“Thin Places”

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Transfiguration of Our Lord, February 7, 2016, Year C

Exodus 34.29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Cor. 3.12—4.2; Luke 9.28-36 [37-43a]

Pastor Renee Splichal Larson


Grace and people to you from the One who meets us in this world and the next, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Some stories in Scripture, like the transfiguration, are so mysterious and so different from our everyday life experience that they can go in one ear and out the other. We have no idea how to a relate to a story that has two people who never died showing up on a mountain to chat with Jesus, God emerging in a cloud and speaking, Jesus appearance changing before his friends’ eyes, the disciples trying to make mini homes, and it all ending with silence. Not only that, after the silence Jesus is welcomed down the mountain by a father’s desperate plea for help to heal his son who is suffering from possession.

It’s hard to know what do with a story like this. What does it have to say to us sitting in the pews today at Heart River Lutheran Church?

For one, stories in Scripture are not like a code one needs to crack to unlock the meaning of something, but rather are about encounters with the living God in this world. They are mysterious and sometimes unexplainable. They can be messy and yet miraculous. They can be mundane and even normal.

What is important for us to know, particularly about our mysterious Gospel reading, are 3 things:

  1. Jesus is the chosen and beloved Son of God.
  2. We are to listen to him.
  3. God encounters people in this world.

I’d like to focus on the last point today. There are times in life in which we can experience something, experience who we might call “God,” and it simply leaves us speechless. We have no words to describe what we saw or what we felt, and like the disciples we remain silent, but we know it was real and significant.

If we can think of our lives as a kind of continuum, where we have birth here on one end and death on the other, and then beyond death there is what we might call eternal life, then we have these points along our lives in which what God has planned for us in the future breaks into our present and we experience the living God, forgiveness, and wholeness.

Author Barbara Brown Taylor writes: There are what the Irish call, “thin places–places where the veil between this world and the next is so sheer that is it easy to step through … How it all works is a complete mystery, but there is no denying the effect (Home by Another Way, pp. 58-59).” The transfiguration and healing stories are “thin places” and the Bible is full of them.

Has there been a “thin place” or moment in your life, a place or moment you knew and felt the presence of God?

It could be as simple and complex as a dream.

Maybe you have been lying in bed at night and felt a peaceful presence by your side.

Perhaps you have read Scripture and had your heart cracked open, wanting to know more.

Maybe you have been sitting in worship and let the flood of forgiveness and love wash over you.

Perhaps your breath has been taken away by dancing northern lights, a sunset, or the rushing of a river.

Maybe you are certain you were visited by a messenger from God.

Perhaps you have felt Christ has met you at the communion table or in the form of another who prays with and for you.

Maybe you avoided a serious disaster or even death and are not quite sure how or why.

Perhaps you have done the sacred and holy work of caring for a loved one as they died, bathing their body or bringing a sponge to their lips.

Maybe you have sat with someone as they breathed their last.

On Thursday evening we arrived at a care center in Alexandria, MN, in time to hear the labored breathing of Jon and Liz’s grandpa Morrie. Even though he wasn’t responsive, we placed our hands on his head and spoke lovingly to him. Above his bed were the words from Nehemiah 8: “The joy of the Lord is my strength.”

We read the Scripture he proclaimed to Jon and me after we survived the Haiti earthquake: 1 Kings, chapter 19, where Elijah goes to Mount Horeb to encounter God, the very mountain Jesus, Peter, James, and John are on in our Gospel reading today.

The story goes that “there was a great wind, so strong that is was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces … but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice … (1 Kings 19.11-14).”

The voice of God comes to Elijah in the silence. The voice of God often came to us through Morrie, always telling us how much Jesus loves us, always sharing Scripture stories. In his last hours of life we accompanied him singing and his 2 daughters kept vigil all night.

In the morning Morrie fully entered into eternal life. We spent as much time with his body as we needed, singing “Children of the Heavenly Father,” a hymn he sung to each of his grandchildren on the day of their baptism. It was a “thin place,” a moment in this life we knew was sacred and holy.

We are reminded later in Luke chapter 24 of the road to Emmaus after Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected from death. Jesus comes alongside two people who were talking about him and mourning his death. They don’t even recognize the resurrected Jesus, but later in the breaking of the bread they come to know that he had been with them the whole time.

“Were our hearts not burning within us on the road … “ they say.

These thin places make our hearts burn within us, for we have moments in which we come to know that the veil between this world and the next is thinner than we think and Jesus is closer to us than we realize. They are meant to be gifts from God even though we might not be able to make much sense of them, even if we need to remain silent because there are no words.

“Thin places” are moments in life that demand we pause and let the mystery of God and our own existence, the mystery of Jesus’ presence breaking into our lives simply be acknowledged.

After the pauses, these “thin places,” ordinary life keeps happening. “Back to the real world,” as many would say.

Jesus and his disciples never did stay on the mountain. They went back down into the valley to encounter God in the ordinary and the suffering ones, in the father pleading for the healing of his son, in the son whose life is being tormented, in so many others who are longing to come face to face with the one they know can give them new life.

The good news for us is that God is not just on the mountain tops, but also in the everydayness of life, and the people and places where God might seem to never be. Places like an execution and a cross, sick children and desperate parents, in death and silence.

On Wednesday we will come to worship and receive the sign of the cross in ashes on our forehead. We will hear the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We enter these chapel doors and we are in a thin place, recognizing the sacredness of one another, and the presence of God among us all.

May this season of Lent be scattered with thin places in which you encounter the living God, leaving you speechless and filling you with a sense of mystery and joy.