A Sermon by Donel McClellan
First Congregational United Church of Christ">

 

 


A Sermon by Donel McClellan
First Congregational United Church of Christ,
Bellingham, Washington

Thin Places

Kings 2:1-12, Mark 9:2-9 - Transfiguration Sunday March 2, 2003

For the Celtic Christians of Scotland and Ireland, there is significance to natural places of meeting. They were fascinated by shorelines where the sea met the land, by fjords and rivers, even by doorways which were the meeting places of the outside and the inside. These places speak of the junction of boundaries, of transitions from one state into another.

In a similar way, the Celts celebrated those places on their calendar where one season met another. Their festival days were times when the world we see and the unseen world seemed to be in close proximity.

This is Transfiguration Sunday, a time between the times of the liturgical year. It is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany and marks the beginning of Lent in three days on Ash Wednesday.

The scriptures for today speak of extraordinary experiences, events far beyond the expectations of ordinary lives. They are transitions. Elijah has reached the end of his ministry and his authority is transferred to Elisha in a dramatic way. The old prophet and his protege are near Jericho. Elijah says that he can go on alone but Elisha refuses to leave his side. As they walked towards the Jordan River a bunch of the faculty and students of the Prophet=s College followed along. The company of prophets stopped as the old man and the young man went down to the river. Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up and struck the water of the river. The waters parted so the two men could walk across. As they talked, Elisha asked Elijah for a double share of his spirit. It was the custom of the day for the eldest son of a family to receive a double share of the inheritance, or twice as much as the other sons. Elisha desired to inherit not property but the power of God. Elijah responded with a riddle. AIf you see me when I am snatched away it will be so.@ Then Elijah was gone. The language of scripture defies rational explanation of reduction. Elijah simply disappears leaving behind only his mantle or cloak.

Elisha takes the cloak and flings it down in the Jordan River. The water divided to the left and right, just as it had done when Moses placed his staff in the waters of the Red Sea, Just as it had done when Elijah parted the river from the other side to cross over. Clearly the power of the prophet Elijah had been successfully transferred to Elisha. Across the Jordan they had encountered the power of God. The river met the shore and there, in a place of conjunction, God was found.

Fast forward a few hundred years and we have another story of transformation in a place of transition. This time it is a mountain peak where the earth touches the sky. Peter, James and John accompany Jesus up a high mountain where they can be alone. Suddenly Jesus begins to glow and two others appear with him. They are Elijah (of all people) and Moses. The two figures of the Bible who were believed to have been taken into heaven directly, thereby avoiding death.

Suddenly Peter, James and John Aget it.@ Jesus really is someone special. They ask if they can set up camp so they can remain in this very holy place. Then they are surrounded by fog and hear a voice AThis is my Beloved, my Own; listen to this One.@ The fog lifts and only Jesus is there looking as natural as ever.

What were the disciples to make of that. They had journeyed up a mountain with Jesus and encountered God. The experience left them trembling with hope and fear.

Celtic Christians would have called the shore of the Jordan River and the Mount of Transfiguration thin places. That is their term for certain places in the world where the veil between this world and the eternal world is especially transparent. Thin places are often the locations of epiphaniesCmoments when the holy becomes visible to human eyes.

Of course, to believe in thin places you must also believe in a reality which is beyond what we can see, touch, taste and smell. Thin places mean little to those who are convinced that nothing is real that cannot be identified and quantified. Thin places elude those with no mind for mystery and no longing for transcendence.

I have experienced a few thin places in my travels. One is in Kykotsmovi, below Third Mesa on the Hopi Reservation. Spending some weeks there in past summers I knew that the land was a thin place and one needed little more than to pay attention to know that the earth is rooted in mystery.

Another thin place for our family has been Lake Tenaya in the high country of Yosemite National Park. There, the world of nature and the world of civilization blend into one another and the ancient mystery of life in the streams, meadows and lakes becomes visible once again. Interestingly enough, most of the thin places I have experienced are places of majestic beauty which were discovered centuries ago by the First Nations people who first recognized and honored their holiness.

It would surprise me if many of you don=t have memories of visits to thin places where God=s presence is tangible and memorable.

George Gallup reports that Americans have an affinity for sensing the mystical or holy. He writes:

Our surveys have shown that nearly one-third of all AmericanCor about 47 million peopleChave had what they call a religious or mystical experience. Of this group about 15 million report an otherworldly feeling of union with a divine being. They describe such things as special communications from deceased people or divine beings, visions of unusual lights, and out-of-body experiences. For instance, one said, "I was reading the Bible one night and couldn't sleep. A vision appeared to me. I was frozen and motionless. I saw an unusual light that wasn't there - but was. There was a great awareness of someone else being in that room with me." 1

These are not good time to try to express our fragile experiences of holiness. We are easily crushed by the skepticism and doubt of the modern world. But the sheer quantity of such observations suggest that we pay attention to them.

