1 August 2022
Little children, you are from God and have conquered [spirits that aren’t from God], for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them (1 John 4:4-5).

As we’ve made our way through the First Epistle of John, you may have noticed that the author addresses the letter’s recipients as “little children.”

That really grabbed me today as I reflected on this verse, and brought to mind the song “Children Will Listen” from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods.

Careful the things you say/Children will listen.
Careful the things you do/Children will see/And learn.
Children may not obey/But children will listen.
Children will look to you/for which way to turn/to learn what to be.
Careful before you say/“Listen to me.”

Into the Woods is a show about the dangers of unchecked self-interest, a show whose characters pursue their personal goals without regard for others until they’re finally forced to band together and deal with the consequences. They learn to love one another the hard way after listening too long to what the spirits of the world always say: it’s all about you and what you want. No one else matters.

First John wants us little children to hear something different, something better.

Help us, O God, to listen for your call to love one another. Amen.

2 August 2022
We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error (1 John 4:6).

It seems simple, doesn’t it? The author of First John seems to have drawn as clear a line as can be drawn: those who hear the true Gospel proclaimed and listen know God, while those who don’t listen have nothing to do with God. Case closed.


…Except it takes only a glance at the rest of Scripture to see that listening to God’s Spirit is seldom that simple. The Israelites are God’s chosen people, yet God often has a hard time getting their attention. When God calls the prophet Isaiah, the call comes with the proviso that Israel will neither understand nor listen to him (Isaiah 6:10-11), and the prophets weren’t always great listeners themselves (see: Jonah).

There are plenty of folks in the New Testament who could stand to work on their listening skills, too. Jesus’s lessons and proclamations don’t always stick, even for his disciples, culminating in the moment when the women come running back from the empty tomb, proclaiming the Gospel as purely as it has ever been proclaimed, only to have their story dismissed by Jesus’s closest friends and followers as an “idle tale (Luke 24:11).”

Case open again.

Help us, O God, to know you so that we may listen to your voice. Amen.

3 August 2022
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love (1 John 4:7-8)

Think about an important mentor figure of yours—someone who really helped shape the person you’re coming to be. How do you talk about that person?

If that person is a teacher, you might start by talking about what they’ve taught you—important lessons that have only grown more helpful with time.

If that person is a parent or guardian, you might start by talking about how they’ve nurtured and empowered you—made you feel cared for and given you the confidence to care for yourself and others.

If that person is an older sibling or friend, you might start by talking about how they’ve challenged you—helped you to better discern who you’d like to be simply by being who they are.

If you were to dig deeper, though, you’d likely realize that our connections to our mentors go beyond the lessons they taught us. The lessons are important, but they’ve stuck so well because a bit of that person has stuck with us as well. We don’t just learn from our mentors, we come to know them, and in knowing them, become like them.

So it is with God. When we truly love one another, it’s not simply because we’ve learned from God. It’s because, by grace, we’re becoming more like the God who is love.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

4 August 2022
God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:9-10).

Sometimes, I think we tell the Gospel story backwards.

We tell it backwards when we start by talking about our faith in God, hope in God, and love for God. These things matter, certainly, but they’re consequences of following the God revealed in Jesus Christ. They’re not where the story begins.

It may seem like I’m splitting hairs, but this backward telling of the Gospel story brings with it a dangerous, and all too common, misreading thereof. If we start with us–with our faith, hope, and love–we risk making the Christian life all about us–how much we believe, how firmly we hope, how deeply we love. It becomes a yardstick, daring us to try and measure up.

To this, the author of First John replies: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us…” Christianity isn’t an exercise in placating God with our faith, hope, and love. It’s an invitation to live as people who are ourselves believed in, hoped for, and loved.

When we start there, we’ve got it the right way ‘round.

Thank you for loving us, O God. Help us to always start with your love. Amen.

5 August 2022
Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us, and his love is perfected in us (1 John 4:11-12).

This is a fascinating passage for a lot of reasons, but what jumps out at me today is the way that it complicates the phrase “seeing is believing.”

“Seeing is believing” is a legal truism. It guards against the dangers of hearsay, discouraging us from relying too much on second-hand knowledge. Instead, we’re encouraged to go and see for ourselves, so as to minimize the difference between what we believe and what’s actually true.

