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Thin and Thick
The Rev. Clare Robert
Sunday, 2 March 2014
Text: Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9
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There are places on earth which are considered to be sites of particular holiness, places where God seems more present than usual, where heaven seems to meet earth and the divine is made manifest to humans. Each religion claims its territory: the Hindus bathe in the Ganges; the Buddhists sit near the Bodhi tree in Bodgya where Gautama was enlightened. Jews find the mountain of Sinai, also called Horeb to be a place of divine encounter. Muslims turn to Mecca, but also to Medina, and also like Jews and Christians, to Jerusalem, where particular buildings and setting are the holy of holies. These are just the official sites. There are others less conventional: Iona, an island near Scotland, a pilgrimage site for centuries, or Chartres Cathedral near Paris where the divine feminine has been worshipped for millennia. Many are in remote areas, some in high spaces, and some near the sea. They have in common the persistent theme that some places carry a power or beguile a Power -with a capital P- to become present, and by going there, one can have such an experience. For us in North America, and in our small state of Connecticut, with its few mountain peaks, we might look towards these exotic spots and wonder if we have to travel to find these special experiences of God, or if we have been left out geographically from the special divine encounter that can be found in these places. Not so. If you have ever been to Silver Lake Conference Center, just two hours from here, you too have had the grace to walk on holy ground and to know that particular kind of presence that comes in and from these settings. Or perhaps you have experienced such a high while sitting at the shore at Stony Creek in Branford, or near the Lieutenant River in Old Lyme. Or even closer, climbing the sleeping Giant right here in our own backyard.
There is, in fact, a term for holy places and experiences, where it seems the divine and the human meet. The term is “thin places” and it is defined as a place where the dividing line between the holy and the ordinary is very thin, transparent. For reasons not so clear, it seems that originally this notion was connected mostly to Ireland’s caves and wells, where fairies and otherworldly creatures have more credibility than perhaps in our more mundane American landscape. But the term itself has become more generalized to mean, in scripture scholar Marcus Borg’s words, “anywhere where our hearts ore opened, and the boundary between the two levels, becomes soft and permeable, where the veil lifts and we behold the “aha” of the divine and that can happen at any time, and any where. ”
Today’s story of the Transfiguration of Jesus seems to be one of those stories of a thin places: both a physical place—a mountain-- and an experience of mystical vision that the disciples had when they went up the mountain with Jesus.
Mountains, it seems, are prone to the designation of thin places. Our language about holiness and even prayer reflects this tendency. We “lift” our prayers to God. Some things seem higher, closer to heaven. Even though our scientific world view tells us, and we know that heaven is not “up there” we have a habit of looking up or pointing up when we think or speak about the divine, even though logically and even theologically we don’t really hold to those ideas. Scripture is permeated with these concepts and images and so it is understandable that we would reflect them in our own speech. Even if we don’t take them literally, they have metaphorical power for us. Just look at our call to worship, with its “crystal mountain abode of the most high” to get a feel for this language.
In Hebrew scripture, Abraham goes up the mountain with Isaac on a fearsome mission and receives the holy word not to sacrifice his son. Moses finds a burning bush and the divine revelation while at pasture with his flock, on a mountain, and returns there to receive the divine commandments of how to order the Hebrew tribes into a covenantal community with God. To show us that Jesus is a divine revelation, Mathew walks us up the mountain with the disciples and has them encounter Moses and Elijah. Jesus is described there as a transformed person permeated by light. Many many times, God is met on the mountain. Revelation seems to come from above through a cloud, a thunderclap, or a voice.
But beyond the notion of a thin place being linked to a physical point, it can also be an experience, an encounter, or a moment. Some are dramatic, and occur at the fringes of the life span. Both a newborn and a dying person have the capacity to elicit from us a similar kind of wonder and awe. Who can say where this child came from? Who can really know where we go after this life? And so we question and enter into an unfathomable mystery of life coming and going, and we can know that moment as an encounter with the divine.
Some of these situations can be more routine, or seemingly banal. Seemingly unimportant, and yet they touch the holy if we open ourselves to them, if we allow ourselves to see and hear. To become soft and permeable and porous, and to let what is already present, be known within our hearts and minds.