Ralph Milton preached here a year or so ago. Ralph is a lay member of the United Church of Canada and a wonderful theologian in his distinctive way. His most recent book is a novel recording the life of Julian of Norwich.

Ralph publishes a delightful email newsletter called Rumors that looks at the scripture texts for each Sunday and includes his thoughtful observations on life. I have placed information on how to subscribe in the bulletin for those who would be interested. A few weeks ago Ralph wrote:

I don't know how you read Rumors, but to me it's a letter to friends, even though I've never met most of you. . . . I lost my sister June last Sunday. She was only 72, far too young for a woman with so much vitality and "joie de vivre." And though she slipped away peacefully in her sleep, her last few years were a desperate and terrible battle against emphysema and the cigarettes that caused it.

We were not the closest in age in our family. But June and I were the closest in personality and gifts. She had a flamboyant and artistic personality, which, in the end, was almost totally muted because of her oxygen starved lungs.

When I went to bed last Sunday night, a couple of hours after my sister Peggy phoned with the news of her death, I had a vivid memory of June, Peggy and me singing "When at night I go to sleep, fourteen angels watch do keep. . .two to whom >tis given to guide my steps to heaven." In that vision, reverie, dreamCwhatever it wasCmy sisters and I sang in our childhood voicesCso high, so clearlyCand I knew as surely as I know anything that those angels had guided June's steps into heaven. 2

Such moments may be dismissed as simple reverie over the loss of a loved one. Or they may be seen as an example of thin places where the deeper reality of the universe seeps into the world of sight and sound.

Marcus Borg, one of the most liberal of the biblical scholars, balances the harsh and logical eye with which he examines scripture with a delightful openness to the realm of the mystical in our experience of faith. Borg notes that such experiences can only be approached with symbolic or metaphorical language. Elijah was taken away in something like a fiery chariot. Jesus, on the mountain, became so bright it was something like wearing clothes brighter than any bleach could make them.

Borg looks to William James who identified four qualities that accompany such authentic experiences:

First, they are ineffable. They can be explained only in the language of metaphor and symbol. We cannot say exactly what happened, only Athat it was like . . .@ something else less dramatic in our collective experience.

Second, they are transient. Such experiences come and quickly go. We cannot live permanently in a state of mystical consciousness. Peter, James and John wanted to build shelters to preserve the experience with Jesus on the mountain. That wasn=t possible. The experience was gone by the time the suggestion left their mouths.

Third, such experience are passive. That is, they happen to us, we do not create them. We may prepare to be sensitive to such moments through prayer, meditation and spiritual exercise, but we do not control the experiences themselves. They are a gift of grace.

Finally, the experience are noetic. They connect with our intellect and leave us with the sense that we know something we did not know before. The experience of the sacred always leaves us with some wisdom as a gift.

Strangely enough, every worship service is a thin place which has the potential to bring us closer to the realm of deeper reality in which we are closer to God. Many worshipers have mini-mystical experiences triggered by an element of the service: exchanging the peace of Christ with someone, watching a child during Time With Children, a phrase in a prayer, a line in a hymn, a thought in the sermon, the delightful harmonies of an anthem, a word of benediction which lingers.

Need I point out that times of national crisis are also thin places where we have easier access to prayer, reflection on the Bible and theological conversation. Thin places are all around us and they may lead us into a closer sense of God=s presence and guidance.

We must not forget that these thin places are also transitional places. They exist where change is erupting, where routine is disturbed, where opposing forces come together in conflict and confluence. They are not comfortable places but then, encounters with God are seldom comfortable.

Leonard Cohen may have been thinking of just such thin places when he wrote these lines in his song Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That=s how the light gets in.
3

In these days which are often overshadowed and dark, let us seek the thin places, the cracks where God=s light gets in.

Amen.

Notes:

1.         George Gallup, Jr. Adventures in Immortality, quoted in Anthony C. Winkler, Jo Ray McCuen's, Rhetoric Made Plain, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1988

2.         Rumors ‑ January 19th, 2003. Ralph Milton's RUMORS is a free Internet >e-zine= for active Christians with a sense of humor. To subscribe, send an e-mail to: rumors-subscribe@joinhands.com. Don't put anything else in that e-mail.

3.            Anthem, 8 1993 Leonard Cohen & Sony Music Entertainment