All well and good, but you’ve guessed the problem: if seeing is believing, how are we to believe in a God who, according to First John, no one has ever seen (a bit of an overstatement, but still)?

Part of the answer involves acknowledging that as a method of navigating life, “seeing is believing” is useful, but limited. Crucially, it asks nothing of us once we’ve seen and believed. There’s no expectation that doing so will actually affect the way we live our lives.

Allowing God to abide in us, though, is another matter. That’s a relationship, and healthy relationships aren’t built on “seeing is believing.” They’re built on trust, accountability, and an openness to change—an openness to be changed. Christian belief isn’t about being able to say “here is God.” It’s about being able to say “here is my God” and allowing that relationship to change and perfect us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

6 August 2022
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world (1 John 4:16-17).

And where does that relationship between God and us–the one we were talking about yesterday–lead?

First John has taken us through a number of situations in which we might find refuge, strength, and truth in God’s love: times of trial, encounters with those who would misrepresent the Gospel for personal gain, moments in which the choice between love and hate becomes difficult.

In each case, the author argues, the God who abides in each of us will give us what we need to meet those situations. God is always with us, always advocating for us, always looking for opportunities to make us more like God by grace.

Even “on the day of judgment.” This is the last situation that First John gives as an example of God’s abiding presence with us (how could it not be?), and adding the “redeeming, transforming relationship” element into the mix keeps it from being what it’s often depicted as: a “God vs. us” moment. Instead, it becomes a “God with us moment.”

Though we’ll likely have much to answer for, we have nothing to fear, for grace abounds.

Help us, O God, to follow you with boldness, knowing that you are ever with us. Amen.

7 August 2022
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love (1 John 4:18).

What are you afraid of?

The phrase “do not be afraid” is everywhere in Scripture, and though it’s spoken by all manner of folks in all manner of situations, it’s probably most famous for cropping up during moments of reality-bending divine revelation. Think the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary to tell her that she’d be the mother of the Incarnate God. That sort of thing.

It can be tempting to read this phrase simply as God trying to calm us all down. “Don’t be scared, it’s only me: your friendly neighborhood Triune Deity.”

There’s some of that going on for sure, but I can’t help but wonder if “do not be afraid” means a bit more than that. The fear the author of First John is talking about isn’t just the sort of knee-jerk reaction anybody would have if the almighty creator of the universe showed up at their doorstep unexpectedly. It’s at the root of all that God’s love stands against. It seems that when we fall short of the loving life to which God calls us, some fear or other is likely the culprit.

That makes “what are you afraid of?” an important question indeed.

Help us, O God, to name and face our fears, so that we may love you and others more fully. Amen.

8 August 2022
For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it who conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God (1 John 5:3-5).

What an odd proclamation this passage must’ve been to their original recipients: the Christians of the first and second centuries.

Who is it who conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. “Hold on just a minute. What’s this John guy on about? We’re reading this letter in secret because the Romans are trying to get rid of us. What world, exactly, are we conquerors of? Surely not this one.”

It’s this world, alright, but the author of First John and Caesar have very different ideas about what conquest means. For Caesar, conquest means military and political domination. For the author of First John, conquest means inviting all people into participation–participation in the victory that Christ has already won through his life, death, and resurrection. Thus equipped, we can set about helping God’s love to reign here on earth.

We can conquer the world because, really, Christ already has.

Make us more than conquerors, O God, through Christ, who strengthens us. Amen.

9 August 2022
This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth (1 John 5:6).

“I baptize you with water,” proclaims John the Baptist in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me. I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandal.”

John’s followers were impressed that he was bold to baptize them with water, but John himself knew that they hadn’t seen anything yet. John was nothing more—and nothing less—and a prophet. He could baptize, preach, and speak uncomfortable truths to powerful people who’d rather not hear. But someone was coming along who could do more. Much more.

Someone was coming along who could do more than speak and work wonders among us in God’s name. That someone, Jesus Christ, was coming to live for us so that we may know life, and to die for us so that we might be freed from the shadow of death forever.

Water and blood. Serving and saving. Loving others and instilling love in others. Only one person, the Son of God, could do both.

Thank you, O God, for coming to us by both water and blood, so that we may know—and do—your will. Amen.

10 August 2022
There are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree. If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts (1 John 5:7-10).

