Thin Places

I wonder how many of you are already tired of the political posturing and public debate that has gripped our nation?  And just think, the debates have only just begun.  Yay!  Politicians and pundits are sharpening their words to play upon our fears, to villainize their opponents, and to demonstrate their ability to save us from our next big crisis.  But don’t hate the player.  Hate the game. I have hope that God is still present, even in the imperfect and impure political systems we continue to abuse, reform, and venerate.

Meanwhile our criminal justice system is on trial – with the finger pointing at “bad cops” or “agitators” or “profiteers” who have made an industry out of incarceration and fee collection – and the news media is feeding the fires of social media in such a way that it is hard to tell what stories are simply the result of a particular situation and what is generalizable to the communities of our nation.  All of this leads us to make claims about where God is or isn’t and who is faithful and who isn’t.

Yes, my friends, we are in what Marcus Borg calls a “thin place.”  Of course he didn’t make that up.  He borrowed it from the Celts.  Thin places were particular locations where the veil between the physical and the spiritual was thin enough for one to affect the other. In Borg’s description a thin place can be any place, but it is essentially experienced through an opening of the heart.

This is not to suggest that we just need to sit in circles singing “Kumbyah.”  Borg is referring to the heart in the sense of the Old Testament idea of the center of our being.  He is referring to it in the New Testament way of understanding it as the union of our bodies and our minds.  He is referring to it in the sense of a five-year-old girl named Heavenly Joy, who captured hearts on a national talent show by telling them that if she won the million-dollar prize she would use it to help the poor.  Then she sang and danced and the judges of earthly powers stood and clapped and told her that she must have a little bit of Shirley Temple inside of her.  Incredulous, she said, “No, Jesus is inside of me!”

Hearing her simple faith touches those parts of us that shrink when politicians and community leaders use the name of God while demonstrating indifference to the poor.  It helps us to see that thin places are not only the result of suffering but also the experience of profound joy.

Even as hatred gives birth to crime – and punishment becomes a training ground for further criminal behavior – we see that God is still active and present in the voice of child, in expressions of care that move beyond words, and in the presence of the church as a place to gather and give glory to God.

That’s what we have been from the very beginning.  That’s what the Temple was intended to be – a place to gather and glorify God.  Before the Temple, the Arc of the Covenant was in a tent – a tabernacle – and God’s presence, the Shekinah, the glory of God was believed to be received there.  So, when the Arc was placed in the inner sanctum of the temple where only the Priests could enter, God’s presence literally chased them out.  For, no one can stand in the presence of God and survive. 

Then, Samuel did what would be disastrous for any other king. He acted as both Priest and King and prayed before God.  In essence, he called God’s bluff by acknowledging what God had agreed to do.  God said that God would be faithful to all of David’s descendants as long as they were faithful to God.  But Samuel didn't stop there.  As the spiritual leader of his people, he reminded the people that God cannot be contained or managed or expected to be in a place.  God is the Lord of all of creation, and this little ole temple is just a place that helps us all come together to remember to get tuned in to what God is doing.

But then he went a step further – from preachin’ to medlin’ as they say.  Solomon said, “Likewise when a foreigner… comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you.”

Well.  Isn’t that special?  Clearly this is a different context than the debates we have today about border security, fair wages, and national sovereignty.  Clearly there is an expectation that God is not limited to one nation, but is Lord of all creation.  Clearly there is a belief that the place they have set up is the thin place where earth and heaven intersect.

Interestingly, some would say that this prayer was just as political as many of the claims we hear today about immigrants and nationalism.  This prayer laid the groundwork for the conflicts with Samaria that were still in place when Jesus defined the neighbor by the compassion of a Samaritan.  And it was in the aftermath of this temple’s destruction that the Gospel of John was written.

Rome had finally taken over and crushed the Jewish rebellion with an iron fist.  Christians were suddenly unwelcome in Jewish synagogues, and some were claiming that Jesus was really more of a Divine spirit than a man.  Then this story begins to spread about Jesus telling his followers that he is so very real that they have to eat him in order to live.  Although we can dismiss this as a metaphor, there is no way to deny the words that Jesus said or their impact.

We are told that he is teaching in a synagogue at the time, so many of the curious onlookers in the crowd would have faded away. It was a crowd of disciples – devoted followers – that said, “Yeah, you just kinda’ lost me there, Jesus.”

But then Jesus goes one further.  “Does this offend you?  What if you saw me ascending to heaven?”  Now, this is the point where you may be thinking, wouldn’t cannibalism be more offensive than Jesus rising into heaven?  Maybe, but you have to remember that the idea of a person claiming to have direct access to God was a challenge to the notion of God.

The reason a person cannot be in the same space as God is because God is pure and perfect.  For a person who is limited and imperfect to be in the same space as God would mean that God wasn’t really Divine.  So, Jesus is claiming that he is made of the same stuff that God is.  Then he says, “How do you like me know?”  And several of them walked away, because they just couldn’t believe it.  Then Jesus looks to the ones who are left and says, “Well, do you want to follow them or me?”

And I love Peter’s confession.  “Lord, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”  In other words, “I really have no idea what you just said, but I believe that you are from God.  And I’m not going anywhere.”

In the same way, you and I hear these words about eating the flesh of this Jesus who is of God, and we are left with the same question, “Does this offend us?”  Does it offend us to consider that we are told to consume the One who has become the temple – the point of access between God and humanity?  Does it offend us to expect that God is active and present in the request of the foreigner?  Does it offend us that the church is not the only thin place, but rather the place that tunes us into what God is doing in every place?

Perhaps not – perhaps  we are so used to the language of faith that we assume that God is working somewhere in the background like some divine operating system.  But I think there is still something that offends us, whether we admit it or not, in the idea that God really is available to you and to me through Jesus.  Because believing in Jesus means changing our lives – not just once, but over and over again.  It means redirecting our hopes and fears through faith and expectation.  It means that we don’t look to our arsenals of words and weapons.  It means we look to our faith to inform our relationships. 

It means that we look past our reactions to phrases like “Black Lives Matter” and “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” in order to understand why they matter to others.  Oh.  Did I offend you?  Perhaps you think that I’ve just joined Solomon in moving from preaching to meddling.  Yet we live in a time when a politician’s fans can brutalize an immigrant, invoke his name to justify their actions, and all he can say is, “The people that follow me are very passionate about fixing America.” 

We live in a community where a parent entered a local bookstore just this week looking for resources to help teach tolerance, because her child has gone to two day care centers and been rejected by other children because she is brown.  This is a daycare.  These children were taught to behave this way in 2015.

And it’s not just race or immigrants or crooked politicians that matter.  “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” 

Our struggle is against ideas and attitudes that come to life in ways that destroy life.  And that is why Jesus came to demonstrate what it means to be life giving. In Jesus the word of God was made into flesh so that we might know that every human heart is a temple, every human heart is a thin place in which God is pleased to dwell – even yours, and even mine.

And in our coming together we may not always understand what God wants and how best to follow, but we will always know that God is with us. So, let us put on whatever shoes make us ready to proclaim the Gospel of peace.  And let us seek to be the thin place between heaven and earth that someone else might need today, tomorrow, and every day that follows.  And to God be the glory, now and always, amen.

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