Monday, February 8, 2016

Thin Places (A sermon from Luke 9:28-36)

Even if you are not a baseball fan you may have heard about the blown call by umpire Jim Joyce during the 2010 season that prevented Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga from pitching a perfect game, which is an extremely rare occurrence. Any major league pitcher who pitches a perfect game cements a place in baseball history.

With only one batter left to face, umpire Joyce called a runner safe at first, when in reality (as instant replay conclusively demonstrated) he was out by half a step. You can imagine the splash this made in sports media. What might be missed, however, is the story that occurred afterward. Galarraga couldn’t believe the call; he knew the batter was out. He knew the implications of what just took place. And yet, he was calm—no emotional outburst, no blame (he left that for the manager), just a smile and back to work to finish his job. Galarraga’s restraint from the perspective of professional sports was truly an exercise of grace.

Then after the game when umpire Joyce watched the replay and realized that he had blown the call, he was sick with remorse. Refusing to justify his call or hide his emotion, he publicly admitted he was wrong and expressed a gut-wrenching personal apology to Galarraga and baseball fans everywhere, offering no excuses. 

The next day when the two teams faced off again in the series, Joyce, as scheduled, assumed his duties as home plate umpire. It was his turn to be behind the plate. Each team is responsible for bringing the starting lineup to the home plate umpire. Usually this is the task of the manager or a coach or a team captain, but this day it was Galarraga himself who walked out of the Detroit dugout. Galarraga and Joyce met in full view of a stadium of people and shook hands. Joyce was so emotional he couldn’t speak. With eyes full of tears and lips trembling, he accepted the lineup card and gently touched Galarraga on the arm.       
Forgiveness was extended and accepted; mercy was given and received. As you would expect some fans did not appreciate the gesture. Some however did and they clapped and cheered. It was a moment of grace, and in the world of professional competitive baseball, extravagant grace, maybe even scandalous grace (at least, some fans thought so).  

One Christian writer describing this encounter between Galarraga and Joyce said that he experienced the event as a “thin place.” What did he mean? The phrase “thin place” emerged within Celtic Christianity in the fifth century. A “thin place” is a place where the world of God and the world of creation touch. A place where God’s radiant goodness, the light and love and presence of God become almost palpable. A place where the veil is pulled back a bit and we are able to see a little more clearly and feel a little more deeply the divine grace present in life. It’s a place where we almost touch the Divine.

We could call what the three disciples experience with Jesus on the mountain a “thin place.” But to be honest, it’s hard to know what to make of this particular experience in the life of these disciples. Gospel scholar Alan Culpepper, has noted that whatever this experience actually involved it seemed to have little impact on the disciples as told by our Gospel writers. They still do not understand Jesus’ talk about his death, which according to Luke was the conversation on the mountain. They still argue about who is going to be the greatest. And they still desert Jesus in his hour of need. Culpepper says that the implication is that these three disciples were not transformed at all by their “mountaintop” experience. I would have to agree.

So could we call their experience a “thin place?” Maybe it was, but whether or not such experiences move us to new places and change us will depend largely on how we respond to such experiences.

An important question is: Should we seek such experiences? Should we pray for “thin places” or pursue them? I suppose it depends on whether such an experience will help or hinder us. Would such an experience inflate the ego or would it inspire us to be more compassionate and caring persons? Things could be made worse if God were to interfere in our lives.

There is a wonderful story in the novel Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis about a man who was absorbed in watching a caterpillar. In time, it formed a cocoon. As he anxiously waited its metamorphosis into a butterfly, one morning there was movement in the cocoon. He could see the little head poking out, but noticed the caterpillar was mightily struggling to free itself. He thought he would help the process, so he broke the cocoon open, but instead of flying the butterfly dropped to the ground. What he didn’t know is that part of the process for a caterpillar to become a butterfly involves exercising its wings inside the cocoon in order to acquire the necessary strength to fly. If our experience of God does not move us to greater compassion and mercy and engagement in matters of redemptive justice then such experiences may do more harm than good.  

It doesn’t matter what sort of experience we have we still have to act on that experience. I said last week that we are all lost until we experience divine love. But still, healing and liberation and spiritual and personal growth in love and compassion requires action on our part. We must appropriate these experiences in ways that enlarge our own capacity to love others, and we must express that love in concrete, tangible ways.

And we must not wait for an experience. I have had as many experiences of divine grace while doing something useful as I have had in solitude, as important as solitude is. Prayer is both doing and waiting, both actively serving others and passively abiding in silence.