As you may recall, the Holy Spirit has already been given a brief mention in First John–back at the end of chapter three–but now the epistle’s author circles back around to take a closer look at the third person of the Trinity.

For the author of First John, the Holy Spirit is nothing less than God’s love working in and through us. Thanks to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, we’re no longer under the thumb of sin and death, freed instead to receive and reciprocate God’s life-giving love. The Holy Spirit supplies us with that love. As the Apostle Paul writes elsewhere, “the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, which has been given to us (Romans 5:5).”

How might you allow God’s love to work through you today? How might your life stand as a testimony to the one whose love knows no bounds? May those questions be your prayer–and mine–this day. Amen.

11 August 2022
And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son (1 John 5:11).

As a young man growing up in church, I remember feeling intimidated by the idea of sharing my faith with others. Christianity–and my personal subscription to it–seemed like such a complicated thing to explain. How could I hope to unpack all of it in a single conversation?

While it’s true that there is a lot to cover when surveying the fullness of somebody’s journey in faith–of yours, of mine–it’s also true that explaining our faith really is quite simple. Look again at this one little verse from the First Epistle of John. It’s all there.

God gave us eternal life: We worship a God who’s a giver. It’s God who gave us the gift of life, and it’s God’s desire that we should live that life to its fullest.

This life is in his Son: So strong is God’s desire for us to live fully that God sent God’s Son, Jesus Christ, to teach us the way we ought to live and then open that way to us through his life, death, and resurrection. Now, a full and eternal life in God is ours to receive, nurture, and share with others in Christ’s name.

This, siblings in Christ, is the testimony.

Help us, O God, to know the testimony, so that we might speak–and live–your Word in the world. Amen.

12 August 2022
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us (1 John 5:13-14).

I love museums. On my day off, you’ll often find me wandering through one, marveling at the artifacts on display.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve also grown more aware of how much effort is required to curate and maintain these relics of the past. Museums are bullworks built up against the onslaught of time, oases of preservation in a world intent upon devouring itself over and over again.

The early Christians to whom the author of First John is writing might’ve feared that they had signed up to help run a museum, a Jesus museum dedicated to the memory of a person whose brief life, violent death, and unexpected resurrection would soon fade from living memory. Was their community–and all Christian communities with them–simply a preservation site?

With these verses, the author of First John puts that question to rest with a resounding “no.” Jesus Christ may have lived, died, and risen from the dead at a particular historical moment, but the God revealed in him is within earshot of us all, as it has always been and always will be.

Help us, O God, to lift our voices to you, knowing that you’ll hear us. Amen.

13 August 2022
If we know that [God] hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him (1 John 5:15).

One morning in seminary, my professor strode to the podium at the front of our classroom, stared us down for a long moment, then said: “today, I am going to impress upon you that God is not some great cosmic vending machine, and the invitation to prayer is not a subscription to a mail-order catalog.”

It was a grand, provocative statement meant to wake us all up, but it was also true, and the truth it bespoke is one that we can sometimes forget. It’s all too easy to interpret Jesus’s words in Matthew 7:7, “ask and you will receive,” to mean that God will dispense whatever we desire, and that prayer is the transactional medium by which we’re meant to place our orders.

The truth, however, is unpacked here, in both today’s verse from First John and the back half of yesterday’s verse. This epistle has talked a lot about relationships, so it should come as no surprise that in the hands of First John’s author prayer becomes a way of strengthening our relationship with God.
Every time we give up on the “cosmic vending machine” approach and ask God to work God’s will in our lives, we’re doing just that.

Help us, O God, to pray more fully as we ought, so that we may be transformed by your grace. Amen.

14 August 2022
And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 5:20).

With today and tomorrow’s verses, we come to the end of the First Epistle of John. Like anyone would after writing a lengthy set of arguments and instructions, the author of this lengthy set of arguments and instructions wants to make sure they’ve gotten their point across.

So here, at the very end, we get First John in a nutshell: the epistle’s core argument presented as crisply and concisely as possible. Verse twenty covers a lot of ground in very little time, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Vitally, this verse restates what very nearly all of First John has been about: that faith involves both knowing the truth about God and accepting God’s invitation to live as one sustained by God’s love.

