Thin places – I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that term, but it’s a phrase that comes from Celtic Christian spirituality, which has gained quite a bit in popularity with the emergence of the Iona community, on the Scottish Isle of Iona, and the general increase in interest in what might be called “alternative spiritual practices.” Thin places are called such because they are places where the boundary between earth and heaven is thought to be particularly thin. In other words, places where one can readily sense the presence of the divine.
People often use this phrase in a similar way to how ancient Hebrew people used other words in place of the name of God – as a circumlocution, if you will. Rather than saying: I felt the presence of God in a particularly strong way in a certain place and time and experience, people speak about being in a thin place. This might be on a mountain top, or at a spiritual retreat center. Perhaps you’ve had a thin place type experience coming to worship, hearing the word read and proclaimed, singing a favorite hymn, participating in prayer, or sharing in or receiving the sacraments.
But I’d like to suggest that there are thin places all around us, and maybe they’re found in places and things we’d not expect at first. Luther wrote and taught a lot about the hiddenness of God – about how God is found under contrary forms. One who has no knowledge of God in Christ, for instance, might be shocked to hear about a God who becomes truly human, who lives as an itinerant preacher, who is, essentially, homeless, who allows himself to, not just be opposed by his own creation, but allows his own creatures to reject him, abuse him, and put him to death in one of the most torturous ways humanity ever conceived.
This is a strange God, after all, who comes in such hidden, contrary, forms. A god is supposed to be powerful, almighty even, above and beyond humanity. So it is with the gods of just about every human culture that has ever existed. And then there’s our God – God in Christ – a very different God revealed in a very different way. A God who is revealed, not in abject power, but in abject need. A God who associates so closely with the least and the last ones, as to call us to see God in them.
So what are the thin places wherein God in Christ is revealed?
In suffering, to be sure.
Now this is in no way to be confused as if I’m saying that God desires suffering for God’s people, but rather that God is there in the midst of suffering – in the midst of need. Suffering on earth and praise in heaven are such a thin place. John writes in the Revelation: Who are these robed in white? These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb! And the promise that comes to them, and to us, is that we will be before the throne of God, worshipping day and night, free from hunger and thirst, protected from the sun and any scorching heat, refreshed at the springs of the water of life. And then, perhaps the most beautiful and intimate promise of all – God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Now, I don’t know how many times you’ve been near to someone who is weeping – someone experiencing deep despair. I’ve been around many. It’s part of the job. But it’s a different thing being around a parishioner, or an acquaintance, than it is being with a close loved one who is weeping. With a close loved one you might reach over and wipe the tears away, while you probably wouldn’t do that with someone with whom you have a less intimate relationship. The fact that God is the One who will wipe away every tear from their eyes speaks to the intimacy of God’s relationship with God’s people. It speaks to just how close God is to us.
Suffering, mourning, tears are thin places, because God comes to us and meets us in our need. This is why, in Matthew’s Beatitudes, we find such unusual descriptions of holiness – of blessedness. The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek and the weak, those who are not experiencing a right relationship with God and God’s people – who, in other words, hunger and thirst for righteousness – the merciful, pure in heart, peacemaking ones who face persecution, revilement, and all kinds of evil are called blessed by God. These are the ones who will receive the reversal of fortunes in the promised age to come, which, I’ve got to say, may seem like cold comfort to those in the midst of such trials in the here and now, until we realize that the beatitudes are describing a sort of thin place.
I mentioned a few minutes ago that the Hebrew people used circumlocution to avoid speaking the name of God, because they thought God’s name was too holy to be spoken. In the place of God they might say: “the divine name”, or “the kingdom of heaven”, or just “heaven”. These were things that Hebrew people would hear, and they would know that what the person really meant to say was “God”. And according to many scholars, Matthew’s Gospel uses this sort of circumlocution often, including, possibly, here at the end of the beatitudes.
“Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” maybe should be heard as: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is in God, even as you are in God.”
Last week Abigail Gibbons, one of our 3rd grade youth, asked to speak to me after worship. She was concerned about her “Poppy” who had died, and she had questions about heaven. Who will we be? How old will we be? Will we recognize and know one another? Things like that. I had to admit to her that we really don’t know much – that the details about heaven are clouded in mystery. And I admitted to her that that was probably a pretty unsatisfactory answer, but that I didn’t want to tell her things that weren’t true. I also shared with her that Paul, in 1 Corinthians 5:8, tells us that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. But, again, the wheres, and the whys, and the hows, and the details, well, they’re just not there.
And so it is that in 1 John we read: We are God’s children now, but what we will be has not yet been revealed. That revelation will come, but only once Jesus is finally and fully revealed, and we are revealed with and in him. When God removes the hiddenness and is revealed to us in all of God’s glory, then we will see him as he is, and, in the seeing, we will be like him. This is our hope as the saints of God. This is the reward of which Matthew writes, and to which Jesus points in the Beatitudes.
In the end our questions, together with our attempts at answers, they all fade away, as we realize once and for all that God is our reward. Not a reward that we earn, as if sainthood is about living a good enough, pure enough, life. But God is our reward as God comes to us, breaking through thin places and thick places alike.
God is our reward as God comes to us at our best, which isn’t all that good after all when compared to the perfect goodness of God, and when God comes to us at our worst, taking upon himself the very worst we can dish out, and loving us all the way through death and back to life.
Look, there are things we can know, and things we can’t know. There are still things that are hidden in the here and now. But one thing I know for sure is this: It’s not about us or what we can or cannot know! It’s about God!
Rejoice and be glad, whatever life brings, for your reward is great in God who is always near to us, not just in the supposed thin places.
The mystery and wonder and saving word of the incarnation is that God in Christ is always with us. And so it is that the very last words of Matthew’s Gospel are: Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.