Saturday, April 20, 2019

Sermon: "Dark Night of the Soul"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
April 18, 2019 - Maundy Thursday
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

“Dark Night of the Soul”

If you’re here with us tonight – on this Maundy Thursday evening –
it’s likely because you find meaning in the Jesus story.

The story of a baby who arrived in the darkness of a winter’s night.
Born in a stable because there was no room at the inn.
Sung into the world by a chorus of angels and warmly welcomed by star gazing shepherds and wandering kings.

The story of a carpenter’s son who grows up to be a messiah…a prophet…
a radical revolutionary.
Turning water into wine, bringing sight to the blind,
And calling out acts of inequity and injustice
by flipping over tables, pulling the marginalized out of the margins,
and taking the stones out of the hands of those who stand in judgment.

This is also a story about God becoming human.
So God would know what it is to be one of us.
And we might come to better know God.
So we would have a face like our own to picture in our minds
And call upon in our hour of need.
A God who knows what it feels like to laugh, to cry,
to stand in awe before a sunset,
to fall down upon a pair of trembling knees in utter despair.

The Jesus story is one that draws us in
and carries us through the seasons of our lives.
In the hope of spring when new life pushes up from the ground
and old life is resurrected right before our eyes.
In the heat of summer when the days are long and the work to be done seems daunting, yet there are bursts of play and joy that make it all worthwhile.
In the waning days of fall, when the trees go bare and the smell of decay and death fills the air.
In the dark nights of winter, when we’re so desperate to see the coming of the light.
Then a baby is born and the story begins all over again.

The thing about the Jesus story is that in order for it to be truly meaningful –
in order for it to truly reflect what it means for a God to become human –
it can’t all be about miracles, and resurrections, and babies born under a radiant star and a chorus of hallelujahs.
In order for it to be a human story and it has to include the dark nights of the soul.
The nights that never seem to end.
Where we find ourselves trembling in fear over what is to come.
Where betrayers and deserters and deniers seem to be our only friends.
Where we plead with God to take this cup from us, and if that can’t be done,
we beg God not to forsake us in our hour of need.

Easter Sunday would hold little meaning if it wasn’t preceded by a Good Friday, and a Maundy Thursday.

There are Maundy Thursday moments that warm our hearts.
Jesus sharing a final meal with his beloved friends.
Passing them the loaf and cup and a tradition that would carry the faithful through for thousands of years.
Kneeling to wash their feet and teaching them to serve one another in the most intimate of ways.
Giving them a new commandment – a new mandate – to love one another as he has loved them.

And there are Maundy Thursday moments that tear at our hearts.
Judas running from the room to do what he was destined to do.
Friends falling off to sleep because they don’t realize the danger that is lurking in the dark.
Blood soaked tears falling upon the rocks.
Clanging swords, flailing whips, rattling chains.
Thorns and barbs pricking and cutting into tender skin…
and wails of grief from those who dared to stay throughout it all. 

This is a dark night of the soul experience that few of us enter into willingly.
It’s the part of the Jesus story that many would prefer to avoid.
Because it’s too painful.
Too despairing.
Too real and too reminiscent of our own dark night experiences to be helpful or healing for the wounds we still carry.

But if we’re strong enough to go there.
Or desperate enough….or hopeful enough,
There is healing to be found in this vital and very human part of the Jesus story.

Because we enter into this darkness knowing that Easter is on the horizon.
Knowing that the deserters and the deniers won’t fill those roles for very long.
Knowing that the pain and the tears will pass, as all things do.
Knowing that the women wailing at the foot of the cross will soon find the tomb empty – and life will spring up where death once stood.

But what makes the dark nights bearable is not just the understanding that they are impermanent  -
because in the midst of those 3 a.m. experiences,
in our ‘kneeling in the garden waiting for the soldiers to come’ moments,
there is no certainty that we will make it out alive.

