What do we expect from a sermon? Frederick Buechner’s, Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons

Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons by Frederick Buechner. Harper Collins publishers, New York, 2006.  

This is a book you might not want to read, especially if you attend mass and feel the DSC03157sermons are not all they ought to be. When I began to read each sermon by Buechner I kept thinking why doesn’t the church do more to open up the Scripture in ways that can make us all think differently the way Frederick Buechner does in his sermons. I suppose that is unfair since Buechner is not exactly a preacher, although he is an ordained minister. He preached formally for a brief period of time when he was a chaplain at Phillips Exeter Academy. But that was years ago, 1959, right after he left seminary. Mostly, he is, and should be considered a writer. So it is possible that his gift of writing and using words is connected to the congregation he does not have. There is no pressure, really, for him to get everyone in the parish to agree with something he has said; no worries that what he said on one Sunday might result in less parishioners on the next Sunday.  

What I think, though, is that Buechner does not spend a lot of time trying to make the Scripture fit the news of the day. I believe this is why his sermons work. They are not tied to a particular event; yet he does not shy away from the pain, disappointments and horrors of the world. But he is not self-righteous; rather he is more self-exploratory. He dips deep into the well of the Scriptures and comes out with something that quenches our thirst, even though he does not tag some political event to it. He challenges the reader or listener by thinking about the stories of the Bible and the people who populate these stories as stories that are similar to our own stories; as stories that are our stories too.

“So in the long run the stories all overlap and mingle like searchlights in the dark. The stories Jesus tells are part of the story Jesus is, and the other way around. And the story Jesus is is part of the story you and I are because Jesus has become so much a part of the world’s story that it is impossible to imagine how any of our stories would have turned out without him, even the stories of people  who don’t believe in him or even know who he is or care about knowing. And my story and your story are all part of each other too if only because we have sung together and prayed together and seen each other’s faces so that we are at least a footnote at the bottom of each other’s stories.” (137)

He does not need to take a political side, because after all, there is no side when it comes to God, and certainly no political party who is charged with doing what might be considered God’s work. 

Unfortunately, many who preach rarely challenge parishioners to think about the Scriptures as it relates to themselves in more than just a superficial way.  It seems preachers give themselves an out by perhaps believing they are permitting us to think for ourselves. I’m all for leaving us to think on our own, but I do believe we need someone to open the door for us so that we may begin to explore a little on our own. 

DSC03191Again, I’m not saying, I’m looking for someone to champion my way of thinking about political questions; I’m actually not looking for politics to enter the conversation. I think that is precisely where many preachers go wrong, that is to say, they either try to fit the Scripture into the current political mess in which we live; or they simply stop saying anything because they are afraid to come out on a side. But, really, they do not have to try so hard. If you read the Bible there are a lot of things that fit without us ever trying to make them fit, and, as far as sides, well, who is to say. On the one hand, it is difficult to define love; on the other hand, Paul did a pretty good job in Corinthians 13, and do we really need a preacher to say it explicitly when our political ideas do not exactly fit together with our belief in a generous and loving God? 

What do we expect in a sermon? Buechner writes:

“And I think that what most people expect to hear read from a Bible is an edifying story, an uplifting thought, a moral lesson — something elevating, obvious, and boring. So that is exactly what very often they do hear. Only that is too bad because if you really listen — and maybe you have to forget that it is the Bible being read and a minister who is reading it — there is no telling what you might hear.” 

Buechner begins his sermon, “The Magnificent Defeat,” with the above quote, and then delves right into Genesis’ story of Jacob’s physical battle with God. And it is quite unexpected what he tells us about this story. He does not try to spin it as a moralist story or try to use it as a frame by which to enclose a current event. He gets right in there and makes us think about Jacob’s actions from the beginning with the cheating of his brother, Esau until his encounter with God. 

“Power, success, happiness, as the world knows them, are his who will fight for them hard enough; but peace, love, joy are only from God.” (7)

If Buechner stopped here it would seem like a model for a waffling sermon, one that would surely not get anyone to think or even get moved enough to be annoyed.  Since peace, love, and joy come from God, as a gift, one only has to rationalize that life can go on as it may because what you do has nothing to do with God. Therefore, as long as you play within the rules — loosely — then you are not hurting anyone and all is well with your world.

