scalded my neck where his mouth was touching.

He said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking."

Only then did I see it, the first faint shudder of light behind the farthest hills.

I said, "I will not let you go.”

I would not let him go for fear that the day would take him as the dark had given him. It was my life I clung to. My enemy was my life. My life was my enemy.

I said, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." Even if his blessing meant death, I wanted it more than life.

"Bless me,” I said. "I will not let you go unless you bless me."

He said, "Who are you?"

There was mud in my eyes, my ears and nostrils, my hair.

My name tasted of mud when I spoke it.

"Jacob,” I said. "My name is Jacob:'

"It is Jacob no longer;' he said. "Now you are Israel. You have wrestled with God and with men. You have prevailed. That is the meaning of the name Israel:'

I was no longer Jacob. I was no longer myself. Israel was who I was. The stranger had said it. I tried to say it the way he had said it: Yees-rah-ail. I tried to say the new name I was to the new self I was. I could not see him. He was too close to me to see. I could see only the curve of his shoulders above me. I saw the first glimmer of dawn on his shoulders like a wound.

I said, "What is your name?" I could only whisper it.

"Why do you ask me my name?"

We were both of us whispering. He did not wait for my answer. He blessed me as I had asked him. I do not remember the words of his blessing or even if there were words. I remember the blessing of his arms holding me and the blessing of his arms letting me go. I remember as blessing the black shape of him against the rose-colored sky.

I remember as blessing the one glimpse I had of his face. It was more terrible than the face of dark, or of pain, or of terror. It was the face of light. No words can tell of it. Silence cannot tell of it. Sometimes I cannot believe that I saw it and lived but that I only dreamed I saw it. Sometimes I believe I saw it and that I only dream I live.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: To Die With Him

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 Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost.  Here is this week’s reading from 2 Timothy:

2 Timothy 2:11

The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him.

Here is an excerpt from The Wise Man, part of “The Birth” which was originally published in The Magnificent Defeat and later again in Secrets in the Dark:

''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: Anger

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 Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost.  Here is this week’s reading from Psalm 37:

Psalm 37:7-9

Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices. Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret--it leads only to evil. For the wicked shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.

Here is Buechner’s note on “Anger” originally published in Wishful Thinking and later again in Beyond Words:

Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Sharing Your Faith

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 Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  Here is this week’s reading from the book of Philemon:

Philemon 1:6

I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.

Below is the final paragraph in Buechner’s classic book about sharing your faith through preaching: Telling The Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale.

Let the preacher tell the truth. Let him make audible the silence of the news of the world with the sound turned off so that in that silence we can hear the tragic truth of the Gospel, which is that the world where God is absent is a dark and echoing emptiness; and the comic truth of the Gospel, which is that it is into the depths of his absence that God makes himself present in such unlikely ways and to such unlikely people that old Sarah and Abraham and maybe when the time comes even Pilate and Job and Lear and Henry Ward Beecher and you and I laugh till the tears run down our cheeks. And finally let him preach this overwhelming of tragedy by comedy, of darkness by light, of the ordinary by the extraordinary, as the tale that is too good not to be true because to dismiss it as untrue is to dismiss along with it that catch of the breath, that beat and lifting of the heart near to or even accompanied by tears, which I believe is the deepest intuition of truth that we have.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Humility

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 Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Here is this week’s reading from the gospel of Luke:

Luke 14:1, 7-11

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, 'Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

The following is an excerpt called “Humility” originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words:

Humility is often confused with the gentlemanly self-deprecation of saying you're not much of a bridge player when you know perfectly well you are. Conscious or otherwise, this kind of humility is a form of gamesmanship.

If you really aren't much of a bridge player, you're apt to be rather proud of yourself for admitting it so humbly. This kind of humility is a form of low comedy.

True humility doesn't consist of thinking ill of yourself but of not thinking of yourself much differently from the way you'd be apt to think of anybody else. It is the capacity for being no more and no less pleased when you play your own hand well than when your opponents do.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Justice

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 Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Here is this week’s reading from the Psalms:

Psalm 103:6,8

The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed. The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

The following is an excerpt called “Justice” originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words:

If you break a good law, justice must be invoked not only for goodness' sake but for the good of your own soul. Justice may consist of paying a price for what you've done or simply of the painful knowledge that you deserve to pay a price, which is payment enough. Without one form of justice or the other, the result is ultimately disorder and grief for you and everybody. Thus justice is itself not unmerciful.

Justice also does not preclude mercy. It makes mercy possible. Justice is the pitch of the roof and the structure of the walls. Mercy is the patter of rain on the roof and the life sheltered by the walls. Justice is the grammar of things. Mercy is the poetry of things.

The Cross says something like the same thing on a scale so cosmic and full of mystery that it is hard to grasp. As it represents what one way or another human beings are always doing to each other, the death of that innocent man convicts us as a race and we deserve the grim world that over the centuries we have made for ourselves. As it represents what one way or another we are always doing not so much to God above us somewhere as to God within us and among us everywhere, we deserve the very godlessness we have brought down on our own heads. That is the justice of things.

But the Cross also represents the fact that goodness is present even in grimness and God even in godlessness. That is why it has become the symbol not of our darkest hopelessness but of our brightest hope. That is the mercy of things. Granted who we are, perhaps we could have seen it no other way.