What makes the dark nights bearable is knowing that God is kneeling there beside us.
A God who lived and breathed as we do.
A God who laughed and cried as we do.
A God who was born, helpless and vulnerable,
and reliant on the care and mercy of those around him,
and who died in much the same way, just as we do.

My hope for us all, on this Maundy Thursday,
on this dark night of the soul,
is that we not rush through this night,
and the Good Friday to come,
on our way to Easter morning.

That we spend some time in the darkness.

That we sit with the sorrowful reminders of our own grief and suffering.
And mourn the passing of this gentle and caring soul, named Jesus.
Who in his living showed us how to move in the world in a more loving and merciful way,
and in his dying, showed us the face and hands of the God
that we can call upon and lean into in the dark.

Easter is coming.
And this dark night will help us get there.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.

Sermon: "Dinner with Jesus"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
April 7, 2019 – Fifth Sunday in Lent
John 12:1-9

“Dinner with Jesus”

Dinner parties.
We’ve all been to them, hosted them, enjoyed them, or in some instances,
wished we could get out of them.
When asked to gauge whether a particular dinner party was a success or not a success, our minds are typically drawn to the food.
A popular culinary magazine recently asked its readers to share their biggest dinner party disasters.
One woman talked about the beautiful Cornish game hens she spent hours preparing, only to discover as the guests were being seated that she had forgotten to turn on the oven.
Another shared that she was 2 minutes from taking a roast out of the oven when a guest who was admiring her new range inadvertently activated the self-cleaning function – which locked the oven door and wouldn’t allow it to be opened until the oven returned to a safe temperature. The roast did not fare well.

Another reader talked about the delicious scallops she prepared for a good friend of hers because she had remembered a conversation they once had about the scallops her friend had eaten while on vacation –
what she hadn’t remembered was that was the vacation where her friend discovered she was allergic to scallops.

Finally, one woman shared this:
“There was the time a duck I'd roasted slid off the platter on the way to the table. I confess I yanked it up by it’s little drumstick, threw it into the sink, wiped off the carpet fibers, stuck it back on the platter, slapped a little sauce on it, and brought it out. Isn't it Julia Child who said, "Remember, if you're alone in the kitchen, and you drop the lamb, who is going to know?"

Of course the success or failure of a dinner party depends on a lot more than the quality of the menu.
There’s something about sitting around a table laden with food that seems to bring out the best and worst in us.
We may take note of who is sitting where –
who has the seats of honor at the head of the table
and who is seemingly squeezed in as an afterthought– 
with a table leg to contend with or barely enough room to set their plate.

We may notice who showed up late or empty handed,
who took more than their fair share when the serving dishes were passed,
and who did or didn’t offer to help cook, serve, or clean up afterward.

The dinner conversation may flow freely or haltingly –
depending on how well we know or like our fellow guests –
and how much alcohol has been consumed.
And if the topic turns to politics, religion, or a previous contention between guests, whether family, friend, or foe, there’s a good chance that someone will leave the table in a huff, burst into tears, or otherwise cause a scene that will have the other guests staring awkwardly at the napkins in their laps.

When we look at the stories of Jesus’ life that we have in our gospels,
it is telling that many of the notable events in his ministry happened at dinner parties –in particular, at dinner parties where someone causes a scene.

It was at the Wedding in Cana where – at his mother’s loud insistence – Jesus performed his first miracle turning water into wine –
filling the guest’s glasses and announcing his ministry to the world.

Jesus dined with tax collectors and sinners in a show of extravagant welcome – much to the dismay of the Pharisees who scolded him for doing so.
And it was while eating at the home of a Pharisee that Jesus was scolded once again, this time for not washing his hands – to which he replied,
“It’s what comes out of one’s mouth that defiles it, not what goes into it.”

And of course it was at the Last Supper –
the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples – where he taught them to remember him by breaking bread together in his name.
And where Judas got up from the table and ran from the room
when Jesus told him to go do what he was destined to do.
Judas caused a scene at the dinner party in Bethany as well.
When he yelled at Lazarus’ gentle sister Mary – accusing her of wasting the money she spent on the expensive nard she was using to anoint Jesus’ feet.

