Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 21, 2022 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

1 Samuel 14:49-51, 18:17-21, 29+Psalm 31:1-7+(Romans 13:8-10)+Mark 12:28-34

There have been very few people in my life, even those I have never met in person, who influenced my life of faith more than Frederick Buechner who died this week at the age of 96. Even if you haven’t read any of his books or essays, you will likely recognize his definition for vocation: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (originally from Wishful Thinking). It’s quite similar to Howard Thurman’s line, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”[1]

What is the deepest desire of your heart? What makes you come alive? There is where you find your calling, your vocation.        

I first encountered Buechner’s writings 30-or-so years ago when I was at a particularly low point in my life. Where was God in the trainwreck that was me? And then I read this bit from his 1973 collection, Wishful Thinking:

The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.[2] 

The party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Is that really how God saw me then, sees all of us now?

Jesus is being peppered with questions by religious leaders and scholars. They are not just testing him. Yes, they are trying to make sure he isn’t teaching anything contrary to the Law, but we really need to be careful when we interpret the debates with the Pharisees as the Pharisees being legalistic and more concerned with Law than with justice. For faithful Jews, those are intertwined, and these debates are what Jewish scholars have always done – they discuss and question and imagine and dispute until they come closer to understanding what God is saying, what God is asking of us.

I know that’s hard to believe given that in our current climate where questioning is not allowed and there is no room for anyone who doesn’t believe what I believe.

But I digress.

Jesus doesn’t just make something up out of thin air. No, he reaches back into Torah – the Five Books of Moses, or the Law – and pulls out two different commands from two different places (Deuteronomy 6:4 & Leviticus 19:18):

Hear, O Israel: the Holy One our God, the Holy is one; you shall love the Holy One your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.  (Mark 12:29-20)

It is the Summary of the Law, and no matter what else we do, if we are loving God and loving our neighbor, we are doing what Jesus asks us to do.

In Luke’s version of this story, it was a lawyer who asks the question about the greatest commandment, and when Jesus responds, the lawyer wants a legal definition of neighbor. Jesus launches into the story of the Good Samaritan at that point. Here’s what Frederick Buechner had to say about loving your neighbor in a passage about Pride from his book The Clown in the Belfry:

PRIDE IS SELF-LOVE, and in one sense a Christian is enjoined to be proud; i.e., another way of saying Love your neighbor as yourself is to say Love yourself as your neighbor. That doesn’t mean your pulse is supposed to quicken every time you look in the mirror any more than it’s supposed to quicken every time your neighbor passes the window. It means simply that the ability to work for your own good despite all the less than admirable things you know about yourself is closely related to the ability to work for your neighbor’s good despite all the less than admirable things you know about him. It also means that just as in this sense love of self and love of neighbor go hand in hand, so do dislike of self and dislike of neighbor. For example (a) the more I dislike my neighbor, the more I’m apt to dislike myself for disliking him and him for making me dislike myself and so on, and (b) I am continually tempted to take out on my neighbor the dislike I feel for myself, just the way if I crack my head on a low door I’m very apt to kick the first cat, child, or chair unlucky enough to catch my bloodshot eye. 

Self-love or pride is a sin when, instead of leading you to share with others the self you love, it leads you to keep your self in perpetual safe-deposit. You not only don’t accrue any interest that way but become less and less interesting every day.[3] 

King Saul’s fear of David strikes me as his acting out this lack of an ability to love himself, fearful that someone else is better mixed in with the pride of trying to shout above the shouts of adulation for David, “But I am the king, not him!”

Not too many years after I discovered Fred Buechner, I found myself writing short little essays about various topics, and one that I wrote about Pentecost seemed to me to bear his influence on how I perceived the life of faith. So, I sent it to him and thanked him for his gift of words. And he wrote back with the most lovely, handwritten note. Unbeknownst to me, he responded to everyone who wrote to him.

As I look back over my life from when I “discovered” Fred Buechner to now, I realize how much he has been part of my journey, an unimaginable arc from deep lostness to standing here with all of you, and even with my name in consideration to be a bishop. It is truly stranger than any fiction. His understanding of grace, that the party is not complete without any one of us, that we just have to open our hands to it – no storied theologian could explain it better.

One of my favorite Buechner novels is about an old 11th c. English saint named Godric, and over the years, I have found myself praying Godric’s prayer, taking it as my own. I invite you to pray with me

O Thou that asketh much of him to whom thou givest much, have mercy. Remember me not for the ill I’ve done but for the good I’ve dreamed. Help me to be not just the old and foolish one thou seest now but once again a fool for thee. Help me to pray. Help me whatever way thou canst, dear Christ and Lord. Amen.[4] 


[1] Howard Thurman, occasion unidentified. This often-used quotation is attributed to Reverend Thurman on the history page of the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground at Boston University, https://www.bu.edu/thurman/about/history/.

[2] https://www.frederickbuechner.com/quote-of-the-day/2016/9/9/grace

[3] https://www.frederickbuechner.com/quote-of-the-day/2016/4/23/pride

[4] https://www.frederickbuechner.com/blog/2020/9/21/weekly-sermon-illustration-godrics-prayer

ASEPSermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 21, 2022 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas