Sermon Illustration

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.

Run With Perseverence

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

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Here is this week’s reading from the book of Hebrews:

Hebrews 12:1-2

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

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

Games are supposed to build character. The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton and all that. Healthy competition is supposed to be good for you.

Is competition ever healthy—the desire to do better, be better, look better than somebody else? Do you write better poetry or play better tennis or do better in business or stand in higher esteem generally, even in self-esteem, if your chief motivation is to be head of the pack? Even if you win the rat race, as somebody has said, are you any less a rat?

Who wants to win if somebody else has to lose? Who dares to lose if it's crucial to win?

"Ah, but it's not winning that counts. It's how you play the game," they say. Maybe neither of them counts. Maybe it's not competition but cooperation and comradeship that build the only character worth building. If it's by playing games together that we learn to win battles, maybe it's by playing, say, music together that we learn to avoid them.

There are moments when Saint Paul sounds like a competitor with a vengeance, but there are happily other moments as well. "Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us," he says (Hebrews 12:1), where the object is not to get there first but just to get there. And "Fight the good fight," he says (1 Timothy 6:12), where it's not the fight to overcome the best of the competition that he's talking about but the fight to overcome the worst in ourselves.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Just Beyond Our Grasp

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

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost. Here is this week’s reading from the book of Hebrews:

Hebrews 11:1

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

The following is an excerpt from the sermon “Follow Me” found in The Magnificent Defeat:

Faith is the word that describes the direction our feet start moving when we find that we are loved. Faith is stepping out into the unknown with nothing to guide us but a hand just beyond our grasp.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Hosea and Gomer

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

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost. Here is this week’s reading from the book of Hosea:

Hosea 11:1-11

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them. They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all. How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. They shall go after the LORD, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD.

The following is originally from Peculiar Treasures and later published in Beyond Words:

Gomer

She was always good company—a little heavy with the lipstick maybe, a little less than choosy about men and booze, a little loud, but great on a party and always good for a laugh. Then the prophet Hosea came along wearing a sandwich board that read "The End is at Hand" on one side and "Watch Out" on the other.

The first time he asked her to marry him, she thought he was kidding. The second time she knew he was serious but thought he was crazy. The third time she said yes. He wasn't exactly a swinger, but he had a kind face, and he was generous, and he wasn't all that crazier than everybody else. Besides, any fool could see he loved her.

Give or take a little, she even loved him back for a while, and they had three children whom Hosea named with queer names like Not-pitied-for-God-will-no-longer-pity-Israel-now-that-it's-gone-to-the-dogs so that every time the roll was called at school, Hosea would be scoring a prophetic bull's-eye in absentia. But everybody could see the marriage wasn't going to last, and it didn't.

While Hosea was off hitting the sawdust trail, Gomer took to hitting as many night spots as she could squeeze into a night, and any resemblance between her next batch of children and Hosea was purely coincidental. It almost killed him, of course. Every time he raised a hand to her, he burst into tears. Every time she raised one to him, he was the one who ended up apologizing.

He tried locking her out of the house a few times when she wasn't in by five in the morning, but he always opened the door when she finally showed up and helped get her to bed if she couldn't see straight enough to get there herself. Then one day she didn't show up at all.

He swore that this time he was through with her for keeps, but of course he wasn't. When he finally found her, she was lying passed out in a highly specialized establishment located above an adult bookstore, and he had to pay the management plenty to let her out of her contract. She'd lost her front teeth and picked up some scars you had to see to believe, but Hosea had her back again and that seemed to be all that mattered.

He changed his sandwich board to read "God is love" on one side and "There's no end to it" on the other, and when he stood on the street corner belting out

How can I give you up, O Ephraim!
How can I hand you over, O Israel!
For I am God and not man,
The Holy One in your midst.

