Frederick Buechner Sermon Illustration: Clown in the Belfry
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 Fourth Sunday of Easter. Here is this week’s reading from the book of Psalms:
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.
The following sermon, entitled "The Clown in the Belfry" was originally published in The Clown in the Belfry and later in Secrets in the Dark:
Happy Birthday! Happy Birthday to this old church, which was first organized two hundred years ago day before yesterday with seven members and a pastor who bore the somewhat less than promising name of Increase Graves. Happy Birthday to this old building, which has seen many a howling blizzard in its time and many a scorching summer day before the road it stands on ever dreamed of being paved and the air was thick with the dust of horses' hooves and wagon wheels. Happy Birthday to all of you because more than an organization, more than a building, a church is the people who come to it to pray and sing and fidget and dream, to shed a tear or two if some word strikes home, and to try to keep a straight face if the soloist strikes a sour note or somebody's hearing aid starts to buzz. Happy Birthday to all of you, who listen to some sermons and doze through other sermons and do all the other things people do that make them a church and make them human.
And Happy Birthday to Jesus too, I guess it's proper to say, because before this is a Congregational church, or Rupert's church, or your church, it is after all his church. If it hadn't been for Jesus, who knows what other kind of building might have stood on this spot, or what other line of work Increase Graves might have gone into, or where you and I might be today—not just where we might be geographically, but where we might be humanly, inside ourselves, if it hadn't been for Jesus and all the things he said and did and all the things people have kept on saying and doing because of him ever since.
What do you do on a birthday? You get together with your friends, of course. You put on your best clothes. You sing songs. You bring offerings. You whoop it up. You do a lot of the same things, in other words, that we're doing here today, and it seems to me that that's just as it should be. But there's one thing I propose to do that is usually not done on birthdays. Just for a moment or two I suggest we set aside our snappers and party hats and give at least one quick look at what it is that we're whooping it up about, what it is that really makes people into a church in the first place.
Since 1786 people have been coming here the way you and I came here today. Men who fought in the American Revolution and the widows of men who never got back from it. Civil War veterans. Two centuries' worth of farmers, dairymen, mill workers, an occasional traveler. Old men and old women with most of their lives behind them, and young men and young women with most of their lives ahead of them. People who made a go of it and are remembered still, and people who somehow never left their mark in any way the world noticed and aren't remembered anymore by anybody. Despite the enormous differences between them, all these men and women entered this building just the way you and I entered it a few minutes ago because of one thing they had in common.
What they had in common was that, like us, they believed (or sometimes believed and sometimes didn't believe; or wanted to believe; or liked to think they believed) that the universe, that everything there is, didn't come about by chance, but was created by God. Like us, they believed, on their best days anyway, that, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, this God was a God like Jesus, which is to say a God of love. That, I think, is the crux of the matter. In 1786 and 1886 and 1986 and all the years between, that is at the heart of what has made this place a church. That is what all the whooping has been about. In the beginning it was not some vast cosmic explosion that made the heavens and the earth. It was a loving God who did. That is our faith and the faith of all the ones who came before us.
The question is, is it true? If the answer is no, then what we're celebrating today is at best a happy and comforting illusion. If the answer is yes, then we have something to celebrate that makes even a two-hundredth birthday look pale by comparison.
I don't suppose there is any passage in either the Old Testament or the New that sums up the faith this church was founded on more eloquently and movingly than the Twenty-third Psalm. "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want." How many times would you guess those words have been spoken here over the years, especially at dark moments when people needed all the faith they could muster? How many times have we spoken them ourselves at our own dark moments? But for all their power to bring comfort, do the words hold water? This faith in God that they affirm, is it borne out by our own experience of life on this planet? That is a hard and painful question to raise, but let us honor the occasion by raising it anyway. Does this ancient and beautiful psalm set forth a faith that in the secrecy of our hearts we can still honestly subscribe to? And what exactly is that faith it sets forth? The music of the psalm is so lovely that it's hard sometimes to hear through it to what the psalm is saying.
"God's in his heaven, all's right with the world," Robert Browning wrote, and the psalm is certainly not saying that any more than you or I can say it either. Whoever wrote it had walked through the valley of the shadow the way one way or another you and I have walked there too. He says so himself. He believed that God was in his heaven despite the fact that he knew as well as we do that all was far from right with the world. And he believed that God was like a shepherd.