In a discussion with an elderly parent who tells of her own childhood, one can see the child she used to be. It is moving and touching to see someone be so transformed as she recounts life years ago, as memory is made visible, and sacred. Or, while serving at Columbus House, or volunteering for Abraham’s Tent, or on a Habitat build, there are moments of holy encounter, and divine connection as one is met in mutual service. Or while visiting with a sick friend, one can find at bedside a healing love. There is fragility of body, and strength of soul. Or, washing the dishes, one could see the miracle of hot running water and of the human hands that get wet, a chore transformed from basic to meaningful. In such moments, though intention and awareness, grace is given and God’s presence is made known, felt either, strongly, or subtlety.
In the transfiguration story, and also in our lives, we see that the typical reaction to these very holy moments, whether they are dramatic or prosaic, doesn't really do them justice. Like the disciples, we often just don’t know what to do or how to react and we wonder if we are in our right minds. Like Peter we want to hold on, like the three disciples together, we become afraid. While it is normal and human, we seem to miss the point.
Peter sees a vision of Jesus; his teacher and leader has become a transformed being, with light radiating through. And Peter says: let’s pitch tents up here, and stay a while. It is endearingly human, his reaction; the desire to hold onto the experience. And who has not done that or had that instinct? A beautiful thing happens, there is a moment of insight, a sure knowledge of connection with God, and it is so painful to have it fade, that we want to hold on. This fleeting nature of the high moments, the peak experiences, this aspect of life is distressing to us. It reminds that all things pass and that while there is a time for every purpose under heaven, our timing and God’s doesn’t always coincide. More to the point, we cannot hold onto to time. As one dear friend said to me once in frustration, “If only things would stay the same!” And who had not felt that, as the sunset arrives on the last day of vacation, or a child goes off to college or kindergarten, or the wedding party or honeymoon is over?
It is also true that when the holy high moment has flashed by, we have the tendency to be afraid, or to deny, or to be adverse in some way to what has happened. In today’s story, the disciples are fearful and Jesus reassures them and tells them to keep the events a secret. He might not have bothered to say that, because they themselves might not have known how to tell about what they had seen. When God seems very present, after, later, there may be a sense of embarrassment and a pushing away of the event. Did that really happen? Was I that open, that vulnerable? Better to forget, and move onto the more prosaic, the more down to earth. Come down from the mountain, and get your feet on flat land as it were.
It’s for that reason that I think that our story leaves us in a quandary and with a dilemma. Going up the mountain, we don’t know what to expect, so the problem isn’t there. The disciples were following Jesus and they certainly weren’t expecting to see Moses and Elijah who were quite a surprise. Once there, the disciples are simply taken up into the experience—it happens and then they have their reactions. But coming down, now that’s different, that’s where there is a problem. Now they have to integrate this knowledge of what has happened into their world.
Just like we do, when we come out of the thin place into the thicket of our lives. Into the places where problems seem dense and the thorns and thistles at our feet attract more attention than the mountain peaks. Where our minds are a bit thick and the storm clouds thicken.
The challenge is to see God’s presence in the thick of things, in the daily life we lead, and to know that God is with us through thin and thick, and that holiness is not reserved for the high times and holy of holy places. This the interesting turn that our faith makes—all of life is holy, all of life is a place of divine encounter. Abraham Heschel says it this way: “just to live is holy, just to be is divine.” Perhaps one way to think about our incarnational faith is to understand that God-with-Us means that indeed our very existence, our bodies, all of human life is a thin place of encounter and incorporation. Our faith story takes us up the mountain, and down again. We are transformed, but not to some other way of being which is otherworldly. Rather life itself is holy and all our ways of being hold the potential of holiness and wholeness.
Every week as we come together in worship, we have the potential to experience God, for this sanctuary and our prayer together is a thin place, where all our hearts seem more porous, and permeable and the veil is lifted on the divine among us. Sometimes in the service, this will occur at the children’s message. Children’s minds seem to be more open, soft, permeable and present, and we can sometimes absorb their capacities to know God as we listen to them. For others, it is the music, which affects us in a similar way, or a part of the service, a testimony, or prayer which touches us and the Spirit’s movement is felt. And certainly, the communion table, can be for us, a thin place where grace is felt and known.
Although we cannot will or demand these experiences, because they do not depend on us but on God, perhaps we can allow ourselves to become porous, permeable, with a heart open and with a mind that lets go into God. May we come, then to this thin place, where the light of the transfigured Christ is made more clear to us, in the faces of each other, in the faces of our children, in this thin place which is our gathered community, as we share now the faith that our God is with us, here. From the mountaintop of transfiguration, may we find that illumined grace in our worship, and may we find it too, in many ordinary moments of our days. For in thin or thick, God is with us now. Thanks be to God. Amen