The false prophets and propagators of hate to whom the epistle often refers almost certainly understand the truth of God’s love. You have to understand something in order to profitably manipulate it. The difference is that they haven’t changed the mailing addresses of their hearts.

Help us, O God, not only to understand you, but to take up residence in your transforming love. Amen.

15 August 2022
Little children, keep yourselves from idols (1 John 5:21).

Bit of an abrupt ending, isn’t it? First John lacks the closing note of fulsome good wishes you’ll find at the end of Paul’s letters or some of the other pastoral epistles.

It may or may not have once had one now lost to time, but I find this to be a perfectly appropriate sign-off. It’s short, sweet, and to the point: a final word of instruction from an author who was almost certainly writing under duress. No time for niceties. Straight to the heart of the matter.

If that was the author’s intention, they couldn’t have picked a better instruction to go out on. Though the word “idol” is cropping up in this epistle for the first time, everything in it has, at bottom, been about idolatry.
Why do we allow ourselves to be won over by the cause of hatred? Because hatred is founded in unchecked self-interest, idolatry of the self. Why do we listen to people who claim to love God but don’t love others? Because they’re showing us how to disguise our idolatry by dressing it up in pious proclamation. Why do we follow the leadings of spirits that aren’t from God? Because they and their seductively unchallenging promises make for much easier objects of our worship.

Why do we go wrong? Idols, First John tells us. It’s always idols.

Help us, O God, to worship you and you alone. Amen.

16 August 2022
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 […] [The man] said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me (Genesis 32:24-26).”

On a hilltop in Vermont lives a writer and theologian named Frederick Buechner. He’s one of our best, and I thought it would make a nice change to take a break from our deep dive into the Pastoral Epistles and read some Scripture through his insightful eyes.

I’ve chosen The Magnificent Defeat, a collection of Buechner’s sermons that consider what’s required of us as Christians and what, exactly, we may expect to receive from the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

The opening sermon takes as its basis the story of Jacob’s fight with a divine stranger at the Jabbok ford. Therein, Beuchner provocatively casts God as a “beloved enemy” with whom we all wrestle as we hold fast to “power, success, and happiness as the world knows them.” God is prepared to give us everything, Buechner writes, but “demands of us everything” in return, and it’s only in conceding the defeat of our belief in self-sufficiency that we participate fully in Christ’s life-giving victory.

“Love your enemies” indeed.

You, O God, aren’t selfish to us. Help us not to be selfish to you. Amen.

17 August 2022
The earth was complete chaos, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness (Genesis 1:2-4).
What are the “two most devastating words in the English language?” Frederick Buechner suggests “so what?”

He gives this answer in a sermon on the Creation story, a passage of Scripture which for centuries has been at the center of a raucous–and in Buechner’s view, misguided–debate. Its tale of God creating the heavens and the earth has been understood by many to pit science and religion against each other, their dueling claims about the universe’s authorship vying for our subscription.

Buechner’s “so what?” breaks that debate, arguing that we’re interested in life’s origins not so we can learn how we got here, but so we can learn what we’re here for.

Buechner can’t answer that question for us except to venture that being a part of creation involves nurturing in ourselves the qualities that bring new things into the world: “recklessness of the loving heart, wild courage, crazy gladness in the face of darkness and death, shuddering faithfulness even unto the end of the world.”

Get those, and the “so what?” takes care of itself.

Creator God, you call us to be like you. Help us to carry your renewing light into the world. Amen.

18 August 2022

“If you are able to do anything, help us! Have compassion on us!” Jesus said to him, “If you are able! All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief (Mark 9:22-24).”

How powerful is love? Really. As we make our way through life, most of our experiences suggest instead that the most powerful thing in the world is, well, power.

Frederick Beuchner’s sermon on the passage from Mark in which Jesus heals a boy possessed by a spirit presents the text as a duel between God’s power and humanity’s power. The surprising thing is that, in the short term, humanity’s power wins. Jesus may be able to heal the sick, but as he predicts at the end of the passage, he’ll be killed on a cross for his trouble.

This, Beuchner argues, begs the question: does God actually have power? Yes, he answers, but God’s power lies in an act that only God can perform unassisted: love. Unlike human power, love doesn’t coerce, but instead “creates a situation in which, of our own free will, we want to be what love wants us to be.” And when, by God’s grace, we want to receive the gift of God’s love, that is where true power can be found.

