Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale by Frederick Buechner
Books on preaching can often focus on the mechanics of delivering an excellent sermon; and while learning the mechanics of delivery is a crucial task for preaching proficiency, part of what makes a sermon truly good is the perspective with which the preacher teaches the congregation to read and interpret the Bible.
In Telling the Truth, Frederick Buechner offers preachers an example of how to deliver a sermon that both reaches hearers through its mechanics and helps them read Scripture as Good News. Below are three themes from Telling the Truth that help us develop sermons that are faithful to the biblical witness.
“God told them that when the baby was born he wanted them to name him Isaac, which in Hebrew means laughter. So you can say that God not only tolerated their laughter but blessed it and in a sense joined in it himself, which makes it a very special laughter indeed–God and man laughing together, sharing a glorious joke in which both of them are involved.” (53)
Through the story of Abraham and Sarah, Buechner reminds us that God’s way of blessing the world is often laughably generous. A geriatric couple having a baby? Ridiculous! A traitor being the “rock on which Jesus would build his church?” who would have thought?
Truly good preaching reminds parishioners that sometimes the way God chooses to do His work is laughably unlike our way of doing things. Who expects God to turn the old folks’ home into a maternity ward? Certainly not Sarah and Abraham! Who expects Jesus to build his church on the disciple who denied him three times? Certainly not Peter! God delights in confounding our expectations.
As much as good preaching teaches hearers how God tends to act, it also reminds hearers of God’s ability to move outside of our expectations. Sometimes this will surprise and delight us; other times it will confound and dismay us. The trick is to keep developing eyes to see where He is (even when he shows up differently than we anticipate).
- Overlooked Saints
“When he says, ‘take up your cross and follow me,’ I think that he is saying the same thing because before it means take up some special mission or some special sacrifice or responsibility, ‘take up your cross’ means simply take up the burden of your own life because for the time being anyway, maybe that is burden enough.” (33-34)
In reading Telling the Truth, we are reminded of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5 about those who are “poor in terms of spiritual things.” God’s greatest treasures sometimes emerge from those carrying great burdens, or who lead ordinary humble lives. The last person we would ask to lead a corporate prayer may be the closest to the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ invitation–during his ministry on earth, and now through the church–is not only for those with the dominant talents we tend to esteem, but for those we often overlook. God’s Kingdom uses the poor to shame the wise, and includes the poor, lowly, ignored, and downtrodden. Buechner teaches us the importance of addressing the upside-down Kingdom of God by pointing to those who God calls “good and faithful,” especially when this faithfulness occurs in people we think lack notability. Good preaching can do the same: it can help congregations look for where holiness may be hiding–for some, this may be someone many in the church thinks “has nothing to give,” ; for others, this may be a wealthy neighbor they think is “out of touch,” or a person who they disagree with politically or socially. Whatever else good preaching does, it teaches the congregation to adopt some of God’s perspective on who is a load-bearing member of His work.
- Not Looking Away
“One wonders if there is anything more crucial for the preacher to do than to obey the sadness of our times by taking it into account without equivocation or subterfuge, by speaking out of our times and into our times not just what we ought to say about the Gospel, not just what it would appear to be in the interests of the Gospel for us to say, but what we have ourselves felt about it, experienced of it. It is possible to think of the Gospel and our preaching of it as, above all and at no matter what risk, a speaking of the truth about the way things are.”
One of the hardest tasks of preaching is addressing hard topics with the Good News of Jesus Christ. To avoid this struggle, preachers (and parishioners, too) often resort to platitudes or restatements of things they’ve heard during their own suffering. “Let go and let God,” or “Stop worrying and just trust,” or “Everything happens for a reason,” are some of the first things the sufferer might hear if they are bold enough to discuss it with someone in the church.
For preaching to reach the hearer as truly Good News, however, it must match the complexity of the problem it’s addressing. “Everything happens for a reason” is cold comfort for someone receiving a cancer diagnosis. “Let go and let God” is insufficient medicine for someone ailing from a failing marriage. “Stop worrying and just trust” is not enough for someone with clinical depression.
Avoiding a shallow gospel (which is really no gospel at all) requires preachers to be in touch with the longings and losses of their congregations. Spending time in counseling (to confront the darkness within ourselves), asking one congregant per week what’s been worrying them recently, or what keeps them up at night; these simple steps (and following up with the people with whom you have a conversation) will give insight that can improve the preacher’s ability to directly address challenging circumstances, not look away from them.
- Setting the Scene
“He is Pontius Pilate, of course…. He is essentially a law-and-order man, and he is maintaining them as best he can. If the malcontents, the eggheads, and bleeding hearts, want to carry on about rottenness the heart of things, that is their business. His concern is with the rottenness in the streets, and his business is to keep the ship afloat from day to day. All in all he is not doing a bad job of it. There are no major complaints from Rome. The Jews are happy enough with their Jewish puppets. And he himself, if not happy, is happy enough.” (8-9)
While the New Testament reminds us that “all Scripture is profitable,” many parts of the biblical witness seem so far removed from our own contexts. Good preaching helps bridge the gap between the biblical witness and our own time and place. One way preachers can do this is to follow Buechner’s model of the “modern parable.” As we see people talk, hear from, and obey God, one of our big questions has to be, “What might this look like in our day?” And, “What would faithfulness to God look like in harmony with what the text asks us for today?”
As we do this, we’re reminded that every sermon in some form must point people to the work of Jesus, as we hope not for “good advice from an Old Testament figure,” or “lessons for life from Proverbs,” but a living word, mediated through the person and work of Christ.
Ethan Linder is the Pastor of Hospitality, Collegians, and Young Adults at College Wesleyan Church in Marion, Indiana, and the Editor of The Wesleyan Church’s Education and Clergy Development writing staff.