When he told his pastor that he was feeling called to ordained ministry, the pastor replied: “It would be a shame if we lost a great writer and gained a mediocre preacher.” Talk about tough love. The great writer was Frederick Buechner, the pastor was George Buttrick, the legendary 20th century minister. Buechner experienced a call to ordained ministry after hearing one of his mentor’s sermons.
The young writer, who had already published many well-reviewed short stories and a novel or two, was taking a risk by going off to seminary. Buttrick was worried that Buechner would become a half-baked writer and preacher.
Buttrick’s fears were unfounded, as Buechner went on to live into both vocations fully. After ordination, he moved to the green hills of Vermont with his family, where he found both profound fulfillment and heartbreak.
In mid-life, Buechner went through a particularly difficult time, a period that he describes by referring to a pane of stained glass that hung by his writing desk. The colorful pane depicted the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz crying and bound up by those creepy flying monkeys sent by the Wicked Witch to terrorize Dorothy and her friends. In the movie, the Cowardly Lion sings “But I could show my prowess, be a lion not a mou-ess, if I only had the nerve.”
During this period of his life, Buechner lost his nerve. He resembled the Cowardly Lion, all bluster, no courage, tied up by a particularly vexing Flying Monkey: his daughter was very ill, and he felt utterly powerless to understand what she was going through or how he could help her. He believed that if he could just control and manage his daughter’s life, then she would regain her health and live happily ever after.
The people whom we meet in our readings today desperately want to regain their health and live happily ever after. They desire the storybook version of life, not the nightmare that they wake up to every day. These people who flock to Jesus are like us: they’ve lost their nerve. They live in a time of widespread fear and uneasiness.
This week, we witnessed continuing conflict over the issue of immigration in our country. We marked the solemn occasion of the first anniversary of the Parkland school shooting. On a table outside our capitol building just a few blocks from here were the framed photos of seventeen students and staff who will never again be held by their parents or loved ones.
More than anything else, we want to be delivered from our fear, weakness and suffering. We want to be made whole and live a life of joyful abundance. In that, we’re just like the people who crowd around Jesus. Note that our Lord has just spent the whole night in prayer.
It’s wise for us to focus on the basic pattern of Jesus’ life: he alternates between periods of intensity and rest, work and prayer. Before getting to work and making the crucial decision of who will be included in his inner circle, the twelve apostles, Jesus takes time for serious prayer.
What decisions will you need to make in the coming months? What difference would it make if before making those significant decisions you took the time to pray and open yourself to God’s guidance?
Jesus calls the twelve to him on top of the mountain and then comes down with them to the plain, where a crowd of people awaits to listen to Jesus’ teaching, be healed and have their demons cast out. Luke shares that “all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. Then, he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you . . .”
Notice Jesus’ location in this story: he is standing on level ground. We imagine that his disciples and the crowds may be on slightly higher ground than he is because in Luke’s telling of the Beatitudes, Jesus humbly stands looking up at the crowd.
Compare this with Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus is like a new Moses, receiving revelation from on high and then teaching his people from an elevated position. Jesus stands above his students and looks down on them.
Luke presents a very different picture. Jesus is below the crowd and looks up at them from a level place. It’s the Sermon on the Plain rather than the Sermon on the Mount. Why does this matter? In the Bible, mountains and plains mean very different things.
Mountains are where God calls special people to witness spectacular visions of God. Think not only of Moses receiving the Law on Mt. Sinai but also of Jesus’ Transfiguration on Mt. Hermon. In Scripture, mountains are thin places where heaven and earth come very close.
Plains, as you might expect, are where ordinary, everyday life is lived out. To put an even finer point on it, according to the scholar Ronald Allen, in the Bible “the word ‘level’ often refers to places of corpses, disgrace, idolatry, suffering, misery, hunger, annihilation, and mourning.” So, plains mean not just ordinary, everyday life, but the grounds on which we so often lose our nerve.
We’re shattered by the loss of a loved one. Reputations can be undone in a single day. We fall in love and grow attached to everything but God—that’s what idolatry is all about. It’s when we bow down and give ultimate love to penultimate things and people. We suffer and experience misery in body, mind and spirit and fear annihilation after death. On the plains of life, as we experience these fearsome challenges, we’re in good company with those who have gone before us.
Throughout the Bible, we see God’s people losing nerve and giving in to human weakness. In our readings today, Jeremiah invites his people in exile to take courage. If they trust in the Lord with their whole heart, they will be like a fruitful tree growing by a river. But if they trust in their own strength and abilities, then they will be more like a shrub in the desert, stunted and desperately clinging to the earth for life.
St. Paul exhorts his people to have courage that God will one day raise them from the dead even though they now are standing on the plains where they have buried their loved ones. One day, Paul promises his people who have lost their nerve, they will share in Jesus’ resurrection.
The Bible is full of people who have lost their nerve and then found courage by placing all of their hope in God, the Holy One who never lacks for courage to bring justice, peace and healing to all of the broken plains of our world. The most amazing thing is that God, in working in our world, operates with what Frederick Buechner calls “passionate restraint.” Our God never overpowers us or manipulates us into doing what God’s desires for us.
Instead, God works quietly, subtly in concert with our own will and desires, giving us the freedom and space in which to grow and develop. For Buechner, he needed to come to terms with how he was trying to manage and control his daughter’s life and illness, even though she was now an adult.
Here Buechner describes the moment when the Cowardly Lion finds courage. He and his wife travel thousands of miles to a strange city in order to visit their daughter in the hospital. There, as they walk down the hospital corridor, just like God’s people walk on the plain towards Jesus, Buechner experiences the power of God in a new way:
“The power that created the universe and spun the dragonfly’s wing and is beyond all other powers, holds back, in love, from overpowering us. I have never felt God’s presence more strongly than when my wife and I visited that distant hospital where our daughter was.
Walking down the corridor to the room that had her name taped to the door, I felt that presence surrounding me like air—God is in his very stillness, holding his breath, loving her, loving us all, the only way he can without destroying us.”
When he stopped trying to fix his daughter, Buechner was able to love her, and that love made all the difference as she recovered from her illness. You and I are called to love the people in our life, not fix them. If God gives them the freedom and space to grow, then we can surely do the same, if only we had the nerve.
Be of good courage. As you walk down the aisles and corridors of this church today, feel the presence of God surrounding you like air—God is in God’s very stillness, holding God’s breath, loving us all.”
A sermon preached the Rev. David C. Killeen at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL, on February 17, 2019.