But as with most disgruntled dinner guests,
Judas gets a little too much of our attention in this scene.

As we contemplate whether he was right to point out that the money spent on the costly nard would have been better spent on the poor.
And we fixate on the fact that he had his hand in the treasury till  -
proving it wasn’t the poor he was worried about but rather his own ability to profit from the sale.
And we then argue over what Jesus meant when he told Judas to not concern himself with the cost of the nard because the poor would always be with us.

Judas steals our attention in this scene because of his confusing mention of the poor, and because here he gives us a rare glimpse into his relationship with Jesus.
A relationship that is about to crash and burn.
A relationship that begins with trust and ends in betrayal,
A relationship that Judas broke off and walked away from,
because he did not understand who Jesus really was - and is.

But in our determination to understand Jesus’ relationship with Judas, we tend to overlook the relationship that plays out here between Jesus and Mary.

It wasn’t long before this dinner party that Mary was out in the road clawing at the earth at Jesus feet – wailing and shouting at him because he had arrived too late to save her brother Lazarus, who had died four days before.

It was Mary’s grief that caused Jesus to weep along with her.
And it was his effort to alleviate that grief by raising her brother from his tomb that would push the religious authorities over the edge,
and cause them to arrange for Jesus’ arrest and execution in a few days time.

Mary kneels at the dinner table and anoints Jesus’ feet because she understands the inevitability of the events that have been set into motion.

The sweet smell of nard was likely still in the air because Mary had just done such an anointing for her brother, Lazarus, only a week or so before.
Which should cause us to wonder, why is it, with all the questions raised over whether the money for the nard would have been better spent on the poor,
no one realizes that the nard Mary was using was likely left over,
taken from the same jar that was purchased to anoint her brother at his burial.

Mary was familiar with the smell of death and grief.
Perhaps she smelled it on Jesus when he entered her home.
Perhaps she also saw the fear of what was to come in his eyes.
And perhaps what Jesus saw in her that he didn’t see in his disciples –
was a willingness to listen to him and believe him when he said he would soon no longer be with them,
and a willingness to comfort him, and prepare him for what was to come.

In John’s gospel there is no Garden of Gethsemane moment where Jesus begs God to take the cup of suffering from him in a flash of human uncertainty, apprehension, and fear.
In John’s gospel, that moment comes at the dinner table in Bethany,
with Mary kneeling at Jesus’ feet and anointing him, acknowledging his impending suffering and death, and sending him off with her love.

Unlike Judas, who did not love Jesus as Jesus loved him,
Mary’s relationship with Jesus was reciprocal.

As people of faith, we talk a lot about how much Jesus loves us – but we seem to be less comfortable talking about how much we love Jesus in return.

Perhaps instead of wondering how we might be less like Judas,
we should instead wonder how we might be more like Mary.

Do we love Jesus enough to cause a scene at a dinner party –
by calling out someone who speaks or acts in a non-loving way?

Do we love Jesus enough to risk judgment – to be guided by Christian compassion and grace rather than by cultural suspicion and fear?

Do we love Jesus enough to do something extravagant in his name –
like opening our wallets or our table or our hearts to those others deem too costly to feed, to welcome, or to love?

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday –
Jesus will leave Bethany and ride into Jerusalem on the back of donkey –entering the city like a King with cheering crowds waving palm branches in the air.

And he will leave the city as an executed criminal –
his broken body wrapped in a shroud and left in a tomb,
waiting to be anointed with burial oils once again,
this time by another Mary.

If we love Jesus, we would resist the urge run headlong into Easter without taking this journey with him.
We would be like Mary and sit with him in his time of need.
Because this is a journey he took for us.
To show us that out of suffering and grief,
renewed life can and will arise.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Sermon: "Turn Turn Turn"

Scripture Intro - Luke 13:1-9

In this passage Jesus addresses an assumption about the role God plays in our human suffering that was prevalent in his time, as it is in ours.