When I think of shepherds, I think of my friend Vernon Beebe, who used to keep sheep here in Rupert a few years back. Some of them he gave names to, and some of them he didn't, but he knew them equally well either way. If one of them got lost, he didn't have a moment's peace till he found it again. If one of them got sick or hurt, he would move heaven and earth to get it well again. He would feed them out of a bottle when they were newborn lambs if for some reason the mother wasn't around or wouldn't "own" them, as he put it. He always called them in at the end of the day so the wild dogs wouldn't get them. I've seen him wade through snow up to his knees with a bale of hay in each hand to feed them on bitter cold winter evenings, shaking it out and putting it in the manger. I've stood with him in their shed with a forty-watt bulb hanging down from the low ceiling to light up their timid, greedy, foolish, half holy faces as they pushed and butted each other to get at it, because if God is like a shepherd, there are more than just a few ways, needless to say, that people like you and me are like sheep. Being timid, greedy, foolish, and half holy is only part of it.
Like sheep we get hungry, and hungry for more than just food. We get thirsty for more than just drink. Our souls get hungry and thirsty; in fact it is often that sense of inner emptiness that makes us know we have souls in the first place. There is nothing that the world has to give us, there is nothing that we have to give to each other even that ever quite fills them. But once in a while that inner emptiness is filled even so. That is part of what the psalm means by saying that God is like a shepherd, I think. It means that, like a shepherd, he feeds us. He feeds that part of us which is hungriest and most in need of feeding.
There is richer, more profitable land in the world certainly than what we have in this small corner of the state of Vermont, but it's hard to believe there is any lovelier land. There are the sloping hillside pastures and meadows we live among—green pastures, then golden pastures, then pastures whiter than white, blue-shadowed. There are still waters—the looking-glass waters of pasture ponds filled with sky and clouds—and there are waters that aren't still at all, but overflow their banks when the melting snow swells them and they go rattling and roaring and chuckling through the woods in a way that makes you understand how human beings must have first learned what music is. Most of the time we forget to notice this place where we live—because we're so used to it, because we get so caught up in whatever our work is, whatever our lives are—but every once and so often maybe we notice and are filled. "He restoreth my soul," is the way the psalm says it. For a little while the scales fall from our eyes and we actually see the beauty and holiness and mystery of the world around us, and then from deeper down even than our hunger, restoring comes, nourishment comes. You can't make it happen. You can't make it last. But it is a glimpse, a whisper. Maybe it is all we can handle.
"I shall not want," the psalm says. Is that true? There are lots of things we go on wanting, go on lacking, whether we believe in God or not. They are not just material things like a new roof or a better-paying job, but things like good health, things like happiness for our children, things like being understood and appreciated, like relief from pain, like some measure of inner peace not just for ourselves but for the people we love and for whom we pray. Believers and unbelievers alike, we go on wanting plenty our whole lives through. We long for what never seems to come. We pray for what never seems to be clearly given. But when the psalm says "I shall not want," maybe it is speaking the utter truth anyhow. Maybe it means that if we keep our eyes open, if we keep our hearts and lives open, we will at least never be in want of the one thing we want more than anything else. Maybe it means that, whatever else is withheld, the shepherd never withholds himself, and he is what we want more than anything else.
Not at every moment of our lives, heaven knows, but at certain rare moments of greenness and stillness, we are shepherded by the knowledge that, though all is far from right with any world you and I know anything about, all is right deep down. All will be right at last. I suspect that is at least part of what "He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness" is all about. It means righteousness not just in the sense of doing right, but in the sense of being right—being right with God, trusting the deep-down rightness of the life God has created for us and in us, and riding that trust the way a red-tailed hawk rides the currents of the air in this valley where we live. I suspect that the paths of righteousness he leads us in are more than anything else the paths of trust like that and the kind of life that grows out of that trust. I think that is the shelter he calls us to with a bale in either hand when the wind blows bitter and the shadows are dark.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." The psalm does not pretend that evil and death do not exist. Terrible things happen, and they happen to good people as well as to bad people. Even the paths of righteousness lead through the valley of the shadow. Death lies ahead for all of us, saints and sinners alike, and for all the ones we love. The psalmist doesn't try to explain evil. He doesn't try to minimize evil. He simply says he will not fear evil. For all the power that evil has, it doesn't have the power to make him afraid.
