Sermon preached February 14, 2010
Text: Luke 9:28-43a
The United Methodist Church traces its beginnings as a unique expression of Christian faith to John Wesley, an ordained minister in the Church of England. Wesley was ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1728. He came to the Americas in 1735, but his experience here was not positive. His ministry did not go as well as he had hoped and a relationship with a woman ended rather badly. During his travels back to England (1737) Wesley noted how fearful he was, and this was an occasion for religious doubt. Wesley was impressed by Moravian Christians he encountered on the boat, and sought a deeper faith. On May 24, 1738, Wesley attended a prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death. (Journal entry)
C. S. Lewis was not a Christian in his mid-twenties, by his own self-definition. He was a seeker, and what he sought was joy. Lewis was a deeply thoughtful person, and quite good at self-reflection. His book Surprised by Joy is an account of his journey toward Christian faith through his search for joy. Here is a snippet of his story – a moment of significant insight.
I had been wrong in supposing that I desired Joy itself. Joy itself, considered simply as an event in my own mind, turned out to be of no value at all. All the value lay in that of which Joy was the desiring. And that object, quite clearly, was no state of my own mind or body at all…. Joy proclaimed, “You want – I myself am your want of – something other, outside, not you or any state of you…. This brought me already into the region of awe, for I thus understood that in the deepest solitude there is a road right out of the self.
Thomas Forsthoefel is a professor of religion at Mercyhurst College in Pennsylvannia, and he has edited a book: The Dalai Lama: the essential sayings for a series called “Modern Spiritual Masters.” Forsthoefel, in the introduction, shares his story of meeting the Dalai Lama. Forsthoefel was one of over a hundred participants in a conference held in Dharamsala, India, the home of the Dalai Lama. Here is how he describes the encounter with the Dalai Lama.
At the end of the conference, in a small hall… the Dalai Lama received each participant personally. When it was my turn to greet him, the Dalai Lama took both my hands and gazed at me. It took a moment for me to gain my bearings; for a moment my mind was scattered, marked by anxiety and self-consciousness. After a moment of such mental “dispersal,” I quickly collected myself and became very aware that the Dalai Lama, in my view, was doing something that far transcended typical mundane encounters. This was no back-slapping, “How’bout them Bulls!” Instead the encounter was something deeper and more penetrating, which I later flippantly characterized as being zapped by the Dalai Lama’s mojo.
All these are experiences of a kind of spiritual ecstasy. In Christian terms we might speak of being swept up in grace, surprised by joy, sensing God nearer than our breath or heartbeat. I have had some of these kinds of experiences. I have had moments in worship where God’s light and love seemed to bathe me – times when I have almost been brought to tears. There have been times in prayer when it seemed as if time had melted away and I experienced an incredible sense of peacefulness.
At times such as these, we have little doubt of the presence of the holy, the divine, the presence of God, and for Christians God has the face of Jesus Christ. These experiences are not unlike the experience related in the first part of this morning’s text where Peter, James and John go up a mountain with Jesus and in their time of prayer hear the voice of God and see Jesus bathed in light. God is remarkably present in these moments of spiritual ecstasy.
Recently I read a story whose title grabbed hold of me – “Where the God of Love Hangs Out.” I read the story with great anticipation wondering if it would it be rich in theological references or engaging symbolism. Might it be a story about some spiritual ecstasy? It was not. The chief protagonist of the story is a man named Ray who lives in a small town, probably in Connecticut, called Farnham. Ray is a semi-retired attorney who has very mixed feelings about his marriage to a sometimes pretentious and difficult woman named Eleanor. Ellie reminds Ray every now and again that they promised to be married “for better or for worse.” She is not an entirely unsympathetic character, having undergone a hysterectomy at age 33. The other primary character in the story is Ray’s daughter-in-law, Macy. She is a young woman whose life has been a struggle. Her mother has drug problems and borrows money. Macy was fortunate to receive a college scholarship, but lived in a boarding house and worked hard just to make ends meet. Macy has also lied to Ray and her husband, Ray and Ellie’s son Neil, about her parents and her background. She has told them that her parents are dead. Another particularly memorable character is Randeane, owner and waitress at The Cup coffee shop. She describes her father as Jewish left-wing and her mother as white trash Pentecostal. Ray believes he is in love with Randeane. Randeane offers wisdom in the story. Visiting Randeane, Ray is offered his choice of a chair or a hammock. He chooses the chair, telling Randeane that the hammock is too unpredictable. “Oh, life’s a hammock,” Randeane said. There is little here of spiritual ecstasy. What the author provides instead are small incidents which tell us something about these people and their relationships, especially about Ray and Macy. The story moves through moments of disappointment, sadness, embarrassment, small pleasures, and a few deep joys. No grand theology. No mysterious symbolism. No spiritual ecstasy.
So I thought a little bit about that and it occurred to me that maybe that’s just the point of the story. Where does the God of love hang out? Maybe God hangs out in the midst of ordinary lives that are sad and disappointing and embarrassing; lives with scars from hurts large and small; lives with small pleasures and a few deep joys. God is there too, not just in those incredible moments of spiritual ecstasy.
And that is a good thing. In his book After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, Jack Kornfield writes: Unbounded freedom and joy, oneness with the Divine, awakening into a state of timeless grace – these experiences are more common than you know, and not far away. There is one further truth, however: they don’t last. (xiii)
If God is there only when we have these incredible moments of joy and ecstasy, these feelings of oneness and timelessness, then God isn’t around much. Even in today’s story, you have the sense that this experience of Peter, James and John was not long lasting. And the next day they all come down from the mountain where there are crowds, and shouting, and unhealthy spirits, and difficult tasks.
Even though experiences of spiritual ecstasy are rather fleeting, they can be a valuable component of the spiritual live. They help us see the world differently, they help us see that the God of love indeed cares about this world and hangs out with us. To use the more eloquent image offered by the poet William Blake: If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern. (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)
Beyond that, such experiences can give us courage, energy, determination, hope and joy for the ordinary tasks of life. If after the ecstasy, the laundry, it is a good thing that the ecstasy can shore us up for the tasks of life – for addressing the needs of healing in a broken world, for confronting evil, for listening for God even as crowds are shouting.
Whatever our experiences of spiritual ecstasy, they are meant to change us for our ordinary lives, for the God of love hangs out there, too. It is God we seek, not spiritual thrills for themselves, and the God we know in Jesus Christ is present in the mountain-top experiences, and in the midst of a broken and crying world. The God of love hangs out wherever we are and wants our lives to reflect that love. God wants our lives, in fact, to be a part of God’s hanging out in the world. May it be so. Amen.