The people around him were buzzing about two recent tragic occurrences – one in which a tower collapsed killing 18 people,
and another where a group of Galileans worshiping in the Jerusalem Temple were executed, at the hands of Roman soldiers doing the bidding of their governor, Pilate.
In both cases, the prevailing belief was that the victims had somehow played a part in their own fate, because they had sinned against God and failed to seek repentance.

We have no shortage of religious people in our own time, of all faiths, who believe that God unleashes hurricanes and causes buildings to collapse as punishment for our immoral ways.
Jesus rebukes this belief – asking the people casting judgment around him if they think the ways in which they fall short of God’s expectations are somehow not as egregious as the victims of tragic events.

Jesus reminds the people that they all fall short when it comes to seeking repentance and recognizing the ways in which they turn away from God.

But he doesn’t leave them to stew in this unpleasant reminder.
Instead he tells them a parable.
About a fig tree,
that has failed to produce fruit for three years and is in danger of being cut down for its shortcomings.
Until a gardener steps in to offer it grace.

Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
March 24, 2019 – Third Sunday in Lent
Luke 13:1-9

“Turn Turn Turn”

The word "repent" in Hebrew means to turn or change direction.
In Greek, as we often see it used in the New Testament, it means to change one’s mind.
Quite literally, it means to think differently.

It’s understandable if hearing the word REPENT makes you cringe.
As it conjures up images of televangelists pounding on pulpits and street preachers carrying signs warning us to, “Repent or perish!”

While those are the words that Jesus uses here in the Gospel of Luke there is so much more to his warning then a call to personal morality that is guaranteed to save us from the eternal fire of God’s punishment.
There’s a much larger change  – or turning – that Jesus is calling for here.
A change in perspective.
A change in perception.
A change in how we see God and ourselves moving in the world.
Not just as individuals but as a connected community –
as part of Creation as a whole.

But this is not a change – a turning – that comes easily for us.
Not just because we have trouble conceiving of change on such a grand scale,
but also because we struggle to see the need for a turning in ourselves –
our own need to think differently.
Partly because the faults of others tend to loom larger in our eyes.
It’s so much easier to see and call out the need for repentance in others than see the need for it in ourselves.

And while we may not believe God is doling out death sentences,
we may still believe that bad behavior deserves divine punishment.
Which is why it can be somewhat gratifying when those who lack a repentant heart suffer some sort of consequence in this life for their transgression.
Whether the transgression is large or small. 

Comedienne, Steve Hofstetter, specializes in telling stories about hard hearted people getting their comeuppance.
He tells the story of a woman he encountered in the airport in Los Angeles when he was hurrying to catch a flight to Japan.

The woman had stopped in the middle of the flow of people walking to their gates and was Face-Timing someone on her cell phone,
completely oblivious to the traffic jam she was causing. 
The woman also had a small dog with her, and because she was on her phone she failed to notice that the dog had taken the opportunity to relieve himself right there in the middle of the airport.

When a man stopped to alert the woman by saying,
“Ma’am, your dog just had an accident,”
she glared at him, and then looked back at the person she was speaking to on her phone and said,
“Some people are so rude.”

When the woman finished her call and started to walk away,
leaving her dog’s mess behind her,
someone else stopped her and said, 
“Ma’am, you can’t just leave that there.”
To which the woman flippantly replied, 
“Oh, they have people to take care of that.”

After the woman sauntered away, Hofstetter took it upon himself to guard the mess until a maintenance worker came along to clean it up.
He said,  “I couldn’t just walk away and let someone roll their suitcase through it. I saw it happen, and like it or not, I was now part of the story.”

That wasn’t the end of the story, however, because when Hofstetter arrived at his gate, the woman was there. She was also flying to Japan.