Your power, O God, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Help us to ask for it. Amen.

19 August 2022
Our struggle is not against blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on the evil day and, having prevailed against everything, to stand firm (Ephesians 10:12-13).

To talk of life’s challenges as battles to be fought is to perpetuate a cliche. Yet, as Frederick Buechner points out in a sermon on the above passage from Ephesians, Cliches become cliches because they work.

And of these battles we fight? Buechner argues that although they are many, they fall into two main groups. The first is “conquest.” These are the battles we fight to get ahead, to carve out a place for ourselves in this world. The second is “becoming.” These are the battles we fight to become “fully human,” and to see the full humanity of others.

We often ask God for help in our battles of conquest, which is ironic, given that God’s help can only hurt us on that front. Against those forces trying to prevent our becoming, however, God is unbeatable, as are those who accept the gift of God’s armor.

O God, grant that we may not so much seek to conquer as to become, so that by your grace we may prevail on the field of battle that really matters. Amen.

20 August 2022
Brothers and sisters, I do not consider that I have laid hold of it, but one thing I have laid hold of: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal, toward the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:13-14).

What do we say we want from God? What do we really want?

Many would say that what they want most from God is empirical, independently verifiable, peer-reviewed proof of God’s existence. Then, surely, our doubt would give way to faith and our despair would give way to hope.
In a sermon on the above passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, Frederick Beuchner imagines just such a scenario: God rearranging the stars in the night sky to spell out, “in words light years tall,” I REALLY EXIST.

Such a happening might well bring the unbelieving world to faith for a time, but sooner or later it would force the asking of another question which had, in fact, been the real question all along: “what difference does it make that God exists?”

Beuchner’s point is that we yearn not to see God proved, but to experience God for ourselves. The good news, he writes, is that whenever we find ourselves acting justly, loving mery, and walking humbly, we do.

That’s the difference.

Help us, O Lord, “to wait, to watch, and to listen” for your incredible presence “here in the world among us.” Amen.

21 August 2022
When [the Magi] had heard the king, they set out, and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen in the east, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy (Matthew 2:9-10).

What is the value of a journey?

In a Christmas sermon for the ages, Frederick Buechner suggests that when we find ourselves between here and there, we’re more honest with ourselves about who we are and who we wish to be. And yet we can also be dishonest by telling ourselves that whatever we lack will simply be waiting for us at our destination.

This is exactly what another famous trio of journeymen–the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion–thought. The storied Wizard of Oz, they were sure, have brains, heart, and courage to give. They realized only in hindsight that the adventures they’d had along the way had demanded know-how, compassion, and bravery, and they’d risen to the occasion despite their supposed lack of those things. The journey had changed them.

Our challenge, then, is to accept Christ’s invitation to follow him, to journey with him. Ironically, it’s only in the unsettling unpredictability of the journey that we discover the peace of God, a peace that comes from knowing that we’re becoming more fully ourselves with each passing step.

Help us, O God, to carry on journeying with you, so that our joy might grow ever more complete. Amen.

22 August 2022
And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be (Luke 1:28-29).

‘What sort of greeting’ indeed.

It’s both a great and terrible greeting: great because it affirms that God’s company is ours, terrible because God often drops by at hours we deem inconvenient.

In a sermon on the Annunciation text–in which the Angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will bear the Christ child–Frederick Beuchner argues that it’s exactly this “double-edged sword” quality of “God with us” which breeds discontentment in our world and in our hearts.

On the one hand, we hunger for a world ruled by God’s peace, and so we try to make it a reality using “the weapons we’ve forged in our factories and the political and economic ideas we’ve forged in our heads.”

On the other hand, we also use those same tools to keep God’s peace from becoming a reality. We “fend off this world we yearn for where [people] live together as [siblings] because there is something in each of us that does not want to live for [our siblings] but for [ourselves].

Small wonder, then, that the world’s redemption should come not through any conceit of ours, but through a child “who will be called the Son of God.”

Let your Kingdom come, O Lord; through us if possible, despite us if necessary. Only, let it come. Amen.

23 August 2022
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn (Luke 2:7).

What makes the familiar new again?

