When Heaven and Earth Touch

First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Dr. Jane Florence
February 4, 2018
Scripture: Mark 9: 2-9
Sermon: “When Heaven and Earth Touch”

I can tell you where I was on Wednesday, May 25, 1977. I can tell you because my boyfriend had talked me into going to a midnight movie with him. I wasn’t a fan of midnight movies. I’d rather be asleep by then, and I probably had Economics 101 early the next morning. But the evening had the promise of popcorn and candied almonds, so I figured I go for the snacks and let Eco 101 suffer the consequences. I know the date was May 25, 1977 because last week I googled, “when was the first Star Wars movie released?” The popcorn and pastel candied almonds were really good, evidently the move wasn’t too bad. There were some sequels made after it, I’m told. I don’t think I saw any of them at the movie theater; I caught a few on DVD. I’m not a Star Wars groupie. I don’t have Star Wars dolls in my office, but I know someone who is. She’s on vacation today.

When the latest installment of Star Wars came out recently, Cynthia talked me into going. Not for the popcorn and candied almonds- this time the prize was the setting of the movie. Part of the movie was filmed on an island off Ireland that I visited. Only because of all sorts of peculiar synchronicities aligning one day that it was possible for me to experience the wonder of that sacred site. I walked the steps of the monks of the 6th-12th centuries who occupied those rocky perches amid the clouds and puffins. There, I entered a thin place on my own mysterious day that had God’s fingerprints all over it.

So the temptation to view the island again -if not in person at least on the big screen with aerial views had me watching the opening crawl of yellow Galactic letters to “a long time ago in a land, far, far away…” I don’t know what Luke Skywalker has been up to since 1977, but (spoiler alert) he got old! He doesn’t look at all like the guy I saw in college. I was happy and surprised to see Yoda! I whispered, “I thought he died?” There he was again, sharing the eternal wisdom teaching his student, now Master, Luke. As he did so, Yoda’s old tan robe glowed around the edges in an otherworldly white.

The most imaginative filmmakers amongst us can visualize the thin places where past and present collapse as one, and communication between the two is possible. Others can tell of their real life experiences in thin places where heaven and earth have touched in our souls for a sacred second. Maybe you have experienced a time beyond the bounds of calendars and outside the realm of google maps where heaven and earth touched briefly. Some of you experienced a time when you felt a presence of a loved one who is no longer in earthly form come near again- or a time when you went to sleep with a question or worry woke up with a knowing – or a time with the sun shone just so…

When I first heard of this idea of “thin place” it was in seminary, Professor C. Michael Hawn used it in worship class. He spoke of a “liminal space.” The dumbfound look on his students’ faces conveyed that we just weren’t ‘getting it.’ He walked to the doorway of our classroom and stood with size 12 shoes straddling across the 4” span of the doorjamb space. His heels rested on the yellowed linoleum of the hallway, and his toes touched the worn classroom carpet. “What room am I in,” he asked? Lightbulbs slowly clicked on over our heads. The in between, the both/and collapsed the division between here and there; liminal became more real.

The ancient pagan Celts, and later, Christians, used the term “thin places” to describe mesmerizing places like the wind-swept isle of Iona (now part of Scotland) or the rocky peaks of Michael Skelleg (Ireland’s fame island of Star Wars.) The Celtic saying goes, “Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.” Thin places transform us or, more accurately, unmask us. In thin places, we become our more essential selves. Sharlande Sledge gives this description.

“Thin places,” the Celts call this space,
Both seen and unseen,
Where the door between the world
And the next is cracked open for a moment
And the light is not all on the other side.
God shaped space. Holy.

This is not science-fiction or New Age teachings; Judeo-Christian scriptures are full of thin places. Our story begins in a luscious garden centered around the tree of life where humanity walked and talked with God. Atop Mt Sinai, Moses received the laws for life and community, and his face shone with the brilliance of the sun. The Pillar of Cloud and the Pillar of Fire served as a thin place of God’s guidance for Hebrews in the wilderness. The Tabernacle and Tent of Meeting then Temple itself all became thin places of holy godly encounters.

Mark, Luke, and Matthew all tell a story of these three men who lived thousands of years apart who are seen together on a high mountaintop joined in conversation. Moses, the liberator and law giver, who had experienced God on a mountain top was transformed. In the flash of lightening, a thick cloud, a blast of the trumpet, there he received the laws of God (Exodus 19) Elijah, the prophet, was running for his life one time; he ran into the wilderness; he ran to the top of a mountain. Wind, fire, and earthquake ensued to rattle and swirl about him. Then in the sheer prophetic silence that followed, he encountered God. (1 Kings 19) What do the mountain men representing laws and prophets have in common with this Jesus man enveloped in a cloud of unknowing on a sacred mountain? God.

The everlasting, eternal, essence of God IS. That what the ancients were trying to convey in Exodus story when Moses asked God for God’s name, and the answer God gave was “I AM – I AM who I will be.” (Exodus 3) I WAS, AM and always will BE.

We return to full unity in that eternal essence of God in sacred times and thin places and join with others gathered into the I AM. The eternal essence and wisdom of generations is accessible even to those on this side of the thin veil.

Jesus experienced sacred time, thin place in communion with the saints of centuries before. Jesus gained access to the Eternal Wisdom, and the early church knew this and shared the story. Jesus lived a thin place and grew more and more attuned to union with the Divine. I propose that Jesus himself became a thin place where we can draw near that cloud of sacred knowing. While I have no doubt that there are geographical places on this earth where the otherworldly and this world touch, I believe that the Cosmic Christ is a non-geographical thin portal ushering us into this both/and touchings of sacred and profane.

So I wonder, can a gathering, let’s say like ‘the church,’ can it be a thin place also? Can we be the communion of saints where past and present meet and wisdom is shared and Divine touches present? I believe that is our intent. I believe that’s the message of the Apostle Paul who wrote, “Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17) “You” at time being plural, the corporate body in Paul’s writings, and at time being the singular individuals in Christ. “From Pentecost onward, the church was to be the thin place of the world. In the gathering of God’s people, God’s presence would be available to all. And, as the church scattered into the world, it permeated the world with human “thin places,” so all people might experience the grace, love, and presence of God through his people.”1

There is more in this world than meets the eye, yet we live confining ourselves to the limits of time/space. We mark calendars and plot maps thinking those boundaries are fixed and impermeable. We have created religions, in the West particularly, that ‘became preoccupied with telling people what to know more than how to know, telling people what to see more than how to see”2 Telling people what they must believe instead of how to become.

We can grow in union with Divine, who IS was and always will be. If we learn to draw near in moments of Divine awareness, we can open ourselves to the MORE. We can call upon wisdom of communion of saints. We can LISTEN to the wise ones who see beyond what our eyes see.

We can reconnect to our primal faith teachings and learn again more how to know and how to see the wisdom that transcends this world. Then words of faith become words of life teaching us how to live in and as God’s people of love.

May it be so.

For more discovery of thin places:
Marcus J. Borg. The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith. (Chapter 8)

Frank MacEowen. The Celtic Way of Seeing: Meditations on the Irish Spirit Wheel. or
The Spiral of Memory and Belonging

also the writings of:
Peter Gomes
John O’Donohue
John Philip Newell

1 Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/series/thin-places/
2 Richard Rohr. The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See.