And as bad as her airport etiquette had been so far, she was in the midst of committing yet another communal faux pas – she was listening to music on her iPad– and wasn’t using headphones, much to the annoyance of those seated around her.
As Hofstetter said, “How inconsiderate can one human being possibly be?
I pictured her car in the airport lot parked diagonally across three spaces.”

The woman was being loud and obnoxious and most people were avoiding her, but Hofstetter chose to sit down right next to her…."to have a little fun,” he said.
After a few minutes he turned to her and said, 
“Are you going to London on business?”
Looking very annoyed at his intrusion, she said, “I’m going to Tokyo.”
To which he replied,
“Oh no, that flight’s moved to gate 53C. This is the flight to London.”

Hofstetter admits that all he wanted to do was give the woman a moment of panic – that sense of dread we all feel when we realize we’re at the wrong gate and need to make a mad dash to the other end of the airport.
He fully expected the woman’s uncertainty would be short lived.
She would get up, check the monitor, and see that the flight information still said "Tokyo," or she would ask the gate agent.
Or she would look around the gate and see everyone except for Hofstetter was Japanese, and perhaps wonder why this redheaded guy from Queens was going to London with all these Japanese people.
But she didn’t do any of that.
She just gathered up her stuff, including her blaring iPad and her dog,
and she left.
Hofstetter was amazed.
He said, “She didn’t even thank me….which I thought was rude.”

There’s one other detail that the woman didn’t catch onto.
At LAX there is no gate 53C.

Hofstetter says he doesn’t know what happened to the woman but she never boarded the plane.
The flight was delayed for about 20 minutes.
He added, “If you don’t fly very often you might think that was the airline waiting for the woman to return to the gate. But airplanes don’t wait for people. It’s not a carpool."
However, safety regulations say they must remove any checked baggage from the plane if the owner fails to make the posted boarding time.
And that process, takes about 20 minutes.
While most people on the flight were upset about the delay,
Hofstetter thought, “If they only know what I had done for them.”

We may feel a secret delight when someone gets their comeuppance like this,
when someone who makes likes life unpleasant for others is met with a little unpleasantness of their own.

The Germans even have a word for it – Schadenfraude.
Schadenfraude is defined as the experience of pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliation of another.

Schadenfraude is not exactly what Jesus was calling out when the people around him believed the victims of tragedy must have played a part in their own fate.
It’s not as if the people were delighted that the alleged wrongdoers had been killed, but there was a sense that the unrepentant had gotten what they deserved – along with a sense of relief that good behavior must have saved them from a similar fate.

We may not believe that God causes natural disasters or tragic events or accidents or illnesses as a form of punishment for lack of repentance,
but there is a little game that we often play with ourselves when we hear about the misfortune or tragedy that befalls others.
We listen to their story or read about it in the paper and look for the reason why such a thing could have happened – the reason that makes it unlikely that the same thing could happen to us.

They lived in a big city or a foreign country where life is more unpredictable and dangerous.
They didn’t eat properly or they worked too hard or drank too much – it’s no wonder they got sick, or died before their time.
They put themselves at risk by traveling alone or being in an unsafe area after dark.
They didn’t follow police instructions and reached for their wallet –
how could the officer know they weren’t reaching for a gun?
They practice a religion that’s been used to justify violence and the slaughter of innocents, they should expect that others would mistrust and fear them.

It is a bit chilling that in the aftermath of the mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, the lectionary for this Sunday presents us with a gospel text that mentions worshipers being killed while gathered in what was supposed to be a sanctuary – a safe haven – a sacred space –
where prayers of peace and mercy are lifted up to God.

In this instance it was Galileans who had come to the Jerusalem Temple to worship when Pilate’s men burst in and slaughtered them.
We don’t know if there were simmering prejudices against Galileans because they were different in some way from the Jews in Jerusalem,
or if they were targeted because of their connection with Jesus,
but while some pointed the finger of blame at the Galileans themselves,
and others placed the blame on the soldiers who carried out the killing,
and others placed the blame on the one in power, Pilate himself,
Jesus urged them all to stop looking for and naming the ways that others were in need of repentance,
and instead recognize that all of them, collectively, were in need of a change in perception -  a change in their way of thinking.

