Frederick Buechner Sermon Illustration: "Gospel as Comedy" (Matthew 14:13-21)

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 Ninth Sunday after Pentecost. Here is this week's reading from the gospel of Matthew:

Matthew 14:13-21

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves." Jesus said to them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish." And he said, "Bring them here to me." Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

The following excerpt is from Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale:

Paul was the first one who dared come out with it when he wrote the church at Corinth about the folly of the Gospel and said, "We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and a folly" (1 Cor. 1:23) to everybody else, the comedy of what we preach, in other words: Christ's whole life a kind of comedy. When Christ was born in the darkness of the night, the sky was lit by a multitude of the heavenly host singing him into life with their great hymn. But even the ones who knew about it, even his own mother and brother, seem to have forgotten it soon enough so that when he came to Nazareth sounding like a Messiah, they thought he'd gone off the deep end and started to throw him off the edge of a cliff to demonstrate their point graphically. He galvanized thousands with his miracles—healing and casting out demons and feeding a whole ballpark with his five loaves and two fish—but, like Chinese food, the miracles didn't stick to their ribs so that he might as well have saved his strength for all the lasting good they did. He spoke in words that nobody much seems to have understood, least of all the disciples, and when he spoke of the necessity of his death, even Peter told him he was going too far. At the last meal he ever ate with his friends when the goon squad was already laying for him in the shadows and all Hell was about to break loose, the great confidence with which he says, "Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33) becomes the great confidence of Charlie Chaplin as the little tramp standing there so jaunty and hopeful in his baggy pants and derby hat while the whole world he has overcome threatens to crash down on him like a pail of water balanced on the top of a door. When finally they string him up, they do it for the wrong reasons and string him up as a nationalist revolutionary when the only revolution he is after is a revolution of the human heart and his concern is ultimately for all nations. Even the resurrection has a kind of comedy to it. His closest followers dismiss it out of hand at first as an old wives' tale, and when Mary Magdalen comes upon him in the dim half-light of dawn, she mistakes him for the gardener of all people. The red marks on his hands are where he is holding roses. The trouble he is having with his feet comes from miles of patrolling the gravel walks to pick up gum wrappers with a pointed stick.

"A stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles" (l Cor. 1:23), Paul writes, because it is truth. The folly of preaching Christ crucified, preaching the king who looks like a tramp, the prince of peace who looks like the prince of fools, the lamb of God who ends like something hung up at the butcher's. Dostoevski echoes this when he writes a novel about Christ as a Russian prince and calls it The Idiot. The painter Rouault echoes it when he paints Christ as a clown. The musical Godspell echoes it by rigging him out as if for a three-ring circus in white-face and acrobat's tights. The theologian Kierkegaard echoes it by ringing endless changes on the words "Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest" as the words of the lowly and helpless one who would seem to have least to offer being at the same time the high and mighty one who crazily claims to have most to offer.