From ecstasy to epilepsy

A Transfiguration Sunday sermon

by Ken Sehested
Text: Luke 9:28-43

            Once upon a time, Chris Semper and I both lived about an hour southwest of New Orleans, so we know about the significance of this time of year in South Louisiana. (TO CHRIS: Did you go to a lot of Mardi Gras parades?) The parades in New Orleans go on for more than a week; and lots of smaller towns down the bayous had at least one parade, all leading up to “Fat Tuesday,” the day before Ash Wednesday.

            Mardi Gras is almost synonymous with “revelry.” Partying. Excessively so, in some cases. Bourbon Street, in the heart of the French Quarter and ground zero for Mardi Gras festivities, is appropriately named.

            In the mindset of many people, Mardi Gras was when you loaded up on sinning just before Lent got underway, because once Ash Wednesday came, you had to get sober and somber and give up the fun stuff. Lent wasn’t exactly like epilepsy—it wasn’t about convulsions—but it definitely meant something very different from the ecstasy of Mardi Gras parties.

            Many of us in the Circle did not grow up in a religious culture where Lent was observed. But that doesn’t mean we don’t know what it means. Getting sober doesn’t mean you stopped drinking—in fact, I grew up in a teetotaler house where alcoholic beverages were strictly forbidden. The Lenten spirit, with its obsession with private sin and remorse and confession often pervaded every season of the year, and not just Lent.

            The Lenten spirit means facing life with a furrowed brow, always on the lookout for temptation and sin, always thinking of yourself as unworthy. It means always confessing, always allowing someone—your parents, the preacher, God—to rub your nose in your failures and faults.

            One of the most ancient and consistent parts of the church’s liturgy is confession and absolution, the confession of sin and the offering of pardon. Maybe you’ve noticed that that hasn’t been a regular part of our worship format. Our images of what it means to confess and embrace pardon are crippled, are so dysfunctional. During the Middle Ages in Europe the confession and absolution practice of the church functioned almost like a divinely-sanctioned protection racket. The selling of indulgences by church leaders—you donate to the church and we’ll assure you that God will wink at your corruption and injustice—was one of the motivating factors of the Protestant Reformation.

            This year our theme for Lent, which begins this coming Wednesday, is “Confession and Deliverance.” We’re going to be looking at confession from a different angle of vision. Confession doesn’t have anything to do with rubbing your nose in your own unworthiness. One popular definition of “insanity” is repeating the same destructive behavior over and over and over again. Confession is the key to breaking that pattern, the key to turning off that “tape” that keeps playing over and over. Confession is the opportunity to get a fresh start in life, to break the bonds of destructive behavior.

            Because, the fact is, all of us have lots of experience with failure, with not living up to our dreams and aspirations, with hurting the very people we love, with great personal disappointments about how our lives have played out. In fact, most of us would rather carry the heavy burdens of our failures—and take our punishment—because doing so allows us to stay in control. The offer of grace means we have to lay those burdens down—means we have to admit that we are not the sole authors of our lives.

            Confession opens the way to ecstasy, to the border of a graciousness and a mercy that is difficult to imagine, where there is a richness and beauty to life. The risk of confession and the experience of pardon is what opens us to the knowledge that we are headed to a party, not a purge. Fat Tuesday is the founding doctrine in Scripture: that creation is good. But God’s intent in creation has been hijacked. The invitation list, of who’s invited to the party, who’s allowed at the table, has been taken over by people who believe the only way they will get in is by excluding others. And that exclusionary spirit has infected us all to one degree or another.

            Ash Wednesday is simply an act of truthtelling: Fat Tuesday’s party has become a drunken brawl. The purging disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are necessary to regain our vision, to open up our ears, to clarify the fact that God did not intend the world to be arranged this way, that God has a plan for redeeming and restoring the goodness of creation.

            Today’s Gospel text is actually two very different stories:


            -•Jesus’ encounter with the child suffering convulsions (maybe epilepsy)

            •It’s urgent that we pay attention to the way Luke juxtaposed these two stories: the connection of the two is one of the keys to understanding both stories.


            Surely one of the highest priorities in this Circle is to encourage each other to open ourselves to the experience of ecstasy. But not as a private possession, as simply a personal experience of happiness. But as an opening to the vision of creation as it was intended; and specifically as a mandate to move in the direction of the outcast, the excluded, the unworthy, to advocate their inclusion in God’s great Mardi Gras parade.

            “Everything begins in ecstasy and ends in politics,” according to Charles Péguy, the French poet and essayist. I think of this community of faith as a school of ecstasy; but ecstasy is so much more than an emotionally pleasurable experience. Ecstasy is much thicker and sturdier. We’re not just “getting high” on God. In fact, the ecstasy I have in mind is what gets us “low,” which impels us down from the experience of transfiguration with Jesus to encounter the world’s convulsion. Ecstasy that opens our ears to the agonized cries of the displaced, to confront the broken places, in our own personal lives, the lives of our community, even the dysfunction of creation itself.

Circle of Mercy Congregation, Asheville, NC
18 February 2008

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