Archive for February, 2013

He Did Not Know What He Was Saying

Saturday, February 16th, 2013

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.


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.

Cliff Hanger (Inauguration Speeches, Part 2)

Sunday, February 3rd, 2013

Luke 4:21-30
Steve Hammond
February 3, 2013

I saw one of those sayings on a church sign the other day that left me felling ambivalent. It said, “God loves everyone as if he or she is the only one.” We need to be reassured, over and over, that God really does love us. But I think we can get a little carried away about that like we are the only one part. It turns out that this little saying is attributed to St. Augustine. I don’t know if that tempers my feelings because who am I to question St. Augustine, or makes me think, “Wow, here I am questioning St. Augustine.”

Now I promised last week that we would continue with Jesus’ inaugural speech today. And I said that one of the things that often happens with a Presidential inaugural address is that people spend a lot of time talking about what wasn’t in the speech. And, it seems, that what Jesus didn’t include in his own inaugural address is what turned the crowd from coming out to listen to the hometown boy preach to trying to throw him over a cliff.

Jesus got to pick his own scripture that morning. And the problem was that he wasn’t the only person in that crowd that knew it. It was a familiar passage that a lot of them probably knew so they realized that he didn’t read the whole thing.

Here is what Jesus read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
But he stopped just short of reading the whole passage, the next little part the people were expecting to hear, the best part for many of them, “and the day of vengeance of our God.”

This is how that saying of St. Augustine can go awry. It’s nice that God loves us like we are the only one. But we can forget that God loves other folk, too, just like they were the only one, i.e. as much as us. And the crowd at Jesus’ inaugural address weren’t looking to hear that God’s love wasn’t intended for them only.

And Jesus adds fuel to the fire by pointing out a couple of other stories that they also knew, stories of the enemy who were helped by God while a whole bunch of widows and lepers in Israel weren’t.

In his book Everything Must Change Brian McLaren writes this. “By evoking the memory of two Gentiles being blessed, Jesus in a sense explodes the expectations he had just raised. Yes, he claims to be the long-awaited liberator, overturning the imperial narratives of the Romans and their collaborators by freeing the oppressed — but no, he will not do so in the exclusive, parochial, or nationalistic mode demanded by their counternarratives…
“This is not the smooth launch of a typical campaign to be voted in as the next messiah” McLaren goes on to suggest. “It’s more” he says “like Jesus is jamming his foot on the accelerator of expectations and then slamming on the brakes. It’s not a smooth ride, but a driver like this definitely gets your attention.”

He got their attention enough that they grabbed him and were heading for the cliff. “But” the story says, “he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.” Now I have heard some sharp criticism of President Obama’s inaugural address, but nothing like that.

Remember, this is Jesus’ inaugural address. He is setting out his agenda. It’s an agenda far more radical than President Obama or any President of the United States is going to come up with. I’m willing to argue with St. Augustine, and Jesus was willing, it turns out to argue with Isaiah. Jesus is taking the vengeance stuff off the table. Nor is he going to let people believe that God’s love, care, mercy, compassion, or calling is limited to a specific group. God is bigger than that. Way bigger. And Jesus sets out an agenda to help us realize that.

The wonderful thing is that God loves everyone, everywhere. The problem is that God loves everyone, everywhere. We don’t know what to do with that. Why would God proclaim good news to all the poor, liberty to all the captives. The people who were there for Jesus’ inaugural address were the poor and the captive. They were glad to hear that God was, indeed, on their side. But they couldn’t process the idea that God was on everyone’s side. What do you do with an idea that is so startling, so beyond the bounds? You throw it over the cliff. It’s too dangerous.

God’s Realm is dangerous because it does not end at the boundaries and borders we erect. If we are going to seek that Realm, follow Jesus where he is going, we will have to cross some lines, tear down some walls, walk in new places with new people.

What if the folk has succeeded that day and thrown Jesus over the cliff? If what Jesus was about was resurrection couldn’t he have just cut to the chase right then and there? The hometown folk throw him over the cliff and a couple of days later he shows up again. What would have changed if they had done Jesus in that morning? [Ask for responses from the congregation

We would have missed out on a lot of what he had to teach us.

He would not have formed the community of followers he did.

We would have missed the part about challenging the empire.]

It was quite an inaugural address. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It’s our hearing that plays a part in it’s fulfilling. Jesus is not just laying out his own agenda, but an agenda for us as well. Jesus wasn’t looking so much to found a church, but start a movement. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, too. God has anointed us to bring good news to the poor, to bring sight to the blind, to set the captive free, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord, to practice Jubilee.

President Obama closed his inaugural address like every President closes every speech, “God bless America.” What if he had finished with God bless America, and Iran, and North Korea, and China, and France, and India, and Pakistan, and Libya, and Syria, and the whole world? It might have gotten him thrown over a cliff. But it would have helped us to learn that God loves everyone, everyone, not just us, but everyone like they are the only one.