Thin Places: Summit
Around the time of my birthday this year, I realized I was watching a number of mountain climbing or mountaineering documentaries.
Everest, K2, El Capitan. I was mesmerized, if not in part because the greatest climbing accomplishment I have to date is scaling this pulpit. Upon reflection, I came to recognize that perhaps my fixation on people conquering mountains had less to do with my own desire for the physicality of such a feat and more to do with the culturally-induced existential mountain I’m approaching with each passing birthday, that little hill we call “turning 40.”
There was a point though when awe took over. It was when I saw real footage of climbers on top of K2, the second tallest summit on earth, and they are taking off their oxygen masks for a few moments, breathing air that few humans in the history of humankind have ever breathed. Thin, pure. And in this case, the sun was behind them, and the shadow of the mountain lunged out ahead of them like a pyramid. But what caught my eye is wasn’t just the shape of the shadow but its enormity. In fact, it was so large and they were so high that as it extended outward beyond them, the shadow actually peaked above the horizon off in the distance.
It was one of those moments, seeing it from the rugged contours of my sofa, when awe took over, and my first instinct was to think of God. I wasn’t physically present, but if I sensed something that many steps removed from the actual summit, I could only guess the intensity of such an experience for the people who’d been there.
It explains a great deal about why the Scriptures and the traditions of our faith believed that God dwelled on mountaintops.
From our Isaiah reading today:
In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob;
From our Psalm reading:
I look to the hills (lift up my eyes to the mountains) —
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
When Moses received the 10 Commandments, both times, he was on top of a mountain in conversation with God. When he died, he was on a mountain with God.
Elijah was in the cleft of the mountain hoping to discover God’s presence, and it was there that he found God not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire but in the majestic silence. It was only then that he covered his face in awe before God.
Jesus preached the sermon on the mount, and at another point he was transfigured with none other than Moses and Elijah at his side as the disciples watched.
These experiences have been called “theophanies” by scholars, not entirely unlike the word “epiphany,” which is about revealing, only theophany is related to God specifically being revealed or shown. Others, like those in Ireland for instance, refer to such moments as “thin places,” because the veil between heaven and earth becomes so thin it’s almost removed.
For some it’s about a physical place, like a beautiful meadow or the summit of a mountain, for others it can be a sacred moment shared over a meal or at a hospital bedside. Thin places, sacred spaces. For some of you it might have actually been here in this sanctuary or within the congregational life of this church. We like to say this is a safe space, but we could just as easily hope for some kind of experience with God each time we gather to worship and fellowship together. A safe space, a thin place.
Sometimes at youth camp we would say we had these mountaintop experiences where we felt so very close to God while we were there, but we didn’t want to lose that sense when we returned back home or went back to school. So much was focused on the mountaintop, as if that were the goal, like it is with mountain climbing, and that fear we had, or hesitation, that life would get back in the way of that sense of closeness to God, reinforced that idea that God was only on the mountaintop, or in our case, only at camp, or for you, maybe only in the sanctuary.
But I wonder with you this morning, if scaling a mountain would be as meaningful if you could just land a helicopter on the top? The grandeur would steal away your breath, but that’s the opposite of what a mountain climber does, who hikes and climbs and scales and treks and gives away their breath to the mountain only to earn it back.
Or to make this more of a metaphor for our faith, I can’t help wondering if we find God more visible, more revealed, on the other side of our challenges, not because God was waiting for us to find God over there, but because God was with us all along the way, and we only now have the eyes to look back and see it. Like the shadow that towers out over it all, and somehow still stands above even the horizon of what is yet to come.
This past year has been challenging. For our church, for many of you, for me. Several of you here this morning have lost loved ones, spouses, friends, family, and we as a church feel their loss, too. Differently, but we experience it, too. We’ve had transitions on staff and challenging dynamics to overcome. We’ve learned the financial realities of our congregational dreams, and the two still haven’t aligned perfectly yet.
In some ways we haven’t scaled the mountain of 2019 all the way, and yet, I can’t help but bear witness to the faithfulness and presence of God all along the way. Conquering our challenges isn’t the goal, much as we’d like it to be; finding God and then revealing God to others is the point.
And that, I can see glimpses of; that I can see revealed and exposed all along our way this year. From your continued generosity of resources and time and energy. From your continued investment in our church life and activities and worship. From your continued participation in service and community outreach opportunities. From your continued imagination and prayer and discernment around God’s dreams for us like our Transform initiative with Elm Park — dreams that I must remind us, God will provide for us to live into if we buy into it together — pun intended.
All along the way, I have witnessed God’s presence with us, through the challenges and the joys. Moments, some of them, that are for me, thin places of God’s palpable presence with us even in the midst of seemingly insurmountable difficulties.
Which is to say, for you individually, beyond this church, the mountaintop might seem so very far away.
The mountains of debt you are trying to scale, they seem just as tall or taller than when you paid the medical bills to begin with or that college tuition.
The depression you live with, you aren’t even thinking about scaling mountains, you just want to climb out of the pit of despair and hopelessness, or the bog of apathy that is no fault of your own.
The anxiety or ADHD you battle constantly, some of you just need to rest in the cleft of the rock like Elijah instead of accepting the voices that tell you to just get over those mountains all the time.
The sharp pangs of grief that have you frozen on the side of a mountain you never intended to finish alone.
Whatever your present crises or the ones that will inevitably come, each of and every one of you must remember that God is indeed found in that thin place on the other side of it all, the mountaintop or bedside or work station. But you also must remember, and know deep in your bones, that God is just as present with you in the thick of all of it, too.
And that’s what Advent is about. It’s a practice of sorts. A rerun of similar stories the same time every year, intended to be a rehearsal for us. So that in the darkest moments, in the hardest places, in the most unexpected ways, we can remember when it matters most to us, that God is with us in that waiting and enduring and struggling and longing for more and better and a break. Advent is a dry run so that when those times come, it will be like second nature to us, just like we practice fire drills and set up emergency funds.
Because the reality is that other challenges will come our way. It’s the course of life this side of eternity. And the only way we get stronger and more resilient and braver is through. Not around. But through.
And the God who breaks through humanity to join us in flesh is the God who goes not around, but through. Through our challenges and struggles, poking holes all along the way that become what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “skylights of transcendence” or what the musician Leonard Cohen called “cracks because that’s how the light gets in.”
Or what we might call: thin places.
That thinner space between heaven and earth, between us and God, that sacred air on the other side of our circumstances when we can see and feel God’s presence so clearly — maybe it’s precisely because God was with us all along poking bigger and bigger holes through those struggles in our defense.
Emmanuel, God with us.
Through it all.
Isaiah 2:1–5; Ps 121
Sermon preached at FBC Worcester, MA the First Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2019.