He Did Not Know What He Was Saying

Exodus 34:29-35 Luke 9:28-36
John Bergen
February 10, 2012

So this Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. We’re coming up on Lent. I know that its not here yet – we still have time to party, enjoy some pancakes and Mardi Gras – but Lent is coming. And I like Lent. Its probably the closet Catholic in me. Lent is sort of the other half of the story of Advent – everything that is unfulfilling about Christmas gets fulfilled in the Passion Week and Easter. Except for maybe getting an ugly pair of socks – Easter doesn’t solve ugly socks.

So I’ll admit that I’m cheating this Sunday – I’m going to talk about Lent even though we haven’t started it yet. But, to be fair, stores are now putting up Christmas decorations in October. And Lent is important – this is the time of year when many Christians try to take their relationship with God and with the Church more seriously. Lent is one of the times dedicated to really working on our faith and our commitment.

The whole story is one of commitment – to death, and through to the other side. Its one of the few times when it becomes okay to admit that we really don’t have it all together; that we, like Peter in today’s gospel reading, don’t really understand what we’re saying.

As we move this week into Lent, for me its like two thousand years of Christianity back behind us saying, “Its okay that you don’t have everything together. Its okay that you mess up. And its okay to admit that. Come, confess. Be made whole.”

So its interesting that this is Transfiguration Sunday. The Lectionary passage for today wants us to prepare for Lent, for our time of renewed commitment, with a reminder of who we’re dealing with in this story. Because its about to start getting darker – Pharisees are going to scheme, Jesus is going to get angry, we’re going to get closer and closer to Jerusalem, and then we’ll hit Maundy Thursday and its all going to fall apart. Even though we’re Christians and we know how the story ends (or continues), Lent is not usually a time for cheerfulness.

Transfiguration Sunday is sort of a brief taste of Easter before we start the discipline of Lent. Luke wants us to understand we’re dealing with someone special here. Someone whom Moses and Elijah obey. Someone who is utterly transfigured by the power of God before the eyes of the disciples.

And then Peter wakes up and makes a classic Peter comment. Sometimes I wonder if one of the main points of the gospels is to make early Christians, and us, feel good about how well we understand what’s going on. The Good News bible says, “Master, how good it is that we are here! We will make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

And God, the voice in the cloud, is having none of it. I don’t know if He’s seen Peter’s construction skills or what (maybe that’s why he’s a fisherman), but its pretty clear that Peter just does not understand what’s happening. And if you continue reading the story… [read v. 37-43]

Peter, James, and John have just seen Jesus transfigured, and they’ve been told that they’re walking around with God’s son, by God no less, and we know from the Moses story today what happens when humans speak with God. And the next day they’re incapable of driving out an epileptic spirit. “How unbelieving and wrong you people are!”

This pre-Resurrection story is also a post-Resurrection story; a reminder from Luke about how little has changed. The disciples are unwilling to admit that they don’t get it, that they don’t understand the enormity of this situation. They, like many in the church today, are incapable of confession.

There are good reasons why the church today doesn’t talk up original sin the way we used to; but the flip side of this is that we don’t like to admit our inadequacy. Gone is daily confession, but gone too is our ability to say “I was wrong. I am wrong. I messed up,” without feeling embarrassed or defensive. Think about the last time a major political figure admitted that they didn’t really understand what was going on, or admitted that they messed up and had no defense. Don’t count sex scandals, and it becomes a very short list. We’re addicted to control, or at least to looking like we’re in control. When we see Jesus transfigured, we need to build him a shrine. We need to control the event.

Which is why this story is still (unfortunately) so relevant to us today. We’re in the midst of a battle on gun legislation in this country. Just yesterday, Politifact, which checks up on the accuracy of things that politicians claim are true, confirmed that more Americans have died in gun violence – murder, suicide, or accidents – since 1960 than have died in all of our wars combined.

Wow.

What would it mean if we had churches that preached confession? Might it mean that we start with ourselves and our culture as the source of the problem? We all know autism doesn’t cause gun violence. But I find myself so quick to blame the entertainment industry, blame the government and the military, blame the NRA – and they should hold themselves accountable.

But confession is completely different from guilt. It is about recognizing that our bad actions are part of our larger un-wholeness. We have all built a culture of violence, and confession of the sin of violence is the first step to wholeness. How unbelieving and wrong we all are.

We live now in a town divided on issues of class and race, divisions based on centuries of history of exploitation. I’ve participated in many conversations at the college about issues of privilege and oppression – the unearned power that some of us get as a result of our identities. And what I’ve noticed, and its taken me a year and a half to notice this, is that so often the discussion gets as far as guilt and then it dies. We don’t feel comfortable, and our society has taught us not to feel comfortable, laying our lives on the table. We have reputations to maintain. We have friendships, standing in society, a sense of control.

We do not really know what we are saying.

So what would it look like for churches to preach confession today? A couple of years ago I had the chance to live in Reba Place Fellowship, which has been an intentional community for over 50 years. In the 1970s, they were influenced by the charismatic movement and transformed into a series of houses with one house leader for each house. The house leader could determine everything – where you lived, how much you ate, whether you could count your possessions as your own. It reached a fever pitch, and soon the leaders realized what was happening. They called a community meeting, got on their knees before the group, wept, and begged for forgiveness. They confessed their failure as leaders.

Reba’s story illustrates for me what church could be – a place for confessing our failures, receiving grace from God and the community, and being reborn into the community. This meeting with the grace of God could look like Moses in the story today. But we are more than the story of Moses, as the other lectionary passage for today makes clear. [See 2 Corintheians 3:12-3:18]

So come, confess, and be made whole. And be transformed into His likeness in an ever greater degree of glory. Amen.