Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
May the whole earth be a healing place for the people, the skies above remind us of God’s creative power, and the wind in the trees carry the breath of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Very, very strange. How else could one describe it? The three witnesses of this event were so terrified by it that they kept silent and told no one what they had seen. I guess that is all one can do with an experience that does not fit any of our categories. We tend to analyze it until we can safely come up with some intelligent explanation for it.
There are plenty others like it in the Bible: Moses and the burning bush, Jacob and the ladder of angels, Job and the voice out of the whirlwind, and in the Old Testament reading today, Moses shining face—so blinding that he had to wear a veil before he came out to speak to the Israelites. Veils and clouds are a big part of the readings today—both metaphors for mystery.
Mystery. Famous Baptist preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick, one time minister at Riverside Church in New York wrote “I would rather live in a world where my life is surrounded by mystery than live in a world so small that my mind could comprehend it.”
I wonder if the admission that we are mystified by some experience—that we can’t explain or understand—is not the beginning of growth. Certainly, it was the beginning of some serious growth for Peter, James, and John that day on the mountain: Glistening garments, blinding light from heaven, an eerie voice out of nowhere proclaiming the divineness of Jesus and bidding the three to pay attention to him.
You might be expecting me to explain the meaning behind this strange story. I’m sorry to disappoint you but I can’t. Methodist bishop William Willimon tells the story of his friend’s aunt who used to attend lectures given by theologian Paul Tillich whenever he spoke in the environs of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Though she was by no means a theologian, she would sit there transfixed by Tillich’s remarks. “You mean she was able to understand what Tillich was talking about?” Willimon asked. “Are you kidding,” replied his friend. “My aunt never understood a word of what he was talking about. But she said that she loved listening to him because she knew that whatever he was talking about was very, very important.
And what if this is a story that’s not really meant to be explained? What if it is like standing before a splendid masterpiece in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Do we exclaim, “I got it! I got it!” or do we walk away in awe mumbling, “Wow. That really got me.” What if the transfiguration story is like a great work of art upon which we gaze with awe rather than a theological problem to solve? Let’s explore this masterpiece—this mysterious story to see if it can get us even if we don’t get it.
American Biblical scholar Marcus Borg describes two metaphors which he believes are central to being Christian: “Open hearts” and “Thin places.” Together, they express a transformational vision of the Christian life, the purpose and practice of the Christian life for us as individuals and in our life together as church.” The word “heart,” often used to refer to the whole self, appears well over a thousand times in the Bible. We associate the heart with love, as on this Valentine’s Day, but also with courage as in “brave hearts” and with grief as in “broken hearts.”
“Thin Places” is a term we inherit from the tradition of Celtic Christianity, a form of spirituality that flourished in Ireland and parts of Scotland, Wales, and northern England beginning in the 5th century. It has always been an undercurrent in that part of the world but is being rediscovered in the church universal. Thin Places involves a particular way of thinking about God, as the encompassing Spirit in which everything is and affirms that there are minimally two layers or dimensions of reality—the visible world of our ordinary experience and that of God, the sacred, Spirit.
“Thin places” are places where these two levels of reality meet or intersect; places where the boundary becomes very soft, porous, permeable; places where the veil momentarily lifts, and we behold God and experience the one who is both all around and within us. Thin places can be geographical like the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland, the birthplace of St. Patrick in Ireland, sacred cities like Jerusalem, Canterbury and Rome or mountains and high places like the location of the Transfiguration story. But they are more than geographical places.
A thin place is any place where our hearts are opened because the sacred becomes present to us in a way we didn’t expect. It is a means of grace: nature and wilderness areas, the arts—music, poetry, literature, and dance—experiences where the boundary between one’s self and the world momentarily disappears.
Christian practices—what we do here in this sacred space—have as their central purpose to provide the possibility for us to encounter a thin place where our hearts are opened. Central to that life we share together is worship which is about creating a sense of the sacred, a thin place and that is why we take so seriously what we do here on Sunday mornings. Thin places are all cracked doors between this world and some other brighter place where God is a palpable presence and each time that veil becomes sheer enough so that we are able to step through it our hearts are opened, even if only a little bit at a time.
What are our lives like when we have open hearts? With opened hearts we see everything more clearly—we see the person right in front of our face and the landscape stretched before us. We move from darkness to light. We become alive to wonder and know “radical amazement” when we look at the world of fascinating and diverse creation. We are full of gratitude, moved to generosity, and passionate about justice. We feel the suffering and pain of the world and become more compassionate people.
The life of faith is about the Spirit of God opening our hearts in thin places.
What most characterized that mysterious event on the mountain was the absolute glory and wonder of God—the beauty of holiness—and when we as God’s people put our best foot forward to create, in the words of Anglican priest Urban Holmes “a world of wonder in our liturgy and worship that makes it easy for us to fall in love with God,” we get a glimpse of that glory and wonder without which life is truly impoverished and the “thin place” has done it work.
On the mountain that day, Peter was all set to set up camp. He wanted to build accommodations for Jesus and Moses and Elijah—a task that would have kept him and his companions busy for a while. But the door of the “thin place” is only cracked open for a moment and the cloud of our ordinary days and routines returns to bring us back to reality. Peter, James, and John had to come down from the mountain. We have to come down from the mountain.
We’ll do that in a rather obvious way this Wednesday—Ash Wednesday when we declare our humanity and vulnerability in a very profound way by allowing our foreheads to be smeared with ashes. It begins a forty day journey of going deeper into the mystery—the mystery of life, the mystery of God, the mystery of those “thin places” we may encounter along the way, knowing that with every step we take on our journey in Lent we are walking on holy ground. Like the Transfiguration and like theologian Paul Tillich we may not fully understand what lies behind the veil or within the cloud, but deep in our hearts we know it is very, very important.