Jesus was effectively saying,
“Don’t you see that God is calling all of us to do and be something different in this world? That God is in the midst of re-creating this world anew?”

Jesus gave us glimpses of God’s world –
in the healing that he brought to those who’d been broken,
in the forgiveness he offered to those who were thought to be unforgivable,
in the way he reached out to those on the margins and brought them into the center,
in the way he pulled in those in power and those who lacked power,
showing them that they both had much to gain by standing together.

God’s world is built on love and expressed through our ability to build loving relationships with one another.
Anything less than that is not of God’s world.

Perhaps the repentance – the change in thinking that is needed for us as individuals and for us a species –
is a letting go of the belief that we exist in this world as separate beings who are only connected by blood, geography, or circumstance -
and therefore it only matters what happens to us, and those we deem worthy in our own immediate circle, and every one and every thing else is separate, foreign, alien, not of us.

What if we could see that we’re all connected – on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level – to each other and to every part of creation?

Can you imagine how different our world would be if we could see the connecting threads that bind us all together?
The threads that bind us regardless of the clear separations that we’re convinced exist between us?
The threads that bind a Christian worshiping in South Carolina to a Muslim worshiping in New Zealand.
That bind the billionaire CEO to the single mom living on food stamps.
That bind the white supremacist to the Black Lives Matter activist.
That bind the one trying to build a wall to the one trying to tear it down.
That bind all of humanity to nature and the changing climate and every living thing on this earth.

Repent or perish.
This is not a warning that we are destined to die at the hands of God unless we change our ways.
It’s an invitation – to a new life – a new world – a new way of thinking –
that is rooted in love rather than fear.

Like the fig tree that will inevitably bear fruit once it is placed in fertile ground, we too will flourish –
when we release our hold on the fears that divide us
and instead turn our hearts towards the love that connects us.

Love is God’s fertilizer.
If we thought of it that way,
Just imagine the fruit we would bear.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.


Monday, March 4, 2019

Sermon: "Thin Places"

Luke 9:28-36 - Intro

In this week's gospel reading, we encounter one of the most remarkable events in Jesus' life - the Transfiguration.
It is an experience that three out of the four gospel writers record,
with the details in each of their stories being nearly exactly the same.
Additionally, each of these gospel writers places the Transfiguration immediately after Jesus makes his first prediction of his impending death
and before he and the disciples begin winding their way to Jerusalem and the events that await them there during Holy Week.

But for all its drama and power, the transfiguration seems to play a very limited role in the rest of Jesus' ministry or in the disciples' immediate understanding of who Jesus is.
Even today, the church seems less comfortable talking about the miracle of the Transfiguration than it does other events in Jesus' life.
Perhaps this is because we, like Peter, James and John, have trouble comprehending the meaning of this event.
It’s confusing, it’s unexpected, and it has super natural overtones that we can’t easily explain or relate to an experience that we might have today.

If we place ourselves in the story, we might try to capture the moment that Jesus transforms before our eyes, just as Peter did.
Peter suggests they build dwelling places for the prophets – we might whip out our smart phone and record it all on video so we can relive the experience over and over again – so we might better understand it.
The gospel writers have done that for us – recording the events for posterity so we can read about it thousands of years after the fact.

But perhaps this is one of those experiences that we must have for ourselves.
A direct encounter with God – and with Christ –
that inspires us, strengthens us, and leaves us in awe –
so we’re better prepared to carry God’s presence into the world.

Luke 9:28-36

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.
And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.
Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.
They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.
Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said.
While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. 

