Sunday, May 04, 2008

Thin Places

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
May 4, 2008
The Seventh Sunday of Easter: The Sunday after Ascension Day

Acts 1:6-14
Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36
(1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11)
John 17:1-11

Thin Places

Well, Holy Week is past. Easter Sunday is past. The bishop’s visit has come and gone. We’re done with the groundbreaking. And everybody who was supposed to be confirmed was confirmed. And I’ve noticed that things are starting to slow down around here at Grace Church. And as things are starting to slow down, I’ve begun to think about the J2A pilgrimage to Northern California this summer. For a little more than a week we’ll be visiting the various Spanish missions along the coast – retracing the steps of those adventurous missionaries who brought the Gospel to that beautiful land. It should be a wonderful trip and I’m starting to really look forward to it.

Actually, I’ve never really been on a pilgrimage before. Sure, I’ve visited places where pilgrims go; I’ve been fortunate enough to go to Rome and to Canterbury. A couple of years ago Sue and I were in London and I dragged her around to all these sites connected to Anglican history. It was just before I started seminary and since I didn’t have to write papers about them yet, I was enthused about Anglican theologians like Richard Hooker, who lived back in the 16th Century.

One of the places we went was the Temple Church, an ancient church where Richard Hooker had served as rector. When we first got there it wasn’t open yet so Sue and I went and had coffee. When we got back to the church even I was surprised to see a line of about twenty people waiting to get in. I smugly said to Sue, “See, I’m not the only one. Look at all these people who are interested in Richard Hooker!” She looked at me skeptically but made no comment. Inside, I noticed that these “pilgrims” were spending most of their time staring intently at and taking pictures of the graves of medieval knights. I couldn’t help eavesdropping on their conversations and I heard a few of them say “DaVinci Code.” These people were not there for Richard Hooker. No, they were there because they were fans of The DaVinci Code. It turns out that a scene in that bestselling book takes place in the Temple Church. Sue had been right to be skeptical.

Oh, well. People make pilgrimages for all sorts of reasons. Thousands of people visit Graceland every year because they love Elvis. People visit the Temple Church because they admire Richard Hooker – or because they enjoyed The DaVinci Code. But why do we make religious pilgrimages? I mean, God can be found in Madison. God can even be found in Florham Park or Chatham. So why would we feel the need to actually visit Jerusalem, Rome, Canterbury or Northern California? Why would we make these trips? What do we hope to find? What do we hope to experience?

In Celtic Christianity there is the idea of “thin places.” Have you ever heard of that? It’s this very beautiful idea that there are places or events in life where the dividing line between the holy and the ordinary is very thin – so thin that the ordinary becomes holy and the holy becomes ordinary.

We go on pilgrimages because we hope to find “thin places.” We hope to find places - we hope to have experiences - where there is very little separating the holy and the ordinary.

And today’s lessons are really about thin places, aren’t they? In the lesson from the Gospel of John, we have a part of what’s known as Jesus’ high priestly prayer just before his arrest and crucifixion. Don’t worry if you had trouble following this convoluted passage. If we read this passage carefully we realize that John is struggling to describe Jesus as being both on earth and in heaven at the same time. He’s describing Jesus in a thin place.

Take a look at it again. John begins his account by writing, “Jesus looked up to heaven and said…” Seems like an ordinary start of a prayer. But we quickly realize that Jesus is in a thin place. The dividing line between the holy and the ordinary gets very thin. Jesus says:

“I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.” Jesus is still physically on earth but John is describing the break down in the barrier between heaven and earth, between the holy and the ordinary.

And finally, the passage ends with Jesus saying, “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

In this passage Jesus is in a thin place – the barrier between the holy and the ordinary has become very, very thin indeed.

Our other lesson of course is the account of the Ascension in the Acts of the Apostles. The idea of Jesus ascending into heaven is a tough one for a lot of people to believe. The problem, of course, is that we have a much different understanding of how the universe works than people who lived a couple of thousand years ago. As Lauren mentioned in her homily on Ascension Day there are some people in the church who just dismiss the Ascension as absurd, as impossible, and think we should delete it from the list of things that we say we believe.

But to reject the Ascension as myth or fairy tale would be a huge loss and is really missing the point. The experience of Jesus and the apostles on the mountain that day was a very profound thin place. Talk about the barriers between the holy and the ordinary breaking down! Jesus’ body – which had been a normal human body like yours and mine, was first transformed in the Resurrection. Remember the post-resurrection stories? Remember how the evangelists try so hard to make clear that the resurrected Jesus was not a ghost or a spirit but was a physical presence? Remember how Jesus was the same but different? Remember the disciples on the road to Emmaus who at first don’t recognize him but then they do when Jesus breaks the bread? Remember poor Thomas being invited to touch the wounds?

And now in the Ascension, somehow, in some equally mysterious way, Jesus’ transformed, resurrected body passes through the barrier separating heaven and earth. At the Ascension the thin place becomes very thin indeed.

After this profound experience the disciples are left staring into the sky – yearning for Jesus, yearning for the holy.

And the truth is we are made to yearn for the holy. We yearn for the thin place. We try to satisfy that yearning with all sorts of other stuff, but really all that truly satisfies us is the experience of the holy – the experience of the thin place – the place or the experience where the barrier between the holy and the ordinary becomes so thin. And that’s why we do things like make pilgrimages. And if we find a thin place in Rome or Canterbury or Northern California, that is certainly wonderful. I suspect, though, that we find thin places in Rome, Canterbury or Northern California because on pilgrimages we are particularly mindful and open. On a pilgrimage we are really paying attention, really looking, really seeking. On a pilgrimage we sort of expect, or at least hope, to find a thin place.

But I believe that if we brought that same attitude of mindfulness and openness to our daily lives we would find thin places all the time. And if we reflect on our lives, I believe we would find that we were in thin places and we might not even have realized it. We need to lead our whole lives as a pilgrimage – seeking out, watching for the thin places all around us.

Often we experience thin places at the big moments of life – like births and deaths. And if you think about it, it’s at those big moments when we are really focused on what’s really important.

But we can experience thin places in seemingly small moments too – delivering a bed or a dresser or a microwave oven to a person in need; planting flowers with a child; preparing a casserole for a family touched by illness; visiting someone in the hospital or nursing home; singing or playing a musical instrument; or even simply sharing a meal and having a conversation. We can experience all of these as thin places - if we pay attention.

We are in the midst of a very thin place right here at church today. Now, we might not always experience church as a thin place because we’re distracted or tired or inattentive or stressed out, but when we worship the fact is heaven and earth draw very close to one another.

Just as Jesus crosses the barrier between earth and heaven in his high priestly prayer and in his ascension, so too we cross the barrier between heaven and earth when we join our voices with “angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven” who forever sing their praises to God. Here in church the barrier between heaven and earth, between the holy and the ordinary becomes a very thin space indeed!

Finally, there is the thin place of the Eucharist itself. Could there be anything more ordinary – or thinner, for that matter – than this simple, virtually tasteless wafer? Yet in the thin place of the Eucharist the holy and the ordinary truly become one.

Today’s lessons offer us glimpses of two thin places as Jesus crosses the barrier between the holy and the ordinary, between heaven and earth. As we make our pilgrimage here on earth, let’s keep an eye out for thin places – the places or events in life where the dividing line between the holy and the ordinary is very thin – so thin that the ordinary becomes holy and the holy becomes ordinary.