But Buechner continues,

“And God is the enemy whom Jacob fought there by the river, of course, and whom in one way or another we all of us fight — God, the beloved enemy. Our enemy because, before giving us everything, he demands of us everything; before giving us life, he demands our lives — our selves, our wills, our treasure.”  (7)

If we are attentive to what Buechner is saying we cannot walk away thinking we do not have to make hard choices. We cannot walk away from this sermon without thinking of Jacob and of him limping home and wondering what that all means. Perhaps, we will just believe it is damage that comes from a well fought battle or perhaps we might think that there is something we have to give up if we are going to take God seriously. 

Frederick Buechner, as any good story-teller, draws us into what he is telling. The story becomes a living and breathing force. He opens the door to the Scriptures and we walk right as he imagines the Innkeeper’s perspective in a way that does not let the Innkeeper off the hook, but does not condemn him either; rather he goes a step further and uses the position of the Innkeeper to reflect, not just on the baby that was to come into the world, but all acts of creation:

“The stars had come out. I remember the stars perfectly though I don’t know why I should, sitting inside as I was. And my wife’s cat jumped up onto the table where I was sitting. I had not stood up, of course. There was mainly just silence. Then it happened much in the way that you have heard. I did not lie about there being a room, I might have lied. As much for their sakes as for the sake of the inn. Their kind would have felt more at home in a stable, that’s all, and I do not mean that unkindly either. God knows.” (10)

He softens up the innkeeper a bit. Makes him into a hardworking guy who is not looking to do anyone any real harm. Just wants to keep everything running. But then he adds this, and it is hard to misunderstand the point:

“… . So when the baby came, I was not around, and I saw none of it. As for what I heard — just at that moment itself of birth when nobody turns into somebody — I do not know what I heard.” (11)

I love this line: “Just at that moment itself of birth when nobody turns into somebody”  — An act of creation. Something new to the world. And the innkeeper missed it. He did not hear it. The words Buechner chooses are important here. “I do not know what I heard.” The sound of a baby. The cry. The call. The Innkeeper was too busy to hear anything. He was so busy he does not even know what he heard. And how many moments in our life — moments filled with the potential of creation — have we missed because we were busy?

“But this I do know. My own true love. All your life long, you wait for your own true love to come — we all of us do — our destiny, our joy, our heart’s desire. So how am I to say it, gentlemen? When he came, I missed him. (11) 

We well might feel really bad for the innkeeper here. But, I think more than anything we feel bad for ourselves because we know we are that innkeeper or we have a suspicion that we might become that innkeeper.

There is no wavering in Buechner over whether the Bible is myth or something far more treacherous, some tool to manipulate all of us to take life’s blows. He does not waste our time with assessing the literal events for factual accuracy. He talks about the stories, just as one would discuss a book of fiction without dismissing its message because it did not actually happen. We all know that great works of fiction have pointed to what has happened, what is happening. We misunderstand truth if we reduce it to mere facts. What are the stories saying? What is the truth they are trying to give to us? Some preachers today get so rattled by their own belief in a God that does not light up the night sky with his name that they spend a lot of time trying to make connections for us that do not need to be made. I remember hearing one priest spell “sun” and “son” and I thought really, do you need to do that? You cannot put subtitles underneath a ritual, especially when most people know the language. We should all know by the time we are adults what ritual is and why we need it if we are sitting in church. 


In the end, it does not matter if the Innkeeper lied or even if there was an Innkeeper, but what matters is the missing out on creation. The relegating to the manger the beauty of creation. The not listening for creation and the turning away from the beauty of life in all its many forms. The Innkeeper gets to keep his life and life-style, but there is so much he has missed. 

Interestingly, even when the truth is standing right in front of us we miss it, either, as the Innkeeper does, we are looking elsewhere, or

as Buechner says of Pilate:

“Pilate wants Jesus to tell him what truth is so he can put it in his pocket and go his way just that much the wiser but otherwise the same old Pilate. But Jesus will not give him the words he wants any more than God would give them to Job when Job wanted them, because words are not the point. Jesus himself is the point.  (136)

What then does it mean to say “Jesus himself is the point?” It seems to me that Buechner is saying over and over again, with each reading of a different piece of Scripture that Jesus is love; that we are called to love our God with our hearts, mind and strength, as we read in Deuteronomy, and that we are also called to love our neighbor as ourself. The point is love. The point as Frederich Buechner so eloquently expresses with his pen is that we are loved and we are called to love with everything we have.

There are 37 sermons in Frederich Buechner’s book. Check it out. You can get it from the public library.

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