I am sure you’ve heard the phrase “I’m spiritual but not religious.” It’s the way some people describe themselves when they try to explain why they no longer attend a church, synagogue or mosque. When those of us who are actively involved in organized religion hear this, we think it’s a copt out. We think it’s an excuse people use for having no spirituality at all. However, I hear something different in this description. What I hear is that somehow we have failed them, and not the other way around.
They came to us to experience a sense of the holy, a sense of something bigger than themselves, and we didn’t provide an atmosphere where this could happen. Perhaps we were too busy judging them because they did not meet our expectations of what a good Christian, Jew or Muslim looks like. Perhaps we were too busy trying to get new members and fill positions on committees. Perhaps we were too busy trying to honor the traditions of those who came before us, even when those traditions have lost their power to inspire us and bring us closer to God.
So, the next time we hear someone say “I’m spiritual but not religious,” we need to let go of our defensiveness about the religious institutions we hold dear. We need to listen carefully to their story and probe further to discover what led them to leave their faith community. When we do this, it will probably lead to a deep and heart-felt conversation. Chances are, we will discover that we have more in common with them than we realize.
The reason why I bring this up is that I believe all human beings long for the same thing. It doesn’t matter whether we describe ourselves as spiritual, religious or a combination of both. All of us, at the core of our being, long for a sense of the transcendent, the holy in our lives. All of us long to experience something that is bigger than ourselves; something that awakens within us a sense of awe and wonder. There has to be more than working 40 hours a week, paying the bills, and providing for our families. There has to be SOMETHING out there that inspires us to become better people, to grow and change, to find our purpose and make a difference in our world. This desire to connect with God is something that transcends any labels we place on ourselves. We all long for a sense of the holy, even if we don’t realize that this is what we are longing for!
Our gospel lesson for this morning is the story of the Transfiguration. There is much about this story that, at first, seems strange and unfamiliar. Matthew tells us that Jesus led three of his disciples to the top of a high mountain. Mountaintops are known to be places where awe and wonder happen, especially when there is an unobstructed view of the world below us. Who among us has not been wowed by a sunset in our beloved Blue Ridge Mountains? Who among us has not experienced a breath-taking view from mountaintops throughout the world? So Peter, James and John were probably excited when Jesus took them to this vantage point. It not only offered an awe-inspiring view. It also meant they had some alone time with their Teacher. This is something that rarely happened.
But nothing could prepare the disciples for what they experienced next. Three of the four gospels contain the details of this mysterious encounter. Matthew, Mark and Luke try their best to describe the indescribable. Matthew says that Jesus “was transfigured before them.” The Greek word used here indicates that Jesus underwent a metamorphosis. The change was that dramatic. Matthew adds that “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”
If that was not enough shock and awe, Moses and Elijah made a guest appearance, and a bright cloud overshadowed everyone who was gathered on that mountaintop. In the midst of this dazzling display the voice of God somehow became audible: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
The disciples reacted to this indescribable experience in two very different ways. Peter offered to build three “dwellings,” which are tents or holy shrines. In other words, he wanted to hold onto the experience. He wanted to stay in the moment for as long as he could. However, the voice of God was even too overwhelming for Peter. Matthew tells us that the disciples “Fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.”
Then Jesus reassuringly said those words we often hear when people in the Bible encounter the holy: “Do not be afraid.” When Peter, James and John summoned the courage to look up, the awe-inspiring moment was over. “They saw no one except Jesus himself alone.”
As they descend from the mountaintop Jesus told them to keep this experience a secret until after his resurrection. Yet, there is no doubt they told many others of the transfiguration either before or after the resurrection. After all, how do we remain silent when we’ve had such a powerful, transformational experience in our lives? We cannot keep it inside. It demands to be shared with others. When someone tells us “Shhhh, keep this a secret,” this makes us want to share it even more. You know what I mean Perhaps Jesus knew this as well. He’s sometimes sneaky like that!
Moments of awe and wonder are nearly impossible to keep to ourselves. Yet, we also know that as we share with others what we have seen and heard and felt, our words always fall short of the mark. People simply have to experience awe and wonder for themselves. Everything else is, as they say, second hand news.
So, what does the story of the Transfiguration have to do with those who tell us they are “spiritual but not religious?” Well, I believe that moments of awe and wonder are in very short supply these days. In fact, they are pretty much nonexistent. The world around us is skeptical, afraid, angry, traumatized and violent. It’s easy to give into all the negative emotion which surrounds us. When people attend a church, synagogue or mosque but do not feel uplifted and inspired when they leave, is it any wonder they don’t want to come back?
The Church of Jesus Christ has a difficult task these days. There isn’t a program or marketing strategy that can fix what ails us. But we do have something that the world needs. We have a story. It’s a story of a God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. It’s a story of Jesus who embodies that grace and challenges us to do the same. It’s a story filled with awe, wonder and hope that has the audacity to proclaim that new life can come from death. This is what we have and this is what people need.
So, Friends in Christ our task is to share the story, and share it with as much enthusiasm and wonder that we can muster. Jesus gives us hope for a better world because he speaks of a Kingdom that is quite different from the earthy kingdoms we inhabit. He also proclaims that this kingdom, the Kingdom of God, is among us now. We’re not waiting for it to happen some time in the distant future when we all get to heaven. The Kingdom of God is among us now, right this very instant. It’s within us and around us if we only have eyes to see and ears to hear it. If we have the courage to live out the values the Kingdom of God teaches us, we will be agents of transformation in the lives of those who are spiritual, religious or a combination of both. AMEN
Copyright ©2017 by David Eck.