(Hosea 11 :8- 9)

nobody can say how many converts he made, but one thing that's for sure is that, including Gomer's, there was seldom a dry eye in the house.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Ask For It

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

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

Luke 11:1-13

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." He said to them, "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial." And he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.' And he answers from within, 'Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.' I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. "So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

The following is an excerpt from the sermon “The Power of God and the Power of Man” from The Magnificent Defeat:

Maybe some say, "I know human love, and I know something of its power to heal, to set free, to give meaning and peace, but God's love I know only as a phrase." Maybe others also say this, "For all the power that human love has to heal, there is something deep within me and within the people I know best that is not healed but aches with longing still. So if God's love is powerful enough to reach that deep, how do I find it? How?"

If that is really the question, if we are really seeking this power, then I have one thing to say—perhaps it is not the only thing, but it is enormously important: ask for it. There is something in me that recoils a little at speaking so directly and childishly, but I speak this way anyway because it is the most important thing I have in me to say. Ask, and you will receive. And there is the other side to it too: if you have never known the power of God's love, then maybe it is because you have never asked to know it—I mean really asked, expecting an answer.

I am saying just this: go to him the way the father of the sick boy did and ask him. Pray to him, is what I am saying. In whatever words you have. And if the little voice that is inside all of us as the inheritance of generations of unfaith, if this little voice inside says, "But I don't believe. I don't believe," don't worry too much. Just keep on anyway. "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief" is the best any of us can do really, but thank God it is enough.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Amos

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

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost. Here is this week’s reading from the book of Amos:

Amos 8:1-12

This is what the Lord GOD showed me--a basket of summer fruit. He said, "Amos, what do you see?" And I said, "A basket of summer fruit." Then the LORD said to me, The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by. The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day," says the Lord GOD; "the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place. Be silent!" Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat." The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt? On that day, says the Lord GOD, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day. The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it.

 The following excerpt was initially published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words:

When the prophet Amos walked down the main drag, it was like a shoot-out in the Old West. Everybody ran for cover. His special target was The Beautiful People, and shooting from the hip, he never missed his mark. He pictures them sleek and tanned at Palm Beach, Acapulco, St. Tropez. They glisten with Bain de Soleil. The stereo is piped out over the marble terrace. Another tray of bloody Marys is on the way. A vacationing bishop plunges into the heated pool.

With one eye cocked on them, he has his other cocked on the Unbeautiful People—the varicose veins of the old waiter, the pasty face of the starch-fed child, the winos passed out on the railroad siding, the ragged woman fumbling for food stamps at the check-out counter.

When justice is finally done, Amos says, there will be Hell to pay. The Happy Hour will be postponed indefinitely because the sun will never make it over the yard-arm. The Pucci blouses, the tangerine colored slacks, the flowered Lillys, will all fade like grass. Nothing but a few chicken bones will mark the place where once the cold buffet was spread out under the royal palms.

But according to Amos, it won't be the shortage of food and fun that will hurt. It will be the shortage "of hearing the words of the Lord" (Amos 8:11). Towards the end, God will make himself so scarce that the world won't even know what it's starving to death for.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Neighbor

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

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

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live." But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.' Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

The following excerpt was initially published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words:

When Jesus said to love your neighbor, a lawyer who was present asked him to clarify what he meant by neighbor. He wanted a legal definition he could refer to in case the question of loving one ever happened to come up. He presumably wanted something on the order of: "A neighbor (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part) is to be construed as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one's own legal residence unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereinafter to be referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as neighbor to the party of the first part and one is oneself relieved of all responsibility of any sort or kind whatsoever."

Instead Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the point of which seems to be that your neighbor is to be construed as meaning anybody who needs you. The lawyers response is left unrecorded.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Hands for the Harvest

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

Next Sunday, we will celebrate the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost. Here is this week’s reading from the gospel of Luke:

Luke 10:1-3

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.

The following excerpt was initially published in The Faces of Jesus and later in The Book of Bebb:

Bebb said, "Antonio, I'm not kidding myself. What I do next may be in my hands or then it may not be, and that's what I'm waiting here to find out. They're always locking people up for the wrong reasons—the right people maybe, but the wrong reasons and the wrong times. Think of it, Antonio—this thing I've been dreaming about come true at last. I threw out the life-line, and the one caught it was Herman Redpath in all his wealth and power. And now the lock-up. But my ways are not thy ways, saith the Lord. Antonio, you take a man's been in prison a couple years, and he's ready for Jesus like he's never been ready any place else. He's ready for anything has got some hope and life in it. Life, Antonio, is what a prisoner's ready for. Freedom. Lion Country. It's worth breaking the law just so you can get put in the lock-up, where the grapes are ripe for the harvest and the Lord needs all the hands he can get for the vineyard. You should hear the way they sing hymns behind bars, Antonio. Makes you go all over gooseflesh."

