The Power of Thin Places

A Lenten Sermon

A couple of years ago I awoke in a tent in the Pemi Wilderness in the heart of the White Mountains National Forest.  I had spent the previous two days hiking in the area—the first day I made it to an AMC hut near Galehead Mountain, a good 6 miles from the trailhead.  The second day I ascended South Twin Mountain and continued on to Bondcliff, where I met a couple of friends who hiked in from the other direction.  Together we made our way to the Guyot Campsite for the night.

Photo Credit: lsten Flickr via Compfight cc

On that cold morning, I was both excited to be there—my first overnight backpacking trip in a tent—and also pretty beat. We all had done a significant amount of hiking with heavy backpacks the previous day, and so talked briefly about skipping West Bond—one of the 4000 footers—and just heading out to my car. But after some coffee and a hearty breakfast, we decided to leave our packs near the trail and did the mile to the peak.  Mist hung around in patches that morning, and the trail to the summit became tight with bushes and tree branches. Just as we got close to the summit we encountered a steep incline up rocks for the final push.  My toe began to hurt, and the exhaustion from the previous days hit me hard. I wasn’t sure this would be worth the effort.

And then I reached the lookout, and the beauty and amazement of that place overtook me.  In the early morning stillness, we could see for miles around the heart of that wilderness area—the valley to the west that lead off to the distant peak of Owl’s Head.  The leaves were just beginning to show their colors.  The mist still held in some places, and there wasn’t a sign of any other human beings. The three of us were unable to utter much of anything as we were held deep astonishment.  On the top of West Bond it felt as if I could reach out a touch heaven; surely it lay there just before me.  Any pain I had felt had long since subsided, washed over by all that I had encountered there.

A sermon based on John 2:13-22.

I’m don’t think we spent more than fifteen minutes or so on the top of that mountain, but I’m also sure that time stood still, and I experienced the transcendent power of God.  I can still powerfully recall the entirety of it just by traveling back in my mind’s eye.

Such spots have been coined “thin places” in Celtic Spirituality.  Eric Weiner describes it in this way, “Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.”  The term describes the “mesmerizing places” we encounter, like the “wind-swept isle of Iona” in Scotland, or, in my case, the peak of West Bond in the early Autumn.  There’s no telling where such places will show up—we have an idea for some, perhaps the shadowed darkness of a beautiful cathedral, or hearing the gentle lull of the tide as you walk along the shore.  Maybe it happens as you listen to a piece of music, or in standing before your favorite painting at the MFA.

Far too often the religious elite try to corner the market on such places, or claim that the only places in which one can experience God are the sanctioned houses of worship.  It makes sense in a way; it’s job security.  If I tell you that the only time it counts in the spiritual life is when you make your way here, then I can ensure at least somewhat regular attendance through your spiritual obligation.

Enter our gospel lesson on Jesus’ cleansing the temple. It happened to be Springtime and the yearly festival of the Passover had come near.  Similar to our celebration of Easter, the Passover stands at the very heart of the Jewish faith.  It recounts the release of the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt, and it exhibited God’s tremendous power over all the forces working against God and God’s kingdom.  The temple in Jerusalem  became the central place for Jewish religious life in that day.  Pilgrims from all around the area traveled up to Jerusalem in order to worship God and offer sacrifices for their transgressions and to be renewed in their relationship with the Almighty One.

Jesus had just completed his first miracle at Cana, turning water used for purification rites into the most exquisite wine of a wedding banquet. After a few days, he made his way to Jerusalem and the temple in order to partake in his religious devotion.  What he found there greatly troubled him.  Officials changing Roman coins into the local currency in order that the pilgrims might purchase animals for sacrifice—ranging from cattle and sheep for the rich to doves for the poor.  Jesus, in his second recorded public act in John’s gospel, makes a whip with some cords and begins turning over the tables and setting the animals free.  “Get these things out of here!” he shouts.  “Stop making my father’s house a marketplace.”

It goes without saying that his actions really incensed the temple officials.  Angrily they said, “Who gave you the power to do this? Give us proof of your authority!” Jesus simply responds, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I’ll raise it up.”  “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, will you raise it up in three days?” they ask incredulously. “But,” our gospeler tells us, “he was speaking of the temple of his body.” And then John goes on to say that the disciples would only remember this much later, after the resurrection, and then they figured out what Jesus meant and believed him.

Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke who tell us quite plainly that Jesus’ hackles got raised due to the religious officials turning a profit—for making the temple “a den of thieves,” a place where the poor were swindled—John is a bit more focused on the enterprise as a whole.  “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace,” as theologian David Lose describes it, “call[s] into question the not-simply-expedient but absolutely necessary act of changing coins in order to obey sacrificial law.”  You see, the Pilgrims had prescribed sacrifices they needed to make, and so they had to change their Roman currency for Jewish coins in order to purchase the proper sacrifices.  The marketplace was necessary.  The people would not be able to fulfill their religious obligations otherwise.  Lose declares, “With Jesus on the scene… there is no need for changing money, for purchasing animals, for making sacrifice…at all or ever again.”  He continues, “Indeed, it may be that John the Evangelist is going so far as to say… that [his readers] do not need the Temple at all. Why? Because Jesus’ body – his physical incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and gift of the Holy Spirit – was sufficient and is sufficient to mediate God’s grace and mercy. Jesus is the one who introduces us to the parental heart of God, the one who makes the unknowable God knowable and approachable. Then…ever since…and still today.”

And those interactions with God can happen anyplace, anytime, anywhere, any-when.  Far too often we believe that God can meet us only in the sacred places as prescribed by people who dress like me, when in fact Jesus’ cleansing of the temple makes abundantly clear that religious institutions cannot dictate how God interacts with us.  We can find forgiveness while taking a walk, or we can get a glimpse of God’s transcendence on a mountain top, or time can stand still and the distance between earth and heaven grow infinitely close through the reading of a book, or the power of a sunrise, or the aching splendor of a photograph depicting everyday life.

So if that’s the case, if we can meet God 24/7 at every step of our journeys, why bother with church?  Why bother giving our time on a Sunday morning?  Well, first, I want to say explicitly, don’t do it out of guilt.  Don’t come simply because you need to assuage some fear that God will be angry with you if you don’t.  Rather come because this can be a place to encounter God on a regular basis.  Gather with us so that together we can be the community and the body of Christ, those who know that God can and does work through each moment of our lives.  It’s hard to see that during the day in and day out, but when we gather together each week, we pause and remind ourselves that not only can God be found within these walls and among these people as God has for over 150 years, but such encounters help us to recognize God in the other 167 hours of our week that we spend outside these walls.

And know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus has become the center of our spiritual lives.  It’s no longer a physical place, but the Incarnate Son who lived among us, and ate, and danced, and laughed, and enjoyed the goodness of life even in the midst of difficult times.  He, like his contemporaries, lived under the oppression of the Roman tyrants, yet he didn’t allow that to cloud his passion for life and the devotion he had in bringing that joy to so many others.  We can encounter God through him, each and every minute of our lives if only we look for it.

So seek for him wherever you go, knowing that wherever you find yourself can be a thin place where you encounter God.  See God in line at Starbucks, or as you peruse the shelf at the library.  Notice God’s invitation to meet you in the open hands of a hungry stranger, or in the chance encounter with a deer.  Notice God when you share a simple meal at home, or walk in the rain.  God is among us in all times and in all places, and God is among us here.  So come to this table this morning, this reminder of the meal that we share both now and when Christ’s kingdom fully comes, and meet God again.  Amen.