Frederick Beuchner explores this question in a sermon that tells the Christmas story from the perspectives of its minor characters. They each have an angle on the big night, and invite us to see it through fresh eyes.
First, there’s the innkeeper, who isn’t really a character in the Biblical text but who, we suppose, must’ve been there. Somebody had to turn Mary and Joseph away, after all.

Buechner’s innkeeper points out that this uncharitable act often pins him as the villain of the piece, the unscrupulous businessman who made no effort to help the Holy Family because he was too busy, or they were too poor, or some such.

There’s some truth to that, but still the innkeeper pleads his case. “Do you know what it’s 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’s like being lost in a forest of a million trees…a million things. Finally, we have eyes for nothing else, and everything we see becomes a thing.”

Even a person. Even God.

Help us, O God, to look for you in all things, so that we won’t miss you. Amen.

24 August 2022
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the east came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star in the east and have come to pay him homage (Matthew 2:1-2).”

What makes the familiar new again?

Frederick Beuchner explores this question in a sermon that tells the Christmas story from the perspectives of its minor characters. They each have an angle on the big night, and invite us to see it through fresh eyes.

Yesterday, it was the innkeeper, today it’s the Magi. The wise men. The visitors from the east who’ve read Jesus’s story in the stars. Why should they come all this way if they know better than most what–or rather, who–they’ll find? “Curiosity, we suppose,” Buechner’s Magi reflect. “To be wise is to be eternally curious, and we were very wise.”

Curiosity is good, but it can only take you so far. At some point, the curious must commit to something, and this, Buechner argues, is what sends the Magi back after depositing their famous gifts. They were eager to see but reluctant to stay. The child they sought and found, it seems, was asking for more than gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Awaken in us, O Lord, both the curiosity to seek you and the commitment to follow once we’ve found you. Amen.

25 August 2022
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them…the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing…which the Lord has made known to us (Luke 2:13-15).”

What makes the familiar new again?

Frederick Beuchner explores this question in a sermon that tells the Christmas story from the perspectives of its minor characters. They each have an angle on the big night, and invite us to see it through fresh eyes.

Today, we come at last to the shepherds, whose eyes are dimmed by exhaustion, hunger, and grime. They lack the innkeeper’s propriety and the Magi’s introspection. Such niceties are reserved for those who don’t have to wear themselves out chasing sheep around a field all day long.

Sometimes, though, there are things that we only see when we’re too tired, hungry, and filthy not to. The multitude of the heavenly host may well have appeared to all of Bethlehem that night, but only the shepherds saw.

Only the shepherds dropped everything and went because God had told them that something wonderful had happened just down the road, and what could matter more than that?

Help us, O Lord, to see you at work in the world, and upon seeing you, to head straight for you, Amen.

26 August 2022
“Command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise, his disciples may go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead.’ […] ”Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can. So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone (Matthew 27:64-66).

The words of this passage may not be familiar to you. They’re the words spoken between the Pharisees and Pontius Pilate after Jesus’s death.

Before Pilate, the Pharisees speak of their fear that Jesus’s disciples will try to stage a hoax resurrection, but Frederick Buechner suspects that they harbor another, unspoken fear: that the resurrection will occur. For real.

It’s a fear that Buechner sees in us, too: a fear that the defining miracle of the Christan faith is too good to be true.

It might be, but Buechner points out that without it, Christianity becomes nothing more than “an affirmation of moral values.” “I have never been able to get very excited about moral values,” he writes, “and when I have the feeling that someone is trying to set me a good example, I start edging towards the door.” You too, huh?

Our faith has plenty to teach us, but those teachings only matter–like, really matter–if one day, long ago, a dead man got up.

Give us courage and humility enough, O Lord, to be raised to life with your Son.. Amen.

27 August 2022
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him (Luke 24:13-16).

Where do you go when you want to escape from the cares that weigh you down?

That place, Frederick Buechner argues, is your Emmaus. Scripture never tells us why two of Jesus’s followers struck off for a small village of that name on the day of Jesus’s resurrection, but Buechner speculates that it’s for much the same reason that anybody skips town after a rough weekend: to put some distance between themselves and “a situation that has become unbearable.”

