“A Thin Place”; Psalm 29: 1-4, 10-11 and Matthew 3:13-17; January 12, 2020; Boeuff Presbyterian Church

“A Thin Place”
Psalm 29: 1-4, 10-11 and Matthew 3:13-17
January 12, 2020, Boeuff Presbyterian Church

Growing up in Northwest Ohio, there wasn’t much of a horizon. When you tried to look for where the sky touched the earth it was mostly just buildings or trees in the way. But I’ve been some places where the sky and the earth meet in some pretty spectacular ways. Once, I was part of a crew filming a kid’s program in Alaska and watched the sunrise over a bay as dolphins leaped and eagles soared.

For our honeymoon, David and I went to the Grand Canyon and were delighted to watch the sunset over the canyon. And the sunsets I’ve experienced on my drives in for our Lenten worship services have been quite incredible in their own right. It is these meetings of the sun and the earth that come to mind when I imagine our text today, “suddenly the heavens were opened to him.”

One of the words I have heard used to describe God’s incarnation in Christ is “condescension.” Since this primarily carries a negative connotation I initially balked at that word being used, but then I just couldn’t get it out of my head. And one of the ways the Holy Spirit shows up in my life is in those little earworms of phrases that echo through my consciousness as I seek to connect with scripture. In Christ, God is condescending to us. The divine descends to dwell in the ordinariness of human skin. The heavens touch the earth in the person of Christ..

There is a term used in Celtic spirituality and throughout the history of Irish tradition called a “thin place.” It describes “a place in time where the space between heaven and earth grows thin and the Sacred and the secular seem to meet.”

There are places around the world that are distinctly referred to as thin places, where many others have identified feeling God’s presence. There’s even a travel company called “Thin Places Mystical Tours,” that will take you to various locations in Ireland and Scotland. Iona in Scotland is one such place, and certainly the wailing wall in Jerusalem and the mosque in Mecca. I’ve heard people refer to their beloved childhood summer camp in this way. Maybe for you it’s been a family vacation spot or beloved treehouse growing up where you did all your best thinking.

Thin places can be used to describe both a physical space and a particular date and time. In Greek, the word “kairos” is used for this sort of time, God’s time, the fullness of time, that often has little to do with clocks or calendars.

If ever there were a thin place, Jesus’ birth and baptism stand out as prime examples. In the liturgical calendar we’ve just left the thin place that is the nativity with a newborn Jesus of Nazareth swaddled, being kept warm by a host of earthly animals and attended by a host of heavenly angels. Divinity made incarnate in humanity.

This week our text takes us to the waters of the Jordan, and that baby has grown into a man. In the waters of baptism, Christ condescends to John, insisting that it is right that John be the one to baptize Jesus. Humanity extends it’s blessing in John, while the Holy Spirit descends upon him like a dove and “alights” on him.

When I hear the part about “ the Spirit of God… alighting on [Jesus]” I think of a line in It’s a Wonderful Life, when George Bailey is telling Mary that he’ll lasso the moon for her and that she “can swallow it… and the moonbeams would shoot out of [her] fingers and your toes and the ends of [her] hair.” I wonder if this is how Jesus looked, light radiating out in beams.

To me, Jesus’ baptism scene strikes me as an invitation, not to any place or time in particular, but an invitation to seek out divine incarnation. To look for the places that God “alights.” To see if that thinness the Celts speak about is closer than you may have previously thought possible.

New York Times Travel Journalist, Eric Weiner wrote about his search for “thin places” in a piece entitled, “Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer.” He frames his search saying, “The question, of course, is which places? And how do we get there? You don’t plan a trip to a thin place; you stumble upon one. But there are steps you can take to increase the odds of an encounter with thinness. For starters, have no expectations. Nothing gets in the way of a genuine experience more than expectations, which explains why so many ‘spiritual journeys’ disappoint. And don’t count on guidebooks — or even friends — to pinpoint your thin places. To some extent, thinness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Or, to put it another way: One person’s thin place is another’s thick one.”

Episcopal Pastor and Christian Educator, Debie Thomas writes of how difficult it can be to find that thin-ness, even and especially where others have said they have experienced God in space, but also in action through the sacraments of baptism and communion..

She writes, “How much nicer it would be if the font were self-evidently holy.  But no — the font is just tap water, river water, chlorine. The thin place is a neighborhood, a forest, a hilltop.  The voice that might be God might also be wind, thunder, indigestion, or delusion. Is the baby divine? Or have we misread the star?  Is this the body and blood of God’s Son? Or is it a mere hunk of bread? A jug of wine?  

What I mean to say is that there is no magic — we practice Epiphany.  The challenge is always before us. Look again. Look harder. See freshly.  Stand in the place that might possibly be thin, and regardless of how jaded you feel, cling to the possibility of surprise.  Epiphany is deep water — you can’t stand on the shore and dip your toes in. You must take a breath and plunge.”

On this day of celebration Jesus’s baptism, may we ever be on the lookout for how heaven  is meeting the earth. Even with us, even right here, even right now. Thanks be to God. Amen.

“A New Song;” Psalm 98:1-9; November 10, 2013; FPC Jesup

“A New Song”
Psalm 98:1-9
November 10, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - EarwormWhat was the last song that you’ve had stuck in your head? There are certain songs, that even if you’ve liked them at one point they repeat in your head and drive you crazy.

Former poet laureate Billy Collins wrote a poem about this earworm phenomenon. He titled it “More Than a Woman,” but has explained in his live readings that you can substitute the title with any song that is affecting you in this way. Here’s an excerpt from that poem:

“Ever since I woke up today,
a song has been playing uncontrollably
in my head–a tape looping

over the spools of the brain,
a rosary in the hands of a frenetic nun,
mad fan belt of a tune.

It must have escaped from the radio
last night on the drive home
and tunneled while I slept

from my ears to the center of my cortex.
It is a song so cloying and vapid
I won’t even bother mentioning the title,

but on it plays as if I were a turntable
covered with dancing children
and their spooky pantomimes,

as if everything I had ever learned
was slowly being replaced
by its slinky chords and the puff-balls of its lyrics.”[1]

SLIDE 4 - Headache“What are the old songs in our lives? What are the songs that play like a tape looping, or a mad fan belt? What are the litanies we tell ourselves? Those persistent phrases that have taken root in our brains. Perhaps it’s “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not good enough.” Or “if only I were thinner I’d be happy,” “if only I were thinner I’d be happy.” Or “the bullies are right,” “the bullies are right.”

Each of these things lodges in our brains and holds us captive with negativity. But there are other old songs as well that we may hear in our minds that don’t come from a bad place, but still can keep us stuck. Maybe that song for you is “I like things the way they are,” “I like things the way they are.” Or “Someone else should make the change,” “someone else should make the change.”

Even thoughts rooted in an original kernel of truth or those that stem from contentment can hold us captive if we refuse to listen to any new voices, any new thoughts, any new songs.

SLIDE 5 - HandcuffsOur Psalm today calls us out of these endlessly looping songs and the patterns in our lives that keep us in captivity.

Many scholars believe that Psalm 98 and the Psalms surrounding them were written during the Babylonian captivity. This is recounted later on in Psalm 137: 1-3, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.  On the willows there we hung up our lyres.  For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’”SLIDE 6 - Willow

In their exile the people were commanded to sing the songs of Zion, to sing the songs of the lives before their captivity. This constant remembering of the way things were kept them trapped by their memories, and unable to move forward even in their own minds. In Psalm 98 they were called by the Psalmist to sing “new songs.” The people were in exile and sang the old songs, but since they were no longer a reflection of their reality it just led to discontentment and unrest. The Psalmist calls them out of this former life and their current experience and into the much larger reality of God’s abundance.

When will they stop singing these songs? When will they embrace god’s steadfastness?

SLIDE 7 - InstrumentsThe Psalmist writes, “O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things… Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD.” (Psalm 98:1a,4-6)

SLIDE 8 - EarwormJames Kellaris, a marketing professor at the University of Cincinnati has studied the experience of getting songs stuck in our heads and has even been credited with coining the term “earworm.” In his research he writes about the “phonological loop,” which is a short-term memory system in the auditory cortex, or part of our brain the processes sound. When a song or phrase enters into this “phonological loop,” it creates what Kellaris calls a “cognitive itch.”[2] One of the ways they suggest to get this “itch” out of our brains is to listen to new songs that will crowd out the old.

And so, I’d like you to think about the last song you’ve heard that has help you think differently about your experience of God? That has helped you to break out of the old loops in your brain. While some of these songs might be Psalms, hymns, or songs on Christian radio, I know one that has made me think differently is  P!nk’s “Just Give Me a Reason.” Particularly in this line: “We’re not broken just bent and we can learn to love again

What a great image of the human condition of sinfulness. Like the captives in Babylon, our songs and old patterns of thought may make us feel lost when they no longer reflect our reality. We can indeed learn to love again, learn a new way of living.

So it’s important to think about this, “are we singing like captives?” Not captives in the most literal sense as the people in the Babylonian exile, but rather captives to old patterns and to our sin.

SLIDE 10 - JesusGod’s own son, Jesus came to earth, lived a sinless life, and died on the cross so that we may be forgiven of our sins. We are no longer captives to the sin. We are forgiven people, why are we still wallowing in our sin?”

What songs do you let take root in your brain and in your life?

When we become Christians we learn the Gospel song, the song about Jesus’ love and desire for goodness in our lives. This song about God’s mercy and the grace we can never earn. This is the new song we are to sing. This Gospel song is what we should sing to bring God’s grace and truth to them who need to hear; for all who needs the forgiveness and salvation Christ offers, which is everyone.

If we embrace the truth of this song we will be swept up into God’s great love for us, a love that leaves no room for self-abuse or for any actions that would keep others away from this Gospel message.  May we never cease to sing this ever-new song of God’s great love for us demonstrated through Jesus Christ. Amen.