Leaving the Thin Places 2/14/10

Vulnerability in relationships

When you’ve been in a relationship with a person for an extended period of time, you begin to pick up on the nuances of the other person’s moods.  You begin to anticipate cranky words when the other is not feeling well, quick frustration when traffic is heavy and/or slow, and you even know which foods to hide because if they are found, they will all too quickly be consumed.  These are obvious things we learn about someone when we’ve been around them for a long time, but there are less obvious things too … like when your close friend has a really difficult experience, you know whether they need some space to digest everything or if they need to talk it out with someone.  Or when your significant other is stressed, you know if they need a cheerleader to help them power through or if they just need you to just get out of the way.  We know these things about the people we love because we have shared experiences, some easy, some hard, that taught us about how we individually handle life.  We have taken the time to be vulnerable with one another.

 Christ is vulnerable in front of Peter, James, and John while they are on the mountaintop.  Jesus is speaking with Moses and Elijah (wouldn’t you like to have heard that conversation?) which is mostly about Jesus’ immediate future and the completion of his human ministry on earth.  And the three disciples are there to hear that conversation, but they don’t seem to understand the weight or meaning of Christ’s final destination.  The text says the three were weighed down with sleep, but that they stayed awake and so saw Christ’s transfiguration.  I’m sure they wondered if they were actually dreaming.  The disciples often get the raw end of the deal when we read scripture.  They just never seem to get it, but I think that’s selling them short.

I don’t know about all of you, but I do not think well on the spot.  That’s one of the chief reasons that I write a sermon manuscript out.  When I get nervous, my ability to think and communicate drastically decreases.  So, to me, Peter’s response makes perfect sense.  He’s fighting off sleep, then he sees Christ glowing and talking with Moses and Elijah (which would be like me talking with Joan of Arc and Mother Teresa) and he’s thinking, “Gosh, what an honor that Christ would invite me and the brothers here with him.  I should be doing something, earning my keep or something.  I know!  I’ll made tents like the one that Moses used to talk to the Lord!”   His offer to make tents seems perfectly reasonable.  And his gut instinct to respond with action was spot-on.  Christ just redirected where his actions would go.  When we experience the ‘thin places’ of our faith, what is our response?

The Thin Places

What is a thin place you ask?  Have you ever been in a place so rich with history that it felt like the past, the present, the future might merge together in some strange fashion?  In Celtic spirituality, “thin places” are points where two worlds meet. 

Barbara Brown Taylor describes the “thin places” so cherished in Celtic spirituality as “places where the veil between this world and the next is so sheer that it is easy to step through,” or better, as “cracked doors between this world and some other, brighter place where God is no absentee landlord but a very palpable presence” (her sermon is in Home by Another Way)[1].

Jesus took Peter and the brothers, James and John, with him to one of those places.  Mount Horeb is also Mount Sinai where Moses received the Ten Commandments.  Physically, the mountaintop of Christ’s transfiguration literally has the footsteps of his faith printed on it.

Mountaintop Faith Haikus

 In the quiet space
Feel God’s love, see God’s glory
Off-kilter, now ready

A high mountaintop
Historically, a thin place
Shaken to the core

We don’t often talk about them, but most of us have found a thin place or two.  We’ve all experienced those extraordinary moments in our lives when we know that God is present in a spine-tingling can almost reach out and touch the sleeve of God kind of moment.  When we do talk about them, our voices become different as we search for a way to communicate the strange-ness and awesomeness of being near to God.  The physical reality is difficult to convey when so much of our faith happens in our hearts or minds.

This is the kind of moment that Peter, James, and John came across on that mountaintop.  It’s no wonder they bumbled their way through it, really.  Who wouldn’t?

The Old Testament is full of encounters with the divine where an angel or emissary from the divine realm enters the human realm, but it is always halfway through the visit before the human character recognizes what is happening and that the visitor is “not from around here.”  We’re not engineered to handle two realities at once.

Moses went to a thin place regularly when he met with God on behalf of the people of Israel.  In an interesting contrast, Moses puts on a veil after he delivers God’s message to the people and they see his (literally) shining face.  Normally, a priest would cover his face before standing in front of God, but in this instance, Moses is safe in seeing God’s face and in being completely vulnerable to God.[2]  It begs the question of us today, where do we veil ourselves?  Who are we completely vulnerable to?

Jesus, on that mountaintop, chose to make himself vulnerable and allow himself to be known completely by the three disciples.  Even if it took awhile for them to get it, I imagine it was a relief for Christ to have some company in knowing the  difficulties that lay ahead for him.

What happens after those luminous experiences?

Peter was ready for action after finding that thin place with Christ, but Jesus made it clear that they could not stay there.  The spine-tingling, awesome knowledge of God’s presence with us is meant to invite us to be vulnerable with and for God, but it was never meant to be a place that we reside forever.  Jesus did not allow the disciples time to “sort it all out;” he told them to get a move on.  The journey ahead wouldn’t be easy, they might as well get it over.

There is Much to Do

Jesus urged the three disciples to leave the mountaintop … before they were really ready to go.  And we hear in the end of the passage of the disciples’ struggle to live as Jesus has asked.  Why do they do this?  Relationships change us.  More specifically, close, intimate relationships (at their best) rouse us to be better versions of ourselves.

<<Story from Thank You, ”Sandy’s Release.”>>
“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.”[3]

Our best relationships rouse us to be the truest and best form of ourselves.  So it is with Christ who asks us to allow the thin places to transfigure us.  You do not have to fully understand Christ’s glory, you do not have to be really good at doing what Jesus says to do.  When you are willing to see God’s brilliance, to feel the complex awesomeness of divinity, you are transformed, transfigured, and reworked for God’s purposes.  May it be so for all of us this day.


[1] Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds.  http://i.ucc.org/StretchYourMind/OpeningtheBible/WeeklySeeds/tabid/81/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/362/Astounding-Glory-Feb-8-14.aspx

[2] Gene March, Feasting on the Word, “Exodus 34:29-35.”

[3] “Big Yellow Taxi” written by Joni Mitchell.

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