“There is not a one of us who has not gone to Emmaus with them,” Buechner writes. We go to escape. The blessed trouble is that it’s in exactly those circumstances, once we’ve lowered our guard enough to think about the things we can’t escape, that Jesus is apt to show up. We often don’t recognize him at first, if for no other reason than that we don’t expect him, but that’s who Jesus is: the one who loves us enough to invite us beyond our expectations.

Help us, O God, to watch for you when we’re confused or overwhelmed, so that we might recognize and accept your company. Amen.

28 August 2022
Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it (Revelation 2:17).

“What if this is as good as it gets?”

Novelist Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) puts this question to no one in particular during a key scene from James L. Brooks’s 1997 film As Good as it Gets.

Melvin, who has recently experienced a fullness of life he has never known before, now finds himself back in the familiar rhythms of the life he has always lived. Only now that familiarity holds no comfort for him. It just makes him long for the return of something better.

“We have all lost paradise,” writes Frederick Buechner, “and yet we carry paradise around inside of us in the form of a longing for, almost a memory of, a blessedness that is no more, or the dream of a blessedness that may someday be again.”

In this universal longing, Buechner finds the most compelling reason he can think of to follow the God revealed in Jesus Christ, a God who “gives life to the half-alive; even to the dead.” Our longing, he writes, is for this God, and who this God calls us to be.

Call us into new life, O Lord. Amen.

29 August 2022
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax-collection station, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him (Matthew 9:9).

“Follow me.” That’s it. That’s all Jesus has to say to convince Matthew to leave his lucrative job as a tax collector behind and follow him.

To many–including me–this story is so simple as to be offensive. Where’s the sales pitch? Where’s the compelling claim–and the data to back it up? Where’s the cost-benefit analysis? How can a person sign their life away with so vague a sense of what’s being asked of them and what they’ll get in return?

In a sermon entitled simply “Follow Me,” Frederick Buechner argues that Jesus’s approach to disciple-making is an affront to us because we’re trying to make it something it’s not. When Jesus says “Follow me,” he’s not trying to get us to buy what he’s selling. He’s offering us a relationship.

Then it makes sense. “You do not come first to understand a person fully and then love them,” he writes. “Love comes first, and then it is out of the love that understanding is born.” As Christians, we’re called to seek a better understanding of Jesus, but that’s not why we follow him. We follow him because we love him.

Help us to love you, O Lord, so that in loving you, we might better understand you, and your call upon our lives. Amen.

30 August 2022
For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11:26).

Arguments over how we as Christians ought to understand Holy Communion have been cracking Churches in two and setting theologians against each other for centuries.

That the Lord’s Supper, which is founded upon our unity in Christ, should be the cause of such division and rancor to be mourned. And yet, as Frederick Buechner points out, it’s understandable. When we receive of the bread and cup, we confront the “greatest promise and holiest mystery” of our faith, and we–like all God’s children–tend to argue the most about what we care about the most.

Why should we care so? Buechner suggests that the power of Holy Communion lies in its proclamation that, in Christ, memories are more than memories and loved ones who are gone are also not quite gone.

When we consume the elements, we do more than remember Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. We receive his perfecting love, such that his memory becomes a living, present force. Likewise, we do more than mourn and celebrate a savior who has come and gone. We invite that savior, alive and glorified in heaven, to live also in us, so that we may bring his love into the world.

Help us, O God, to receive the love you have poured out for us, so that we may invite all to gather ‘round the table. Amen.

31 August 2022
But the hour is coming and is now here when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24).

What makes a word empty?

Sometimes it’s simply that we don’t know the word, and so can’t be reasonably expected to know what it means.

Sometimes, we know the word, but haven’t had its meaning explained to our satisfaction.

Sometimes, we know the word and have a sense of what it means, but that meaning seems so far removed from our lived experience that it’s as good as meaningless.

In a sermon on the above passage, Frederick Buechner observes that many words associated with the Christian faith no longer mean much to us, and tries to make one–”spirit”–mean something again.

Buechner reminds us that “spirit” simply means “breath.” It’s the stuff of life, whatever it is that gets us out of bed in the morning, gives us cause for joy, and pushes us to muscle through when things get tough.

It’s a word we ought to know, because knowing it allows us to proclaim some very good news: God is Spirit, and God is always looking to breathe new life into us, to fill our hearts when words feel empty.

Help us, O God, to claim the life that you so freely give. Amen.