Sunday, July 18, 2010

Everyday Mystics

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
July 18, 2010

Year C, Proper 11: The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 8:1-12
Psalm 52
(Colossians 1:15-28)
Luke 10:38-42

Everyday Mystics

I haven’t been around much the past couple of weeks, so unfortunately I missed the first few sessions of “Eclipsing Empire,” our Thursday evening summer study series about St. Paul.

But, I was glad to be there this past Thursday when the group had a very interesting discussion about mysticism. Now, it’s clear that Paul himself was a mystic. On the road to Damascus, he had a powerful mystical experience of the resurrected Christ – a powerful mystical experience that transformed Paul from a Pharisee persecuting the followers of Jesus into a man who gave away his life, traveling around the Mediterranean world telling as many people as he could the Good News of Jesus Christ.

When most of us think of mysticism and mystics – we think of very rare experiences that happen to very unusual people: Paul encountering the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus; Francis of Assisi receiving the wounds of the crucified Jesus; We think of mystics as people wearing strange clothes, or living in a cave or on top of a mountain or in a monastery.

But, the scholars in the “Eclipsing Empire” program offered a more general definition of mysticism and a broad expectation of who can be a mystic.

They defined mysticism as an experience of the sacred, an experience of union with God. They also suggested that Paul believed it’s possible – in fact, expected - for all Christians to be mystics, it’s possible for all of us to have encounters with the sacred, it’s possible for all of us to experience union with God.

I happen to believe that’s true.

It sounds odd, but mysticism can be an everyday experience. The truth is we don’t have to go into a cave or climb a mountain or even make a pilgrimage to be mystics, to experience the sacred, to experience union with God. It can and does happen right here, every day, I bet, right here in Madison, and Florham Park, and, yes, even Chatham.

It happens when we realize how good it is to be alive. It can happen when we enjoy a meal with family or friends. It can happen on a hot summer day when we treat ourselves to a cold, creamy chocolate milkshake. It can happen when we pick up the phone and call an old friend, or when we say we’re sorry to someone we’ve hurt, or when we offer forgiveness to someone who has hurt us. It can happen when we hold the hand of one we love or pet our dog or cat. We can have a mystical experience when we pray for a person in need or visit someone who is sick or lonely.

This church is built for mystical experiences. When we gather here in this beautiful place and listen to the Word of God and sing hymns and reach out in peace to our brothers and sisters and most of all when we offer up our hands and hearts to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, we can have an experience of the sacred, an experience of union with God.

We can be everyday mystics.

The heart of Christianity is that in Jesus we have a profound and personal and unique encounter with God. When we look at Jesus, when we listen to Jesus, we see and we hear what God is really like. Jesus is the ultimate mystical experience!

Sounds great, right? So, how come we don’t feel like everyday mystics? Why is it that most of us, most of the time, in our everyday lives, don’t remember how good it is to be alive, we don’t experience the sacred, we don’t experience a sense of union with God? Why is it that so often church seems like just part of the routine, something we’re supposed to do before we get on with the rest of the weekend? Why don’t we feel like everyday mystics?

Well, the answer is a little different for each of us. But, it boils down to this simple, irrefutable fact: we have a lot on our minds. We’re distracted.

Some of us are wondering how long today’s sermon will be. Some of us are worried about our health or the health of someone we care about. Some of us are worried about our jobs, about being able to pay the bills, about being able to support our families, about being able to leave something behind for our children or grandchildren. Some of us are lonely or afraid of being alone. Some of us deeply miss those who have died. Some of us are disappointed by our lives. Some of us are bored. Some of us watch TV news or read the paper and get so depressed and anxious. Some of us get so mad at the Democrats just like some of us get so mad at the Republicans. And more of us are mad at the whole bunch.