Weekly Sermon Illustration: The Fruit of the Spirit

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

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost. Here is this week’s reading from the book of Galatians:

Galatians 5:18-23

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.

The following excerpt comes from The Faces of Jesus:

You did not have to make yourself righteous first in order to qualify for admission—in fact by their very effort to fulfill the letter of the Law, the Pharisees were continually missing its spirit—but if you would only accept the gift of God's love in humility and faith, God himself would make you loving which was, Jesus said, the fulfillment of all the Law and the prophets.

Thus it was not by being good that man was to be saved, because by himself that was just what man could not be. And when the rich young ruler called Jesus "good teacher," Jesus himself bridled under the epithet saying, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone." It was not by good works that man had to win his way into the Kingdom, but like the Prodigal Son all he had to do was set his face for home and God would be there to welcome him with open arms before he even had a chance to ask forgiveness for all the years of his prodigality.

But if good works are not the cause of salvation, they are nonetheless the mark and effect of it. If the forgiven man does not become forgiving, the loved man loving, then he is only deceiving himself. "You shall know them by their fruits," Jesus says, and here Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild becomes Christ the Tiger, becomes both at once, this stern and loving man. “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire,” he says, and Saint Paul is only echoing him when he writes to the Galatians, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law."

This then is the gospel that Jesus seems both to have proclaimed with his lips and lived with his life, not just preaching to the dispossessed of his day from a high pulpit, but coming down and acting it out by giving himself to them body and soul as if he actually enjoyed it—horrifying all Jericho by spending the night there not with the local rabbi, say, or some prominent Pharisee but with Zaccheus of all people, the crooked tax collector. When Simon the Pharisee laid into him for letting a streetwalker dry his feet with her hair, Jesus said, "I tell you her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much." It is no wonder that from the very start of his ministry the forces of Jewish morality and of Roman law were both out to get him because to him the only morality that mattered was the one that sprang from the forgiven heart like fruit from the well-watered tree, and the only law he acknowledged as ultimate was the law of love.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Female

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 Galatians:

Galatians 3:23-29

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise.

 This excerpt entitled “Female” was originally published in1988 in Whistling in the Dark:

 “GOD CREATED HUMANKIND in God's own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27). In other words, the female as much as the male is a reflection of the Creator. They are created at the same time, and they are created equals. God blesses them and charges them together and gives the female, along with the male, dominion over the earth. In the next chapter, however, a different story is told. There God creates Adam first and only afterward, realizing that "it is not good that the man should be alone;' decides to make a helper for him, fashioning Eve out of one of Adam's ribs and calling her "Woman, because she was taken out of Man" (2:18-22).

These two conflicting views of the female's role in the order of things scarcely need to be spelled out further, nor is it necessary to point out that, generally speaking, it is the second of them that has prevailed down through the centuries.

Little by little women have turned things pretty much around. They vote. They get elected heads of state. They excel in arts and professions that were once for men only. Some of the stuffiest men's clubs accept them, as do virtually all of the most venerable men's colleges. They are increasingly successful in getting equal pay for equal jobs. Major denominations ordain them. It has been a long, slow exodus, but finally it seems to be paying off.

Feminism can become another form of sexism. Knee-jerk feminists can match their macho counterparts in pig-headedness, aggressiveness, humorlessness, and bigotry. Their shrill voices can make the head ache. When they refuse to read King Lear because it's full of sexist language and bar males from their lectures and demonstrations because they're males, their efforts are apt to be counterproductive. But no matter.

Prophets have always been strident and a little crazy. They've needed to be. The prophet Deborah wouldn't have beaten the tar out of the Canaanites by issuing directives from her living room any more than Moses would have gotten his people out of Egypt by writing letters to the New York Times.