February 7, 2016
Scripture Passages: Exodus 34:29-35, 2 Corinthians 3:12, Luke 9:28-36
Talking with God on a mountaintop after having been given two tablets of commandments.... Seeing the sudden appearance of two people who were thought to have died long ago, and hearing them speak to your friend about your friend’s departure... These are spiritual experiences.
Spiritual experiences… What do you think when you hear that term? I imagine the responses in this room would be varied. ‘Cool!’! or ‘Weird!’ or ‘Will I ever have one?’ or ‘Not me!’ or ‘Well, it can’t be real!’ or ‘Can it?’
Spiritual experiences… We don’t know what to do with them and neither did a lot of the people in the Bible. After Moses had a spiritual experience on Mount Sinai where he received the Ten Commandments, Aaron and all the Israelites saw the shining skin of his face, and they were afraid to come near him. They were afraid! Peter, John and James, we learn from today’s passage in Luke, kept silent about what they witnessed on the mountaintop. They told no one any of the things they had seen about Jesus speaking with Elijah and Moses. And there were others in the Bible too. Zechariah, a priest and the husband of Elizabeth, was terrified by his spiritual experience of seeing an angel who told him Elizabeth would have a son who would be Jesus’ cousin. As a result, he was not able to speak a word until Elizabeth’s baby had been born. When Saul, who later becomes Paul, had his spiritual experience of hearing Jesus speak to him on the road to Damascus, he was blinded for three days! But there was also Mary, Jesus’ mother. When the angel Gabriel spoke to her, a spiritual experience without doubt, she was perplexed, but she pondered all the things that were told to her. These are just some of the spiritual experiences that are told to us in the Bible.
Spiritual experiences… What do we do with them… If we are afraid, or confused, or wish to keep silent, or find we cannot utter a word, or we feel blinded, or we simply ponder it all in our hearts like Mary to try to understand, then our experience is not so different from those in the Bible. After all, the Bible is a story about people like you and me.
Spiritual experiences, what are they? For one, they are experiences; they are not isolated facts, nor are they isolated truths. All those we read about in the Bible are told not in isolation but as part of people’s lives. Spiritual experiences cannot be removed from the person or persons who are experiencing them. They are subjective events that become real because of the person or persons who embrace them and live them. In this sense, spiritual experiences happen in relationship between the source, God or the Spirit, and the person. Secondly, spiritual experiences are those that originate outside of our abilities and are given to us as gifts from outside of us. They become ways for us to know that there can be more to life and more goodness and love than what we think we know. But because these experiences are different from the ways of knowing we are accustomed to, they can be disorienting and confusing. They can be a shock to our systems requiring time and the help of trusted friends or loved ones to help us incorporate them into our lives. Even Peter, John, and James, Jesus’ own disciples who initially kept silent about what they saw, as they learned more about who Jesus was, eventually wanted to share their experience. And today we read about their experience in the Gospel of Luke.
Spiritual experiences… They happen today, too. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a spiritual experience. Did he not have a dream, a vision of a good life for all people, which was far different from his lived human reality? Mother Teresa had spiritual experiences of seeing the face of Jesus in the poor women and children and men on the streets of Calcutta she ministered to. This empowered her to see goodness in ways that human society did not. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who lived through multiple wars, knew the potential for world peace that dwells in each of us individually each time he took a step in mindfulness meditation. This may have been like a spiritual experience that enlarged his ways of knowing. Perhaps a mother or father who holds their infant for the first time and questions how life can possibly be knit together and pulse with breath has a spiritual experience. In holding the infant, the mother or father’s knowledge of life has broadened. If you have been outside at night and stared up into the dark sky and have been overwhelmed with your smallness in this vast universe, perhaps that was a spiritual experience that placed your existence in a continuum of galaxies and unfathomable years of the history of the earth. This may have been a new awakening for you. If in a conversation with a friend in your dorm, you had a sudden realization about what you are meant to do with your life, a realization that did not make logical sense and perhaps even made you feel a little uneasy, but was nonetheless real, perhaps this was a spiritual experience. If you have sat silently in a church or other sacred space and have had your heart strangely warmed, strangely warmed as you prayed out your soul, in a way that is inexpressible with your own words and your own knowledge, perhaps this was a spiritual experience... These are experiences that come to us outside of our usual ways of knowing, and they are experiences that enlarge our understandings of goodness and ultimate meaning.
Spiritual experiences… What do we do with them?
We live them. That is what Moses did, it was what the Israelites did, it was what Peter, John and James did, it was what Zechariah, Elizabeth, Paul and Mary did. In due time all of these people allowed these experiences to become valuable parts of their life stories. They embraced and lived these experiences. So, did Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Thich Nhat Hanh, the mother, the father, they all embraced their spiritual experiences and courageously allowed the experiences to make a difference in their lives and in the lives of those around them. We know this. So, firstly, what do we do with these experiences? We live them.
Secondly, as the Corinthian passage encourages us, we live these experiences in hope and act on them with great boldness. We live them in trust that their meaning will become clear to us as we live them with courage; this is the great hope and boldness, which empowers us. The meaning of these experiences of mystery comes to us as we boldly continue in faithful activity, through prayer or meditation, through trusting conversations with others in our lives, through solitude, and perhaps through participation in communal worship and ritual. God not only gives us spiritual experiences but also God puts people in our lives to help us reflect on the meaning of these experiences and to allow us to be enlarged by the gift of the experience. The people that God gives us therefore, are also part of the gift that is our spiritual experience, and we can accept this with boldness.
What we can try not to do with others or our own spiritual experiences is to evaluate them as objectively true or not. These experiences exist within the individual to whom they have been given. So, we can allow each other the space to live and make meaning out of them without judging them. We allow each other the time and space to embrace the experience and then make it part of our own unique stories. Then we can be blessed by each other’s story, just as we have been blessed by MLK’s, by Mother Teresa’s, by Thich Nhat Hanh’s, by our mother’s or father’s or friends’ and by countless others. When we live in a community that allows each other this space, rather than being competitive about the objective truth of one’s experience, then we are blessed to live in peace with one another. That is the Good News for us today. Be bold to live your spiritual experience as it is, and to let others live theirs. Be that community that helps each other to make meaning out of the experiences we are given by listening to each other's’ stories with hope and in love. Be bold to want to know not only how God acts in your life, but also how God acts in your friend’s life. That is what Jesus did; he listened to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles, those who were not like him, and he was bold to act in love to show that God continues to enlarge human understanding of goodness and ultimate meaning. Finally, live the joy that accompanies your search to understand. This is the joy that comes from knowing that God so loves you that God becomes uniquely real for you in unexpected ways and transforms your life. Amen.