And why? Here at the very center of the psalm comes the very center of the psalmist's faith. Suddenly he stops speaking about God as "he," because you don't speak that way when the person is right there with you. Suddenly he speaks to God instead of about him, and he speaks to him as "thou." "I will fear no evil," he says, "for thou art with me." That is the center of faith. Thou. That is where faith comes from.
When somebody takes your hand in the dark, you're not afraid of the dark anymore. The power of dark is a great power, but the power of light is greater still. It is the shepherd of light himself who reaches out a hand, who is "Thou" to us. Death and dark are not the end. Life and light are the end. It is what the cross means, of course. The cross means that out of death came, of all things, birth. Happy Birthday indeed! The birth we are here to celebrate is not just the birth of this old church in this old town, but the birth of new life, including our own new life—hope coming out of hopelessness, joy coming out of sorrow, comfort and strength coming out of fear. Thanks be to all that the cross means and is, we need never be afraid again. That is the faith that has kept bringing people to this place from Increase Graves's time to our time. That is what has brought me here. Unless I miss my guess, that is what has brought you here.
The psalmist stops speaking of God as a shepherd then. God becomes instead the host at a great feast. He prepares a table for us the way the table of Holy Communion is prepared for us, and "in the presence of our enemies" he prepares it because there is no other place. Our enemies are always present. All the old enemies are always gathered around us everywhere. I mean the enemies that come at us from within—doubt and self-doubt, anxiety, boredom, loneliness, failure, temptation. Let each of us name our special enemies for ourselves. How well we know them. How long we have done battle with them, and how long we will doubtless have to go on battling. But no matter. The table is prepared. Our cups are filled to running over. We are anointed with this occasion itself—with the sense it gives us of how much we need each other, you and I, and how the party wouldn't be complete without every last one of us; the sense we have of being not just strangers, acquaintances, friends, momentarily gathered under the same roof but fellow pilgrims traveling the same long and bewildering road in search of the same far city. It is a rare glimpse that we catch at this enchanted table. The feast that is laid for us here is only a foretaste of the feast to come. The old enemies will be vanquished at last. "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives," as goodness and mercy have followed us our whole lives through even when we thought they were farthest from us. ''And we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever," a house that is older than Eden and dearer than home.
Something like that is the faith this psalm sings. In the secrecy of our hearts can we say Yes to it? We must each of us answer for ourselves, of course. Some days it's easier to say Yes than other days. And even when we say Yes, there's always a No lurking somewhere in the shadows, just as when we say No there's always a Yes. That's the way faith breathes in and breathes out, I think, the way it stays alive and grows. But a birthday is a Yes day if ever there was one. So pick up the snappers and party hats again. Let the feast continue. And just one final, festal image to grace it with.
In the year 1831, it seems, this church was repaired and several new additions were made. One of them was a new steeple with a bell in it, and once it was set in place and painted, apparently, an extraordinary event took place. "When the steeple was added," Howard Mudgett writes in his history, "one agile Lyman Woodard stood on his head in the belfry with his feet toward heaven."
That's the one and only thing I've been able to find out about Lyman Woodard, whoever he was, but it is enough. I love him for doing what he did. It was a crazy thing to do. It was a risky thing to do. It ran counter to all standards of New England practicality and prudence. It stood the whole idea that you're supposed to be nothing but solemn in church on its head just like Lyman himself standing upside down on his. And it was also a magical and magnificent and Mozartian thing to do.
If the Lord is indeed our shepherd, then everything goes topsy-turvy. Losing becomes finding and crying becomes laughing. The last become first and the weak become strong. Instead of life being done in by death in the end as we always supposed, death is done in finally by life in the end. If the Lord is our host at the great feast, then the sky is the limit.
There is plenty of work to be done down here, God knows. To struggle each day to walk the paths of righteousness is no pushover, and struggle we must, because just as we are fed like sheep in green pastures, we must also feed his sheep, which are each other. Jesus, our shepherd, tells us that. We must help bear each other's burdens. We must pray for each other. We must nourish each other, weep with each other, rejoice with each other. Sometimes we must just learn to let each other alone. In short, we must love each other. We must never forget that. But let us never forget Lyman Woodard either, silhouetted up there against the blue Rupert sky. Let us join him in the belfry with our feet toward heaven like his, because heaven is where we are heading. That is our faith and what better image of faith could there be? It is a little crazy. It is a little risky. It sets many a level head wagging. And it is also our richest treasure and the source of our deepest joy and highest hope.