In the story as Luke tells it Moses and Elijah, representatives of the law and the prophets, representatives of the heart and soul of Judaism appear with Jesus. Peter immediately reacts wanting to build three dwellings. I get the sense he wants to control and manage this experience. Isn’t that typical of all of us. Luke comments that Peter had no idea what he was talking about, he was just reacting. The heavenly voice from the cloud says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” The focus here is clearly on Jesus – his life and message. And as Christians that is where our focus must be.

Jesus functions in the Gospels as the quintessential human being, the archetypal, exemplar representative of God. As Christ followers we have attached ourselves to Jesus to learn from Jesus how to be what he was. We, too, are called to be divine image bearers, to reflect and incarnate God’s radiant grace and goodness. We are called, like Jesus, to be bearers of the light of God – and maybe this is main message of the story. It reveals what is possible for disciples of Jesus. The light of course comes from God – it is pure gift, but it is our light, it is within us and its natural inclination is to shine through us. This is what John’s Gospel is getting at in its introduction when it talks about the true light which found expression in Jesus as the light that enlightens every person. This light is in you and me and its natural inclination is to shine.

There is a wonderful story about a monk who was away from the monastery in a desolate place where a hungry tiger took notice of him walking along the path. The monk spotted the tiger in the distance and could tell he was in danger so he began to run. He found himself at the edge of a cliff with the tiger not far behind. He could see a rope dangling from the side that someone had used to shimmy down the side, so he leaped over the edge and latched hold of the rope just as the tiger’s ferocious claws whipped past his face. As he started to make his way down, he soon discovered that the rope only went about half way and at the bottom lay a quarry with large, jagged rocks. As he hung there suspended between the tiger above and the sharp rocks below he observed two mice about ten feet above him nibbling at the rope. Just then as he turned to his side he spotted directly in front of him the largest, most beautiful strawberry he had ever seen. He plucked it, turned is around slowly in his hand admiring it, carefully taking in the aroma, then he lifted it gently into his mouth, savoring its sweet taste. He remarked to himself, “Undoubtedly this is the best strawberry I have ever tasted.” 

How many of us would have been able to appreciate and enjoy the strawberry? I suspect that some of us most of the time and all of us some of the time find it difficult to enjoy the present moment, because of the tigers behind us and the jagged rocks before us.

We will never know the wonder, beauty, and grace that can erupt into a constant flow of gratitude and generosity in our lives unless we are fully alive to the present moment. Most of us our too preoccupied. We are too bogged down with the failures, mistakes, and burdens of our past and/or we are too bogged down with the uncertainties, worries, and fears of the future, thus preventing us from experiencing the grace and goodness of being alive right now.

Mary Oliver is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who often writes about “thin places.” She writes about such an experience in the sunrise and sunset. She asks,

Have you ever seen
anything
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon

and in the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone –
and how it slides again

out of the blackness,
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance –
and have you ever felt for anything

such wild love –
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
empty-handed –
or have you too
turned from this world –
(that is, have you turned from this larger world, this alternative world, the world that is alive with the light of God’s presence and grace)

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?

She suggests that this world of light and love is accessible to all of us, but we can turn from it, we can miss it altogether by going crazy for power or for things. Oliver is suggesting, I think, that we can be so full of stuff, so preoccupied with things – like power or position or possessions or whatever – we can be so full of things that we are blind to the light shining all around us and within us.

I don’t believe we need to go seeking “thin places,” but I am sure we need to be alert, awake, and attentive to any experience where the Divine Light can shine through. And you don’t have to be in a worship service for that to happen. In fact, I believe the true value of our worship experiences in community is that they prepare us to be open to the Divine Reality everywhere in our lives – on the baseball field, in the work place, in a casual conversation, in our work with charity or mission groups, everywhere. (I think way too much worship today simply makes participants addicted to that particular experience so that many participants limit God to that experience).

When the Light that fills the universe connects with the Light within a spark may just ignite a flame of grace and gratitude empowering us to love more deeply, give more generously, and live more fearlessly. Then, sisters and brothers, we not only become more likely to encounter thin places, we may actually become a thin place ourselves.  

Our good God, there are so many things to distract us from the eternal, so many things that would keep us turned away from the Light. Help us to pay attention, to be open to the light of your love and grace all around us. And may we appropriate these glimpses and experiences in ways that feed the flame of your presence and love within us, so that we too might be light in the world reflecting your character and your good and gracious will. Amen.


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