Sermon preached by The Reverend Elsa Worth
One day, as a familiar story goes, Moses was walking in the wilderness and turned and saw a bush that was burning very brightly in a strange, otherworldly kind of way, and then suddenly out of the bush he heard the voice of God telling him to take off his sandals for he was standing on holy ground. Holy Ground – a place in which you feel a stronger than usual connection to God. Some feel this church building is holy ground. Some have a special place by the ocean or in the mountains. In the Celtic tradition such places are called “thin places” – the places in life where the veil between this world and the other one is unusually thin – where the normally dark glass becomes a little more transparent and we feel the presence of God with unusual clarity. A thin place doesn’t have to be a literal place. It can also be a certain moment or experience in life through which God is perceived, like when Moses saw that bush. And like Moses, we often encounter thin places when and where we’re least expecting them.
My oldest son, Orion, moved to Boston on Sunday. He’s just about 20 years old and really ready to be on his own, and I am celebrating his independence. But I can tell you, thoughts of the moment I first held him in my arms – a very memorable thin place in my own life – were very alive in my mind and heart as I watched that car drive away Sunday afternoon. But the stab of pain I felt at that moment was a thin place in itself – a place in which I not only felt strongly re-connected to my son as an infant, but also connected with my many hopes for him into the future, and with countless other parents who have said good bye to their children throughout the ages. This reminded me that it’s not joyful just times of inner peace and harmony that are thin places in this life. I think painful times can sometimes be the most powerful thin places. If you’ve ever gone through a time of keen loss, profound pain or bone shaking fear, you may know what it’s like to suddenly experience the presence of God in a way you hadn’t perceived before. You know what it is like to find yourself in one of life’s thin places.
You know, I journey through the drama of Holy Week every year, and I’m not going to pretend I understand any of it. All I know, as I stand here on Good Friday after having the mysterious, and, let’s face it, horrible passion narrative wash over me once again, is that there is something deeply true going on here among us tonight, and that somehow these liturgies serve as powerful thin places for Christian communities. The prayers we say and the stories we recount touch us deeply, for we all know what it’s like to be in pain. We have all known some kind of suffering. We have all despaired. Perhaps we’ve been despised. And we have all felt the chill of death in one way or another. And particularly on Good Friday, we are reminded that Jesus, too, felt all those things.
Isaiah prophesied about how God would raise up a servant who would be made prosperous, who would be exalted and lifted up very high. But, Isaiah contends, this servant will not be glorified in the way we usually think of glorification. Instead, he will be a suffering servant, who will be despised and rejected and well acquainted with infirmity. And yet, this suffering servant, who like a sacrificial lamb will be led to slaughter and who will pour out himself to death, will startle many nations and silence many kings. This suffering servant, Isaiah prophecies, will open peoples’ eyes and ears and hearts to new things they had never heard or seen or noticed before. In other words, this suffering servant will serve as a thin place for all of us – and will, through his own life and death, reveal God.
Isaiah also reminds us that we are like sheep, and we have all gone astray. But when I hear again what Jesus went through in the passion story – how he experienced human suffering so profoundly – I am reminded that the lamb of God was not just a perfect lamb set apart for ritual slaughter, but somehow also a lost sheep like me. For what have I ever gone through that hasn’t also been touched by Christ? What has any of us ever felt that he, too, did not feel? Christ is not only a powerful king gloriously lifted up by the cheers of the crowd on Palm Sunday, but also a suffering servant whose hands and feet were brutally nailed into wood so he could be lifted up, not on a throne, but on a cross. Christ is not only the specially anointed, beloved son of God, but also a man, who by a perversion of justice was taken away and brutalized. Jesus has one foot planted firmly in this world, yet also has the other foot firmly planted in the other world, so Jesus himself is the thin place – who breaks down the dividing wall between God and humanity, between pain and joy, between death and life – whose death ripped open the curtain of the temple – the curtain that was the physical and metaphorical dividing line between where God is and where humans have to stay. By Jesus’ human blood, we now can have the confidence to enter the sanctuary – the Holy of Holies, writes Paul to the Hebrews.
As Christians, the story of Jesus’ life and death – the events of this Holy Week – the highest and holiest of our holy days – are a thin place. The place where we are again reminded that no matter what – no matter what horrendous thing happens in this human life of ours – God is near – and that nothing, neither death, nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present or things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Though we are not capable of fully understanding the enormity of God or even the events we remember together tonight, every year we travel through Holy Week. And we realize again that we are not so distant from the high priests or from the bandits hanging next to Jesus. We are kin with the Roman guards and with the ones casting lots at the base of the cross. We cry right along with the women on the hillside, with Mary, losing her son, and we jeer alongside the skeptical onlookers. We are one with Pilate and Caiaphas – and with Peter and with John. We are somehow intimately connected to all of these characters, and we are intimately connected to Jesus. For we are one body with all humanity, and miraculously, have also been invited to be one body with Christ. Jesus is the thin place that opens those two disparate worlds to each other. And even in the darkest hour of Lent – on Good Friday – the day Jesus cried out in despair, “My God, why have you abandoned me!?” and breathed his last in as human an experience as there can be, we are mysteriously assured that this is holy ground, that God is right here with us, and that the cross is but a thin place that shows us the way to new and eternal life.