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
March 3, 2019 – Last Sunday of Epiphany – Transfiguration
Luke 9:28-36

“Thin Places”

If you wanted to be or feel closer to God, where would you go?
Would you seek out a church or a chapel –
where light trickles through stained glass windows,
the smell of burning candles or incense fills the air,
and a crucifix or a simple empty cross holds your attention,
helping you to focus on being in the presence of the Divine?

Would you hike out into the woods –
where sunlight filters down through a canopy of branches,
the sound of calling birds and buzzing insects fills the air,
and the smell of fresh pine needles and decaying leaves both grounds you and heightens your sense of connection to the earth and its Creator?

Or would you climb a mountain –
in much the same way that Moses, Elijah, and Jesus once did –
seeking to move closer to God by ascending upwards,
where the air is thinner, the trees huddle safely below the summit,
and nothing but the sound of the wind, the damp mist of the clouds, and a glorious view of the distant horizon, stands between you and the heavens?

These places where we encounter the Divine – or feel a sense of closeness to something greater than ourselves are often called THIN PLACES.

Thin places are described as geographical or physical locations where the veil between this world and the eternal world is thinner or more permeable.
They’re places where people may describe having a heightened sense of spiritual awareness, where the energy is palpable or even visible,
where the feeling that one is moving between or simultaneously occupying two worlds leads to a sense of awe, clarity, and connection that is difficult to duplicate or describe once the moment has passed.
Thin places are often described as being magical or mystical or sacred in nature. 

In June of 2017, when I was on sabbatical, I had the opportunity to travel to the island of Iona, which lies off the western coast of Scotland.
If any of you have ever traveled to Scotland or Ireland, then you may have visited some of these thin places.
Places that often have their roots in ancient spiritualities:
Pagan burial mounds that rise up from the earth,
Celtic crosses standing in the midst of ruined abbeys,
deliberate arrangements of primeval stones standing alone in grassy fields,
their original meaning and purpose having been lost to time.

The tiny Island of Iona has become a pilgrimage of sorts for those in search of thin places.
The island is only 3 miles long and 1 mile wide, and can only be reached by taking two ferries and enduring a sketchy drive across the Isle of Mull.
I say sketchy because the road between the ferry ports is essentially 35 miles of single-track.
Meaning its only wide enough to fit one car.
At varying points along the road there are passing places where one vehicle can pull over to allow another coming in the other direction to pass.
It’s a 50 mph dance that the natives have down pat –
but when you’re fresh off the plane, and still getting used to the steering wheel being on the other side of your rental car,
navigating the road to Iona can be an other worldly experience in itself.
There were several times where I was sure I would soon be in the literal presence of God.

Iona is a magical place.
It’s best known for its historic Abbey and monastery,
which stand upon the ruins of the original buildings built by the Christian monks who landed on the island in the year 563.

That particular community of monks has been credited with bringing Christianity to Scotland - and the Abbey at Iona, despite its remoteness,
was known to be a center of learning in its time, producing some of the worlds most beautiful and intricate illuminated manuscripts.
Today, thousands of people flock to the tiny island every year in search of a mystical experience – including Christians – both Catholic and Protestant - and those who might call themselves “spiritual but not religious” –
in particular, those who embrace a more new age interpretation of Celtic spirituality, where nature itself is the source of the divine.

But while Iona’s reputation as a divine and scared place has come to be romanticized – the story of its origin is decidedly more human.

The twelve missionaries who founded the monastery at Iona were led by St. Columba, an Irish monk, who it turns out had less than mystical motives for establishing such a remote community.
Columba fled his native Ireland after he was accused of copying the Gospels – which monks did all the time, in fact that was their job –
but Columba allegedly made a copy for his own personal use instead of sending it off to be kept in an official library or church. A huge no-no.

Rather than face punishment for this crime, Columba piled 12 of his closest colleagues into a round boat made of whicker and rawhide known as a coracle, and let the currents carry them across the sea to the coast of Scotland.   

