A sermon preached at the Memorial Service of Bill Buck.
John 1:1-5,14 &16; Isaiah 55; Psalm 36:5-10
You may have noticed that University Hill Congregation cherishes the Bible. The Bible is given honour of place whenever we worship. The big book is lifted high and carried into our midst where it takes its place at the heart of our life together. The Bible is the scripture – that is, the script – of our life. The church is the company of actors called to live this script - to perform these texts - in the world. It is the reason that we invite one another to be the lectors, the readers, when we gather. It isn’t just the minister’s job to read the scripture because it isn’t just the minister’s job to live the script. So, over the years, our congregation has regularly offered training sessions for lectors. For many years Bill Buck taught us how to read aloud so that others could experience the life and beauty, the humour and ache in the text. He taught us basic things like “Take your hands out of your pockets” and “Don’t show up unprepared – practice, practice, practice.” But Bill always placed the greatest emphasis on this: “Read the text with great care and respect. Love each word to life.” When he came as a guest to the preaching classes that I taught here at VST he said something similar. In speaking to budding preachers about how to deliver a sermon he would tell us the key to performing as an actor is to so fully embody the part you are playing when you go on stage. The key to performance is to interpret the script in such a way that you are not pretending at all but are, instead, telling the truth.
I have been wondering how Bill would read today’s text from John’s gospel. What voice would he use? Would he opt for that deep, strong, booming baritone? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Perhaps Bill would chose a childlike voice of curiosity, wonder and amazement: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” Or maybe he would find deep within him an elderly voice that would speak with mature wisdom: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” I imagine Bill as the lector assigned with today’s passages calling me up beforehand to ask about them. He wants to know how I think they should interpreted, what voice each text calls for. Bill often said that Bible study reminded him of a group of actors sitting with the director at a read-through, trying to understand the script and to find the motivation for their characters. Bill thought that the minister was like a director, helping each cast member – each disciple of Jesus – to perform his or her part in the drama.
The conversation with Bill about these texts would surely land on the word that is used most often in the Bible to describe the God we meet in its pages. It is the Hebrew word “heshed.” In English it requires two words: “steadfast love.” Did you hear it in Psalm 36? “Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens … How precious is your steadfast love, O God! … O continue your steadfast love.” Heshed. Heshed. Heshed. This is the surprising word that is spoken over and over again, throughout a book that is filled with dangers, toils and snares. It tells a story in which barrenness, forsakenness, grief and ache show up at every turn and yet turns out to be the story of the incarnation in Jesus of the heshed - the steadfast love – of God. Not romantic love, not sentimental love, not clichéd love. Steadfast love. This is the love that does not give up on anyone or anything. Heshed is the Word that, in the beginning, speaks order and light and life into being. Heshed is the Word of God we see enfleshed in Jesus, seeking those lost in despair and remembering the forgotten at the margins - yes, even those whose dementia leaves them forgetting who or where they are. Jesus Christ is the living Word, whose resurrection from death to life is the sign of God’s steadfast love on the other side of what must surely be the end of the story, the end of life, the end of love. It is not difficult for me to imagine Bill’s answer when, as the director, I ask him, the actor, where in his own life the steadfast love of God has been most powerfully embodied, enacted, enfleshed. Without missing a beat Bill names Pauline’s surprising, wondrous entrance into his life, stage right. Unscripted. Unexpected. Grace upon grace. Heshed. Not easy love. Not simple love. Not love without trouble. Steadfast love. I imagine Bill’s life informing his voice as he reads and cherishes the ancient song: “How precious is your steadfast love, O God.”
Of the three texts we host today it is the script from Isaiah that Bill would surely most enjoy reading. How often does God play the part of a street vendor - of a carny – of one more voice shouting out a pitch in a world submerged in jingles and telemarketers? I can hear Bill improvising his best ad-man voice to surprise the congregation with God’s astounding offer: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” Those who know the old adage “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” are on alert when God offers steadfast love, life that is rich and full, free of charge (not even a shipping and handling fee?). Truth is, upon first hearing this message millennia ago, the exiles to whom it is addressed also suspect that the dream of returning home is far too good to be true. It is the reason Isaiah scripts God’s offer in such a surprising voice. He is determined to get the attention of a people who are distracted by junk-food promises that can never deliver abundant life. Now, all these centuries later, God’s voice continues to break into a world distracted by false promises. Generation after generation discovers, to its great surprise, that God’s offer of homecoming for those who think it impossible to return and God’s promise of life for those who know far too much death is, in fact, true. True in life. True in death. True for Bill. True for me. True for you. “For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle. And it shall be to the LORD for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” Amen. Amen, you remember, is the word "True."Which is to say this is the truth, the gospel truth and nothing but the truth. So help me God.