We have a lot on our minds. We’re distracted. Some of us are afraid we won’t keep up with the people on our street – that our cars, our lawns, our houses, our haircuts, just won’t be up to snuff. Some of us are thinking about what we need to buy at the supermarket. Some of us keep forgetting to pick up the dry cleaning. Some of us have to figure out how to get the kids to camp, to sports practice, to piano and dance lessons – sometimes all at the same time while driving one minivan. Some of us have regrets about the past – choices and mistakes that still haunt us. Some of us wonder if our children and grandchildren are doomed to grow up in a poorer and meaner and scarier country than we did.

And some of us even have a house full of guests and our sister has left us to do all the cleaning and the cooking and the serving.

In just a handful of verses, Luke gives us the rich story of the two sisters Mary and Martha. Martha, busy with her tasks, isn’t doing anything wrong. Just like when we think about all that we have to think about, we’re not doing anything wrong.
But, when we’re distracted by our many tasks, when our minds go over and over all the stuff we worry about, we shut ourselves off to the mystical experiences that are possible for us. Martha and we miss out on experiences of the sacred; we miss out on union with God.

Mary, though, she’s an everyday mystic, she’s focused on what’s most important, sitting at Jesus’ feet, hanging on every word. Jesus is right here! And since Jesus is the ultimate mystical experience, this is no time to be doing the dishes! Jesus is right here! For now, it’s time to set aside our tasks and worries. It’s time to be quiet and listen. It’s time to be a mystic.

Sounds great, right? But then what? Do we just hold on to our mystical experiences, our encounters with the sacred? Many of us dismiss mysticism because we think it has nothing to do with the real world. Yet, throughout Jewish and Christian tradition when mystics experience the sacred and experience union with God, they are inspired to speak out against injustice and work to build the kingdom of God right here in the soil and stone of the earth. Thanks to their experiences of the holy, mystics see what’s truly possible. Mystics see the way God wants the world to be.

The Prophet Amos is a perfect example of the connection between mysticism and social justice. Amos lived in the first half of the 8th Century BC, a time when the Jewish people were divided into two kingdoms: Israel in the North and Judah in the South. In the northern kingdom this was a time of great prosperity Рbut it was a prosperity enjoyed only by a slim percentage of people at the top of society. There was great economic inequality Рthe clich̩ was true - the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer.

Amos was from the southern kingdom, Judah. We’re told he was an ordinary person, a farmer and a herder. Amos was an ordinary person but he was also a mystic. He experienced the sacred, experienced union with God. And those mystical experiences led him to condemn the great economic inequality in Israel. Amos’s mystical experiences inspired him to warn Israel about the dangers of worshipping God without also showing compassion and without offering justice to the poor and the suffering.

Throughout the Book of Amos there are warnings that the Day of the Lord was coming. Elsewhere in Hebrew Scripture the Day of the Lord was seen as the time when Israel’s enemies would be punished. But, Amos the mystic has a different idea. He warns that in the Day of the Lord, Israel will also be punished with the other nations of the world for how it has mistreated the poor and the suffering.

In the passage we heard today, Amos warns Israel that time is running out – the summer fruit has already been harvested and placed in the basket. Through Amos, God warns of the worst punishment of all – the living hell of being separated from the presence of God.

“The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.”

This should be a sobering prophecy for all of us who live in such great prosperity while most of the world groans in poverty and despair.

As, Christians, though, we know that God has not hidden from us. Just the opposite! In Jesus we have a profound and personal and unique encounter with God. When we look at Jesus, when we listen to Jesus, we see and hear what God is really like. Jesus is the ultimate mystical experience!

And so it’s possible for us – right here and now – to be everyday mystics. Mysticism isn’t about wearing strange clothes or spending years in a cave, or on a mountain or in a monastery. Mysticism is about being like Mary, open to the God who is always reaching out to us. Mysticism is about being open to the God who is always seeking to cut through Martha’s and our worries and distractions, inviting us to realize how good it is to be alive, to experience the sacred, and to unite with God.

And then we mystics are called to be like Amos – to demand justice and compassion, to practice justice and compassion, to build the kingdom of God here in Madison, here in America, here on earth.