2-7-16 Everyone is a Mystic

Exodus 34;29-35 As Moses came down from Mount Sinai, carrying the two tablets of the Covenant, he was not aware that the skin on his face with radiant from speaking with God. When Aaron and the other Israelites saw Moses, they were afraid to approach him because of the radiance of the skin of his face.Only when Moses called to them did Aaron and the leaders of the community come near, and then Moses spoke to them. Later, all the Israelites gathered around, and Moses gave them the instructions he had received from YHWH on Mount Sinai. When he finished speaking to them, Moses put a veil over his face.  Whenever Moses entered the presence of YHWH, he would remove the veil until he came out again, and when he would come out and tell the Israelites what had been commanded, they would see that the skin on his face was radiant.  Then he would put the veil over his face again until he went in to speak with God.

On Transfiguration Sunday, we often notice the mountaintop experiences of our lives – since we talk and read about Jesus and the disciples on the mountain communing with God and the revered ancestors Moses and Elijah in a mystical experience. After our spiritual retreat this weekend, I thought it would be a good time for us to think about coming down from the mountain after a spiritual experience. We had a delicious taste of the life of the Spirit this weekend, and we’d like to share it with the rest of you today. But that might take all day and you would miss the SuperBowl. Maybe we can still savor just a taste, though, before we go back to that world of everyday experience and sometimes unaware numbness.

We read from II Corinthians chapter 3 today. Though we notice and challenge the anti-semitic implications of this text (when taken out of context of a first century rivalry between 2 Jewish sects), I’d like to listen to Paul today for the clear sense he has of a direct relationship with the Living God.

II Corinthians 3:12-4:2 With such hope we are very bold in what we say. We are not like Moses, who covered his face with a veil to keep the Israelites from gazing at the radiance as it faded away. But their minds had been dulled, and to this day the some veil remains whenever the old Covenant is read—it has not been taken away, for only in Christ can it be removed. To this day, whenever Moses is read, a veil covers their understanding. But whenever anyone turns to our God, the veil is removed. Now our God is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of our God is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces reflect our God’s glory, grow brighter and brighter as we are being transformed into the image we reflect.  This is the work of our God, who is Spirit. Therefore, because we have this ministry through God’s mercy, we do not give in to discouragement. On the contrary, we renounce the shameful deeds that were kept hidden. But by speaking the truth plainly, we commend ourselves to every person’s conscience in the sight of God.

February 7, 2016 Transfiguration:

Everyone is a Mystic

Maybe some of you – if you have ever climbed a mountain – have had a experience of surprise like the one I had that, as hard as the trudge up the mountain is, and as worthwhile as the view from the top of the mountain, as much as you might look forward to an easier leisurely walk down the mountain at the end of the day – that’s not always the way it works out.

The walk down a mountain can be even harder than the walk up. There’s something about the walk down that takes different muscles, that strains the knees and the thighs and calf muscles. And since you might have been expecting an easier time of it, that walk down can be surprisingly difficult.

Well, the same thing happens after we have been to a spiritual mountaintop. After we have had a wonderful spiritual retreat, after we have had a weekend of connection without the distraction of cell phones and calendars, after a time of learning and experiencing a new way of thinking, re-entry into the regular world can be a bit of shock or harder than we expected.

I have been to weekend workshops that changed my life and afterwards I wanted to tell everybody about what a wonderful time I had and how they have to learn the things I learned and experience the things I’ve experienced. And what I found was that people didn’t want to hear it. When I came home, my partner didn’t want to sit and listen to what a great time I had. She wanted to tell me about what she did while I was away, everything she had to take care of, all the things she did to make it possible for me to have such a great time, and sometimes even the wonderful experiences she had.

Over the years, I’ve learned that one of the most important things for us to learn from our mountaintop experiences is how much we all want to have those great experiences, and we all want to tell someone else about them. The best thing we can take away from our experience is the strength and the room in our lives to listen. As we come down from the mountain, we make ourselves ready to hear about other people’s experience rather than to insist they listen to us about what a great time we have had. Maybe after we listen for a bit, there will be room for us to talk about the gifts we have received.

 

Paul in this letter to the people of Corinth may not exactly be following that advice. He clearly wants to communicate to the people of the Corinthian church that his spiritual experience of the presence of Christ in his life has been better than the experience of other Jews who live in what he calls the ‘old covenant.” This is the only place in the Bible where he uses that phrase, but he is clearly discounting the preaching or teaching of some rival groups within that community.

People in our time often have trouble understanding the religious experience of other groups. Paul in this passage totally misrepresents the reason Moses wears a veil in the passage from Exodus that Phil read for us this morning. Moses wears a veil not to hide the fact that his religion was declining. He wears a veil because his experience of God’s presence was so powerful that his face was shining brightly enough to hurt people’s eyes and he needed to protect them.

In our time, people have trouble understanding why Muslim women wear a veil. Because it is strange or different, some folks are frightened of folks that wear a veil or put Muslims down as though they are ignorant or behind the times, oppressing women by making them dress modestly. Sometimes there may be truth to the criticism, but some Muslim women say that they are freed by the veil to be themselves. It’s important to listen first, and not to assume our own experience for everyone.

 

Clearly, Paul had his own powerful spiritual experience. And on this day we celebrate powerful spiritual experiences that anyone has had. A couple of weeks ago I heard a monk by the name of David Stendl-Rast on the radio show called “On Being.” He extols the power of gratefulness for all of our experiences and he made the claim that “everyone is a mystic.”

Everyone can have a mystical experience. He gave the example of a woman who has had a baby and feels the power of an almost other-worldly love for that baby. He said that all of us human beings have experiences at some time in our lives of forgiveness or being moved by nature or by a story or by music in a way that takes us out of ourselves and gives us a heart-felt moment of transcendence, transcendence of our everyday lives and worries.

He said most people have those kind of experiences and go on with their lives. Some people manage to notice and name an unnamable presence that comes through that experience. Some become monks or pastors, some change their lives to do a certain kind of work or to be part of a religious group of some kind. And others say, ‘that was interesting,” and go on with their lives. And that’s ok too.

I assume that people who come to church, come because they have some sense that a relationship with something bigger than ourselves is possible. We had something happen that made us feel like more is possible. It can be as simple as having been baptized or having been on a mission trip, or feeling moved by eating a bit of bread and drinking from a cup in community.

I’m so glad that we get to have those kinds of experiences together. I wish we could stay longer sometimes on the top of mountain where the view is lovely and the cellphones are turned off. I wish every Sunday’s worship could be like that – a direct experience of God’s presence in music and prayer and community. That’s just not the way it works – so when we’re lucky enough to have a weekend that touches the holy, like this one, we savor it. We remember it. We share it and we store it in a place where we can call on at least the memory, the knowledge that it is possible have an experience like that.

The good news is that God is with us in all those experiences, whether we can hang onto that truth or not. We are reminded every Sunday, and in every communion meal, and in every spiritual retreat, in every sunrise, and every promise of spring, that God is with us, every one of us. We are not alone.

This is God’s good news. Thanks be to God.