According to historians, the first island the monks encountered was deemed unacceptable by Columba because he could still see Ireland in the distance.
So they set off again and landed on the much more remote Iona.
Columba’s uneasy relationship with his homeland is reflected in the name for first hill he climbed on Iona, which is called “The Hill with its Back to Ireland.”

As a monk, Columba displayed some other eccentric idiosyncrasies.
He banished women and cows from Iona,
claiming that “where there is a cow there is a woman, and where there is a woman there is mischief.”
He also reportedly banished snakes and frogs from the island.
How he accomplished this feat is not known.     (

Ultimately St. Columba chose Iona as the home for his monastery not because it was a place of mystical beauty, as we see it today,
but rather because it was a harsh and barren island –
windswept and rainy and frigidly cold for most of the year,
where even the sturdiest of seeds struggled to take root.
The howling gale force winds, the crashing sea, and the frequent lightening storms reportedly terrified Columba and his monks.

To them this was a thin place.
A place where the unpredictable and chaotic nature of God and God’s Creation had you quaking in your boots in fear and awe.

Peter, James, and John had a similar experience on top of the mountain where they witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration.
Just a few days before, they had listened to Jesus telling them that he was destined to suffer and die in service to God.
Everything they understood about the promised Messiah from their faith,
and everything they had hoped and dreamed would happen under the leadership of this master teacher and healer was in the process of crashing down around their feet.

Yet as they struggled to comprehend what Jesus had told them,
he unsettled their minds even further, by inviting them to come with him up the mountain, where they would see him transformed before their eyes.

The disciple’s first instinct was to claim this as a thin place – a sacred space – as Peter suggested building dwelling places for each of the prophets,
perhaps so they could hold onto this image of Jesus – alive and glowing –
and not descend down the mountain into the world where their teacher was destined to suffer and die.
But in this thin place they then had a very close encounter with God.
Who spoke to them saying, “This my son, my Chosen, Listen to him”.

After being jolted by this glimpse behind the Divine veil, they followed Jesus down the mountain, where he continued to teach and heal,
and continued to teach them how to do the same in his absence. 

When we come off the mountain, or leave the island,
or step out of the woods, or the sanctuary,
we leave the thin places behind, and move into the thicker places –
the places where it’s not as easy to see or hear or feel God’s presence. 

But hopefully the encounter we have with God – on the mountain, or in the woods, or in the sanctuary – is transformative enough to stay with us –
 to allow us to see and hear and feel God everywhere we go.

John Harvey, who served as the leader of the Iona Christian community from 1988-1995, ended up following in St. Columba’s footsteps,
in that he did not seek to reside permanently in the thin place where he encountered the closeness of God.
Just as Columba left the island to bring the Christian faith into the hills and valleys of Scotland, John Harvey left Iona and established Christian communal homes in some of the poorest communities in Scotland’s inner cities. 
Not to convert people but to serve them. 

Harvey says,  “Jesus didn’t come to set up a church when he said ‘Follow Me’. He didn’t say ‘Worship me.’ The point is you’re not supposed to stay in one place; you’re supposed to be on the move.”

In the same vein, UCC minister and theologian, Walter Brueggemann urges God in Christ to move off the mountain and move off the pages of scripture - and move through us, with the follow prayer:
“Listen up, you Majestic Sovereign, and move off the page to the trouble of the world, move to the peace negotiations, and cancer diagnoses, and burning churches, and lynched blacks, and abused children. Listen to the groans and moans, and see and hear and know and remember, and come down! Be your Friday self, so that your world may be Eastered.”

We may not fully comprehend the Transfiguration, 
but one way to make this story relevant is to move it off the page –
bring it down from the mountain - 
and take it with us into the world.

Look for the thin places, 
even in the thick places.
Look for signs of God in the world.

And where God is not easy to find,
be the presence of God that others desperately need to see.

Thanks be to God, and Amen. 

 John Harvey quote is from Love of Country: A Journey through the Hebrides by Madeleine Bunting. 

Walter Brueggemann quote is from Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann