“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.

“Having a B-Attitude,” Matthew 5:1-12; March 2, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Having a B-Attitude”
Matthew 5:1-12
March 2, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01My plan for today was to preach about having an attitude acknowledging our blessedness, an assignment that has proved to be both challenging and convicting. With this sermon still uncompleted yesterday afternoon, sitting snowed into my house stewing in frustration at this seemingly endless winter, I did not have exactly what you could call an attitude of blessedness. In fact, I was angry. Last night I had tickets to an event in Cedar Rapids that I had bought David as a Christmas present, thinking hopefully by March we wouldn’t have a problem getting around. And then it snowed, and snowed some more, and that plan just did not work. I was stuck at home.

SLIDE 2 - A Tree Full of AngelsSometimes when I get really frustrated I need to get out of my own mind for a bit and read the words of much calmer authors. I turned to a beautiful book, “A Tree Full of Angels,” by Macrina Wiederkehr and read these words, so very fitting to what I needed to hear:

She writes, “I always say that winter is my fourth favorite season. It is not first, to be sure, yet there is something in it that I favor. I need the scourging that it brings. I need its toughness and endurance. I need its hope. I love the way winter stands there saying, ‘I dare you not to notice my beauty.’ Slide03What can I say to a winter tree when I am able to see the shape of its soul because it has finally let go of its protective leaves? What do you say to an empty tree? Standing before an empty tree is like seeing it for the first time… “

SLIDE 4 - Sorrow She continues“…Are our lives so very different when we’re empty? When we’ve turned loose our protective coverings, is our beauty any less? In the seasons of life, suffering is my fourth favorite season. I could not place it first, yet like winter, there is something in it that has my favor. It is not easy to be praying about suffering while the sun is rising, but I try not to turn away from what God asks me to gaze upon. My sunrise is someone else’s sunset. My cry of joy stands beside someone else’s cry of sorrow. They are two seasons of the same life.”

Slide05When we only look at the world solely through our experience, through our own season it is quite possible to only see the winter, or only see our own season of sorrow or frustration. And as much as I did not want to admit it yesterday, that snow is gorgeous. The way it sparkles, the way it covers all the grit and dirt that has a way of mixing in. There’s a gentle beauty to ice frosted trees.

Slide06It’s a dangerous beauty, of course. We only need to drive down 20 to see the account of how many drivers’ lives this winter has already taken. It’s frightening to fishtail, to spin out, to try and find the edge of the road by the grooves of the tires of those who have come before you, or by aiming to drive parallel to the headlights coming at you. If you can avoid traveling at all in this weather I’d highly encourage safety over any other obligation.

We live in the promise that this winter will not last forever, even if it’s hard to believe it on a snowy March 2nd in Jesup, IA.Slide07I remember when I first learned that Australia was having summer when we were having winter. It blew my mind a bit. Also, I decided I wanted to perpetually chase Fall since it was my favorite season and also when my birthday happens. I didn’t quite get that two Falls did not mean two birthdays. But still, it made me think of the world in a whole different way.

SLIDE 8 - Upside Down ChurchI’ve had similar revelations while reading the Bible. Sometimes things just seem so completely upside down. Jesus tells us that in God’s kingdom, many of the value systems of this world will be reversed.

Favorite author of mine, Barbara Brown Taylor describes this in an interesting way—God’s Ferris wheel:

Slide09“Jesus makes the same promise to all his listeners: that the way things are is not the way they will always be. The Ferris wheel will go around, so that those who are swaying at the top, with the wind in their hair and all the worlds’ lights at their feet, will have their turn at the bottom, while those who are down there right now, where all they can see are candy wrappers in the sawdust, will have their chance to touch the stars. It is not advice at all. It is not even judgment. It is simply the truth about the way things work, pronounced by someone who loves everyone on that wheel.”

I love this image, each of us having a chance to touch the stars. Each of us simply being on our own part in the journey, our own journey around the sun. I also like that Barbara Brown Taylor speaks of how this movement around the Ferris wheel is not one of judgment, rather that God our creator loves every one of us and desires goodness for all of us.

Lutheran preacher, Brian Rossbert spoke these words about the beatitudes:

“Instead of hearing Jesus’ blessings from atop a mountain as an encouragement to become meeker or poorer in spirit or to have more mourning in our lives, perhaps what those blessings were about, perhaps what Jesus was speaking about on the mountain was an invitation, an invitation to prayer and an invitation to take notice of where God’s blessedness had already arrived.”[1]

Slide11Acknowledging our blessedness is not about placing ourselves into a new context or into a new season, it is about recognizing the blessedness that already surrounds us. As much as being snowed in yesterday frustrated me, I can acknowledge even in the same scene, the same season that I am so blessed to have a house with a working furnace, food to eat, and Bailey to keep me company. I don’t need to be more meek or poorer in spirit, but Jesus reassures me even if I were, and even when I am, I am blessed. This blessedness may look different in seasons of meekness and spiritual poverty, but it is still there.

Macrina Wiederkehr in “A Tree Full of Angels,” continues saying, “there is something about suffering that is ennobling. I’ve seen it recreate people. I’ve seen the mystery of suffering unfold people in a way that is sacramental, giving them the face of Christ. I have watched people suffer and wondered…what it is that gifts people with the courage to suffer so well. What is it that makes some people able to embrace suffering in such a way that they are lifted up rather than crushed?…Why is it that some of us learn how to embrace suffering in a way that makes us beautiful? And why is it that some of us allow it to embitter us?”

Slide13Well known author, Madeleine L’Engle wrote a book called “The Irrational Season,” about the season of Lent, which we will be entering this week on Ash Wednesday. In it she writes, “I am too eager for spring… fields need their blanket of snow to prepare the ground for growing. In my heart I am too eager for Easter. But, like the winter fields, my heart needs the snows of Lent….Each one of the beatitudes begins with Blessed, and translated from the Greek blessed means happy….Sometimes I think we have forgotten how to be truly happy, we are so conditioned to look for instant gratification. Thus we confuse happiness with transitory pleasures, with self-indulgence.”

As each of us passes through our own seasons of life may we be ennobled to see the blessing God has for us and live into that hope. Amen.